Sunday, August 22, 2010

"Army dying up like rotten sheep."

So stated Dr. Edward W. Cade of the 28th Texas Cavalry (dismounted) in reference to the deplorable situation at Camp Nelson near Austin, Arkansas, in November 1862. This encampment ranked as one of the most dangerous places to be in the trans-Mississippi in the late summer and fall of 1862. Apparently first called Camp Hope, the site was then named Camp Holmes in honor of Theophilus Holmes, and then renamed as Camp Nelson in memory of Colonel Allison Nelson of the 10th Texas Infantry who succumbed to disease there. The site near Austin was a gathering point and training area for thousands of soldiers mostly from Texas and Arkansas. Perhaps as many as 20,000 soldiers spent at least some time at Camp Nelson in 1862.

Lieutenant Theophilus Perry of the 28th Texas Cavalry was one of the many soldiers stationed there. His regiment arrived at the camp in early September 1862, and initially he commented “The health of the Army has been much improved since it came to this place from Crystal Hill on the Arkan[sas] River. There was scarce anything to equal the sickness up there. We have as good water here as ever run out of the ground. This is a red oak country, with no pines & but few other trees. The soil is tolerable but it is thinly settled & mostly by poor people” (Johansson, M. Jane, ed., Widows by the Thousand: The Civil War Letters of Theophilus and Harriet Perry, 1862-1864 [Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2000], 23). Yet in the same letter written on 4 September, Perry observed two graves being dug, harbingers of the horrors to come. A host of factors led to a biological nightmare in the wooded valley of Camp Nelson that year.

A poor diet, bad weather, insufficient clothing, poor sanitation, and a lack of immunity led to widespread illness among the troops gathered at Camp Nelson. Measles and pneumonia appear to have been the major culprits at this depressing and sad campsite. What happened in the 28th Texas Cavalry (dismounted) was probably little different than in the other regiments at Camp Nelson; by November 1862, only 150 men in the 28th Texas were fit for duty. By 19 December 1862, 78 men had died (some before their arrival at Camp Nelson), and 46 men had been discharged from the service. Or to put it another way, the 28th Texas lost 124 men before they even fired a single shot in battle.

How many men died at Camp Nelson? Dr. Richard Lowe in Walker’s Texas Division C. S. A. : Greyhounds Of The Trans-Mississippi extrapolates “that at least 1,290 men of the division either died or were discharged due to illness between September 1, 1862, and April 30, 1863. In view of the sometimes incomplete evidence on which these extrapolations are based—the military service records for individual soldiers—it is quite possible that 1,500 of the Texans were buried in Arkansas that winter. Another 326 men left the division for other reasons from September to April” (38-39). Those are the records for one of the divisions at Camp Nelson; the death rate may have been just as high for the other units stationed there.

A small part of Camp Nelson is preserved today as the Camp Nelson Confederate Cemetery where there is a monument and markers in memory of the dead.

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