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Outrage at Point Lookout

by Professor David Alan Black
June 18, 2003

Last Saturday a memorial service was held at Point Lookout, Maryland. The event was the 12th annual commemoration organized by the Point Lookout Prisoners-of-War Association. Present were reenactors, vendors, and descendants of prisoners. Also present were several speakers, though these were limited to those vetted by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, which insisted that the activities and messages be “viewpoint neutral.” Earlier, a federal judge had rebuffed one speaker’s efforts to enjoin the VA from censoring his intended remarks at the ceremony. The speaker’s prospective offense? Criticizing the VA’s flag policy, which allows the Confederate banner to fly there only one day a year during the annual memorial event. The speaker gave his talk anyway, sans the offensive passage. So much for freedom of speech!

The federal restrictions on speech during the memorial service were sorry enough, but the story of the camp itself is absolutely mind-boggling. During the two-year span of operation at Point Lookout, the camp saw approximately 52,000 POWs pass through its gates—military and civilian, men, women, even children. The youngest POW at Point Lookout was Baby Perkins who was born there, his mother having been captured at the Battle of Spotsylvania with her artillery unit.

Prison conditions were, to put it mildly, deplorable. According to numerous eyewitness reports and other publications, the prisoners were forced to discard anything bearing the initials “U.S.,” which for almost all Confederates meant more than half of their belongings. Only one blanket was permitted among sixteen or more men who were crowded into threadbare Sibley tents. Firewood and the essentials for health and comfort were scarce. Below minimal rations caused scurvy and malnutrition. Lice, disease, and chronic diarrhea often resulted in an infectious death. According to one account, Confederate Sergeant Charles T. Loehr, captured at the battle of Five Forks, received a rude awakening his first night at the camp. He was one of forty men placed in a tent designed for sixteen. Six or seven of the forty had died by morning, including the two on either side of Loehr. Loehr wrote that his captors were “negroes of the worst sort and very brutal; when the prisoners were driven out of their tents at night by diarrhea, the guards would make them carry them on their back; they were quick-stepped about the grounds, forced to kneel and pray for Abe Lincoln, etc.”

Prisoners ate rats and raw fish. One hungry prisoner devoured a raw seagull that had been washed ashore. Soap skim and trash peelings were often eaten. Prisoners had no shoes in winter. High water often flooded the tents in the camp area. The undrained marshes bred mosquitoes. Malaria, typhoid fever, and smallpox were common. The brackish water supply was contaminated by unsanitary camp conditions. Prisoners were randomly shot during the night as they slept or if they called out from pain. Federal authorities refused to permit Marylanders to aid the inmates with the bare necessities of life, and thousands of prisoners died for lack of food, medical care, or proper sanitary conditions. Moreover, the head of the camp, Provost Marshall (Major) A.G. Brady, personally made in excess of $1,000,000 during his time as camp commander by pilfering clothing and other necessities of life.

Amazingly, the federal government lists only 3,384 names which are inscribed on the monument plaques. However, according to prisoners’ diaries and other reports, over 14,000 prisoners died while incarcerated in the camp. Only one “unknown” soldier is listed on the monument, yet absent are 413 additional confirmed names of those who died at Point Lookout. When the prisoners’ remains were moved from Tanner’s Creek to the present cemetery, their skulls were put in one box, the arm bones in another, and the leg bones in a third box. The men who moved them were paid in accordance with the number of skull bones. Frequently they would gamble with the skull bones, and bones were dropped and left in the road. Children walking to school would pick them up, not knowing what they were, and take them to class for show-n-tell.

In its living conditions and treatment of prisoners, Point Lookout has often been compared to Andersonville, the Confederate prison for Union troops in Georgia. Such comparisons are to be taken cum grano salis. The mortality rate at Point Lookout was greater than that of the Confederate prison at Andersonville. Moreover, the fatalities at Point Lookout were due to unnecessary neglect, while those at Andersonville were due to a real want in the Confederacy as a whole. The United States War Department’s official statistics showed that more Southern prisoners died in Northern camps than did Northern soldiers in Southern camps. The death rate in Northern camps was approximately twelve percent, while the death rate in Southern camps was about nine percent. The people of the South were starving by the end of the war and couldn’t feed their own troops, but the North had no such excuse.

