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Captives in Gray
The Civil War Prisons of the Union
By Roger Pickenpaugh
The University of Alabama Press Copyright © 2009 The University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
"Arrangements should be at once made"
Plans and Prisoners, 1861
In the summer of 1861 the American psyche reflected a combination of patriotism and impatience. The former had been fueled on April 12 when Confederate guns fired on the American flag at Fort Sumter in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina. The result had been an outpouring of volunteer soldiers that would reach 640,000 men before the year was over. The latter had grown over the following weeks as the Northern people began to wonder why the soldiers they had sent away with such enthusiasm had not yet been given the opportunity to win the war. "On to Richmond!" was the cry of a public that expected — and was beginning to demand — a quick and easy victory. This feeling was not limited to exuberant citizens. Newspaper editorialists and members of Congress had begun to ask the same question as July arrived.
Among the few realists that summer was Montgomery Meigs. A career officer, fifth in the 1836 graduating class at West Point, Meigs had been named quartermaster general of the Union army on June 16, 1861. With the assignment came the rank of brigadier general and responsibility for overseeing military spending that would eventually exceed $1 billion. The problems that Meigs confronted in the weeks following his appointment were daunting. First the quartermaster general had to secure arms, uniforms, and equipment for the troops pouring in from the states, as well as horses and wagons to enable those troops to move. Beyond that he had to organize a department and a contract system that would guarantee that the army would continue to be supplied as the war continued.
Unlike other Union officials, Meigs realized the conflict would continue for some time. He also realized early on that his boss, Secretary of War Simon Cameron, "was an utter babe-in-the-woods so far as administering an army was concerned." For example, only five days after his appointment, Meigs found it necessary to urge Cameron to see to it that all factories capable of manufacturing rifle muskets begin doing so at maximum capacity.
On July 12 Meigs turned his attention to another topic. Writing to Cameron, he predicted that in "the conflict now commenced it is likely to be expected that the United States will have to take care of large numbers of prisoners of war." Up to that point, Meigs noted, "persons arrested on suspicion of disloyalty" had been housed in "the common jail of Washington." The quartermaster general was already searching for "some building here more suitable for their temporary safe-keeping." As military campaigns commenced, many more captives would begin to arrive. "Arrangements should be at once made for their accommodation," Meigs insisted, "to avoid great embarrassment when they begin to come in." Toward that end, Meigs made two recommendations. One was the appointment of a commissary general of prisoners. This officer would be "charged with the care of prisoners now in our hands and preparations for those likely to fall into our possession." The other was the selection of a "depot and place of confinement for prisoners of war." Meigs suggested one of "the Put-in-Bay Islands of Lake Erie," located near the community of Sandusky, as the best spot to establish a permanent Union prison.
After receiving Cameron's approval of his plans, Meigs, on October 3, recommended Lt. Col. William Hoffman for the post of commissary general of prisoners. Four days later Hoffman received orders from the quartermaster general to head for Lake Erie. He was to visit four islands, North Bass, Middle Bass, South Bass, and Kelley's Island, and "examine them with reference to the lease of the ground upon some of them for a depot for prisoners of war." He was also authorized to visit other islands he found to be "better fitted for the purpose." Meigs placed only one restriction on the mission. "The locality selected," he ordered, "should not be in a higher latitude than that of the west end of Lake Erie in order to avoid too rigorous a climate."
In naming Hoffman commissary general of prisoners, Meigs selected a man who had spent his entire life with the military. The son of a career officer, he had grown up at a succession of posts. Hoffman then made the army his career, graduating from West Point in 1829. By the time the guns sounded at Fort Sumter, Hoffman had three decades of military experience behind him. Along the way he had shown many of the traits that would characterize his Civil War service. "Although never brilliant," his biographer notes, "he was an able and efficient officer, earning the commendations of his superiors." Hoffman was also "a stern disciplinarian, who seemed to have memorized the army regulations."
The new commissary general of prisoners brought a wealth of practical experience to his position that would aid him in overseeing the construction of the Union's Lake Erie prison. His frontier duties had included the erection of Fort Bridger and the rebuilding of Fort Laramie. Life on the post–Mexican War frontier had also led Hoffman to develop "a habitual preoccupation, bordering on an obsession, for thrift." This attitude was born of necessity as the War Department slashed funds for western outposts. Quartermasters were ordered to erect only the "cheapest kind" of barracks, and post commanders were urged to have their men provision themselves by raising their own crops. Like many other officers, Hoffman had established a "post fund" by reselling surplus rations to the commissary. While commanding at Newport Barracks, Kentucky, in the 1850s, this fund had allowed him to build an icehouse and a "ten pin alley" and purchase such items as curtains and vegetables for his men. It was a concept that Hoffman would continue as he settled into his role as commissary general of prisoners.
