This post is by Alex Japha, Digital Preservation Intern in the Patricia D. Klingenstein Library.
As part of our ongoing effort to re-launch the digital collection Civil War Treasures from the New-York Historical Society, formerly hosted by the Library of Congress’ American Memory website, we have made available 42 sketches from the Union prison camp at Point Lookout, Maryland. Brigadier General James Barnes, the commander of Point Lookout, originally owned the sketches, and after his death in 1869, John S. Barnes, the general’s son and founder of the Naval History Society, uncovered them. A grandson, James Barnes, later donated the sketches to the New-York Historical Society in 1925.
Brigadier General James Barnes is one of three Union commanders named in the collection, and is described as “Captain Barnes, Asst. Prov. Marsh.” in a sketch depicting a Confederate prisoner requesting a new pair of pants. Prisoners knew another officer named in the sketches, Major Allen G. Brady, 20th Regiment, Veteran Reserve Corps (1822–1905), as “a cruel, brutal, and arrogant man who assumed his post at the prison in June 1864 and proceeded immediately to increase enormously the sufferings of the prisoners and to appropriate for himself vast amounts of provisions meant for them” (Buescher).
The prison camp opened in 1863 and initially housed Confederate prisoners of war captured at the Battle of Gettysburg. Point Lookout eventually grew to be the Union’s largest prison camp, hitting a peak population of 20,000 inmates in June of 1865 (Point Lookout State Park History). At the time that the sketches were created in 1864, the population would have been around 15,500, well above its initially planned capacity of 9,800, housed in 980 tents (Speer, 1997). These tents were in poor condition and often lacked stoves to keep them adequately heated during the winter. When combined with the lack of blankets and clothing, prisoners experienced widespread suffering from the cold.
One theme that recurs throughout the sketches is the camp’s economic system which encompassed the procurement of goods and services, such as food and cooking. Peddlers, or merchants, are depicted in twelve of the forty-two sketches, attributed with selling items like spoons, molasses, tobacco, and bread. In many of the sketches, bread in the form of crackers is used like a currency with peddlers charging by the cracker.
The sketches also illustrate the difference between Union and Confederate currency. Money produced by the Confederacy is referred to as either “Confeds” or “Greybacks,” in contrast to the Union’s “Greenbacks.” According to the diary of Decimus et Ultimus Barziza, a Confederate prisoner at Point Lookout, “Money fluctuated in value daily. Confederate money was worth from four to seven cents on the dollar, and rose or fell with the prospects of exchange, removal, or with the state of the campaign and the New York Markets” (Baziza, 1964, 90-1). Based on the text from the sketches, Union money was worth about 40 times the value of Confederate money at the time they were drawn.
The same prisoner also mentions how “gambling was a favorite pastime; thousands of dollars were won and lost daily” (Baziza, 1964, 90). Four sketches depict this penchant for gambling and includes the use of playing cards, dice, and checkered boards for a variety of different games.
An especially noteworthy feature in the Point Lookout sketches is the use of African American soldiers as prison guards. All of the prison guards shown in the sketches are African American. While it is unlikely that all of the prison guards were African American, it obviously made a significant impression on the Confederate prisoners. Baziza also makes note of the African American prison guards in his diary, mentioning that “The negro sentinels could not quite overcome their raising, and would often say to a prisoner, when he was outside the line, ‘Massa git in dar, git in dar.’” (Baziza, 1964, 90).
The simplest reason why African American soldiers represented a large portion of guards at the Point Lookout prison was the Confederacy’s practice of treating any captured African American soldiers as escaped slaves rather than prisoners of war. The Confederacy’s denial of African Americans status as Union soldiers is apparent in an article in the Richmond Enquirer newspaper stating, “The Yankees are not going to send their Negro troops in the field; they know as well as we do that no reliance can be placed upon them; but as depot-guards, prison-guards etc., they will relieve their white troops…Should they be sent to the field, and be put in battle, none will be taken prisoners: our troops understand what to do in such cases” (Williams, 2012). While this source clearly espouses the Confederacy’s belief in the inferiority of African American soldiers, it would also explain the Union’s use of African American soldiers as prison guards. Despite this Confederate proclamation, many African Americans did engage in later Civil War battles. The Confederacy’s unwillingness to treat captured African American soldiers as prisoners of war, instead considering them no different from slaves, eventually contributed to a breakdown in the prisoner exchange system between the Union and Confederacy.
Today, these sketches represent not just the mildly amusing work of a prisoner of war passing the time but are also a great resource for understanding the unique culture and economy that surrounded one Civil War prison camp.
UPDATE: Although John Sanford Barnes appears never to have known his identity, the creator of the Point Lookout Sketches was later identified in the article “Omenhausser’s Confederate Prisoners of War Sketch” by Harold R. Manakee in Maryland Historical Magazine (June, 1958, p. 177-179 and cover).
To access the digitized Point Lookout sketches, please visit http://cdm16694.contentdm.oclc.org/cdm/ref/collection/p16694coll47/id/435
To access all other digitized collections within the Civil War Treasures Collection, please visit http://cdm16694.contentdm.oclc.org/cdm/landingpage/collection/p16694coll47
Barziza, D. e. U. (1964). In R S. (Ed.), The adventures of a prisoner of war, 1863-1864. Austin: University of Texas Press.
Buescher, J.Who earned a medal for cutting costs by starving confederate prisoners? Retrieved fromhttp://teachinghistory.org/history-content/ask-a-historian/20632
Point lookout state park history. Retrieved fromhttp://dnr2.maryland.gov/publiclands/Pages/southern/ptlookouthistory.aspx
Speer, L. R. (1997). Portals to hell : Military prisons of the civil war. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books.
Williams, G. W., 1849-1891. (2012). A history of the negro troops in the war of the rebellion, 1861-1865 electronic resource] : Preceded by a review of the military services of negroes in ancient and modern times. New York: Fordham University Press.