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  • Leviathan in ChainsThe Short-Lived Federalization of the Ohio Penitentiary
  • Sarah E. Paxton (bio)

Erected along the Scioto River in the burgeoning Ohio capital, the Ohio Penitentiary was one of the earliest American prisons. Built to house predominantly men, the Ohio prison hosted thieves, bar brawlers, murderers, and—from July 1863 to March 1864—Confederate prisoners of war (POWs). Captain John Hunt Morgan and his infamous raiders spent the early months of 1863 wreaking havoc through southern Ohio, leaving ransacked businesses, upset railroads, smoldering canal boats, and a horde of livid Ohioans in their wake. Due in no small part to local outrage and Morgan’s infamy, upon their capture, Morgan and many of his raiders were locked away in the Ohio Penitentiary rather than the nearby Camp Chase POW camp. Four months later, in an embarrassing turn of events for both the state of Ohio and the Union Army, Morgan and his men broke out of the Ohio Penitentiary and escaped back to the Confederacy.

A great deal of scholarship has been dedicated to John Hunt Morgan, contributing to his renown and status as a Southern folk hero. Yet historians have glossed over the four months he spent incarcerated. While Morgan’s escape may appear to have meant little in the grand scheme of the Civil War, it was a tumultuous time in the history of the Ohio Penitentiary and the evolving relationship between state and federal authorities. Housing POWs, particularly Confederate officers, was an uncommon occurrence with little to no precedent to guide the ill-defined relationship between the military and civilian guards. The presence of POWs in the civilian prison created financial, bureaucratic, and [End Page 67] political conflicts that neither the Ohio Penitentiary nor the Union Army were prepared to handle, leading to several crucial security measures falling through the cracks. Despite what the folk tales told of the rebel prisoners’ cunning, it was the buildup of tension between military and penitentiary staff and a lack of a clearly understood authority within the prison that allowed Morgan to escape. The trepidation with which the federal government approached commandeering the Ohio Penitentiary, and its failure to actuate their control, was demonstrative of the uncertainty surrounding the centralization of the American State.

In July 1863, the Ohio Penitentiary took responsibility for the rebel prisoners begrudgingly. When Morgan and his men had been captured following the raids through Ohio and its neighbors, Union general Ambrose Burnside was concerned that the existing POW camps, like Camp Chase, would be unable to hold the raiders. Fearing they would escape, Burnside turned to the governor of Ohio and requested they keep the POWs in the penitentiary, where he was sure they would be more secure. Governor David Tod and Ohio Penitentiary warden Nathanial Merion acquiesced but initially restricted the number of POWs they would accept to 30. Despite this limit, the number housed at the Ohio Penitentiary quickly grew to 70.1 From the beginning, no one was happy with the arrangement. While the military provided some of the supplies for the care of the raiders, most of their needs were to be covered by state funds intended for the criminal convicts. The strain on the institution’s finances was exacerbated further by the fact that the penitentiary was not allowed to use the raiders as contract workers, a common practice with their criminal convicts.2 The federal POWs were therefore a drain on the already tight and heavily scrutinized finances of the state-run penitentiary.

There was also the issue of space. The prison had an original maximum capacity of 500 inmates, though the institution was nearly always at or above capacity, perhaps a reason that Merion requested their charges be limited to 30. Prisoner comfort was evidently a nonissue for the prison administration, and, as a result, the penitentiary remained a diseased and brutal warehouse for years. The original wooden cells were perpetually damp and had tiny windows that allowed in little light or air.3 Physicians noted the consequences of [End Page 68] this environment on the physical health of the prisoners, first voicing concerns over the conditions in 1850. The warden agreed with their assessment in 1855...


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