A Hard Looking Set of Men and Boys: the North meets the Fort Donelson prisoners

    When General Simon B. Buckner unconditionally surrendered the Fort Donelson garrison to General U.S. Grant on February 16, 1862, the estimated 12,000-man Confederate garrison constituted the largest mass surrender in U.S. military history to that time. [This would be eclipsed by the Federal surrender of the Harper’s Ferry garrison in September 1862 and by the Confederate surrender at Vicksburg in July 1863.] The last time the U.S. Army had to handle that many prisoners went back to the days of Lord Cornwallis surrendering his army to George Washington at Yorktown in 1781. 


A group of Confederate prisoners of war pose in front of their barracks at Camp Douglas in Chicago. As all four of these men are wearing overcoats, they are probably from a later group of prisoners that were housed at the camp. The initial Confederate occupants in February 1862 were noted for the absence of overcoats, the men using blankets, carpets, and other cast-off bits of cloth to help shield them from the Northern cold. 

    The opportunity to get up close and personal with their erstwhile enemies was something that both Union soldiers and later civilians eagerly took advantage of in the days after Fort Donelson. As the Federals moved in to take over the fort after the surrender, impromptu meetings between the troops occurred. “The Rebels being all loose and permitted to walk around the fort were quite lively,” reported Lawrence Gates of the 44th Indiana. “I soon made acquaintance with some and opened a conversation. They all admitted that had not their Generals Floyd, Pillow, and Buckner always disagreed, they would have stood a much harder battle and perhaps drove us off. Two of their officers told me that they were always secessionists and always would be and that they would fight again tomorrow if turned loose today. Others told me they were Union men, but the Southern politicians made so many speeches among them that they concluded such men as had been in Congress knew certainly more than the lower class and so they volunteered. Others claimed they were drafted and forced to go against their will.”[1] A soldier of the 29th Illinois fell into conversation with some Kentucky and Tennessee troops and wrote that “very few evinced any bitterness of feeling while many openly proclaimed that they were free and that they would never be engaged with us again. As we came by those from the Gulf states, we saw but little penitence evinced while their haughty and insulting look told but too plainly that the real nut of rebellion was far South and that the border states were just the outer covering, concealing the deep-seated treason we have yet to uproot.”[2]

          The varied appearance of the Confederates prisoners was a source of wonder and elicited much comment. “Their clothing was all homemade of butternut color and of every shape imaginable,” Lawrence Gates observed. “In place of overcoats, they had blankets made out of carpets contributed as they told me by Southern families. Some of them were very nice, splendid, and good, and I tell you it was something of a sight to see many stand in line with their blankets wrapped around them. There was no regularity in their arms either. Many had old U.S. muskets with flintlocks, others had Enfield rifles (but few and scattering), others had double-barreled shotguns, while some had such rifles as hunters use to kill squirrels with. Pistols, knives, and swords were numerous of all kinds, sizes, and classes.”[3]

Unidentified Confederate POW
with Camp Douglas backmark

A Chicago Tribune reporter described them as having “no uniforms at all, lacking all the characteristics of infantry, cavalry, or artillery costume, in being entirely un-uniform in color, cut, fashion, and manufacture. Some have coats of a butternut color cut in regular sack style, and others fashioned like those of our soldier as jackets or frocks. They have no overcoats at all and supply their place with horse blankets, hearth rugs, coverlids, pieces of carpet, coffee sacks, etc. Their knapsacks consist of bags of all colors and sizes, comparing well with their coats and hats. The same remarks apply equally well to their canteens and other accoutrements, no half dozen of which seem to have been made at a factory.”[4] A veteran in the 29th Illinois noted that the prisoners were “a motley-looking set of men in their various uniforms but you could see in their eyes that fight was in them and that under the guidance of a skillful commander they would still be, as they had been the day previous, a formidable foe.”[5]

          Within a few days of the surrender, it was determined that the prisoners would be sent to various prisoner of war camps up North including Camp Douglas at Chicago, Illinois, several camps in Indiana including Camp Morton at Indianapolis, and Camp Chase at Columbus, Ohio. Each state got a portion of the prisoners; Illinois received about 7,000 prisoners, Indiana received around 3,000-3,500 men, while Ohio received roughly 1,000 men. The transportation plan for prisoners bound for Camp Douglas was for steamboats to convey the prisoners to Cairo, Illinois at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi River, and then move the prisoners via the Illinois Central Railroad to Chicago. But the Illinois Central couldn’t handle all the traffic, so some steamboats were directed up the Mississippi to offload at Alton, Illinois. Trains of the St. Louis, Alton, and Chicago railroad then hauled the prisoners east to Chicago. Prisoners bound for Indiana routed via rail north (over the Illinois Central) to Mattoon, Illinois, then east through Terre Haute and on to Indianapolis. A number of the Indiana-bound prisoners ended up at Fort Wayne, Terre Haute, and Lafayette in addition to the main camp at Camp Morton. The Camp Chase-bound prisoners sailed up the Ohio River to be offloaded at Cincinnati, then transported by rail to Columbus.

