Columbus, OhioUntil November 1861, Camp Chase, named for Sec.-of Treasury and former Ohio governor Salmon P. Chase, was a training center for Union volunteers. It became a facility for a few political and military prisoners from Ohio, Kentucky, and Western Virginia as early as August 7, 1861. The prison was 4 miles from Columbus, on the western outskirts. The camp received its first large influx of captured Confederates from western campaigns, including enlisted men, officers, and a few of the latter's black servants. From iys beginning as a prison facility, it was a source of irritation between the state and Federal governments. Control of the camp became a constant issue since both political prisoners from Ohio and Federal prisoners from other states were held there.
The camp was an enclosed barracks prison. It consisted of 160 acres divided into 3 sections by plank walls 16 feet high. The divided sections were designated as Prisons No. 1, No. 2, and No. 3. There were double outside walls, with a guard's parapet along the outside about 3 feet from the top. Guardhouses were located at each corner. The housing of the Union officers and guards were on the outside of the walls.
Prison No. 1 enclosed almost 1 acre and could hold almost 200 prisoners. Prisons No. 2 and No. 3 contained almost 5 acres each and sometimes held as many as 4,000 prisoners in each compound. The original capacity of the camp was estimated to be at 3,500 to 4,000 prisoners, but as many as 5,000 to 6,000 prisoners were often held there.
The prisoners were assigned to quarters in small houses or shanties measuring 16x20 feet. Each little shanty, with double or triple bunks arranged along the wall would hold 12 to 15 men. At one end of the shanty, a room was partitioned off as a kitchen with a small opening in the partition just large enough for a plate or cup to be passed through.
The living quarters within the 3 camp sections were generally arranged in clusters of 6, with the buildings of each cluster about 5 feet apart. The clusters were seperated by narrow streets or pathways. The streets, drains, and gutters of the camp were all in the same condition. The latrines were nothing more than open excavations. The stench that permeated the camp, mostly from the open latrines, was described as "horrible, nauseating, and disgusting".
The prison grounds were unlevel, soft clayish soil with poor drainage. Pools of water and deep mud would stand for several days after a mild rain.The roofs of the living quarters would always leak since they were not shingled.
Col. Granville Moody was named the first prison commandant. The public paid for camp tours, and the camp became a tourist attraction. Complaints over such lax discipline and the camp's state administration provoked investigation, and the situation changed. After numerous complaints about the camp's state volunteers and the camp commander having 'scant acquaintance" with military practice and were transferred, the camp passed into Federal government control. Col. Charles W.B. Allison became the new commandant. By the end of September, Allison was replaced with Maj. Peter Zinn of the Governor's Guard.
Zinn was replaced with Brig. Gen. John S. Mason of the U.S. Volunteers in April 1863. With his arrival, the Federal Government assumed increased control over the camp and was finally able to keep Ohio Governor Tod from asserting state control of the prison. Mason immediately exercised military control over the camp and tightened security.
Upon an oath of honor, Confederate officers were permitted to wander through Columbus, register in hotels, and receive gifts of money and food; a few attended sessions of the state senate.
Food supplies of poor quality resulted in the commissary officer's dismissal from service. However, Union victories at Fort Donalson and at Island No. 10 brought a new influx of prisoners. All of the officers taken at these battles, except general and field officers who were sent to Fort Warren in Boston Harbor,were transferred to the Camp Chase prison. After this influx, officers' privileges were cut. When the prison at Johnson’s Island was established (100 miles to the north), most of the officers at Camp Chase were sent there. Following this transfer, men from the ranks, the privates, corprals and sergeants, made up the bulk of the Confederate soldiers confined at Camp Chase. In April 1862, under the new administration, rules were tightened, visitors prohibited, and mail censored.
Prisoners were allowed the privilage of receiving gifts of food and limited amounts of money to purchase supplies from approved vendors and sellers, the latter further restricted when they were discovered to be smuggling liquor to the inmates.
There were many prisoner complaints against the camp guards. Many of the complaints involved that prisoners were often shot by the guards when the prisoners misunderstood and stepped out of line during roll call, failed to quickly follow demands yelled down to them from the guards on the parapet, or gathered into large groups.
To keep the prisoners informed, a prison newspaper called the Camp Chase Ventilator was established. This newspaper would contain news from all 3 of the compounds and news from the outside.
As the war wore on, conditions became worse. Shoddy barracks, low muddy ground, open latrines, aboveground open cisterns, and a brief small-pox outbreak excited U.S. Sanitary Commission agents who were already demanding reform. Original facilities for 3,500-4,000 men were jammed with close to 7,000. Since parole strictures prohibited service against the Confederacy, many Federals had surrendered believing they would be paroled and sent home. Some parolees, assigned to guard duty at Union prisons camps, were bitter, and rumors increased of maltreatment of prisoners at Camp Chase and elsewhere.
Towards the end of 1862, the cases of excess number of paroled Union soldiers from the western prisons were sent to Camp Chase.
With Mason as the new commandant of the camp, all prisoners were restricted to the camp, tourists and visitors were prohibited, and all prisoner mail was censored. On the bright side, the quality of food rations was improved. By mid-1863, all officers and political prisoners were transferred to Johnson's Island.
The high tide of the prison population at Camp Chase was reached in 1863 when some 8,000 men were confined there.
In mid-to late 1864, a smallpox epidemic hit the camp. Immediately to the south of the camp, and across a stream that ran along its edge, was a 10 acre site in which the dead prisoners were buried.
In November 1864 there was an exchange of 10,000 sick and wounded prisoners between the North and South. Before the end of hostilities, Union parolee guards were transferred to service in the Indian Wars, some sewage modifications were made, and prisoners were put to work improving barracks and facilities. Prison laborers also built larger, stronger fences for their own confinement, a questionable assignment under international law governing prisoners of war. Barracks rebuilt for 7,000 men soon overflowed, and crowding and health conditions were never resolved.
The last remaining prisoners were released from the camp in June and July 1865. As many as 10,000 prisoners were reputedly confined there by the time of the Confederate surrender.