Camp Morton

In downtown Indianapolis a number of historic markers recognize the contributions of Lew Wallace and his family. One of the markers recognizes Wallace’s selection of the site of Indianapolis’ Civil War camp 1861. Today, the area is known as the Herron-Morton neighborhood, but in 1861 it was on the outskirts of town and served as the State Fairgrounds. When Governor Oliver P. Morton called on Wallace to serve as adjutant general, one of the first orders of business for the two men was the selection of a site that could accommodate the anticipated influx of men responding to Morton’s call to arms.
Oliver P. Morton, for whom Camp Morton was named.When Fort Sumter was attacked on April 12, Morton’s first telegram was to Abraham Lincoln. He reportedly sent his second to Wallace. Wallace, trying a case in Clinton County, left the courtroom quickly. He asked an associate to complete the presentation. Upon his arrival, Wallace and Morton went all over Indianapolis looking for a site suitable for receiving the recruits. It became readily apparent that the best location to organize the recruits would be the State Fairgrounds. By April 17, the site was renamed Camp Morton and the first of the volunteers were being processed.

Indiana State Fairgrounds

The State Fairgrounds were bounded by Talbott Avenue on the west, Central Avenue on the east, 22nd Street on the north and 19th Street on the south. First mayor of Indianapolis Samuel Henderson owned the 36-acre property. In 1859, it was purchased for use as the State Fairgrounds and in short order a number of buildings were built. These buildings included stables for horses, stalls for up to 250 cows, as well as spaces for hogs and sheep. An exhibition building, a dining hall, and even a two story office building existed by the time Wallace and Morton chose their camp site.

Recruiting Camp Morton

The existing buildings on the site were quickly modified and additional ones built. These included barracks for the men with bunks in four tiers along both sides of the barracks and dining tables down the middle. Even though the barracks could hold up to 320 men, the available space was quickly exhausted and Wallace was soon housing men in tents. More and more men arrived, exhausting the space available on the grounds. Some men were housed outside the perimeter fence of Camp Morton. The state also purchased land south of the camp to provide suitable space for drills.

Adjutant General of Indiana

Although Lincoln initially requested that Indiana provide 4,600 men for the service, within nine days, adjutant general Wallace had put in place the systems needed to process the 12,000 men who had volunteered and arrived at Camp Morton. This was almost three times the number of young men that had been called for or expected. Wallace accepted the job on April 15. Three days later, there were 1,800 men at Camp Morton. By April 19, over 2,400 men awaited processing in camp.

For Wallace, the processing of the men involved hiring a capable staff. In addition, he coordinated train schedules, waded through the flood of constantly arriving telegrams, and made speeches. He also arranged housing, inducted the men, placed them within their regiments and companies. Yet more duties included finding and purchasing supplies, securing food and people to prepare the food, and securing doctors for medical examinations. Lew also developed security systems to assure discipline. In completing all these tasks, Wallace proved adept, able, hardworking, and resourceful. He completed this monumental task by April 23rd.

Wallace had accepted the position of adjutant general with the understanding that when he felt he had accomplished the immediate needs of gearing Indiana up for war, he would be given his own command. On April 23, with the six regiments in place, Wallace resigned as adjutant general and became colonel of his own regiment the 11th Indiana Volunteer Infantry Regiment.

Prison Camp Morton

As the men marched off to war, the utilization of Camp Morton changed. By early 1862 it began service as a place to hold prisoners of war. Some of the first prisoners housed at Camp Morton were Confederates captured at Fort Donelson in February 1862. By the end of February 1862 the camp sheltered over 3,700 prisoners. The arriving prisoners men were often young, underfed, and poorly clad. Camp officials found it difficult to meet their needs for food, shelter, and medical care. Military hospitals opened throughout the city. By late March, over 5,000 men lived in the camp. Another 1,000 arrived after the Battle of Shiloh in early April.

The officers in charge of the camp did their best and were generally successful. However, there were difficulties when caring for the prisoners and assuring security. In August, most of the confederate prisoners were shipped on to other facilities or exchanged for Union prisoners of war. In September, the camp saw its next group of men. This time 3,000 Union exchange soldiers moved into the camp. By the time they moved on in December, the camp needed cleaning and repair.

Repairs to the Camp

These repairs took place in early 1863. Confederates began arriving at the Camp in June. Less than three months later, over 3,000 men lived incarcerated in the camp. After prisoner exchanges halted, the camp population remained stable for a time. However, harsh conditions meant men continued to get sick and die. By July of 1864, almost 5,000 men lived at Camp Morton. Although some people called for improvements, conditions continued to deteriorate over the winter of 1864. Early 1865 was cold and wet. The ill-housed, under-clad, and underfed men continued to sicken and die. Some also continued to rebel and challenge authority. In one dramatic escape, some 50 to 60 men charged the fencing, armed with rocks and bottles. They overwhelmed the surprised guards and escaped into the countryside and Indianapolis.

Camp Morton’s Post-War Fate

With the fall of the Confederacy in April of 1865, the prisoners housed at Camp Morton were released and the Camp abandoned. Within a few months the camp had been cleaned up and it was returned for use as the State Fairgrounds. It continued to be used for the fair until 1892 when new fairgrounds were purchased at 38th and Fall Creek, a site further out of town. The land that had been Camp Morton sold for over $275,000. Developers turned it into the Herron-Morton neighborhood.

The camp continued in full service throughout the war, which demonstrates the appropriateness of site selection by Wallace and Morton. It also shows the quality of Wallace’s design and installation of camp infrastructure. In addition, it demonstrates Wallace’s organizational brilliance. It was not abandoned, drastically enlarged or reduced in size, and was able to meeting changing needs. In nine days, Wallace created something that met the needs of the Union army for five years.


Shadow of Shiloh by Gail Stephens


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