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From Training Camp to Prison

Period scene of Camp Ford, the picket stockade, and the crude hillside huts that served as houses. Drawing, courtesy of Alston Thoms.
Period scene of Camp Ford, the picket stockade, and the crude hillside huts that served as houses. Drawing, courtesy of Alston Thoms.

Prisoners lie along the pathways lined with crude dugout houses at Camp Ford. Housing was described by one detainee as being small, dark, and dirty "log shanties" that were "partly burrowed and partly built." Hand-colored period drawing from Harper's Magazine, courtesy of Alston Thoms.
Prisoners lie along the pathways lined with crude dugout houses at Camp Ford. Housing was described by one detainee as being small, dark, and dirty "log shanties" that were "partly burrowed and partly built." Hand-colored period drawing from Harper's Magazine, courtesy of Alston Thoms.

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Civil War-era sketch of enslaved African Americans building a stockade similar to the one at Camp Ford. Drawing on file at Library of Congress.
Civil War-era sketch of enslaved African Americans building a stockade similar to the one at Camp Ford. Drawing on file at Library of Congress.
A variety of structures for shelter and outdoor living were erected at the camp, leading one former prisoners to write later, "What odd contrivances for shelter! Here upright sticks sustain a simple thatch of leaves; there poles fixed slantwise and overlain with bark, compose an Indian lodge…Another's dwelling is of basket-work wrought out of ashwood peelings." Drawing courtesy of Alston Thoms.
A variety of structures for shelter and outdoor living were erected at the camp, leading one former prisoner to write later, "What odd contrivances for shelter! Here upright sticks sustain a simple thatch of leaves; there poles fixed slantwise and overlain with bark, compose an Indian lodge…Another's dwelling is of basket-work wrought out of ashwood peelings." Drawing courtesy of Alston Thoms.
Escape attempts were periodically tried, perhaps as a salve for boredom at the camp. This sketch by a Union prisoner shows two of the approximate tunnel locations along with other camp structures. Dotted lines indicate stockade walls as defined by Texas A&M archeologists during investigations in 1997. Drawing courtesy of Alston Thoms.
Escape attempts were periodically tried, perhaps as a salve for boredom at the camp. This sketch by a Union prisoner shows two of the approximate tunnel locations along with other camp structures. Dotted lines indicate stockade walls as defined by Texas A&M archeologists during investigations in 1997. Drawing courtesy of Alston Thoms.
Camp Ford POWs from the 19th Iowa after their release and return to New Orleans. Photo, courtesy of Alston Thoms.
Camp Ford POWs from the 19th Iowa after their release and return to New Orleans. Photo, courtesy of Alston Thoms.

Established in 1862 as a training camp for new Texas Confederate recruits, Camp Ford was to have its mission dramatically altered in barely a year's time. Union forces began to press the Texas-Louisiana border and along the coastline near Galveston and, in the ensuing actions, hundreds of Union soldiers were captured. With no Confederate POW camp near at hand, Camp Ford was chosen to receive the detainees. The first Federal POWs—fewer than 100 soldiers and sailors—arrived there in July 1863 to find that few provisions had been made for their confinement. Many of the prisoners constructed crude dugouts in the hill slopes to provide themselves shelter; Confederate guards encircling the perimeters of the small encampment served as the only deterrent to escape.

Arrival of more than 400 POWs in the following November led to the construction of a log stockade that enclosed three acres and a springfed creek. Within a 10-day period, a wood stockade was raised using the labor of some 600 African-American slaves, pressed into service from area plantations. Records suggest that captured African American soldiers and sailors, who were not recognized as POWs, were used as well as. POWs built their own living quarters—typically log houses called "shebangs"—inside the stockade. One prisoner housed in the original stockade described the bleak encampment as: "…four acres-barren of timber and grass. Sand blows desperately."

Following several defeats of Union forces in Louisiana and Arkansas during the spring of 1864, more than 4,000 Union soldiers were captured. Orders were issued to accommodate a new influx of prisoners at Camp Ford. Over a two- or three-day period, several hundred slaves labored to enlarge the stockade to encompass a 10- to 16-acre area.

