On a narrow spit of land where the Chesapeake Bay and the Potomac River meet, in St. Mary’s County, Maryland, there is a small state park with a fascinating historical background. Here’s why you should visit the appropriately named Point Lookout.
The Early Days of Point Lookout
Captain John Smith (yes, the one whom Pocahontas saved when her father threatened to kill him) first set foot on Point Lookout in 1608. He explored the area and sent favorable reports back to the British crown, stating that in addition to abundant resources like fish and game. He also pointed out that the area could offer a strategic military position as well. (More on that later.) The first settlement in the state of Maryland occurred in 1634, in nearby St. Mary’s City.
The Turbulent Times of War – Part 1
The area got the name of Point Lookout during the War of 1812. The Chesapeake Bay was a major route for British war ships, based on nearby Tangier Island. Members of the local citizens’ militia in St. Mary’s County established a secret base at Point Lookout to monitor the movements of those war ships. They also established a secret relay system of night time post riders to send intelligence reports to President James Madison in Washington, DC.
The citizens’ militia secretly worked in the area for over a year, until the British came ashore, seized and occupied Point Lookout. Unfortunately, the militia was no match for the overwhelming number of seasoned British troops. American intelligence efforts in the region came to a grinding halt. This turn of events could have been a contributing factor to the invasion and burning of Washington DC by British troops in 1814.
The Turbulent Times of War – Part 2
In 1862, as the Civil War was ramping up, Point Lookout once again became a hub of activity. The area became a bustling port and temporary city of civilians and military personnel and numerous buildings. Point Lookout included a large Union Army hospital, an Army garrison, and a prisoner of war camp.
The conditions for the Confederate prisoners were not ideal. Designed to hold 10,000, the POW camp often held more than twice that amount after the Union and Confederate armies stopped exchanging prisoners. In some cases, there were sixteen men to a tent. Point Lookout was the largest Union-run prison camp and its reputation was one of the worst. About eight percent of the Confederate prisoners died before the end of the war. That may seem like a lot, but by comparison, it was less than half the mortality rate for the men fighting in the war.
In an interesting twist of fate, some African-American soldiers of the U.S.C.T. Regiments (United States Colored Troops) served in some federal Army units that rotated from the front to serve as guards at Point Lookout. In some cases, these soldiers had occasion to guard their former masters, which led to instances of brutality, or of kindness, depending on the nature of their relationship prior to the war.
What Remains at Point Lookout Today
Today, visitors to Point Lookout can visit a memorial honoring the Confederate prisoners of war. A mass grave on the former grounds of the POW camp holds the bodies of the 3,384 Confederate prisoners of war who died there. The grave is marked by a pillar inscribed at its base with the names of the dead. A privately funded Confederate Memorial Park occupies a three-acre site next to the cemetery. Although a US flag is flown in front of the memorial, there is also a Confederate flag on a flagpole just outside the gates of the grounds, in memory of the soldiers who gave their lives for the Confederacy.
There is a sign at the memorial explaining why they chose to fly the Confederate flag.
Please note that I am merely reporting on the use of the Confederate flag at this privately owned and maintained memorial. I am not in any way endorsing or condoning it.
As one might expect in a geographical location like Point Lookout, there is also a lighthouse, which was built in 1830 and utilized until 1966. When we visited, the lighthouse was closed for renovations, but I was still able to get a photo from a distance.
As a recreational area, the Point Lookout State Park offers visitors a wide range of activities. There is a fishing pier, as well as a beach area with grills, picnic tables and a playground. The park includes a designated pet-friendly beach, swimming, a water trail, wooded campsites and cabins. Deer and waterfowl hunting are permitted in designated park areas at specific times of year.
Additionally, the park’s nature center and museum are located within the campground. The Museum and Nature Center are open May through October, Saturday and Sunday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. The Center offers programs in nature and Civil War history.
Finally, the park holds some outstanding events throughout the year. Contact the park for a current schedule of historic programs. Popular annual festivities include Civil War era demonstrations and re-enactments.
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