As the prisoners were loaded aboard the steamers at Dover, Tennessee, some of them petulantly tossed their firearms and knives into the Cumberland River rather than surrender them to the Federal authorities who disarmed the men as they walked up the gangplanks. Private George Elliott of the 20th Ohio noted that “their arms were of different kinds, varying from revolving rifles, seven-shooters, to flintlocks. The best arms they threw into the river as this morning after the river fell, our boys found some splendid rifles.”[6] One Indiana lieutenant disarmed a Confederate soldier and sent the grisly weapon home. “It is a knife 16 inches long in the blade and about one and a half inches wide with a straight handle and guard. It appears to have been made out of a buggy spring and is a rough and unchristian-looking affair.”[7] The Chicago Tribune reported that “some among the furious made a show of resistance, having the impression that our forces wanted to impose on them, but when informed that they were to be well-treated, they changed their course and became quite fraternal.”[8]

Lieutenant Henry O. Dwight
Co. H, 20th Ohio Infantry
Helped convey prisoners back to
Indiana after Donelson

But the passive resistance on the part some of the Confederates continued along the journey north. Captain Charles H. McElroy of the 20th Ohio and the 70 men of his company (D) were assigned to the steamer McGill in charge of 1,100 prisoners and described the perilous journey down the Cumberland River. “The responsibility was tremendous, the tax on the men was very heavy, and the risk great,” he reported. “One of the regiment we guarded was the 8th Kentucky which was recruited in the neighborhood of Eddyville [a small town on the Cumberland River]. Their colonel lived there and in going down the river we passed in sight of the homes of most of them. We stopped in that neighborhood about three hours to take on wood and placed the guards (about 70) in such a manner as to prevent any escape there. Right opposite Eddyville, something got wrong with the boat and she ran ashore. As soon as I heard the engineers’ bell ring, the guards were hastened to the land side of the boat and I with one ran to the pilot house to either attend to the pilot or see that the pilot house was not taken possession of by the scamps. We had pretty good reason for not feeling confidence in the officers of the boat as it was a St. Louis and New Orleans boat. We found that a stick had been put in some way in the tiller rope so that the rudder could not be worked readily. We backed out in the stream and started again but went with a crash into some trees on the shore, breaking large branches. I thought then that the thing was about up. The guards remained at their posts ready, the ropes put back in their places, and again we backed out and got underway, reaching Paducah safely. The Rebels later acknowledged that they intended to escape but for the vigilance of the guard. They had discussed the plan of overpowering the guard but were afraid to try it as I had detailed a part of the guard to keep moving over the boat and prevent consultations.”[9]

At Cairo, a civilian observer witnessed the arrival of the steamer Empress with 2,500 of the Confederates. “Moses what a sight! They looked as if the devil himself had manufactured and clothed them out of the hides of Jacob’s cattle,” he wrote. “They are the most ring-streaked and grizzly-looking set I ever saw in all my born days. There were no two of them of a size nor the same dress nor of the same color; hats of every fashion worn for the last 20 years and pants of every hue of butternut brown, coats of every fashion or no fashion at all. Many had blankets over their shoulders and they, too, were of as many colors as the chameleon ever produced.”[10]

A particularly ragged "Johnny Reb" poses with one good calf-high boot (the other with the toe blown out is beneath the chair), ragged and torn trousers, and the sleeves blown out on his jacket. His hat is as shapeless as a feedbag but the saucy glint in his eye and smirk on his face shows he is far from defeated. It is interesting thing to ponder that for many western Federals, the more they interacted with their Confederate opponents, the more they tended to identify with them. This is especially true amongst the enlisted men of both armies. They might not have agreed with each other's politics, but four years of bloodshed had tested their mettle as men and respect grew as a result. The wild propaganda stories they heard about each other before the war were found to be, by and large, a bunch of bunk. In the western theater, the enlisted men of both armies found more in common with each other than either had anticipated. In my opinion, it was this respect that laid the groundwork for the national healing after the guns went silent. 

