Columbia Military Prison
Union Officer POW Camps
While there were empty buildings in town, the fear of Yellow Fever, the reason
they were sent to Columbia, and the logistics of guarding several buildings,
were the most likely reasons the out of town location was chosen. A prison in
name only, the site chosen was about 4 miles northwest of the city on the west
side of the Saluda river, a five-acre open field of cleared ground without
walls, fences, buildings, a ditch, or any other facilities. General Winder
described the areaas "nothing but an open field" and "entirely unfit" for
habitation. Says a lot in comparison to the facilities of Andersonville, GA
and Florence, SC.
Camp Sorghum, Columbia, S. C
On the sixth of October, 1864, the Federal officers in the confederates' hands,
fifteen hundred in number, were nearly all brought to Columbia from Charleston,
and put in a camp about two miles from the city, south. It was an open field,
containing about four acres, with a few second-growth pine trees for shade.
Here we were turned looseto shift forourselves. They gave us neither axe,
spade, shovel, nor cooking utensils. For the first ten days, we could only go
for wood, water, and to the sink by turns. After that time, they improved all
but in going for wood. We had no shelter, except what we made ourselves of
brush and pine boughs. October twentieth, they issued us eight axes and eight
shovels for the fifteen hundred men. For wood, we go out under guard, and
bring in all we can within a specified time - one and a half hours - and that
ends the wood till the next day. Our rations have been most miserable, and
often half the number of days pass before we get the amount they pretend to
give us for the certain number of days. They consist of corn-meal, about one
pint ; sorghum, about one fifth of a pint; salt, about a tea-spoonful; soap, an
infinitesimal quantity, daily, and not a single bucket to wash in, or a cooking
utensil. We were one hundred and thirty-three days at Columbia without meat.
The suffering was so great, that of&cers would run the guard nights, thus
risking their lives to escape from such suffering. Many thus went away,
sometimes as many as fifty, in twenty-four hours.
Like all other POW Camps, a "deadline" was established by laying wood planks
ten feet inside the camp's boundaries.
On tlie morning of the first of December, 1864, at Camp Sorghum, about ten
o'clock, the camp was startled with the report of a musket, (quite an unusual
occurrence in the day-time,) and soon the report spread through camp that
Lieutenant Tarbayne, Sixty-sixth New-York, had been
- —murdered by the guard, a Mr. Williams, of Newbury Court-House, S. C.
Turbayne was walking along a path that ran by the corner
of a hut, near the dead-line, but
inside of it.
Along this path the prisoners had walked hundreds of times without fear, for it
was on our own ground. As Turbayne came along, this guard brought his piece to
his shoulder, halted him, and ordered him back. He turned to go, walked a
step or two, when the villain shot him through the back, the ball passing
through his lungs. He staggered a few steps,
and died within a few minutes. Not only did Major Griswold refuse to
investigate the matter,
but after the murderer had heen relieved by the officer of the day, he sent him
back on duty that afternoon on the front line, and also into camp the next
morning, surrounded by a body-guard,
for fear the ofiS.cers would do violence to him -
an insult ofthe blackest dye.
Soldiers were issued a few axes to build the few structures that were made
The above came from:
Key to southern prisons of United States officers ...
by Ole Rasmussen Dahl
Late Lieutenant and Topographical Engineer Fifteenth Wisconsin Infantry
Published in 1865
J.A. Gray & Green (New York)
Conditions for existence in this camp were poor as they were in all the prison
camps during the war. Twenty-seven percent of the Union Army prisoners captured
after June 1863 died in captivity. During their internment at the facility, no
meat was issued. A hapless "Reb" pig ventured into the camp and became instant
sport and badly needed protein for the inmates.
The rations consisted of cornmeal and sorghum molasses as the main staple in
the diet, thus the camp became known as "Camp Sorghum". This name "stuck" (as
did the food it was named after) and can be found in CSA official records.
There is no indication that the guards ate better than the POW's, quite the
opposite. Many POW's had access to funds and money always buys solutions. The
guards were poorly and seldom paid and resorted to barter and theft to survive.
Stealing from a "yankee" was no crime.
The camp was guarded by about 350 soldiers, a mixture of raw and worn
down trrops, imperfectly trained men who were either too young, too old, or too
sickly to do duty as combat troops. The Commandants of Camp Sorghum were
Lieutenant Colonel Robert Stans ( Stark ) Means of the Invalid Corps, who
previously served with 17th SC Infantry, Captain E. A. Simple (who had been
sent to Columbia to locate and map out a POW camp near Columbia), and Major
Elias Griswold ( As a captain, he had served as Provost Marshall in Richmond
under General Winder), Captain J. S. Richardson, assistant quartermaster and
paymaster, Lieutenant T. P. Haller, and Assistant Adjutant. The guards included
4 or 5 companies from
1st Battalion of State Troops
under Captain Edward Powell of Company B,
2nd Battalion of State Troops,
Company G and 1 or 2 companies from
4th Battalion of State Troops,
at least 1 company from 8th Battalion of State Troops,
all under Lieutenant John McCarley of Company C, as well as the 10 companies of
Columbia Local Defense Battalion.
These units were formed in the summer of 1864 from the State Militia, of men
over 44 and 17 year old boys, known as Senior Reserves. In addition, three
companies of 32nd Georgia under the command of Captain J. F. McElmurray and an
artillery detachment from 1st SC Artillery, Company K under the command of
First Lieutenant J. Furman Dargan.
My long term goal is to accumulate enough information to publish a book for
inclusion in the resources of the South Carolina Archives. If you have any
information about these units or their members, please E-Mail me at: