Heritage, Volume 14, Number 3, Summer 1996 Page: 14
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By Robert W. Glover
Camp Ford was in
existence for less than
two years, but during
that time the prison
provided the backdrop
for the lives of many
Union and Confederate
soldiers. Nearly 6,000
inmates are thought to
have entered Camp
Ford's gates, making it
the largest concentration
of Union prisoners of war
west of the Missisippi.
amp Ford prison came into existence in the summer of 1863 and was abandoned
in the spring of 1865. Yet in that brief span it touched the lives of thousands of
Union soldiers and sailors and involved the lives of hundreds of Confederate soldiers as
well. It became the largest concentration of Union prisoners of war west of the Mississippi
River and was certainly the largest military establishment near Tyler, Texas, during the
By the time Camp Ford became a prisoner of war compound, Tyler was already
established as an important center of Confederate activity in East Texas. Smith County
was chosen as the location for a Confederate ordnance plant, ammunition factory, and
medical laboratory. Located a few miles northeast of Tyler was an important Quartermaster
transportation and supply depot called Kirbyville. Here were manufactured wagons,
caissons, and carriages for the army.
On June 2, 1862, the famous Texas Ranger, Colonel John S. "Rip" Ford, assumed the
unenviable role of superintendent of conscripts, with orders to enforce the draft law in the
state. The story of Camp Ford began with the establishment of a draft office in Tyler. The
date of this establishment is unknown. However, Colonel Ford's branch office had
developed into an active conscript training camp named "Camp Ford" by September 1862.
Camp Ford served exclusively as a camp of instruction for conscripts until the summer of
1863 when it began to evolve into a detention point for Federal prisoners.
The first accumulation of federal prisoners occurred with the Confederate recapture of
Galveston on January 1, 1863. The Galveston prisoners were initially incarcerated in a
warehouse in Houston. In late April, the officers were moved to the Texas state penitentiary
presumably in retaliation for similar treatment of Confederate officers in Union
hands. Fearing possible sabotage of the cloth factory there, the governor requested that the
officers be removed. These, along with about 80 enlisted men and sailors were sent to Camp
Groce near Hempstead.
On June 23-24, Confederate General Thomas Green captured the entire Union
garrison at Brashear City, Louisiana. In this engagement the enlisted men were paroled and
most of the officers were sent to Shreveport. On July 21, the Confederate officials made
their first move toward the confinement of prisoners of war at Tyler. The Walter P. Lame
Rangers were ordered to proceed to Tyler with federal prisoners who were being detained
at Shreveport and to "establish a post at Tyler and furnish a suitable guard for these
The original group of prisoners numbered only 72 men. Later, when the number of
inhabitants had risen to thousands, these original prisoners were lionized by the newcomers
and affectionately referred to as "The Old Seventy-Two". Since such a small contingent
could be easily contained in the open, no provision was made for enclosing them. However,
the situation changed in November 1863 when more than 400 Union prisoners captured
at Stirling Plantation in Louisiana were transferred to Camp Ford. This addition swelled
the prison population to such that safe confinement without some kind of enclosure was
The actual construction of a stockade was motivated by the disclosure, perhaps a wild
rumor, that the prisoners were planning to overpower the guards and escape to Union lines.
Local citizenry turned out en masse to build a stockade. About 10 days were used to
construct the stockade and when finished it consisted of a wall of logs, split in half, 18 feet
high and set in the ground. It originally enclosed an area variously estimated to contain
from two to five acres. After the battles at Mansfield, and Pleasant Hill in Louisiana, and
14 HERITAGE *SUMMER 1996
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Texas Historical Foundation. Heritage, Volume 14, Number 3, Summer 1996, periodical, Summer 1996; Austin, Texas. (texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth45405/m1/14/: accessed June 24, 2017), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, texashistory.unt.edu; crediting Texas Historical Foundation.