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Camp Morton Prisoner of War Camp

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The Indiana State Fair Grounds, established in 1852 on 36 acres of the old Henderson Farm, on the north side of Indianapolis, became Camp Morton in 1861, a recruitment and training depot for Indiana volunteers. It quickly, but never formally, became known as Camp Morton. The camp was named for Indiana Governor Oliver P. Morton. Between the captured prisoners of the battles of Fort Henry and Fort Donelson and August of that same year, it became a prison for 3,000 Confederates taken at the fort and was personally administered by Governor Morton.

As a P.O.W. facility, the camp was not any different from other prisons except that its prison buildings were unique in appearance. The Victorian architecture of its prominent structures at the entrance, complete with gingerbread trim, gave the camp, in the beginning of its existence, a somewhat cheerful appearance. The 5 acre confinement area was a gently rolling plain with maple trees to provide plenty of shade. A deep runoff creek ran through the middle of the camp, but seldom contained much water except after a heavy rain. The water supply for the camp was provided by 5 wells on the property. By the end of 1863, the creek had become the receptacle of the camp's trash and debris. The wells had become saturated with seepage from the surrounding terrain.

Within a short time after reopening, 3 barracks from Nearby Camp Carrington were dismantled and moved to camp Morton. Of the 3 barracks, 2 served as additional prisoner barracks and the other one was added to the existing hospital. Each barrack was 16x100 fett, divided into 4 rooms and capable of holding 100 prisoners each.

The first camp commandant was Col. Richard D. Owen of the 60th Indiana Regiment. He had a good rapport with the camp prisoners.

The capacity of the camp was originally estimated to be 2,000 prisoners, though 3,000 were crammed into the camp with the first arrivals. By April, over 4,200 prisoners were confined at the camp.

Following a general prisoner exchange in August 1862, Camp Morton reverted to a troop facility until early 1863, when it was reestablished as a prison and placed under army administration, commanded by Col. William Hoffman, Union Commisary General of Prisoners. The purpose of the camp when it was reopened was to only house the sick or wounded prisoners. However, as the prison populations increased at all of the other prisons, prisoners of every classification were, again, sent here for confinement. Hoffman was replaced as commandant by Col. James Biddle of the 71st Indiana Volunteers. Two companies of the 63rd Indiana Regiment were assigned to the camp for guard duty. On October 22, 1863, Col. Ambrose A. Stevens of the 5th Regiment Invalid Corps replaced Biddle as commandant.

By December 1863, the number of prisoners at the camp had grown to over 3,300 prisoners.


The first prisoners arrived by train at the camp on February 24, 1862. They were marched through the city, arriving about a mile north of town at the fairgrounds. Housing for the prisoners consisted of 5 large, wood-frame fair buildings toward the center of the prison area. Of the 5 buildings, 4 of them housed the prisoners and the other one served as a prison hospital. These structures were nothing more than exhibition halls, stables, and barns. The barns and stables had dirt floors covered with straw. The prisoners occupied and slept in the stalls and wherever else that they could find space. The prisoners complained of being housed in these structures. Although new barracks were quickly built, like the old halls, they were cheap and drafty.

The confinement area was surrounded by a poorly constructed wide-board fence, and at some locations, the backs of other exhibition halls served as parts of the enclosure. An elevated platform along the outside of the fence served as a walkway for the guards. The ornate buildings at the entrance to the fairgrounds were used as the post headquarters and as housing for the camp guards.

In the beginning of the camp's existance, some prisoners were allowed, under guard, to go into town to buy different articles. After numerous complaints from the local townspeople, this practice was stopped. Owen did all he could to relieve the discomfort of the prisoners, but he found that the camp's resources and possibilities were very limited. Conditions at the prison continued to grow worse as time went along. The original buildings used by the prisoners, constructed cheaply for livestock display, became worn out and offered very littl protection from the weather (rain, wind, or cold). Even the conditions of the hospital was just as bad. Eventually, tents were used by the hospital after it became overcrowded. By the end of 1863, a smallpox epidemic broke out at the camp. By early 1864, there were 38 hospital tents in use, arranged in pairs along both sides of a street at right angles to the hospital buildings. By August of the same year, there were 224 tents outside the hospital, containing 1,340 sick and dying prisoners, while the hospital barracks contained anywhere from 436 to 484 sick prisoners. There were some old cattle sheds in the camp, with one being used as a temporary hospital barracks, containing an additional 554 sick prisoners. In January 1865, Federal authorities approved plans to build another 3 hospital barracks for the camp.

Burials took place at the city cemetary under contract with a local undertaker. An old house inside the camp served as a deadhouse until the dead prisoners could be buried at the cemetary.

From the day that the camp was established, the latrines were large open pits near the center of the camp. As the camp became more crowded, the latrines were filled and reestablished elsewhere in various parts of the enclosure until the camp grounds became filled with the poisonous matter. Those prisoners who managed to stay healthy, tried desperatly to escape from the camp. By August 1864, the camp contained 5,000 P.O.W.s and political prisoners housed in barracks and tents.

Conditions became harsh beginning in 1864. Escape attempts were becoming more frequently. Because of this, inside of the camp, a small rail fence was built to serve as a deadline and keep prisoners off the fence. In April, a trench about 10 feet wide and 6 feet deep was dug around the camp, just inside the fence, to try to help discourage tunneling attempts, but the tunneling efforts continued. In another effort to stop escapes, Stevens recommended adding flooring to the prisoner barracks and raising the barracks off the ground, as was somewhat successfully done at Camp Douglas.

Remembered as a model of parsimony and reform, Hoffman instituted a system similar to the Union Army's Company Fund: money saved from tightened rations was put in a camp fund and the proceeds, instead of being used to buy bread for prisoners, was used to buy an oven to bake in. Large boilers were bought from farmers to replace camp kettles for cooking meals in economic quanities. Stamps, stationary,cooking utinsels, and tobacco bought for prisoners with the camp fund had a brief positive influence on morale. Prisoners were also permitted to speak to visitors. Continued Confederate reverses crowded Morton, and individual complaints of maltreatment by guards surfaced.

In 1864, Hoffman's economy won him administrative recognition, and he cut rations again for greater savings. Prisoners grew restless, and the number of guards had to be increased. U.S. Sanitary Commission agents recommended installing a sewage system to replace the open-ditch in use and suggested feeding the prisoners more vegetables to combat an outbreak of scurvy. The advice was taken, within narrow limits: coffee, rice, hominy, sugar, and other foods were given only to the sick; those better off did without. Clothing was replaced in extreme cases, and then only if Confederate families did not send replacements.

Several escape tunnels were discovered and collapsed as escape attempts began. During one escape attempt, 35 prisoners escaped but were recaptured. at times, there were 3 to 10 tunnel escape attempts going on at the same time.

It was estimated that at least 9,000 prisoners passed through the camp gates during its 25 months of operation. Deaths at Camp Morton totaled 1,763 at the end of the war, including 7 reported killed in escape attempts and altercations. This meant that nearly 20% died while incarcerated there. Still, Morton's mortality figures were lower than those of other open Union prison camps. Though the number of prisoners is not certain, it ranged upward from 3,500 prisoners.

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