For the most part, as the Confederates took the rails North into captivity incidents along the railroads were few and far between, but some drunken Federal cavalrymen caused a scene at a country railroad station between Alton and Chicago. “A detachment of eastern cavalry, a number of whom being intoxicated, assailed the train with bricks and stones, breaking the car windows, and injuring their inmates,” it was reported. “They also chased the cars for some distance after they started, seemingly determined to wreak their vengeance upon the helpless prisoners.”[11]

Among the first arrivals at Camp Douglas in Chicago on February 21, 1862 were the 333-man 7th Texas, portions of the 49th Tennessee, nearly 1,000 men of the 50th Tennessee, 500 officers and men from the 14th Mississippi, and the 450-man 20th Mississippi, still growling at being left behind by General Floyd’s perfidy at Fort Donelson. “It is related that Major [William N.] Brown [20th Mississippi] and his regiment were detailed to guard the rear of Floyd’s brigade in their hegira from Fort Donelson, it being agreed that the Mississippians were to join them. As soon, however, as the redoubtable Virginians [36th and 51st regiments] were safely on board the boat which was to bear them up the river, the “Great Thief” turned to Major Brown and coolly told him there was no room for him and his regiment, and left him to fight it out as best he could. This and other incidents in Floyd’s career doubtless caused the many hearty imprecations which we heard showered upon his head by the prisoners.”[12]

Camp Douglas was located on the south side of Chicago with Lake Michigan just to the east of the camp. A miserable cold, windy mudhole, the camp housed Confederate POWs until late September 1862 when the paroled Federals of the Harper's Ferry garrison were sent to the camp. Their two-month long stay was rowdy to say the least, punctuated by mass desertions, constant conflict with the camp guards, drunkenness and ruffianism in Chicago, and in the case of the 32nd Ohio, outright mutiny. 

The arrival of the Confederates was a sensation to the Chicagoans. “Camp Douglas was at an early hour besieged by thousands of civilians anxious to obtain a sight of the secessionists,” the Chicago Tribune reported. Colonel Voss quickly issued an order prohibiting civilians from visiting the camp, but dozens of folks got in before order was restored, among them a reporter from the Tribune. “Parties fortunate enough to obtain entrance to Camp Douglas yesterday forenoon might have seen standing in the center of the parade ground a collection of men wearing all the colors of the rainbow upon their backs in the shape of raiment. There were 700-800 prisoners in the groups and their clothes had been intended for a warmer country and their frames were all unused to the cold weather of a northern climate, hence the prisoners looked pale and actually had attacks of ague chills as they stood awaiting the preparation of their barracks,” he stated.

“A more woebegone appearing set of men it would be difficult for the reader to imagine. They appear less hardly and healthy in build and complexion compared with common laborers. It may be from exposure and low diet, but they were yesterday all sallow-faced, sunken-eyed, and apparently famishing. Some of them had food with them and were eating of it as they stood. Others were rigging windlasses for a well and filling their canteens. The majority, however, stood gazing about the place, perfectly willing to be conversed with and as willing to answer all questions put to them by their numerous visitors.” The reporter “circulated among the men in their barracks for an hour or two and was invariably treated in the most courteous manner. Notwithstanding the present haggard and war-worn appearance of the prisoners, were they washed and shaven and otherwise recruited after their late fatigues, they would be a noble-looking set of men.”[13]

          The prisoners went right to work cleaning themselves up and getting settled into camp. “Soap and water were eagerly sought after by the prisoners and in front of every line of quarters could be seen squads, stripped to the waist, washing, scouring, and polishing each other. They declared it was the first wash they had in weeks,” the Tribune reported. The accumulated grime of the past weeks of campaigning, battle, and travel took a lot of work to remove, one Texan commenting that “I’ve been slathering suds around my neck for an hour and ain’t got off but one layer of dirt and there’s four more thicknesses.” Among the prisoners were slaves, usually accompanying their masters who were officers. One, taking stock of the situation by spying Lake Michigan nearby, commented to “Golly, Massa Richards, who’d a thunk we’s coming to this here Northern watering place to spend the summer?”[14]

          Later arrivals to Camp Douglas came loaded down with baggage. “One of the prisoners bore a trunk on his shoulders of sufficient capacity to hold the wardrobe of a female habitue of a fashionable watering place. Another bore on his knapsack an aristocratic looking chanticleer, evidently in the chivalry persuasion albeit his proud feathers seemed in a molting mood. Still others carried saucepans, tin pans, water pails, wash tubs, and other like articles of domestic warfare,” the Tribune reported.[15]

