Monday, June 29, 2015

Surgeon James H. Thompson's Diary


James H. Thompson started his Civil War career as a surgeon in the 12th Maine Volunteer Infantry Regiment and was assigned in 1864 to the Point Lookout prisoner of war camp in Maryland. Thompson later served at the Soldiers’ Home and had a private practice in Milwaukee.  Among the items donated to the Milwaukee County Historical Society from this doctor was a small, worn, leather-bound journal with sixty-two colored pencil sketches of what life was like for a Confederate prisoner.

It appears that one of the Confederate prisoners (“Johnny Reb J. J. O.”) gave this journal to Thompson sometime in 1864.  Why a prisoner would do this is a bit of a mystery.  Perhaps J. J. O. trusted the doctor and knew he would take care of it.  Or maybe it was a payment of sorts for treatment that Thompson provided.  The sketches are still vibrant and crisp considering their age and offer the viewer a glimpse of the horrible conditions at Point Lookout, Maryland.  By many accounts, Point Lookout was the worst of the Union prisons for captured Confederate soldiers.  Established in 1863, it had a wall fourteen feet high that surrounded the forty acres that was meant to hold 10,000 prisoners.  Union officials typically crammed between 12,000 and 20,000 men into this barren space with no barracks to shelter the men from the heat and cold.  It will never be known for sure, but it is estimated that between 4,000 and 14,000 men died in this harsh environment.

J. J. O.’s etchings give the viewer glimpses of what the prisoner’s life was like in this camp. Depictions include men with threadbare clothing and no shoes looking for ways to supplement their meager rations.  They resort to skinning and eating rats.  Others were forced to pull discarded food out of the cookhouse slop barrel and eat it to stay alive.  Interaction between the prisoners and their African American guards are also portrayed in less than flattering sketches.  To no one’s surprise, they are often depicted as cruel masters over the Confederates.  In others, the guards are almost cartoonish who are outwitted by the white prisoners.

The artist, J. J.O., has given us a rare look at the less than glorious side of the Civil War, and the Milwaukee County Historical Society is fortunate that Dr. James H. Thompson decided to share this part of history with us.


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