Keep in mind that the Confederate government did everything possible to exchange prisoners with the North. In 1863, Union Secretary of War Stanton decided to end prisoner exchanges on the grounds that the South had more to gain than the North. Even when the South explained its increasing inability to care for the prisoners, Stanton refused to resume the exchanges. Captain Wirz, the commandant at Andersonville, allowed a party of four prisoners to go to Washington on parole to explain the hardships at Andersonville and plead for an exchange. The men saw Stanton but were unsuccessful in convincing him to the exchange. The men returned to Andersonville and in post-war accounts condemned Stanton for his refusal to allow prisoner exchanges. In February of 1865, Wirz released 3,000 prisoners who were well enough to travel on their own to the Federal base in Jacksonville, Florida. The Union commander refused to accept them, and they were returned to Andersonville.

Near the end of the war, the United States Congress passed a law making the poor treatment of prisoners the official policy of the federal government. The official U.S. policy on Confederate POWs is stated in the preamble to HR 97, passed by both Houses of Congress:

Rebel prisoners in our hands are to be subjected to a treatment finding its parallels only in the conduct of savage tribes and resulting in the death of multitudes by the slow but designed process of starvation and by mortal diseases occasioned by insufficient and unhealthy food and wanton exposure of their persons to the inclemency of the weather.

HR 97 was real, and the Northern government did indeed try to eliminate Southern prisoners by starvation and other means of death.

If anything qualifies as an outrage, surely this does!

 

Major Brady ~ Pt. Lookout's Provost Marshall
By A. J. Cone, Raleigh, FL

Does any reader of the Veteran who was in Pt. Lookout, MD, ever think of the officer in command of the prison at that place in 1864-65? The memory of him is ineffaceably stamped on my memory; and if I were to live a hundred years and all recollection of comrades dear by blood and association in those perilous times could be effaced, Major A. G. Brady as I saw and knew him would have the sole distinction of having impressed his brutal image, his cowardly and inhuman conduct to the prisoners in his keeping (the lowest and the meanest of whom were incomparable his superiors) as the lowest and most consummate villain of which history makes record.

He was a typical commander of federal prisons, arrogant, domineering, without the slightest approach to human virtues. He was the commandant from October 19, 1864 to the time I was exchanged, March 19, 1865, five months to a day. He was about 40 years old, with florid complexion, sandy beard, long nose, small head, goose-eyed, fidgety, wolfish in countenance, savage and cruel. His Sunday exercises were riding through the streets of the camp on a tall, large-footed horse at a breakneck speed when the poor men were out in the prison streets to get the benefit of the sunshine, to restore their benumbed limbs from the cold and cramped tents, where only a little green pine wood was allowed, which in the attempt to burn would fill the tents with suffocating smoke which could be endured only by lying prone on our faces. I saw Southern men cringingly and patronizingly approach him and talk to him. I would have died a thousand deaths before I would have sought his revolting presence or asked his aid.

To take out a work gang under a boss was quite a distinction, and I sought the boss and he took me out one fine morning to work on an old fort, - under guard, of course. I heard a prisoner ask the guard if he could give him a chance to take the oath of allegiance, and the guard asked me if I wanted to take the oath too. I told him no; that I would stay there until they starved me to death before I would desert my country and comrades. He replied, "You are the kind of soldier I like to see," that if the other man was out on oath he would have no confidence in him.

On returning to the prison I got permission to go to a large syrup kettle near the road, and I found it filled with odds and ends of rusty bacon boiled to a jelly of which soap was to be made. I fished out and filled my haversack with the best of this putrid mass and carried it into the prison and gave to my starved comrades, who ate it with avidity and thanked me for the favor.

We were guarded by buck blacks clad in greatcoats, boots, and gauntlet gloves, who stalked through the streets at night. One of these devils shot into the tent next to mine simply because one poor fellow could not suppress a cough when ordered to do so by the black brute.
...Confederate Veteran 1912, Vol. 20, pg. 524-525

I had been told that Major. Brady, the commandant, had on several occasions let a prisoner out; so I resolved to try him. I waited at the gate one morning until he drove in and and saluting him, made it known that I wished to speak to him. I said, "Major, what is the chance to get out of this place? The war is over and I don't want to die in here." He seemed to be mad and spoke roughly, saying, "What are you doing in here?" I said, "They put me in here for shooting yankees." He said, "Damn you, this is the place for you," and drove off and left me. So I had to wait until my turn came. When they commenced to release us, it was done alphabetically and it took a long time to get down to (the letter) T .
....W. L. Timberlake, Mobile, AL, Confederate Veteran, 1913 Vol. 21, page 585

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