Laurel Gutenberg ’09 asks Abe: “I haven’t been able to figure out what the little, wooden shack is under the protective roof at Camp Randall. It doesn’t have any windows and seems very old. Is it historical?”
It warms my old, bronze heart when recent grads like you are interested in the history of our campus, Laurel. The wooden structure you spotted is indeed historical, dating back to the 1860s during the American Civil War. Before Camp Randall became home to the Badgers, it was the state’s largest military staging point for the Wisconsin militia and briefly, a prisoner-of-war camp.
In spring 1862, the camp’s military leaders were taken by surprise when some 1,300 Confederate prisoners of war were sent there for confinement. The camp had no provisions for housing prisoners. A corner of the camp was stockaded off and numerous wooden-frame huts were built, including the prisoner hut you’re asking about.
When the first group of Confederate soldiers arrived in Madison by train, most were in good health and in generally good spirits. As they marched to the camp, a band played “Dixie” and a crowd of Madison civilians turned out to see the prisoners. A few days later, another train arrived delivering several hundred men who had not fared well on the journey. City residents were outraged by their condition, and responded generously by bringing food, medicine and clothing for the ill prisoners.
On May 6, 1862, the camp’s public image was further damaged when two prisoners escaped by bribing a guard. They were recaptured shortly afterward, but the camp was locked down from outside visits. This air of secrecy, coupled with a mounting death toll, raised charges of neglect by the public.
After just a few months in Madison, Confederate prisoners able to travel were shipped out, paroled and exchanged near Vicksburg. The sick men stayed behind until they were well enough to travel, at which point they too were sent south.
This ended Camp Randall’s charge as a prisoner-of-war camp. Today, only a few acres remain as a memorial park containing some monuments and the prisoner hut, the last remaining structure from the camp.
You can learn more about the history of Camp Randall in the Ask Abe archives.