Federal Prisons
The Grand Inspection of late 1863


     On the 12th day of November 1863, pursuant to orders from the United States War Department, Adjutant General's Office, Brigadier General William Ward Orme found himself assigned to a grand tour of federal prisons throughout the north holding Confederate prisoners of war and to personally report back on the sufficient or insufficient quantity of supplies, means for guarding and keeping prisoners, the sanitary conditions in each and anything else related to them which would be useful. Covering a dozen prisons, the general's tour lasted three weeks, having reported back to the Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton on December 7th.

     Camp Douglas in Chicago, Illinois had been constructed with long barracks and wood stoves in the passageways between the bunks, but by the war's third winter the camp was overcrowded with nearly six thousands rebels and many were not housed. Fed well, with three quarters of a pound of bacon and a pound of fresh beef three times a week, wheat bread, hominy, coffee and tea, sugar, vinegar, potatoes and molasses. The facility, however; had not provided well for the prisoners cooking needs, having had to fend for themselves in regard to fires. This in itself resulted in a great waste of food, which resulted in an exorbitant expense to the government. The monies mailed in for those imprisoned there was retained by the camp's commandant, Colonel Charles V. De Land and issued by sutler checks redeemable through the sutlery provided, for all consumables and clothing.

     In spite of a strong showing of Michigan Sharpshooters and two companies of the Eighth Invalid Corps, the prison had experienced sixty one successful escapes during a three month period between August and November 1863. The combination of eight hundred soldiers between the two outfits was not near enough to prevent such attempts.

     Camp Morton in Indianapolis, Indiana at that time had held roughly three thousand prisoners. The barracks were constructed much the same as in Illinois, however; the barracks had no floors to them, the bunks were thrown together with many different shapes and sizes, some of the buildings had stoves to heat with, and others went without. The sanitary conditions up until that time had been much neglected, but improvements had been made under Colonel Ambrose A. Stevens, the prison's commandant.

     Johnson's Island near Sandusky, Ohio received close to two thousand four hundred prisoners, just less than sixty of which had been enlisted men. The prisoners here had very comfortable barracks, two story buildings. These were built in two rows, facing one another with a wide street between them. The prisoners were arranged into convenient messes with cooking stoves and other facilities for cooking, but sutlers were not permitted within the camp. It had been reported that only sixty nine prisoners here had died in 1863 most of all resulting from diseases incurred before reaching the camp.

     The accommodations at Camp Chase, near Columbus, Ohio holding roughly two thousand five hundred prisoners of war, had wooden barracks furnished with bunks on both sides above a wooden floor. Although, heated comfortably by wood stoves, the barracks themselves were viewed to be somewhat overcrowded. A sutler was permitted in this camp which sold a lot of the articles found in most of the others, however; General Orme had found a stock of bottled gin and schnapps which were being sold to the prisoners, this was immediately brought to the attention of the commandant, Colonel William Wallace; having been ordered to cease in its further issuance.

     At the time of the inspection to the Columbus Penitentiary, sixty nine rebel prisoners had been incarcerated there, one of which happened to be Brigadier General John Hunt Morgan and seventy eight of his officers. He and his subordinates were confined to a section of the building all to themselves. Quartered in the cells with clean beds and bedding, the cleaning maintenance within the prison had been handled by the convicts imprisoned there. These cavaliers were provided with the same prison fare the inmates had gotten with the exception of having hot coffee supplied them and a table set and cleared away for them by the inmates. Since the inspector's return to Washington and the submission of his report before the War Department however; it was learned by the government of this general officer's escape.

     Alton, Illinois, like Columbus, had utilized their former penitentiary as a prison for Confederate soldiers. There had been slightly over fifteen hundred rebels here. The quartering was suitably comfortable and well supplied with good warm bedding; but as in other places around the north the over crowded facilities required the government to seriously consider moving roughly five hundred from there. Alton had been garrisoned by four hundred and fifty soldiers, which quartered roughly two hundred federal soldiers sent there as a result of military court martial or military commission.

     Brigadier General Orme, likewise visited the newly established Rock Island Prison in Illinois. This newly established prison was built to hold ten thousand. The size prompted the inspector on calling the attention of the government the need in garrisoning fourteen full companies of the Invalid Corps before the first shipment of Confederate soldiers were to be sent there.

     The prisoners had been relieved of their Confederate money with which the commandants of each camp had copious amounts of without instructions on how to dispose of it; but the administrative nightmares appeared light in comparison to the numbers incarcerated. The War Department inspection covered federal facilities which housed more than sixteen thousand prisoners of war. In spite of hard ships in acclimatizing to the northern temperatures, having been exposed to all kinds of weather conditions, the constitution of the prisoners seemed rather satisfactory.

     The conditions of these prisons were accepted as satisfactorily managed for having just ended the third year of the war. The environment around them, however; was subject to change as the national policy which halted the prisoner exchange would catch the entire nation by surprise. Both sides would suffer the full effects of attrition as the country wandered blindly into the most brutal year of them all; 1864.




Dan (Aldie) Daniel Moran
© 2006

Editors Note: Mr.Moran is a feature writer on the US-Civilwar.com writers staff. He may be contacted with your questions, ideas and requests at dmoran@us-civilwars.net