Georgia and Confederate military facility
Prisoner of War Camps 1861-1865
Conditions were terrible for all POWs, on both sides, during this war. Every American is familiar with Andersonville and the thousands of POWs who suffered there in over crowded conditions, with inadequate food, water and medicines. The shortages of essential supplies were made worse by blockades and general wartime scarcity -- and finally by General Grant's suspension of POW exchanges. As a war strategy, federal officials decided to sacrifice their comrades to suffer starvation, rather than to return fighting men for the South. Winning by attrition was deemed more important than other considerations. Even when Confederate officials offered to release federal POWs with NO exchange, U.S. officials declined.
It must be pointed out that Confederate guards suffered equally with their POWs in terms of disease, lack of medicine and malnutrition.
Most Americans have NOT heard of infamous POW camps in the north where supplies were plentiful, yet Confederate POWs suffered intentional and cruel deprivation of clothing, blankets, medicines, food and water. Camp Douglas near Chicago, IL, was described for its horrors in the History Channel documentary entitled "Eighty Acres of Hell." Numerous instances of intentional deprivation and cruelty were documented there, yet no federal officer was held accountable. One yankee doctor called it an "extermination camp."
Oak Lawn Cemetery in Chicago is the largest mass grave in North America and the final resting place of over 6000 Confederate POWs, whose remains were relocated three times, finally chunked into a single hole. Three decades after the war, Southerners raised the money for a monument to be placed there. It was dedicated in 1895 and southern dignitaries such as John B. Gordon were present. Horror stories abound for other notorious federal POW camps including Camp Chase in Ohio, Elmira (aka "Hellmira") NY, and Point Lookout MD.
Though well documented, the intentional cruelty and deprivation of POWs on the Yankee side are never mentioned in public schools. What we all hear about is Andersonville (GA), Libby Prison and Salisbury, NC. This page is focused on the POW camp named Camp Oglethorpe in Macon, GA, which served primarily for federal officers, but did hold others until their transfer to Andersonville could be achieved.
The citizens of Macon suffered deprivation, personal losses of loved ones, and war time shortages like most of the south, yet the generosity and Christian kindness is well documented throughout the war. Some believed that said charity should be reserved for widows and children of southern soldiers rather than enemy POWs, but many believed it their Christian duty to alleviate the suffering of all, including their enemies. Food, bedding, blankets and clothing were routinely collected from local donors for the POWs, without any prompting or direction from government officials. Work is under way to catalog the documentation of these charitable and humanitarian efforts as written in the pages of The Macon Daily Telegraph during the war. When complete, a section will be created below to summarize and describe the conclusions.
About Camp Oglethorpe
Camp Oglethorpe was a storage depot and militia camp in the old fairgrounds before the Confederate government enlisted its use as a prison camp for federal POWs who were held during the War of Yankee Aggression. Located near the Ocmulgee River, the "old fairgrounds" was about 3000 feet west of the current Central City Park (created 1871). The building in the center of the compound was formerly used as the floral hall for state fairs. See 1854 Map (courtesy Barry Colbaugh).
We know from orders in the O.R. that the 59th Georgia Volunteer Infantry Regiment was assigned to guard POWs and supplies at Camp Oglethorpe until November 1862, when they reported to Robert E. Lee at Winchester, VA. The 10th Battalion GA Infantry was assigned similar duty just before being sent to northern Virginia. The 5th GA Infantry Reserves, who were guarding POWs at Camp Oglethorpe were called forward to meet Sherman's patrols in what became the Battle of Griswoldville, eight miles east of Macon, in November 1864. Private James D. Means (buried at Means Cemetery, Elko GA) served as a guard at Camp Oglethorpe, he died of typhoid contracted in that duty with the 5th GA Reserves. He was one of many who suffered in that role.
Records show a Colonel Brown of the 59th Regiment Georgia Volunteers and Major Rylander's 10th Georgia Battalion guarding prisoners at Macon. In correspondence dated 25 August 1862 the 10th Georgia Battalion and the 59th Georgia regiment are listed as guarding stores and prisoners in Macon and also in a report "Position of Troops in the Department of South Carolina and Georgia", dated 25 September 1862, as commanded by General G.T. Beauregard.
