Corrupting Humanity: The Morale and Physical Well-Being of Civil War POW's in Texas



Journal Title

Journal ISSN

Volume Title



Between June 1863 and May 1865, almost seven thousand Union prisoners were held in two Confederate prisoner of war camps in Texas: Camp Groce near Hempstead, Texas, and Camp Ford near Tyler, Texas. While both camps had their share of misery, Camp Ford was considered a “model camp” and had one of the lowest death rates of any Civil War prison. Camp Groce, in contrast, was a site of immense suffering and a death rate that would make it one of the deadliest camps on other side throughout the war. Between the two camps, death rates ranged from 3.86% to nearly 30% in less than a two year period, despite their similarities in size, structure, and development. What role did the outside environment, as well as the internal conditions, play in survival? This thesis will explore the history and conditions of Camp Groce and Camp Ford, and contrast the internal and external effects that influenced morale and the rate of survival in each camp. In doing so, I will focus on five primary factors:

1.) The effect of the natural environment on the physical and sanitary conditions,

  including the availability of fresh water, abundance of vegetation, and access to 


2.) The effect of the local, or non-natural environment, on morale and overall

  health, including interactions with nearby townspeople, frequency of 

  commerce, and access to medical care

3.) The consequences of having a harsh Confederate camp commander versus one

  with a more benevolent attitude towards the prisoners

4.) The role the Union officers played in establishing not only discipline, but also

  in providing order and structure to an otherwise chaotic environment

5.) The impact of daily activities on the spirit of the prisoners, including not only

   the necessary work, but also recreational activities

A comparison will also be made between the Texas camps and two of the most well-known, and much larger, prisoner of war camps in the east: Elmira Prison, a Union prison in New York, and Andersonville Prison, a Confederate camp in Georgia.

The research for this thesis has been taken predominately from a variety of original sources, including diaries, personal letters, testimony, and military records that will make up the bulk of the primary sources. Secondary sources have been utilized for basic information, including works by historians such as Ovid L. Futch, Michael P. Gray, and William Best Hesseltine. A treasure trove of unpublished personal letters and accounts of Camp Ford were located at the Smith County Historical Society in Tyler, Texas. In addition, a host of government records and newspapers from the time period are accessible online and contain a wealth of information. Research was also conducted among the libraries of Sam Houston State University, Baylor University, and Texas A&M University, as well as numerous other online databases. Finally, descendants of the Camp Groce commandant, Colonel Clayton C. Gillespie, and other Civil War prisoners of war, have provided unpublished, personal writings and family accounts of their ancestors.

The historiography of Confederate prisoner of war camps in Texas is a subject matter that has not been researched extensively, nor written on substantially. There are only two known publications that provide any extensive account of the history of Camp Groce or Camp Ford: The Last Prison: The Untold Story of Camp Groce CSA, by Danial Francis Lisarelli (1999), and Camp Ford CSA: The Story of Union Prisoners in Texas, by F. Lee Lawrence and Dr. Robert Glover (1964). Both provide a comprehensive telling of the historical facts; however, neither provides an interpretive discussion of the elements affecting the camps, nor add to the overall historiography of the dissimilarities of the prisons, and the long term consequences. In addition, few publications (Civil War Prison: A Study in War Psychology by Hesseltine (1930) being one of the few exceptions) have ever examined the entire prisoner of war system, both North and South.

Although at least one prior thesis has dealt with the subject of Camp Ford (Amy L. Klemm, Wigwam Metropolis: Camp Ford, Texas. October 1996), I am unaware of any paper or publication that has discussed or compared both camps. Once completed, my thesis will be the first in-depth analysis of both prisoner of war camps in Texas, as well as the first to create a compare and contrast with other camps based upon the five previously mentioned factors.



Civil War, Camp Groce, Camp Ford, Andersonville, Elmira, Natural environment, Prisoner of war, War psychosis, Wartime self-care, Wirz, Texas, Hempstead, Tyler