When that first shot of the Civil War was fired, Point Lookout, at the southern-most tip of Maryland’s Western Shore, was a successful summer resort with beach cottages along the peninsula formed by the confluence of the Potomac River and the Chesapeake Bay. The Point also boasted a hotel, a long jetty, and a lighthouse.
The popular vacation spot disappeared in 1862 when the federal government leased the land and built a hospital for wounded Union soldiers.
It wasn’t long after the Battle of Gettysburg that a camp was also erected on the peninsula for Confederate prisoners of war, with forts built to secure the prisoners. Point Lookout housed rebel prisoners numbering more than 4,000 just two months after the battle. Despite an estimated capacity of about 9,000 POWs, Point Lookout would confine more than 20,000 POWs at any given time during the last two years of the war.
By war’s end, more than 52,000 Confederates had passed through Point Lookout’s confines, with nearly 4,000 dying from causes ranging from untreated battle wounds and armed guard executions to dysentery, typhoid, and other illnesses brought on by overcrowding, exposure, contaminated water, and horrid sanitation. The last of the incarcerated Confederates left in June 1865 and the facilities were soon dismantled.
During the 1980s, the Friends of Point Lookout supervised the reconstruction of one of the three forts used to guard the prison. Inside what is called Fort Lincoln, they rebuilt the barracks structure that would have housed approximately 80 Union soldiers, the guardhouse, and two buildings that would have served commissioned officers.
On June 13–14, Fort Lincoln and the Civil War Museum at Point Lookout State Park will commemorate the 150th anniversary of the June 1865 release of thousands of Confederates from the Point Lookout prisoner-of-war camp.
Point Lookout’s two-day June commemoration will feature living history programs complemented by infantry and artillery demonstrations with a special ceremony to reenact the prisoner of war release.
Saturday evening’s program will feature a presentation by Ross Kimmel, co-author of I Am Busy Drawing Pictures: The Civil War Art and Letters of Private John Jacob Omenhausser, Prisoner of War at Point Lookout.
The Civil War Museum and Marchland Nature Center at Point Lookout is one of the top reasons visitors journey down the St. Mary’s County peninsula to what is today a state park, according to park ranger Jonas Williams.
During your visit, also spend time at the Point Lookout Confederate Cemetery, where more than 3,000 southern dead are buried, their names inscribed on the only federal monument erected to the Confederate soldier. The Confederate Memorial Park, founded by the Point Lookout Descendants Organization, is just a short walk away, featuring a plaza of flags from the Confederate states and a bronze statue of an enlisted Confederate soldier.
Several miles up Route 5, at St. Inigoes, search out the USS Tulip Monument, which memorializes the loss of 49 of 57 crewmen when the Tulip’s boiler exploded offshore from the Piney Point Lighthouse on Nov. 11, 1864.
And in Lexington Park, discover the U.S. Colored Troops Memorial Monument, citing the valor of two African-American recipients of the Medal of Honor as well as their black compatriots’ contributions to the Union cause.
Today’s state park
It could be said that the Point — all 1,046 acres of it — has reverted back to a resort, full of natural beauty and offering many outdoor activities.
Five campground loops are open in the summer, with an additional loop open year-round. Each loop (or area) accommodates 20 to 30 sites. The loops are relatively close to the sandy beaches and the water, since the park is
surrounded by the Potomac River and the Chesapeake Bay. In addition, there are six air-conditioned cabins that sleep four people each. Lifeguards are on duty for the swimmers.
“Our picnic area is very popular and there is a hiking trail nearby,” Williams said. “You can rent canoes and kayaks here at the park and paddle around our little creeks and marshes. There’s always something to do. Upon request, we can do tours of historic sites.”
During the summer, the nature center offers programs for all ages, guided hikes, and guided canoe tours.
Still, the significance of the Point’s role in the Civil War is not lost amid park activities.
“Not only was this a prison pen with fortifications, but there was also a state-of-the-art hospital located near the lighthouse and it would have been the Johns Hopkins Hospital of the era,” Williams added.
Yet, with the war over and good men — both Blue and Gray — now seeking to bind up the nation’s wounds, consider the Nov. 28, 1863, diary entry of Confederate prisoner of war Pvt. James E. Hall, 31st Virginia, captured at Gettysburg and imprisoned at Point Lookout:
“Commenced to rain early this morning. What can I do to make the time pass quickly? Only sit and watch the boys tramping around in the mud and rain. Nothing to read, and nothing that a man can eat. The crackers are as hard as flint stone, and full of worms. I don’t believe God ever intended for one man to pen another up and keep him in this manner. We ought to have enough to eat, anyhow. Dam Old Abe and old Jeff Davis, Dam the day I ‘listed.”
For more information:
Point Lookout: dnr2.gov/publiclands/pages/southern/pointlookout.aspx
St. Mary’s Co. Tourism: visitstmarys.com