A Short History of Camp Ford
Camp Ford was established in April 1862 as a Confederate training camp . The removal of Earl Van Dorn's army from Arkansas to Tennessee in March of 1862 left the entire northern frontier of the Trans-Mississippi undefended. Massive efforts were taken to recruit new units in Texas, and this camp was established to fill the need of a training facility. Officially designated as "The Eastern Camp of Instruction" it was informally named Camp Ford after Col. John S."RIP" Ford, Confederate Officer, Texas Ranger and noted Indian fighter. Many of the regiments dispatched to Arkansas in the summer and fall of 1862 trained at the camp, but by the summer of 1863, it had become relatively inactive.
Prisoners Collins and Reid both attempted escape in March of 1864. Collins was treed by bloodhounds, which the prisoners regarded as being beyond the usages of war.
Reid was made to stand on a barrel as punishment. (from Duganne Twenty Months in the Department of the Gulf.
The first Union prisoners sent to Tyler in August 1863 included officers captured in and around Brashear City Louisiana in June, and some naval personnel from the "Queen Of The West" and the "Diana". Among the naval prisoners from the Queen was Finley Anderson, a reporter from the New York Herald. Initially held in the second floor of the Federal Courthouse, the men were moved to Camp Ford in Late August.
At this time, the camp had no stockade, and the handful of prisoners were guarded by local militia. A "deadline" surrounded several acres on a hillside overlooking a strong spring and its creek. Prisoners had some latitude to come and go under guard, as civilians in Tyler complained of them coming to their houses looking for food. The only structure provided by the military was a planked roof shed, and the prisoners had to build shelters from logs and brush.
In late October, over 500 new prisoners arrived from Louisiana. Primarily the 19th Iowa and 26th Indiana, these troops had been captured near Morganza, Louisiana on September 26th. Their arrival generated a crisis, as there were only 38 guards. Thomas Moorehead of the 26th Indiana was fatally shot by guard Frank Smith for straying across the deadline. The prisoners demanded Smith for justice, and threatened to break out, burn Tyler, and escape if he were not delivered.
At the same time, three local unionists, George and William Whitmore, and George Rosenbaum, were conspiring with the POW's to facilitate their escape.. The plot was discovered, the unionists arrested, and the planters of the county provided slaves to erect a stockade, 16 feet in height. Constructed in 10 days, and covering a little over three acres, at its completion, Union Lieutenant John Green noted in his diary that "The people of Tyler were relieved of their fears."
In late November all of the enlisted men were moved to Shreveport in anticipation of a parole. In mid December, Camp Groce, another POW camp northwest of Houston was closed, and all of the officers moved to Tyler, and the enlisted men sent on to Shreveport. This left Ford as primarily a camp for officers.
Capt. William May, 23rd Connecticut, when he was exchanged in July, 1864. May printed The Old Flag and smuggled the copies out under his epaulets. He was a talented musician.
The Old Flag, February 17. 1864, published by Capt. William May at Camp Ford.
The winter and spring of 1863 -64 was fairly pleasant for the 130 or so prisoners at Camp Ford. Relatively snug cabins were built, and the facility fostered a sense of community pride. An officer designated "commissioner of aqueducts" was appointed to construct and maintain catch basins in the spring, prison crafts flourished, and Captain William May of the 23rd Connecticut published three issues of "The Old Flag" a prison newspaper. The camp was under the command of Col R.T.P. Allen, a West Pointer who was firm but fair.
With the threat of Nathaniel P. Banks Red River Campaign, all of the prisoners from Shreveport were moved back to Camp Ford in March, 1864. On April 8, Confederate general Richard Taylor routed Banks at Mansfield, capturing over 1,200 prisoners. Hundreds more were captured the next day at Pleasant Hill, and all were moved to Tyler. On the 13th Allen was ordered to enlarge the stockade, and it was quadrupled in size to nearly 11 acres by the 16th.
Engagements in Arkansas at Poison Spring, Mark's Mills' and other battles in April and May netted several thousand additional prisoners. By early June, the camp was crowded, holding over 5,300 men. The leap in numbers created problems for housing and food supply. The prisoners were to build their own quarters, and with limited numbers of tools, and limited guards, men could wait weeks for an ax to perform a simple task. Many men simply dug out holes in the ground and covered them with brush, or excavated caves in the creek bank.
A number of prisoners were new draftees or substitutes, and some problems with "raiders" resulted, although not nearly to the level as at Andersonville. On June 22, 800 prisoners were paroled. In early July, Camp Groce was reopened and 500 prisoners were moved there as punishment and to reduce crowding. This reduction in numbers significantly alleviated the conditions in the camp.
A second exchange of 700 prisoners occurred in October. Negotiations between CS and US officials resulted in the arrival of clothing, axes and camp equipage. Under the leadership of Captain John of the 120th Ohio, substantial log winter cabins were constructed and the prisoners passed a relatively comfortable but monotonous winter.
There were a number of naval prisoners at the camp, some of whom had been in captivity since January 1, 1863. Political wrangling over exchanging Confederate Admiral Buchanan had stalemated the release of these prisoners. February 1865 saw a third exchange that included most to the naval prisoners, leaving about 1,800 men in the facility. These men were finally paroled on May 19, 1865, six weeks after Lee had surrendered at Appomattox.
The initial guards were supplanted by various Texas Regiments including the 15th Texas Cavalry. Late in the war the guard force reverted to Texas Reserve Corps and Home guard troops.
The Camp was one the least deadly of Civil War prisons. Its overall death rate was less than 7 percent, with most of the deaths occurring in the crowded summer of 1864. This is because it had a good water source, and a functioning system of internal discipline and control was in place when large numbers of prisoners started arriving. By 1864, the term of many of the three year federal regiments was expiring, and the US forces in the Trans-Mississippi were receiving large numbers of new recruits. A significant number of the prison deaths came from men who had less than three months service at the time of their capture. Several contingents of Federal regiments that were all veterans suffered no deaths at the Camp.