A Crabby Inmate Recalled at Point Lookout

Perusing prison camp literature recently, I came across an amusing story written by Thad J. Walker of the 2nd Maryland Cavalry.  An inmate at Point Lookout – a Union-run prisoner of war camp – Walker recorded a comrade’s first encounter with a Chesapeake crab.

Now there were many [incarcerated in the prison] who had never seen a crab; many who had seen salt water for the first time, and were enjoying, in open-mouthed wonder, the scene of ships plying the bay; particularly one verdant specimen from away back among the mountain districts of North Carolina, who approached a Georgian busily engaged in catching crabs, when the following conversation ensued: says Tarheel: “Mister, what are you ‘uns doing thar?” “Catching sweet-bugs,” says the Georgian.  “Sweet bugs,” says Tarheel, “they are the biggest bugs I ever seed.  What are you ‘uns going to do with ‘em?  Will they bite?” approaching closer for a better examination.  “No!” answers the not very truthful representative from the “Goober” State, catching up the crab in a safe way for himself, for the poor Tarheel’s inspection.  “We sell them outside the prison to make cologne and sweet-scented extracts.  Come and smell this one” – a fine large specimen he had just caught.  Unfortunately, Tarheel’s curiosity and innocence were so great that he was induced to do so, when the struggling crab caught him by the nose.  It is scarcely necessary to add that a piercing “rebel yell” rent the air, which could be heard far away.  Only those who have been bitten by a lively crab, freshly captured, can appreciate the poor fellow’s sufferings, and his pitiful pleading to the Georgian to make him let go.  Finally, becoming frenzied with pain, he yelled out: “Mister! Mister! Make him let go or I’ll knock his brains out!”  Finally the crab loosened his hold, and the poor Tarheel, who had doubtless bravely faced the music on many hard fought battlefields, hurried from the scene a sadder and wiser man.[i]

The scene recorded by the Maryland vedette was one among many fascinating accounts written by former prisoners of war in the years after the struggle ended. Indeed, memoirs of former prisoners of war essentially become its own genre of literature.

Situated on a peninsula at the junction of the Potomac River and Chesapeake Bay, Point Lookout was the largest Union prisoner of war camp of the Civil War – holding over 20,000 prisoners at times. Originally styled Camp Hoffman, after Col. William Hoffman, the Union Commissary General of Prisoners, the compound shared the peninsula with the Hammond General Hospital – the largest Union hospital during the war. With over twenty buildings situated like spokes on wheel, the facility did a hopping business.

Point Lookout, Maryland (Library of Congress)

The point of the peninsula was splendidly located for both the hospital and the POW camp. Fairly isolated as it was the facility would be easy to guard and difficult to escape from. Studded with many excellent wharfs and good nearby channels for steamboats to navigate, the government facilities enjoyed ease of transport. Also, because the peninsula was a former resort area it already had ready cottages, hotels and other accommodations easily converted for military purposes.

Life on the point could be very pleasant, as it seemed to be in the Marylander’s account, but the sun’s glare off the water could be blinding, wind seemed to be a constant companion of the prisoner – and gales were not infrequent. This last was particularly disconcerting because almost all inmates were housed in tents. Flooding was also a regular occurrence – sometimes inundating the point under inches of water. In the winter this would quickly turn to sheets of ice. Sand was everywhere and on – and in – everything leading to a gritty existence.

Completed in July 1863, Point Lookout was in operation for about two years. It is estimated that it held just over 52,200 prisoners during that period – military and civilian; of those, 3,584 prisoners died.[ii] While there is little on the point today to remind the visitor of the prison site – apart from historic markers – there is a Confederate Cemetery just north on the peninsula from where the prison was located about two miles south of Scotland, Maryland on MD Route 5.


[i] C.R. Graham, ed. Under Both Flags: A Panorama of the Great Civil War.  Boston: J.S. Round & Co., 1896. 416-417.

[ii] Lonnie R. Speer, Portals to Hell: Military Prisons of the Civil War.  Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1997.  Appendix C.

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