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Exploring a Beautiful State Park with a Deadly Past

Last Friday, on Black Friday, instead of hitting the malls or shopping online, I escaped to go paddling in my kayak. I explored the streams, rivers, and wetlands at Point Lookout State Park, in far southern Maryland.

The thousand-acre park is at the tip of a narrow peninsula sticking far out into the Chesapeake Bay, at its confluence with the Potomac River.

About a quarter mile out into the river, a forest of wooden poles rose up with fishing nets suspended between them. Brown pelicans, double-crested cormorants and seagulls perched on the ends of the poles, looking down on the pound nets – fishers, keeping a hungry eye on the work of fishermen.

After a few hours of fishing with my feathered colleagues, I put down my rod and dragged my boat up onto the shore. I was on a crescent of sand, with no footprints – only oyster shells, driftwood, and gently lapping waves. It was a stunningly beautiful landscape. And because of its beauty, it was hard to imagine the dark and bloody history that unfolded here

Not far from shore, inside the forest, atop a soft bed of pine needles, was a line of canvas tents. It was part of an historic display at the site of what had been the largest prisoner of war camp during the Civil War. Near the tents was a recreation of a 15-foot-tall wooden stockade and guard posts. A sign said: “Point Lookout Prison. From 1863 to 1865, the federal government held over 50,000 captured Confederate soldiers here.”

“Built after Gettysburg…the prison was designed for 10,000. However, it held more than five times that number, 52,000 in all. Conditions were terrible…. If you were lucky, you survived the hunger, the contaminated water, the disease and the weather.  But about 3,500 Confederate soldiers did not survive,” a marker at the site said.

The confederate dead were eventually buried in a mass grave just north of the park. And the handling of that mass grave has been a subject of bitter debate over the years, and dueling memorials.

In 1876, the state of Maryland erected a small and simple stone marker near the grave, which you can still see beside the only road leading into Point Lookout. Then, in addition to this, in 1910, the state raised a towering, 80-foot-tall granite obelisk with the names of the Confederate dead inscribed on 12 bronze plaques, with an American flag waving overhead.

Unhappy with the government’s treatment of the prisoners of war, an organization of descendants of the Confederates purchased land right next to the official site. In 2008, they built an alternative memorial featuring photos of faces of the dead, a bronze statue, and a Confederate flag. A plaque raised here says: “Due to inhumane conditions, as well as active persecution, thousands of prisoners died.”

However, the marker makes no mention of how the Confederacy’s slaves were treated – and how they were persecuted, raped, beaten, and killed. In terms of “inhumane conditions,” slaves suffered far worse, over far longer, than the Confederates, who started the war to continue slavery.  And the Confederate memorial does not mention that rebels starved and killed nearly 13,000 Union prisoners of war at its own camp in Andersonville, Georgia – almost four times the number as at Point Lookout.

The silence surrounding the issue – and how our culture still treats the legacy of slavery and war – is as deafening as the silence on the empty beaches of Point Lookout.  

The Environment in Focus is independently owned and distributed by Environment in Focus Radio to WYPR and other stations. The program is sponsored by the Abell Foundation. The views expressed are solely Tom Pelton's. You can contact him at [email protected].

Tom Pelton, a national award-winning environmental journalist, has hosted "The Environment in Focus" since 2007. He also works as director of communications for the Environmental Integrity Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to holding polluters and governments accountable to protect public health. From 1997 until 2008, he was a journalist for The Baltimore Sun, where he was twice named one of the best environmental reporters in America by the Society of Environmental Journalists.