Camp Morton

In downtown Indianapolis there are a number of historic markers that recognize the contributions of Lew Wallace and members of 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.
When Fort Sumter was attacked on April 12, Morton’s first telegram was to Abraham Lincoln and reportedly his second was to Wallace. Wallace was involved in a trial in Clinton County and when he received Morton’s urgent telegram he quickly left the courtroom asking 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.
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. It was approximately 36 acres in size and had been owned by the first mayor of Indianapolis, Samuel Henderson. In 1859, it was purchased for use as the State Fairgrounds and in short order a number of buildings were built, including 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 were in place by the time Wallace and Morton were looking for a camp site.

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. As more and more men arrived, even the space available on the grounds was soon exhausted and some of the men were housed outside the perimeter fence of Camp Morton. Land adjacent to the south of the camp was also purchased so that the troops would have suitable space to begin learning their drills.

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. By April 18, there were 1,800 men at Camp Morton and by the next day there were over 2,400 men in camp waiting processing.

For Wallace, the processing of the men involved hiring a capable staff, coordinating train schedules, wading through the flood of telegrams that were constantly arriving, making speeches, arranging housing, inducting the men, placing them within their regiments and companies, finding and purchasing supplies, securing food and people to prepare the food, securing doctors for medical examinations, developing security systems, assuring discipline, and more. In completing this task, 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.

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. In his war service in February of 1862, Wallace had been instrumental in the Union victory at Fort Donelson. Some of the first prisoners housed at Camp Morton were Confederates captured at Donelson and by the end of February 1862 the camp was housing over 3,700 prisoners. The men who were arriving were often young, underfed, and poorly clad. Meeting their needs for food, shelter, and medical care was difficult for the camp and military hospitals were opened throughout the city. By late March there were over 5,000 men in the camp and another 1,000 arrived after the Battle of Shiloh in early April.

Although the officers in charge of the camp did their best and were generally successful 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 men who had been captured in battle and exchanged for confederates were shipped to the camp. By the time they were moved on or released in December the camp was in great need of cleaning and repair.

These repairs took place in early 1863. Confederates began arriving at the Camp in June and by August, there were over 3,000 men incarcerated. Prisoner exchanges halted so the camp saw some level of stability for a time but conditions were not good and men continued to get sick and die. By July of 1864, there were almost 5,000 men housed at Camp Morton. Although improvements were called for and some made, conditions in the camp continued to deteriorate over the winter of 1864. Early 1865 was cold and wet and the ill-housed, under-clad, and underfed men continued to get sick and die. Some also continued to rebel and there were a number of escapes and challenges to authority. In one dramatic escape some 50 to 60 men charged the fencing armed with rocks and bottles overwhelming the surprised guards and escaped into the countryside and Indianapolis.

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 was sold for over $275,000 and the area developed as the Herron-Morton neighborhood. The appropriateness of the selection of this site by Wallace and Morton, the quality of Wallace’s design and installation of the infrastructure of the camp, and Wallace’s organizational brilliance are demonstrated by the fact that from the first days of the Civil War through the last days, this camp continued in full service. 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.

The General Lew Wallace Study & Museum celebrates and renews belief in the power of the individual spirit to affect American history and culture.
Sources used:

Shadow of Shiloh by Gail Stephens

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