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Indiana Commission on Public Records

ICPR > State Archives > Collections > Civil War Records > Camp Morton > 1864 1864

Col. Stevens' problems increased when winter arrived. The camp lacked sufficient hospital facilities and there had been only minimal repairs to the barracks, they still lacked floors and the ventilation seemed to depend upon the state of disrepair. The rations lacked vegetables and prisoners were denied milk, butter, eggs and canned fruit when negotiations between the Union and Confederacy regarding prisoners of war broke down. The beginning of the year brought deadly cold winter weather to the Midwest. Extra wood, straw, blankets and clothing had to be distributed to the prisoners and guards were also injured by the cold in spite of the precautions of hourly relief and curtailed rounds. Rumors circulated in the city that guards and prisoners froze to death, but an investigation ordered by the Governor determined that there had been no deaths or serious injuries among the men due to the weather.

However, a lack of basic supplies and hospital facilities and poor living conditions during the fall and early winter must have seriously affected an already ill southerner's ability to recover. Camp Morton had the third highest number of dead for both January and February among Union prisoner of war camps. Almost twenty-five years after the war controversy over the condition at Camp Morton during that winter surfaced again in the form of an article in The Century Magazine written by a former prisoner of war, Dr. John Wyeth. Entitled "Cold Cheer at Camp Morton" the article charged camp officials with deliberate cruelty.

Although the unusual cold continued into the spring, conditions at the camp improved and there was a corresponding drop in the number of hospitalizations and deaths. Spring also brought the return of tunneling as a means of escape. A camp search conducted after a tunnel escape on March 10 uncovered four additional tunnels in progress.

An inspection report in April by Lt. Col. John F. March of the 24th Veteran Service Corps, found the clothing, food and health of prisoners good, but the barracks still without floors and not sufficiently clean. He considered Col. Stevens "an intelligent, competent man with good habits" but reported that Col. Stevens did not "understand the proper management of prisoners." The prison lacked the order, discipline, and cleanliness found among properly managed soldiers. The April 29 inspection report by A.M. Clark, Surgeon and acting inspector of prisoners of war reported that the barracks had been whitewashed and improved through ridge ventilation, but that the sinks were simply open excavations and needed improvement. Rations were sufficient but scurvy was still common due to a lack of vegetables. Over the next three months 2,500 prisoners arrived as Col. Stevens continued to try to improve the camp. In mid May he reported to Hoffman that he had "commenced a thorough cleansing" of the barracks and grounds and planned to build a bathhouse, a laundry and a cookhouse.

An increase in the mortality rate over the summer drew the attention of the federal authorities and on 30 July Charles J. Kipp, Surgeon, U.S. Volunteers, replied to a request for an explanation regarding the number of recent deaths among the prisoners. Dr. Kipp wrote that the lack of vegetables, the overcrowded, poorly ventilated barracks and the crowding of almost 5,000 men into 4.5 acres accounted for the mortality rate. He calculated that the prisoners had approximately 80 cubic feet of air space. The reply is forwarded to the U.S. Medical Director's office with a note by Tripler that unless these conditions improves "the large mortality of last year will occur again."

"I find this camp in anything but a favorable condition." was the conclusion reached by C.T. Alexander in his August 6 inspection report which also determined that the camp was too small with 4,885 men held in less than 5 acres. The barracks were "overcrowded and not sufficiently well policed," the tents old and worn, and prisoners clothing bad and deficient. He found the hospital in relatively good condition and blamed the 81 deaths (9% mortality) of the previous month on the "crowded state of the camp, quarters, and tents, the want of change in the positions of the tents, the foul condition of the sinks, the want of good police, the want of vegetables..., and is influenced some what by the inevitable nostalgia existing among the prisoners."

Recommendations included enlargement of the camp, construction of a suitable hospital building, conversion of the existing hospital and sheds into quarters, an increase in the supply of vegetables, and improvement in policing the area. The lack of vegetables, a continual problem and mentioned by both Dr. Kipp and C.T. Alexander resulted in Hoffman telling Stevens that since the hospital and prison fund can be used to purchase vegetables there was no reason why they should not have been purchased. He also suggested that tents be used to alleviate overcrowding in the barracks and the camp enlarged if possible. He requested that Stevens ask the camp surgeon for assistance and suggestions.

Another inspection report in August comments on the unsuitability of the dirt floors in the barracks. The inspector, J.W. Davidson, noted that the floors were impossible to keep clean as "constantly in use as they are by the filthiest set of men in the world." Inspector Davidson noted the need for a large number of basic clothing items since the "...majority of the prisoners...are of the poorer class of the inhabitants of the confederacy, and cannot obtain the means for supplying themselves with the necessary clothing and bedding to keep them from suffering."

A September report by Davidson again calls attention to the lack of clothing among the prisoners as well as a lack of blankets. He found the conditions of the camp generally improved but reported that there were a number of prisoners still housed in the tents, which were not appropriate for an Indiana winter. Davidson's October 2 report again drew attention to the men living in tents, noting that they formed the majority of those who had been admitted to the hospital. He found conditions in camp continued to improve but expressed his concern regarding the very damp and cold weather. Within a few weeks Col. Stevens was able to report to Hoffman that clothing, except shoes, for the prisoners had arrived and been distributed among the men. Davidson's reports through the fall continue to report generally good and improving conditions at the camp.

A November 20, 1864 inspection by J.W. Davidson found the camp in sufficient order, except the condition of the prisoners shirts. He also noted the insubordinate conduct of the prisoners. He reported several recent escape attempts, no doubt inspired by the spectacularly successful escape of November 14 after which 31 prisoners were not recaptured. Approximately 60 men had rushed the fence throwing stones and bottles filled with water at the undoubtedly surprised guards. Only a few shots were fired while the prisoners used a shed to cross the ditch and then climbed the fence.

During his 26 December 1864 inspection, A.M. Clark's observed: "The barracks are much overcrowded and very much in need of repair... In their present condition it is only to be wondered at that the sick report is not larger than it is." Although he found the grounds, the hospital and the guards quarters in good order, the prisoners' tents and barracks were in need of repair and "ventilated through dilapidation." Rations were sufficient except for the lack of vegetables, the prisoners clothes in poor condition and the men themselves "filthy."

Winter once again brought an increase in the number of deaths at the camp. Between December 1864 and March 1865, 373 prisoners died and almost 1,200 were hospitalized. The release of prisoners who took the oath of allegiance continued and in February 1865 the exchanges resumed. By the time General Lee surrendered on April 9, 1865 less than 1,500 prisoners remained at Camp Morton and by June 1 over one thousand of them had been released. Most of those who remained were too ill to travel. Indianapolis residents crowded the train station as the prisoners left, but this time it was to welcome home victorious fathers, husbands, sons and brothers.

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