It is well-known that the horrific magnitude of the Civil War produced unparalleled casualty figures in American history. Such battlefield casualty numbers included not just the dead and wounded, but also those missing or captured. While the stories of Andersonville, Elmira, and Libby Prison have all been well told, a host of other prison camps existed as well. Passing through the Piney Woods region of East Texas recently, I had the opportunity to stop and visit the site of Camp Ford, located near Tyler, Texas. Housing nearly 5,500 Union soldiers from throughout the North, the prison was the largest Confederate prisoner-of-war camp west of the Mississippi River.
Initially designed as a training camp for local troops in early 1862, Camp Ford was named after John S. “Rip” Ford, a Texas Ranger of Indian-fighting fame. Ford would become a Confederate colonel, and eventually commanded Rebel forces at the Battle of Palmito Ranch, the final engagement of the Civil War. Camp Ford’s purpose as a training facility was served quickly, and the camp soon fell into inactivity after the war’s initial months.
1863 brought a number of minor engagements in Louisiana and Texas and netted the Confederacy a number of Federal prisoners. In need of a secure prisoner-of-war camp, Camp Ford was selected for the purpose. Although not ideal as a prison site (the camp had no walls), the small number of prisoners proved manageable to the Rebel guards, and indeed, prisoners were allowed to visit nearby Tyler under watch. The camp was managed by a West Pointer, Colonel R.T.P. Allen, and garrisoned over time by local militia, the 15th Texas Cavalry, and Texas Reserve and Home Guard units variously.
During the fall of 1863, the situation at Camp Ford began to change. The dozen prisoners morphed into hundreds, and the facility was overwhelmed. The vulnerability of the camp was not lost on outsiders either. Three local Unionists plotted to help prisoners escape, and although their conspiracy was uncovered, the incident sparked fear in the local populace. Utilizing the slaves of local planters, Confederate authorities constructed a 16-ft. high stockade, enclosing the camp’s approximately three acres and several hundred prisoners and easing the situation.
The inmates, as all prisoners tend to do, struggled with boredom. Simple games and crafts, like carving and baseball, helped while away the hours. Captain William May of the 23rd Connecticut managed to produce several issues of a camp newspaper, The Old Flag. As Lt. Colonel Duganne, a prisoner of Camp Ford, remarked, “Does not a newspaper follow a Yankee march everywhere? So, of course, Camp Ford possessed its journal; though we boasted neither types nor printing-press; so, notably, we discussed our prison-affairs in editorial columns, and trumpeted the merits of our small wares in flaming advertisements.”
Prisoners worked to improve their surroundings, building cabins and naming the camp’s various “streets”. This urban theme was continued by naming a naval captain Camp Ford’s “Commissioner of Aqueducts.” Though the title may have been facetious, the job’s duties were not. Camp Ford had its own natural spring, and the Commissioner helped ensure that separate facilities were built for bathing, cleaning and drinking the spring’s water. The availability of fresh water and its sanitary use helped contribute to the camp’s incredibly low morality rate. Indeed, only 6%, or approximately 330 of the 5,500 prisoners who passed through Camp Ford died there. In comparison, Andersonville claimed 29% of its inhabitants, and Elmira claimed 25% (Emerging Civil War has explored “Hellmira” previously).
The situation deteriorated in the spring and summer of 1864. In Louisiana, brilliant battlefield victories at Mansfield and Pleasant Hill by Confederate General Richard Taylor (son of U.S. President Zachary Taylor) had captured thousands of Federal soldiers. Most of these prisoners were sent to Camp Ford. The camp was overwhelmed, and the stockades were cut in half to provide lumber necessary to build new walls, increasing the camp’s size to eleven acres. The cabins of 1863 were a dream now, as soldiers scrapped dugouts, known as “shebangs” into the hillsides to give them a semblance of shelter. Tools were scarce and construction slow. Shipments of tools and clothes as aid from the U.S. government helped soldiers get by. Eventually, prisoner exchanges helped reduce overcrowding and improve camp conditions.
Camp Ford held a variety of different prisoners throughout this time. The camp held more naval personnel than any other prison camp during the war, North or South; prisoners came from such ships as the USS Diana and the Queen of the West (the Queen’s fate was partly explored in a prior post). Included in this contingent were at least 27 black naval personnel, who were apparently used for labor around the camp by Confederate forces.
May 19, 1865 brought freedom to the roughly 1,800 U.S. prisoners still held at the camp. On that day, they were paroled and left Camp Ford forever. Two months later, a detail of the 10th Illinois Cavalry destroyed Camp Ford. Today, the grounds of the camp are preserved and well interpreted, largely due to the efforts of the local Smith County Historical Society. Walking the grounds is a sober reminder of the fate of so many young men held captive in the prime of their lives.
Zac Cowsert received his Bachelor of Arts Degree in History and Political Science from Centenary College of Louisiana, a small liberal-arts college in Shreveport. He is currently a graduate student at West Virginia University focusing in U.S. History and the American Civil War. His studies and research often explore the Trans-Mississippi Theater. ©
Further Reading & Sources
Camp Ford. Texas State Historical Association.
Life in a Texas Prison Pen: The 48th Ohio at Camp Ford. This website contains large excerpts from Lt. Colonel Duganne’s Camps and Prisons: Twenty Months in the Department of the Gulf, which paints an excellent account of life at Camp Ford.
A Short History of Camp Ford. Smith County Historical Society
U.S. Civil War Prison Camps. National Geographic Society.