In Folsom's book Heroes and Martyrs of Georgia he states:
"At this most laborious and disgusting service, the battalion suffered exceedingly with sickness and was not relieved until the last Federal prisoner was sent to Richmond to be exchanged."
In Special Orders 256, dated 1 November 1862, the 10th Battalion of Georgia Volunteers at Macon are ordered relieved from further duty and are to proceed to Winchester, VA to report for duty at the headquarters of General Robert E. Lee. In this order the 1st Regiment of Georgia Regulars will be relieved of duty with General Lee and will proceed to Macon, Georgia.
On the fate of Camp Oglethorpe, Richard W. Iobst, Ph.D., writes in Civil War Macon (pp. 143-44):
"The very site of Camp Oglethorpe has been lost. The Georgia State Fair was never again held there. That event moved to several locations before it was permanently established at Central City Park in 1870. The site of the stockade was taken over by the Macon and Brunswick Railroad and most of the prison and fairgrounds structures were removed until the area was only a barren area of track next to Seventh Street. Today, the Southern Railway Company's Brosnan Yards occupy the site where thousands of men suffered and hundreds of them died."
The following text is an excerpt from Campfires of Georgia Troops by Bill Smelmund:
Camp Oglethorpe -- Bibb County, Georgia
The camp faced 7th Street on the northwest, Pine Street on the northeast, Hawthorne Street on the southwest and a swamp on the southeast. The camp covered 12 acres and the site of the old fairgrounds in Macon. See Chapter II, and the story written about Camp Oglethorpe. A number of companies and units used this camp for short periods of time while stopping overnight in Macon. The camp was also used as a prison camp for Federal Officers for a period of time. [ See 1854 Map
Local Opinion May 3, 1862
City officials were not pleased with the task of holding prisoners. Mayor Thompson wanted to use the Market House but was overruled by City Council on 2-May-1862 when it instructed him to place the inbound prisoners in Camp Oglethorpe. On May 3, 1862, a Macon Daily Telegraph writer expressed the sentiment this way:
"At a time when it is difficult to feed our own population, we are to be blessed with the presence and custody of 900 prisoners of war. We have no place to hold them---no food to give them---nobody whose time can be well spared to guard them---nor, except in the mere matter of hostages for the safety of our own prisoners in Lincoln's dominions, can we conceive of any object in holding them as prisoners." (Source: Civil War Macon p.126)
Prisoner Levels, Exchanges, and Time Line
Work is under way to catalog the local efforts (as documented in the pages of The Macon Daily Telegraph) to provide humanitarian relief to POWs and especially the sick/wounded POWs at the hospital at Camp Oglethorpe.
A variety of articles in The Macon Daily Telegraph document exchanges that nearly emptied the camp as well as large inflows of POWs, presumably from large battles that resulted in large numbers of enemy captured.
From The Macon Daily Telegraph 26-May-1862 pg1 col2:
All of the prisoners at Camp Oglethorpe, except for the non-commissioned officers and the sick, left for Chattanooga on Saturday morning. One of them refused to take the oath, alleging that he was a native born Virginian, and that he was forced into the army in Missouri.
From The Macon Daily Telegraph 24-May-1864 pg2 col1:
Twenty-seven car loads of federal officers arrived here yesterday morning and are now at Camp Oglethorpe.
Thirty-two of the gentlemen escaped on the way as was supposed about Millen. The guard was composed of local troops from Augusta, and we suppose were not quite up in their practice. Experience is necessary to doing anything and everything in the best possible manner--- even guarding Federal captives. The prisoners are short of a thousand in number. Among them is Brig. General Weilzeil, who commanded the garrison at Plymouth.
A description of Camp Oglethorpe by a POW
The following is a description of Camp Oglethorpe from "Portals to Hell":
[Speer, Lonnie R., Portals To Hell: Military Prisons of the Civil War, Mechanicsburg. Stackpole Books, 1997.]
The facility at Macon, Georgia officially named Camp Oglethorpe in honor of the founder of the state, James Oglethorpe, was located about a quarter mile southeast of town in the old fairgrounds. The camp consisted of fifteen to twenty acres containing a large building used as a hospital and a number of sheds and stalls, all surrounded by a highboard fence.
The enclosure, situated between a triple set of railroad tracks and Ocmulgee River, stood twelve feet high and was constructed heavy upright boards. A sentry walkway around the top was occupied heavily armed guards at twenty-pace intervals.
