Camp Morton was a Union prisoner-of-war camp located in Indianapolis, Indiana during the American Civil War. It was named for Indiana governor Oliver Morton, who was the governor of Indiana during the War. It lasted from 1861-1865. Originally intended to simply be a training ground, after the Battle of Shiloh the former home of the Indiana State Fair became one of more important prisoner of war camps. Not a trace of the camp remains, but Confederates who died while prisoners are buried nearby in Indianapolis' Crown Hill Cemetery.
Following the shelling of Fort Sumter at the start of the war, Morton volunteered 10,000 Indiana troops in accordance with President Abraham Lincoln's proclamation calling for forces to suppress the Southern 'combinations.' Looking for a place to train these new recruits, Morton chose the ground of the then-new Indiana State Fairgrounds, naming the facility Camp Morton after himself. It had previously been Henderson's Grove, after Samuel Henderson, the first mayor of Indianapolis. It was a 36-acre (150,000 m2) tract north of the city. Its borders were loosely the present-day roads of 19th Street, Central Avenue, 22nd Street, and Talbott Street. Alabama St. runs through the center of what was the camp.
In a span of two days, the fairgrounds were quickly converted to a military facility. The barracks were cattle and horse stalls. The hospital was originally the power hall. The guardhouses were converted offices. The first recruits arrived at the facility on April 17, 1861, four days after the surrender at Fort Sumter. Originally the facility had difficulties accommodating so many men and the necessary equipment, tents, and food to support them, but in a few weeks order was eventually established. The soldiers had to bathe in Fall Creek. Many residents of Indianapolis saw the camp as a center of attraction.
After the fall of Fort Donelson on February 15, 1862, near present-day Clarksville, Tennessee, Governor Morton informed Union general Henry W. Halleck that Camp Morton could hold 3,000 Confederate prisoners. On February 22, over 3,700 Confederate prisoners arrived at the camp. Having just come from battle, having suffered from lack of adequate food and clothing, and being unused to Northern winters, the death rate among the unfortunate Confederate prisoners was high. March 1862 saw the deaths of 144 prisoners. Local residents of Indianapolis felt sorry for the Confederate prisoners, and provided the necessary food, clothing, and nursing to keep most of the prisoners alive.
Governor Morton had assigned Colonel Richard Owen as commander of the prisoner of war camp. Owen initiated various policies regarded as "sympathetic rule" and "firm discipline". Among these policies were
- a bakehouse for prisoners to work in and earn money for amenities
- recreational activities such as music and sports
- virtual self-government
When Owen left for a battlefield position, the prisoners protested. Later commandants of the camp would remove the virtual self-government, but was still far better than most Union prisoner camps. Escape attempts happened more frequently starting in the summer of 1862. In August 1862 all the prisoners had been exchanged for prisoners in Confederate prisoner camps. New prisoners arrived in 1863. Conditions were drastically worse in 1863, but then-commandant Ambrose A. Stevens returned the camp to humane conditions, providing blankets, nourishment, and nursing care. However, escape attempts were still greater than during Owen's time; some escape plans were especially elaborate, including tunnels and uprisings. An extra ration was promised to those that informed their Union captors of escape attempts. A few of these attempts were made by board planks or crude ladders.
The period of 1863 to the parole of the last prisoner on June 12, 1865 saw an average prison population of 3,214 and 50 deaths a month, with the maximums for each figure being 4,999 and 133 respectively. It was decided that no new facilities were needed for the reopening of the prison. The creek from which drinking water was obtained was affected by limestone, causing diarrhea among the visitors. Another change was that the federal government had control of the prisoners, whereas in 1862 the camp was mostly under state control. When it reopened, Camp Morton was to hold only infirm prisoners, but eventually other prisoners would be kept at the facility. The winter of 1863-1864, with temperatures regularly below zero degrees Fahrenheit for a month, caused the deaths of 263 prisoners.
John Hunt Morgan considered attacking Camp Morton during his raid through Indiana, freeing the prisoners, but while at Salem, Indiana chose instead to turn east towards Ohio. Ironically, many of his men captured during the Raid were taken to Camp Morton.
After the war
In total, over 1,700 prisoners died at the camp, a number considerably lower than most Union prison camps. Within the City Cemetery, 1,616 deceased Confederate prisoners were buried; however, a fire in 1866 ravaged the cemetery office, destroying the records that gave the precise location of the burials. Many of these prisoners would be mass buried at Crown Hill Cemetery in 1931. A monument to the 1,616 at the original burial site was moved to Garfield Park. In 1993, the names of each fallen Confederate at Camp Morton were inscribed on ten bronze plaques.
The Indiana State Fair returned to the grounds in 1868. The Board of Agriculture, who ran the state fair, sold the grounds in November 1891, for $275,100 to three businessmen from Indianapolis, and moved the State Fair to its present location. After 1890 the Herron-Morton neighborhood was built on its grounds, becoming well noted due to its connections with then-president Benjamin Harrison.
Southerners would raise $3,000 to honor Richard Owen, who went on to become the first president of Purdue University in 1873, and his fair treatment of the Confederate prisoners, with the public debuting of the bronze bust on June 9, 1913, with the inscription:
Tribute by Confederate prisoners of war and their friends for his courtesy and kindness.
- Indianapolis in the American Civil War
- Civil War POW Prisons and Camps
- Bodenhamer pp.381, 441
- Bodenhamer pp.381, 441
- Bodenhamer pp.381, 382
- Bodenhamer 382, 442
- Horrors Of Camp Morton
- Speer p.142
- Bodenhamer 442
- Speer pp.140, 141
- Bodenhamer pp.382, 393, 442
- Conn p.81
- Bodenhamer pp.134, 748, 749
- Bodenhamer p.1069
- Bodenhamer, David (1994). The Encyclopedia of Indianapolis. Indiana University Press. ISBN 0-253-31222-1.
- Conn, Earl L. (2006). My Indiana:101 Places to See. Indiana Historical Society Press. ISBN 0-87195-195-9.
- Speer, Lonnie R. (1997). Portals to Hell: Military Prisons of the Civil War. Stackpole Books. ISBN 0-8117-0334-7.
- Camp Morton at Rootsweb - includes pictures of items mentioned in the article
- HORRORS OF CAMP MORTON a recount by ex-prisoner Dr. Thomas E. Spotswood
- TREATMENT OF PRISONERS AT CAMP MORTON recount of a Confederate POW with bad memories of his stay at the camp
- History of Camp Morton
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