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Camp Randall 1862 

Camp Randall

Wisconsin Historical Society Image ID: WHi-1875

Camp Randall Prison Camp

As most Madisonians know, Camp Randall was used during the Civil War to train Wisconsin troops before sending them off to battle. For a short period of time in the spring of 1862 it also served as a prison camp for Confederate soldiers.

In March 1862 the 1st Alabama Infantry Regiment evacuated Columbus, Kentucky, and fell back to heavily fortified Island Number 10 in the Mississippi River south of Cairo, Illinois. Union General John Pope and Commodore Andrew Foote captured the island on April 7 after a 23-day siege. Pope sent five thousand prisoners north, most to St. Louis, but many to Camp Randall, a training ground ill-equipped to serve as a prison.

The first group of 881 Rebels arrived by rail in Madison on April 19. They were filthy, their shoes were in disrepair, and the “cold raw wind of our backward spring was striking through their thin jean clothes.” They were a great curiosity. Citizens sent jellies, custards, brandy, shirts, and reading material to the camp, and turned out in droves each day to visit with them.

On April 25 a second group of 275 prisoners arrived; they had been sent up the Mississippi by boat since they were too sick to travel by rail. Many of these later arrivals were suffering from wounds, malnutrition and disease, and were so weak they had to be carried into Camp Randall on stretchers. By April 28 ten of the Confederates were dead. Each day for the next two months the Wisconsin State Journal listed the prisoners who had died overnight, mostly from malarial fever or severe bowel affliction. One hundred forty graves were soon filled at Forest Hill Cemetery, the last resting places of soldiers from Alabama, Tennessee, Mississippi, Louisiana and Arkansas.

Among the prisoners was a woman who had chosen to accompany her captured husband and brother north. Her husband and two children died on the way and were buried at Prairie du Chien; her brother and she both fell seriously ill with lung fever. She was placed in a section of the hospital building separated from the men by a sheet, and was attended by women from Madison. As reported by the Weekly Wisconsin Patriot, “her conduct affords an inspiring instance of womanly devotion in the midst of sorrow and suffering that must make all feel a sympathy for her.”

Security was lax. There was no fence around Camp Randall, and initially townspeople came and went freely. Several prisoners escaped, including two who were recaptured by a Madisonian, Peter B. Fields. A guard, Amos Carr, was caught accepting a bribe to help another Rebel escape. “He is now imprisoned in irons in a tent by himself under a special guard.”

Sentinels complained that the prisoners used very abusive language toward them, and that they threw water, chunks of bread and sticks of wood. On the morning of May 24 one prisoner refused to follow the orders of Clarence Wicks, a 17-year-old sentry. When the prisoner’s brother, G. W. Spears, called Wicks an insulting name, Wicks shot Spears in the heart, killing him. Wicks, who was acquitted of wrongdoing, was wounded and taken prisoner at Cold Harbor on June 1, 1864. He died of his wounds in Richmond, Virginia, on July 15, 1864.

By the middle of June the prisoners were mostly gone. Lt. Kingsbury, the post commandant, reported that 39 prisoners who had been sick left for Camp Douglas in Chicago. The woman who had been sick left with them. “On going, they were loud in their expressions of gratitude for the good treatment they had received while sick.”

Mark Gajewski