Tragic past, turbulent present

Prison: The site of a Civil War POW camp is battered by the elements and embroiled in a modern cultural battle.

October 19, 2003|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,SUN STAFF

SCOTLAND -- Years of severe weather have markedly eroded the shoreline here at the southern tip of St. Mary's County. Isabel was only the latest storm to batter the marshy point where the Chesapeake Bay meets the Potomac River.

It's not just Point Lookout's whipping winds and remoteness that give it a haunted feel. Some say it's the turbulent history of a place where thousands died slow deaths.

From 1863 until 1865, the point was the site of the Civil War's largest prisoner of war camp, housing more than 52,000 Confederate soldiers. Historians say at least 4,000 died, most from disease and exposure. The prison was dismantled soon after the war ended, and much of the site is underwater.

One hundred thirty-eight years later, hundreds of the prisoners' descendants and sympathizers are trying to ensure that the dead -- and the Confederacy -- are given their due and that the prison's history isn't washed away like much of the land.

"This seems to be one of Maryland's best-kept secrets," says Patty Beil, 51, of Annapolis, a history buff and retired English teacher who considers the area hallowed ground and says she believes that the state and federal governments aren't treating it with enough respect.

She's not alone. In the past few years, Patrick J. Griffin III, a Darnestown general contractor, has filed several legal challenges to a policy barring a Confederate flag from flying permanently at the POW graveyard near where the prison stood.

The federal cemetery features two monuments marking a common burial site. All of the known names, about 4,000, are displayed on bronze tablets and supplemented by a three-ring binder with recent additions.

Griffin, a past commander of the Sons of Confederate Vet- erans, also is suing in federal court to overturn restraints on the content of speeches delivered at the cemetery. "Point Lookout means an awful lot to a variety of Confederate descendants," says Griffin, a cousin -- four generations removed -- of a soldier held at Point Lookout.

"This is their final resting place, and we want to bring in a Confederate flag to honor them," he says. "And I feel I have an entitlement to be able to speak my mind within the normal bounds of decency. Nobody is trying to make a racial type of statement here."

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs says the rules, which ban partisan speech and activities at the grave site, are in place to preserve decorum. Under the restrictions, the department can review speech texts in advance and delete portions -- such as, in Griffin's case, a statement he had intended to make at a memorial event in June criticizing the government's Confederate flag policy.

A half-mile away, the wooded land where the prison stood is part of a 1,000-acre state park whose attractions include camping, boating, swimming, fishing and miniature golf.

"At the time the park was designed during the '60s and '70s, state and local authorities were thinking about a water recreation park to bring revenue and tourists to Southern Maryland," says Ross M. Kimmel, chief historian of the State Forest and Park Service.

The prison, a 20-acre pen with tents surrounded by a high wooden fence, is acknowledged with a display of old photographs and other artifacts at the park's visitors center, temporarily closed after being flooded by Isabel. The park also features a replica of a section of prison wall. Wooden markers in the ground delineate some of the prison's boundaries.

The prison was built after the Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863. The Union liked the location because the peninsula was easily defended and prisoners could be transported here from Virginia by boat.

The story of the prison camp is one "of diarrhea and dysentery, of typhoid and typhus, of burning sands and freezing cold in rotten tents," says a 1972 book by Edwin W. Beitzell, a St. Mary's County historian, that is sold at the park.

Some of the prisoners' descendants would like to see the park become more of a shrine.

"If you want a good model of how to preserve some dignity and respect for those who suffered and died in the prison at Point Lookout, I suggest that you visit Andersonville in Georgia," said a letter sent last summer to the State Forest and Park Service by James F. Harris, chairman of the philosophy department at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va.

The Andersonville National Historic Site is intended as a memorial to American prisoners of war throughout history. It has a museum, a database where visitors can search for their ancestors, and a large cemetery.

In his letter, Harris, who had an ancestor held at Point Lookout, criticized Maryland officials for permitting what he considers an exploitative "ghost walk" near the prison site each Halloween. This year's walk has been canceled while the park completes Isabel-related cleanup and repairs.

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