"The gate," reported one prisoner, "(was) spanned from post to post by a broad, towering arch, showing on its curve, in huge black letters 'Camp Oglethorpe'. We were conducted first to the office of the prison, which stood but a few feet from the gate, and there halted and detained until preparation could be made within for another examination."
The prisoners were thoroughly searched, which even included unraveling their clothing linings to locate hidden money, and were led up to gate one at a time.
"The guard pounded the boards with the butt of his gun," remembered prisoner John Hadley, "the bolt glided back, the hinges creaked, the big gate swung open and then there appeared before us a sea of ghostly, grizzly, dirty, haggard faces, staring and swaying this way and that.''
All around the inside of the enclosure, an ordinary picket fence three and a half feet high, sixteen feet out from the wall, served as the prison deadline. At the northwest corner of the stockade was a large grove of pine trees. A small stream ran through the west end. The large one-story frame building, once the floral hall for the fair, stood at the center of the enclosure and was often occupied by two hundred POWs. The remainder slept in the sheds or stalls or created their own shelter in the yard. The Macon pen held anywhere from 600 prisoners in 1862 to 1,900 in 1864. Captain W. Kemp Tabb served as the prison commandant for some time until he was relieved by Captain George C. Gibbs in June 1864. Gibbs served in this capacity until transferred to Andersonville in October.
Rations at Macon, consisting of one pint of unsifted cornmeal per day, four ounces of bacon twice a week, and enough peas for two soup dinners per week, were issued in five- or seven-day allotments and left to the POWs to manage the rations through that period. "The only fights I saw in prison," noted one Macon prisoner, "grew out of the dividing of rations, and they were not infrequent."
Roll call at Macon was conducted in a sort of herding process. "The Officer of the Day would come in each morning with twenty guards and deploy them across the north end the pen, explained one of the prisoners, "then all began whooping and hollering and swearing to drive us to the south end. This being accomplished, an interval between the guards was designated as the place for the count, which was effected by our returning, one by one, through that interval, into the body of the enclosure."
The final disposition of Camp Oglethorpe is described thusly: Camp Oglethorpe, in Macon, went on to serve as a parole site at the end of the war but was torn down sometime later."
Accusations of abuse
James Pike, of the Fourth Ohio Volunteer Cavalry filed a report on 22 March 1863 describes what he saw as cruel treatment of Union prisoners while held at Macon awaiting exchange. He even singles out Major Rylander as having "forbidden preaching" among the Union prisoners. It might be noted that at the time this report was filed, the Union was experiencing many set backs, both militarily and politically. This report may have been used to further Northern sentiments against the Southern states when many in the North were calling for an end to the war.
After the war charges were brought (posthumously) by the Federal Bureau of Military Justice against Major Rylander regarding his command of the 10th Georgia Battalion guarding prisoners at Macon, Georgia in 1862. The following is from the Official Records [see Sixth paragraph]:
Reported POW Escape
Escape of prisoners
On Sunday night, says the Macon Confederate*[sic], the Yankee officers confined in Camp Oglethorpe succeeded in completing a subterranean tunnel they have supposed to have been working on for some time. But it had not been finished many moments before it was discovered. It was supposedly yesterday that one man succeeded in getting away, although it was not positively known. We heard it stated yesterday that the officers of the guard knew all about the progress of the tunnel but suffered it to go on in order to administer to those who might attempt to make an escape through it, a wholesome lesson.
*NOTE: The Macon Daily Telegraph was also known as The Macon Daily Telegraph & Confederate.
Iobst, Richard W. Ph.D. Civil War Macon - The History of a Confederate City Macon. Mercer University Press, 1999.
Thanks go to John Griffin who compiled the history of the 10th Batallion Georgia Infantry and who graciously allowed the use of his material in the quotes above. Griffin's web site includes the histories of many other CSA military units----see the 10th Battalion link above.
Thanks to Barry Colbaugh for the 1854 Map image and the Columbus Daily Times 30-June-1864 story.
Speer, Lonnie R. Portals To Hell: Military Prisons of the Civil War. Mechanicsburg. Stackpole Books, 1997.
McInvale, "That Thing of Infamy," 290.
Smelmund, Bill Campfires of Georgia Troops
The Macon Daily Telegraph
Columbus Daily Times
OR - Official Record of the Rebellion