Camp Ford Living History

HISTORY OF THE CAMP

In 1862 the Confederacy located a conscript-training camp which became known as Camp Ford, in honor of Col. John S. (Rip) Ford, four miles northeast of Tyler.  On July 21, 1863, Camp Ford became a prisoner of war camp with the transfer of prisoners from Shreveport, Louisiana, to Tyler for confinement. These and other POWs sent to Tyler encamped in the open under guard until November 1863, when reports of a plan to escape caused alarm among the local citizenry and the Confederates in charge. Accordingly, a stockade was built enclosing an area of two to four acres. A large spring ran along the south wall of the stockade and served as a water supply for the prison camp. The prisoners were required to improvise their own shelter, which they fashioned out of logs and other primitive building materials. Until the spring of 1864, morale among the prisoners at Camp Ford was passable, and the ranking federal officers maintained a decent sense of order.

Living conditions at Camp Ford became deplorable in April 1864, when the population tripled by the addition of about 3,000 prisoners captured in Arkansas and at Mansfield and Pleasant Hill, Louisiana. The stockade area was doubled in size in an effort to accommodate this influx. The 4,725 inmates were overcrowded and critically short of food, shelter, and clothing. Their plight was desperate for several months, until major exchanges of prisoners in July and October 1864 alleviated somewhat the shocking conditions that had prevailed. For the rest of the war the Confederates encountered great difficulties in supplying adequate rations to both prisoners and guards at Camp Ford. Sometimes the standard daily pint of meal and pound of beef per prisoner was down to a quarter pound of each, depending upon the supply available to the Confederate commissary department. Beginning with the overcrowding in April 1864, the quality of the shelters deteriorated. Nearby timber was less plentiful, and shelters had to be constructed quickly. The prisoners improvised all sorts of crude shelters ranging from brush arbors to blanket tents. Some simply dug holes in the ground for protection from the cold winds. A popular form of shelter was called a "shebang," a burrow into a hillside covered by a crude A-shaped framework made of poles, sticks, and clay to protect the entrance. The majority of the prisoners required the clothes that they were wearing when captured to see them through their captivity. The acute shortage of clothing was due to a lack of manufacturing in the South and to the federal blockade. In response to a letter from the ranking Union officers at Camp Ford, at least two shipments of clothes from the United States government were received by and distributed among the prisoners.

Escapes from Camp Ford were common, but no reliable estimate of the number is available. Postwar accounts of those attempts, some successful, were abundant among the members of the former Camp Ford inmates. After the war the former prisoners leveled charges against the Confederates for mistreatment and failure to provide humane living conditions at Camp Ford. However, the published accounts present many conflicting stories and viewpoints among the former prisoners. Nothing came of the charges. About 6,000 prisoners were confined at Camp Ford over the two years of its existence, making it the largest Confederate prison camp west of the Mississippi River. Of this number, 327 died giving the camp a mortality rate of 5.9%, one of the lowest of ANY War Between the States prison. The last 1,761 prisoners were exchanged on May 17, 1865, in Shreveport. 

The prison compound was destroyed in July 1865 by a detail of the US Tenth Illinois Cavalry.  The remains of the deceased prisoners were reinterred to Pineville, Louisiana, National Cemetery in 1867.  


ANNUAL LIVING HISTORY AND REENACTMENT

Beginning in 2005, the Capt. James P. Douglas Camp #124 SCV and the Smith County Historical Society  have sponsored a Camp Ford Living History and Reenactment each spring during the Tyler Azalea Trail.  We invite men and women who love the South - members of heritage organizations - reenactors - to join us.  (Period dress is required for participation.)

At present, Camp Ford Park looks much as it would have looked during the August to November 1863 period - no stockade and fewer than 100 prisoners.  Reenactors and historians have stations where various aspects of 1863 life would be shown.  The cannons are there and blasting away throughout the weekend.  The cavalry was there showing their practiced maneuvers.  Vignettes are performed throughout the day with REAL yankee prisoners and attempted escapes.

For more information, contact COORDINATOR.

Pictures of the 2008 Camp Ford Living History and Reenactment can be viewed HERE.

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