Although living conditions in the camp had been comparatively good when the prisoners numbered only 100 to 250 per acre, they deteriorated after April, 1864, when 400 or more men became crowded into each acre of the newly enlarged camp. One prisoner wrote that, soon after their arrival, the new POWs began to "arrange their bivouacs into streets and began to amass green boughs for wigwams or dig dark cavernous vaults for troglodytic dwellings." The camp, he wrote, soon took on the aspect of a "wigwam metropolis." Given the slope of the terrain, periodic rainstorms frequently turned the encampment in a muddy and gully-ridden quagmire.

Original stockade at Camp Ford, as drawn by Col. A.J.H. Duganne, a Federal POW at the camp. The prisoners eventually built hundreds of structures at the camp-cabins, pithouses, and dugouts. Note that, according to map key, housing was according to mess assignment.
Original stockade at Camp Ford, as drawn by Col. A.J.H. Duganne, a Federal POW at the camp. The prisoners eventually built hundreds of structures at the camp—cabins, pithouses, and dugouts. Note that, according to map key, housing was according to mess assignment.

During the final years of its short-lived existence, Camp Ford took on a more orderly appearance, what one prisoner described as resembling "a very young prairie town." Streets were laid out and lined with log structures, a parade ground was cleared, and a market place under a pine-bough arbor was established.

Even so, boredom and a desire for freedom apparently occupied the minds of many of the prisoners. Escape attempts, via numerous furtively dug tunnels, met with varying success. In one foiled attempt, a tunnel was dug at an excruciatingly slow pace by a prisoner wielding only a small case knife; dirt was dumped into a cigar box which was drawn out by a string. The tunnel had reached 30 feet when the escape plot was discovered. In a more-successful attempt, men from Massachusetts and Indiana managed to complete a tunnel and head out in small squads bound for points north and east. However, one of the last men in the tunnel got stuck and, in a panic, alerted the guards. Due to the early warning, all but two squads were recaptured.

With the end of the war in May 1865, Camp Ford was abandoned. Historical records attest to considerable celebration by POWs and guards alike, and to a large rummage sale in which the newly-freed prisoners sold what few goods they had to local citizens in need of utensils, dishes, and various items that had been made by the prisoners.

In the ensuing years, several prisoners were to return to Camp Ford to challenge old ghosts and recall lost friends. In 1894, S.A. Swanger visited the old stockade where he had been imprisoned. Walking over the ground, he found prison relics, the remains of red clay dugouts, cattle bones, and—in the cemetery area—a few other bones, perhaps overlooked when the Federal government disinterred the bodies of 286 Union prisoners after the war. Before leaving, he took a last drink from the spring and a final look at the hillside. He wrote later, "Farewell, old spot. And feeling as if I never wanted to gaze upon it again, I left it…."



An artesian spring at Camp Ford furnished water that, according to one of the prisoners, was cool, crystalline, and impregnated with iron and sulphur, a combination thought to make it a good tonic. Although the spring is no longer there today, a small iron-colored stream runs in the same creek bed. Evidence of small reservoirs dug by the POW's along the creek was uncovered by Texas A&M archeologists. Photo by Steve Black
An artesian spring at Camp Ford furnished water that, according to one of the prisoners, was cool, crystalline, and impregnated with iron and sulphur, a combination thought to make it a good tonic. Although the spring is no longer there today, a small iron-colored stream runs in the same creek bed. Evidence of small reservoirs dug by the POW's along the creek was uncovered by Texas A&M archeologists. Photo by Steve Black.
Examples of some of Camp Ford's better-built POW housing, as recalled by former prisoner Col. A.J.H. Duganne. Drawing courtesy of Alston Thoms.
Examples of some of Camp Ford's better-built POW housing, as recalled by former prisoner Col. A.J.H. Duganne. Drawing courtesy of Alston Thoms.

Soon after their arrival, the POWs began to "arrange their bivouacs into streets and began to amass green boughs for wigwams or dark cavernous vaults for troglodytic dwellings," according to one prisoner already ensconced at the camp.

Camp Ford, shown in a period drawing of its later years, when houses lined the streets and a market area was constructed. A central thoroughfare in the camp was tagged, "Fifth Avenue." Drawing, courtesy of Alston Thoms.(
Camp Ford, shown in a period drawing of its later years, when houses lined the streets and a market area was constructed. A central thoroughfare in the camp was tagged, "Fifth Avenue." Drawing, courtesy of Alston Thoms.