Monday, August 26, 2013

Point Lookout — Civil War prisons, part 1

I've seen Point Lookout many times as a beach, a lighthouse, and the end of the road on the Southern Maryland peninsula. This time, I saw it through Civil War history.* Why? Last year, DNA confirmed that Thomas Swain Maness really was my great-great-grandfather. While visiting friends in Maryland, I remembered that Thomas was a prisoner of war at Point Lookout.

After the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863, thousands of prisoners were marched or shipped to makeshift prisons that quickly overfilled. At Point Lookout — officially Camp Hoffman — the prisoners were crowded into tents on the beach, surrounded by a wooden palisade (upper right in the picture).

Courtesy of Library of Congress

Local history books paint Point Lookout as a concentration camp, with suspected motives of killing off the enemy. The tents were never replaced by buildings in the camp's two years of operation. Prisoners slept in outdoor temperatures with little firewood and inadequate clothing (some with only their underwear, some with no shoes). The beachfront water was bad and the camp's commander was accused of withholding rations. He refuted this, of course, and northern papers reported healthy conditions. Different sources agree that of more than 50,000 prisoners, around 4,000 died.

Hammond General Hospital dominated the tip of the peninsula. When a smallpox epidemic raged through the camp, a second hospital was built just for smallpox victims, doctors, and nurses from the Sisters of Charity. 

Oral history claims that Thomas Maness "was a nice boy before the War," but came back to North Carolina with a mean streak. Could Thomas' prison experience have contributed to that change as much or more so as the horrors of the battlefield? I wanted to know more. I stopped at all the historical markers on the peninsula, including the reconstructed Fort Lincoln. I visited the museum, which sells reprints of Point Lookout Prison Camp for Confederates, a reference book I'd glanced at in the Leonardtown Library. I couldn't find Thomas in the index, but this wonderful reference is an anthology of contemporary sources. Diaries, letters, newspaper articles, prisoner art, maps and a few photos. Daily life in the camp, written by those who lived it. I didn't have Thomas' timeline with me, but the detailed diaries could tell me what the weather was like while he was there. 

One thing I learned from skimming the book is that Maryland, with southern sentiments, wasn't allowed to secede. The federal government couldn't afford to let the state that nearly surrounds Washington, D.C. to join the enemy, so they blocked the polling sites and threw political opponents in jail.

After reporting for several issues in 1861 on large meetings of citizens to "consider the current crisis" and signs of military presence (extracts in the book mentioned above), the St. Mary's Beacon published a letter from General Dix in November stating that anybody who "appear[ed] at the polls to effect their criminal attempt to convert the elective franchise into an engine for the subversion of the Government" would be taken into custody. In other words, you can vote, but only one way.

The Beacon continued to report on the military occupation of St. Mary's County, until about April 1862 when Federal forces arrested one of the editors and the other escaped across the river to Virginia. The following October, the St. Mary's Gazette appeared, ascribing to be "a news and advertising sheet" and to avoid politics, until "the Federal Government shall deem it no longer necessary to pursue so extraordinary a policy as to impose restrictions upon the press...."

Next, Part 2: Burying prisoners of war

* This very un-Civil War has many names among Americans, including the War Between the States, the War of Northern Aggression, and the War of the Rebellion. I've used the term here that's easily recognizable, less partisan, and optimal for search engines.

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