          At Terre Haute, Indiana, the 22-car train carrying 1,200 Fort Donelson prisoners stopped for wood and water which gave the editor of the local Daily Wabash Express an opportunity to mix with the prisoners. “The prisoners [from the 4th Mississippi] were a hard-looking set of men and boys, the large majority being quite young. A very few only were uniformed, most of them being dressed in homemade jeans of all colors with hats and caps of all styles, from seedy beavers to the most dilapidated slouches ever dignified with the name,” he wrote. “Some few were rampant with secession, but many were apparently heartily sick of secession and apparently better satisfied with the idea of being prisoners of war than they were in the army. They said they had been better treated since being prisoners than they were in the army. They had been in service six months and had never received a cent of pay. They said further that they had been deceived, having been taught that they were to fight against the Dutch and free Negroes and that the North was coming down to steal their slaves. We asked several if they had any slaves, and they answered no, but some of their friends had them.” Like in Chicago, the residents of Terre Haute were fascinated by their Rebel visitors. “A large crowd assembled to see them. There was not the slightest sign of exultation, jest, taunt, or anything calculated to mortify or wound the feelings of the prisoners,” it was reported. “The prisoners in free conversation with our citizens express both surprise and gratitude at their treatment as they expected to be shot or hung when captured.”[16]

          The worn appearance of the Confederates aroused sympathy from their Northern hosts.  A civilian observed noted that “in dress, they resembled just so many farmers, mechanics, and laborers in their everyday wear such as wamuses, frocks, flannels, jeans, etc.; in short, their dress was of every color and material as is worn by us. They were seen under unfavorable circumstances, indefinitely removed from the families, relatives and friends; this would be enough to make the stoutest heart sad and dejected.”[17] The Indiana State Sentinel also cut the Rebels some slack for their shopworn appearance. “They had gone through a battle and  traveled hundreds of miles without opportunity of paying attention to their persons. Under these circumstances, any body of men in the world would have shown themselves as worse for the wear.”[18]

          Regardless, the Confederate prisoners soon settled into their new, if onerous and tedious, routine as prisoners of war. Camp Morton boasted of having nearly 2,400 prisoners by the end of February including 114 men from the 3rd Mississippi, 318 from the 1st Mississippi, 523 from the 4th Mississippi, 280 from the 8th Kentucky [guarded by Captain McElroy aboard the McGill], 287 men from the 26th Tennessee, 257 from the 41st Tennessee, 350 men from the 53rd Tennessee, 99 from the 1st Tennessee Battalion, and 160 cavalrymen from various states. The men would languish in their Northern camps for months until they were exchanged later that summer and fall.

However, as previously discussed on this blog, initial Northern hospitality gave way to public resentment as time went on, particularly at Camp Chase in Ohio. The Federal victories at Forts Henry and Donelson had swollen the camp population to roughly 1,300 prisoners. "At almost an hour of the day, the Rebel prisoners in secession uniforms may be seen at the hotels, on the streets, or in the halls of the Legislature communing with a button-hole friends, usually a citizen of Columbus," one observer commented. "Quite a number of the prisoners have their wives with them and some few their whole families." Another observer noted that "they came wearing their side arms, stopped at the principal hotels of the city, registering their names as Colonel, Major, or Captain, with the significant letters C.S.A. added, and appeared day to day in Rebel uniforms (some of these gaudy, all of them noticeable) in the offices and parlors and at the public tables of these hotels, in the streets and drives of the city, frequenting the theater and other places of public amusement and visiting the Senate and House chambers, where, with marked consideration, they had been invited to privileged seats within the bar. At all these places and on all these occasions they gave expression to sentiments of continued adherence to the Rebel cause and of bitter hostility to the Government and people of the United States."[19]

A third observer pointed out that the welcome given these Rebels at arms went beyond basic hospitality: it was actual support for the Rebellion. "The merchants of our city have manufactured uniforms with all the gaudy trappings called for by the Rebel army regulations," he stated. "A high county officer took Rebels to his home and feted them, a certain lady has been in the city in conference with these [Rebels] and has made frequent trips as far south as Nashville and returned, giving money to her "boys" and her "pets." Roughly 50 slaves were among those at Camp Chase, nearly all of them listed as cooks or servants; their presence invoked the very problem at the core of the Dred Scott decision: that even though slavery was prohibited in Ohio, slaves did not become free upon crossing the border into the state.

