Camp Morton

by Terry Hogan

Some time back, I wrote an article about the terrible conditions at Andersonville where the South kept Northern POWs during the Civil War. Thousands of soldiers suffered and died at the camp. Some were from Knox County. However, death and abuse were not limited to POWs in Confederate Prisons. Crowded, unsanitary, inadequately provisioned POW camps were also found in the North, where winters were colder and more deadly. There was even an official policy by the North to take retribution against Southern prisoners in response to the treatment being received by Northern prisoners in the South. HH However, perhaps a major difference between the North and the South, particularly during the latter years of the Civil War, is that the North had a much greater ability to provide clothing, blankets, food, and medicine to its POWs. It is fair to say that many Confederate prisoners were poorly treated, under fed, under supplied, and even mistreated after death. Camp Morton is one such tale.

The history of the North’s POW camps is not one that is heard about as much as those of the South. There were numerous camps in the north as the tide of battle turned against the South. The numbers of prisoners in these camps grew. The practice of trading of prisoners between the North and the South fell on hard times for a number of reasons. But the practical implication of the end of this practice was to further congest prisoner camps on sides, straining facilities, and promoting disease and death. POW camps in Illinois included Camp Douglas in Chicago and Camp Butler near Springfield. Indiana had Camp Morton, located in Indianapolis. Its history is one of deteriorating conditions as the Civil War continued.

Camp Morton was established in Indianapolis in a wooded area that had been used for family picnics, fair grounds, and similar activities. However, with the War, it became a POW camp with all that one envisions that means. In its early years, it was blessed with a good and caring camp commander and trained troops who acted as guards, while showing compassion and restraint. Clothing, blankets, shelter, kitchens, hospital and medical care were provided for the southern prisoners. Death rates were low. Part of this was due to the good care provided and the relatively low density of prisoners, allowing hygiene to be at a reasonable level. Disease was contained.

Unfortunately, the camp commander and his brigade were shipped out to fight. A series of less caring and less permanent commanders and troops rotated through exercising short-term responsibility for the camp and the prisoners. This was confounded by a knowing and willful reduction of food and supplies to POW camps in response to the poor treatment of northern troops in southern camps. Written orders were issued by Washington to reduce rations and blankets, clothing and similar items. Even soap was restricted. Such reductions, combined with increasing numbers of prisoners as the North began to win major battles exacerbated the problems.

At Camp Morton, winter storms and the bitter cold that was unfamiliar to some of the southern troops, increased mortality. For example, in February, 1865, Camp Morton had 4,200 POWs. Of those, 133 died in the month of February and another 272 were sick. The mortality rate would likely have been higher, but the exchange of wounded and sick soldiers had begun. A 1,000 such prisoners were released from Camp Morton during February. The North figured that sick and wounded would be unlikely recruits to bolster the depleted Southern ranks.

According to Camp Morton's records, deaths were caused by a whole range of camp diseases, including malaria, "eruptive fevers", diarrhea and dysentery, anemia, consumption (tuberculosis), rheumatism, scurvy, bronchitis, pneumonia and pleurisy. To put the deaths in perspective, from June of 1863 to June of 1865, 1,187 prisoners died at Camp Morton. Of those 1,187, 12 died of wounds, injuries and unspecified disease. The rest died of specified diseases. During this period, the mean number of prisoners at Camp Morton was 2,865.

A dead prisoner was less of a problem than a live one, but he was still a problem. A cemetery was established for the dead prisoners. A contract was issued for the construction of wood boxes and the dead were buried in mass graves, by trench, laid side by side. Prisoners dug the trenches and placed the coffins side by side. The cemetery was named Greenlawn. It was located in Indianapolis, near the intersection of Kentucky Avenue and West Street in the southwest quadrant of the city. To the west, the site was bounded by the White River.

After the Civil War, the burial site was neglected. The area became under pressure for industrial and railroad expansion. A few graves were reported to be dug up and relocated to allow for the expansion of the Vandalia Railroad. But the remains reburied nearby were not marked. In 1912, an area believed to be the site of the graves was fenced and a monument was erected in honor of the prisoners buried there. In 1928, the monument was relocated to a city park, far removed from the site of the buried soldiers. The fence was removed. In 1931, some of the remains were discovered and moved to a permanent cemetery elsewhere in Indianapolis. The former Greenlawn site is about a block west of the RCA Dome where the Indianapolis Colts football team play. Greenlawn is part of the Diamond Chain Company facility- a large industrial complex.

Thus, Greenlawn Cemetery is gone to industrial development. Some of the remains were located and moved. Some were not. And the memorial to the 1616 Confederate soldiers who died and were buried is located miles away in Garfield City Park, bearing the inscription: "Erected by the United States to mark the burial place of 1616 Confederate soldiers and sailors who died here while prisoners of war and whose graves cannot now be identified".

For those who might have Confederate soldier ancestors who died at Camp Morton, Garfield Park would be a much nicer place to believe that this is their ancestor's burial place. But it isn't so. Even after death, the Confederate soldiers of Camp Morton were ill-treated.

It is said that the victorious write the history. This is generally true. It is good for us to remember before we become too critical of Andersonville and similar facilities in the South. The Civil War was brothers and uncles and fathers and sons at war with one another. Family fights are the most bitter. Bitterness was common on both sides of the line. When war is unleashed, civilized behavior is an early victim.



Winslow, H. and J. Moore. 1995. Camp Morton 1861-1865, Indianapolis Prison Camp. Published by the Indiana Historical Society. Indianapolis. 154 pages.