Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Camp Chase

Today finds me thinking about my gr-gr-gr-gr-grandfather, Joseph Lantz, and the horrors he must have witnessed and was subjected to while in the Confederate Service. He was a Captain in the North Fork Militia,and was in active during the Battle of Riverton.

The Battle of Riverton site.

Captured near the end of the War Between the States (or as some of us were brought up hearing, "The War of Northern Aggression") my grandfather was held prisoner in Camp Chase Prison in Ohio. What pure hell this must have been for him and his companions. Camp Chase Prison was opened in May 1861 and remained open throughout the War. It was located about 4 miles from Columbus, Ohio. The prison held a large population of men from the mountains of West Virginia. For these men, their world must have been turned upside down. Not only were they prisoners, but they were prisoners in a foreign land. To these men of the rugged mountains, I’m sure Camp Chase was like a foreign country. Even today, when I am out of my mountains, I feel a great unease and get the feeling that if only I could get back into the mountains, then all would be right with the world. How these men must have gazed and wished for the mountains that they knew lay far to the East.

My gr-gr-gr-gr-grandfather, Joseph Lantz.

Growing up, I heard stories from the older folks about the living conditions at Camp Chase Prison. Of course, they had heard these stories from their elders, and theirs before them. A few former prisoners from Pendleton County described Camp Chase prison as a big mud hole. They said the water was dirty and the food was wormy. They told of how the men would sit around and tell stories of home and what they were going to go when the War was over. I recall hearing a story about how one man in Camp Chase prison had made a pet out of a big rat, and one time the rations were so scarce that a bunch of his cohorts killed the rat and made soup out of it.

One of the best Camp Chase prison recollections, to me, was recorded by the Hammons Family titled, “Camp Chase”. At the beginning of the track, Burl Hammons talks about stories that he grew up hearing about Camp Chase. He talked of how the men were mistreated at the Yankee prison and how the prisoners simply wanted to go home, so much so that it consumed them. The story continues with how the Yankee captain liked fiddle music and told his Confederate captives whichever man played him the best fiddle tune, he would set that man free. If this is a true story, can you imagine how much heart and soul went into this fiddle contest, these men would have been playing for their very lives. As the contest progressed, one man played a tune that absolutely floored the Yankee captain, because it was just that good. For all the people who like fiddle music, they know how the fiddle puts lyrics right into the tune and that the tune tells the story. Well, after the contest, the Yankee captain lived up to his word and gave the man his freedom, but before the man left the captain asked, “What was the name of that fiddle tune?” to which the man replied, “It’s a tune that I came up with, and the name of it is “Camp Chase!” I don’t know of the Hammons story is true, but I do know that I can’t listen to the tune, “Camp Chase” without hearing the suffering of the prisoners, and hearing the hopes of freedom and home that these men held so dear. I can sympathize with these men who longed for the mountains for Camp Chase would have been both a physical and mental Hell for them.

I’m sure my grandfather tried for the rest of his life to forget Camp Chase, but at least he got to return home to his beloved Germany Valley after the War. So many prisoners died at Camp Chase and are buried there.

Camp Chase Cemetery. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Here's a Youtube video of Betty Vornbrock doing a great version of "Camp Chase".


Granny Sue said...

I like this tune too, Matthew, but I heard the story differently. According to the story I heard on a CD by French Carpenter, his ancestor Solly Carpenter played the tune and gave it a little twist at the end that the officer in charge liked and so Solly won the contest and his freedom from Camp Chase.

It would be funny if both of these oldtime music families had the same story--that would make me think it more likely to be folklore than truth!

Shirley Stewart Burns, Ph.D. said...

Great story! How they must have suffered....