Hoffman also brought a brief experience as a military captive to his new position. The secession crisis of 1861 found Hoffman in Texas commanding the Eighth United States Infantry. Perhaps he should have become suspicious when his command was stationed at the Alamo. In any event, he and his men were soon surrendered to a Texas home guard by Hoffman's superior, Gen. David Twiggs. Twiggs joined the Confederate army, and Hoffman and other Unionist soldiers found themselves on their way north. They carried with them paroles pledging that they would not "take up arms or serve in the field against the Government of the Confederate States of America" until exchanged. This limited Hoffman's options severely and made him available for the role Meigs had in mind. Hoffman did not desire the position. He attempted to arrange a special exchange that would free him for active service, going as far as to write an appeal to Cameron. All was in vain, and like the good soldier he was, Hoffman assumed the duties of what would prove to be a thankless post.
Those duties first took him to Lake Erie to determine the best site for the military prison that Meigs desired. Arriving in early October 1861, Hoffman was thorough in his island-hopping expedition. He quickly ruled out North, Middle, and South Bass Islands. Each offered a variety of problems. North Bass was far too close to Canadian islands, making escape or rescue realistic dangers. Besides that, the residents of the island, farmers and fishermen, were not willing to give up their land "for any reasonable rent if at all as they make their homes there." Middle Bass posed the same problem. It also did not have any cleared land. South Bass was largely occupied by vineyards, and Hoffman feared that the few residents living there could not resist "the depredations of lawless men," a blunt reference to the soldiers who would occupy the post. In addition to those problems, none of the three islands was close enough to Sandusky to transport construction materials easily. Hoffman also visited Kelley's Island, located nearby. He found it to be a likely site except for one problem. The island contained a "wine and brandy establishment," Hoffman noted, "which I fear would be too great a temptation to the guard to be overcome by any sense of right or fear of punishment."
After studying and rejecting the first four islands, Hoffman reported, he next visited Johnson's Island. Located in Sandusky Bay, the three-hundred-acre island was two and three-quarter miles from Sandusky. It offered forty acres of cleared land, fallen timber that could be utilized as fuel, and a reasonable lease price of $500 a year. Hoffman informed Meigs that Sandusky was "a cheap and abundant market for lumber." The commissary general of prisoners had "consulted with an experienced builder there," who said he could have seventeen buildings up at the site by December 10. Hoffman proposed erecting four two-story barracks for the enlisted prisoners, each capable of holding 270, plus a separate barracks for Confederate officers. Quarters for guards and officers, a hospital, and a storehouse would also be required. "I would suggest a substantial plank fence to inclose the ground on three sides," Hoffman wrote in his report, "[and] a high open picketing closing the fourth toward the water for security in winter time." He also called for a blockhouse "sufficiently large for the guard" and a smaller blockhouse "at the angle near the water to guard that front." Hoffman estimated that all of this, plus stoves and other needed equipment, would cost $26,266.
Meigs gave his approval to the proposal and on October 26 dispatched Hoffman to Sandusky Bay to establish the depot. "In all that is done," Meigs insisted, "the strictest economy consistent with security and proper welfare of the prisoners must be observed." This comported with Hoffman's inclinations, and for the next four years he would take these instructions literally and follow them rigidly. His near-obsessive insistence upon the cheapest materials and the most economical methods has often led historians to dismiss Hoffman as an unfeeling penny-pincher. However, while adopting Meigs's insistence upon "the strictest economy," the commissary general tempered his orders by also remembering his responsibility for "the proper welfare of the prisoners."
This latter concern was reflected in Hoffman's November 15, 1861, report to Meigs. In sending the lease and construction contract to his superior, Hoffman explained that he had allowed the contractors an extra $1,500. This amount, "which seems to me only reasonable," Hoffman wrote, was added to make the buildings "more suitable for this winter climate." The project was already under way, he reported, and the work was "progressing rapidly." Although he had originally hoped to have the facility completed by the end of the year, Hoffman had given the contractors a deadline of February 1. "Circumstances," such as bad weather, he feared, "might render it beyond their power to fulfill the contract in less time." Prisoners' quarters were to be in two rows. Although the depot would be large by the standards of the antebellum army, Hoffman included in his plans space for a third row of barracks "if more room may be required." At the time neither Hoffman nor Meigs had any idea how prescient that decision would prove to be.