Camp Chase in Columbus, Ohio

The behavior of the Rebel prisoners raised such a stink that the Ohio Legislature protested directly to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton (an Ohioan) and to President Lincoln. "The feelings of the loyal people of Ohio have been outraged by the appearance in the streets of their capital of Rebel officers in Rebel uniforms released on parole and by the fact that Rebel prisoners in Camp Chase prison had been permitted to retain and use their former slaves as servants, practically nullifying our state constitution and legalizing slavery in Ohio. We do most solemnly protest against this mistaken clemency to the guilty and this outrage upon the feelings of the loyal people of Ohio," the resolution stated.[20]

On April 20th, Secretary Stanton "cut the Gordian knot" and ordered the first contingent of the Confederate officers from Camp Chase sent to Johnson's Island near Sandusky, Ohio. "Moreover, the servants which they have been allowed to have with them are not allowed to accompany them," a report noted. Treatment at Johnson's Island would be harsher than at Camp Chase; the easy nights of going to the theater or being feted by local politicians was at an end. The Fort Donelson prisoners would linger for months in their Northern prisons until Confederate victories back east gathered enough Federal prisoners that would allow for an even exchange.


Confederate regiments surrendered at Fort Donelson:

Alabama Infantry: 3rd Battalion, 27th

Arkansas Infantry: 15th

Kentucky Artillery: Graves’, Green’s

Kentucky Infantry: 2nd, 8th

Mississippi Infantry: 1st, 4th, 14th, 20th, 23rd, 26th

Tennessee Artillery: Culbertson’s, Maney’s, Parker's, Porter’s, Ross’, Stankiewicz’s

Tennessee Infantry: 1st Battalion, 3rd, 10th, 18th, 26th, 30th, 32nd, 41st, 42nd, 48th, 49th, 50th, 53rd

Texas Infantry: 7th

Virginia Artillery: Adams', French’s, Guy’s, Jackson’s

Virginia Infantry: 50th (partial),  56th (partial)

[1] Letter from Lawrence Gates, 44th Indiana Volunteer Infantry, Steuben Republican (Indiana), March 1, 1862, pg. 2

[2] Letter from “Twenty-Ninth,” 29th Illinois Volunteer Infantry, Alton Telegraph (Illinois), March 14, 1862, pg. 1

[3] Gates, op. cit.

[4] “The Confederate Prisoners,” Chicago Tribune (Illinois), February 22, 1862, pg. 4

[5] Twenty-Ninth, op. cit.

[6] Letter from Private George N. Elliott, Co. D, 20th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, Holmes County Republican (Ohio), March 20, 1862, pg. 1

[7] “Another Trophy,” Daily Wabash Express (Indiana), February 28, 1862, pg. 3

[8] Confederate Prisoners, op. cit.

[9] Letter from Captain Charles H. McElroy, Co. D, 20th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, Delaware Gazette (Ohio), March 7, 1862, pg. 3

[10] Letter from “Jim,” The Daily Pantagraph (Illinois), February 21, 1862, pg. 2

[11] Confederate Prisoners, op. cit.

[12] Confederate Prisoners, op. cit.

[13] Confederate Prisoners, op. cit.

[14] “The Rebel Prisoners,” Chicago Tribune (Illinois), February 24, 1862, pg. 4

[15] “Arrival of More Prisoners,” Chicago Tribune (Illinois), February 24, 1862, pg. 4

[16] Ibid.

[17] “A Trip to Fort Donelson,” Steuben Republican (Indiana), March 8, 1862, pg. 2

[18] “Arrival of Ft. Donelson Prisoners,” Indiana State Sentinel (Indiana), February 24, 1862, pg. 3

[19] “Columbus Correspondence,” Pomeroy Weekly Telegraph (Ohio), April 4, 1862, pg. 1

[20] “Report of the Camp Chase Committee,” Daily Ohio Statesman (Ohio), March 26, 1862, pg. 2


  1. Well done. A very insightful piece on the early war in the Mid South.

  2. I'm very interested in learning more about Captain McElroy's journey to Camp Morton. Upon his surrender at Fort Donelson, one of my ancestors was in the 1st KY CAV but had recently served in the 8th KY INF and Camp Morton records list him as being in the 8th, so I assume he'd have been on McElroy's transport. Do you know where I can find a copy of McElroy's letter written on March 7th, 1862?

    1. Spencer, Captain McElroy's letter can be found on page 3 of the March 7, 1862 edition of the Delaware Gazette which is available through Chronicling America at: https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83035595/1862-03-07/ed-1/seq-3/


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