War Off the Battlefield

Wednesday, April 11, 2012 Road Junkies 3 Comments

On the History Highway, Day 28

POINT LOOKOUT, Maryland—Seventy-five miles southeast of Washington, Maryland's Point Lookout peninsula sits at the confluence of the Potomac River and Chesapeake Bay.  Once the personal manor of Maryland's first governor, Leonard Calvert, the area earned its name as a lookout position for American forces in the Revolutionary War.

Point Lookout
In the late 1850s, Point Lookout became a popular resort area, with a fashionable hotel and dozens of cottages where the wealthy vacationed.  After the Civil War broke out and the resort fell out of use, the federal government leased the property and built a 1,400-bed military hospital there in 1862.  Elevated on pilings, the hospital comprised 15 rectangular wards and a larger administration building constructed like spokes in a wheel around a circular corridor and service buildings in the center.  Almost immediately, injured and diseased soldiers began pouring in for treatment, with more than 300 arriving the first day the facility opened.

Point Lookout in 1864 (image from Library of Congress)
After Union troops captured thousands of Confederates at the Battle of Gettysburg in July, 1863, Point Lookout's role was hastily expanded to include a prisoner of war camp.  A 40-acre site north of the hospital was designated for the camp, and a 15-foot fence was built around the compound.  With no time to build wooden barracks, authorities housed prisoners in old tents.  Though the stockade was designed for 10,000 prisoners, its population exploded to twice that number after disagreement over terms ended prisoner exchanges in 1864.

As in all POW camps of the era, conditions for prisoners were deplorable.  Rampantly spreading diseases, inadequate sanitation, meager rations, and exposure to the elements killed more soldiers in prison than artillery and gunfire in any Civil War battle.  With more than 50,000 veterans spending time in the Point Lookout stockade, it was the largest prisoner of war depot of the era.

Dr. John Wesley Wood
One of those imprisoned at Point Lookout was John Wesley Wood, a surgeon with the 12th Alabama Infantry.  An 1860 graduate of Virginia Medical College in Richmond, Dr. Wood had only just begun his practice as a country doctor in Alabama when he was thrust into service with the Confederate Army.  Taken prisoner in Virginia in 1864, he was shipped with thousands of others to Point Lookout, where he and five other imprisoned physicians served as surgeons for sick and wounded Confederate soldiers.

Back home in Alabama, Wood's wife Mary and her children lost contact with him after his capture.  With no word from or about him for more than a year, the family assumed that Wood had been killed in the war.  Released when the Point Lookout prison closed shortly after Lee's surrender, the doctor headed for home, scrounging up an old mule somewhere along the way.  Great surprise and celebration greeted him on the day he rode up to his farm on his decrepit mount.  My great-great-grandfather, Dr. Wood practiced medicine in southwest Alabama for the next 45 years.  A stroke in 1912 confined him to wheel chair until his death in 1922.

More than 3,000 Confederate soldiers died at the Point Lookout stockade.  Many Union soldiers died in the military hospital there as well.  After the prison closed in 1865, consideration was given to establishing a national cemetery at the site.  Instead, the remains of Union soldiers were transferred to Arlington, and the Point Lookout Confederate Cemetery was established a few miles north of the prison site.  To mark the mass grave where unidentifiable individual remains of Confederates were buried, the federal government erected an 80-foot granite obelisk in 1910.  Bronze tablets around the monument's base carry the names of the known soldiers and sailors who died at Point Lookout.  Nearby is a smaller memorial placed by the state of Maryland before the larger monument was constructed.

Confederate Soldiers and Sailors Monument
South of the cemetery, the actual location of the prison is now part of Point Lookout State Park, which provides a number of interpretive signs telling about the site's history.  A partial reconstruction of the wall shows the elevated platform near the top of the stockade where Federal troops were posted to stand guard on the prisoners in the pen.

Sample of what stockade walls looked like (Point Lookout State Park)
Between the state park and the Confederate cemetery stands Confederate Memorial Park, a private project funded and built through the efforts of a group of descendents of Point Lookout prisoners of war.  Dedicated in 2008, the memorial plaza centers around a bronze statue of a Confederate prisoner standing on a stockade parapet.  Various flags of the Confederacy and the member states encircle the stockade, as do tablets with first-hand accounts of conditions in the camp from former prisoners.  Surrounding the base of the stockade are memorial bricks donated in the memory of veterans and victims of Point Lookout.


Reports abound of ghosts and other paranormal activity at the site of the prison.  State park officials have even organized ghost tours.  With all the misery that occurred at this wretched spot, even nonbelievers could imagine there are spirits that haunt the place yet. 

On the way back to Arlington from Point Lookout, we passed the former home of another physician, Dr. Samuel Mudd.  For treating the leg that John Wilkes Booth injured in his escape from Washington after assassinating President Lincoln, Mudd was convicted of conspiracy and sentenced to life imprisonment.

St.Catharine, the Dr. Samuel Mudd house
While in prison, Mudd distinguished himself by treating prisoners and guards in a deadly yellow fever epidemic and was later pardoned.  After his release, he spent his remaining years back in his home near current Waldorf, Maryland.  The house, which had been in the doctor's family since the 1690s, now serves as a museum, but it was closed for the day by the time we arrived.

More Photos from Today

Confederate Memorial Park plaza
Memorial brick (NOTE:  Finger is smaller than it appears)

Point Lookout State Park
Huge osprey nest on utility pole near Ridge, MD