Meanwhile, Hoffman's superiors were making plans to staff the facility. On October 29 Cameron called upon Ohio governor William Dennison to raise "a select company of volunteers" to serve as guards at Johnson's Island. Dennison replied that he would "cheerfully comply" with the request. He also agreed to consult with Hoffman regarding the selection of officers. The governor went so far as to name the companies being formed the "Hoffman Battalion," a designation they would hold until the outfit was increased to regimental strength later in the war. On January 1, 1862, the Sandusky Register announced that men enlisting for service in the battalion would receive a bounty of $100. "Men enlisted to garrison [the] Government section on Johnson's Island," the Register continued, "receive the above bounty in addition to good pay, excellent quarters and abundant rations." Volunteers were required to "be of good height, and between the ages of twenty and forty."
On December 28 Hoffman named William S. Pierson commander of the depot. A former mayor of Sandusky, the thirty-seven-year-old Pierson brought no military experience to the post. Hoffman insisted that the newly minted major was "very industrious and attentive," a man of the "strictest integrity," and an "experienced man of business." It would appear, however, that the main factor recommending Pierson for the job was his availability. As Hoffman would quickly discover as he attempted to staff a number of Union prisons, the best military men were all serving at the front. In April 1862 he expressed regret to David Tod, who had succeeded Dennison as governor, that another, more experienced officer had recently turned down the post. "The commander must have some military experience," Hoffman pointed out, "the more the better, and he should be a little advanced in life, as years will give weight to his authority which a young man could not command." Hoffman indicated that Pierson concurred in this assessment. "He appreciates his deficiencies," Hoffman wrote, "and is very willing to resign his place into more able hands if such are within my reach." Unfortunately such hands were beyond the reach of the commissary general of prisoners. Pierson would retain command of Johnson's Island until January 1864.
With no replacement in sight, Hoffman offered all the advice to Pierson that he could. Despite the fact that he was known in military circles as "Old Huffy" for his often-prickly disposition, Hoffman's instructions to his young commandant were couched in understanding, almost fatherly, terms. He urged him to avoid consulting members of his command before issuing orders. "The more silent the Commanding Officer is about his measures the better the effect," Hoffman counseled. "What he requires to be done should be announced in orders without any preliminary discussion." Also important, Hoffman advised, was attention to details. "The neglect of trifles leads to other neglects, and step by step discipline is undermined," he wrote.
Hoffman was able to devote virtually his full attention during 1861 to establishing the prison on Johnson's Island because of the Union army's lack of success elsewhere. During the spring and summer of 1861, the resounding cry of "On to Richmond!" had proven irresistible. The resulting political pressure led the Lincoln administration to send Gen. Irvin McDowell's army into the field prematurely. On July 21, 1861, that army was soundly defeated at the battle of First Manassas. Meanwhile, in the West, Gen. John Fremont managed only to demoralize border-state loyalists with a premature order declaring slaves in Missouri to be free. Few victories in the field meant few prisoners with whom to deal. If the Union's lack of success in 1861 accomplished nothing else, it gave Hoffman time to prepare for the waves of prisoners that would arrive in early 1862.
Many of the Union's captives in those early days of the war were civilians. Termed "citizen prisoners" or, even more honestly, "political prisoners," they generally came from the border regions of Maryland, western Virginia, Kentucky, and Missouri. They represented a wide variety of social classes, ranging from the illiterate to some of the most prominent figures in Maryland politics. The threat they posed to the Union ranged from significant to none at all. What they had in common was being caught in a rather wide net cast by an administration facing an unprecedented challenge to the nation's existence.
Many of the early Union prisoners ended up in Washington, DC, at the Old Capitol Prison. Finished in 1816, the Old Capitol had been built with funds raised by volunteer subscribers after British forces burned the U.S. Capitol during the War of 1812. It served as the home of Congress for three years. After that it functioned successively as a school, a hotel, and a boardinghouse favored by politicians. The Old Capitol had been abandoned for ten years when Union officials pressed the structure into service as a prison. It functioned in that capacity for the duration of the war, housing prisoners as late as October 1865. The number of captives generally ranged from a few hundred to twelve hundred. They represented, notes historian James I. Robertson Jr., an "indescribable heterogeneity" of individuals. Prisoners of war usually composed the majority of the inmates. Old Capitol's prison population also included Union soldiers facing various charges, political prisoners of all social classes, and "contraband" blacks captured with their masters. Two Old Capitol inmates, Rose O'Neal Greenhow and Belle Boyd, arrived after achieving celebrity status as Confederate spies.
Excerpted from Captives in Gray by Roger Pickenpaugh. Copyright © 2009 The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press.
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