The American Civil War gave rise to prison camps infamous for their terrible conditions. Point Lookout Prison was established in 1863, after the Battle of Gettysburg at the mouth of the Potomac. It was built in two enclosures, one of ten acres and the other of thirty. Although the camp was designed to hold ten thousand men, more than twice that number of Confederate soldiers and civilians were housed in tents, often with no blankets. By the end of the war, more than eight deaths were recorded each day. A rare firsthand glimpse into this infamous Civil War prison is provided by the sketches made by John Jacob Ommenhausser during his internment.
Ommenhausser enlisted as a private with the Virginia Infantry in 1861. He was captured near Petersburg in 1864, and transferred to Point Lookout, where he was imprisoned for nearly one year. Ommenhausser may have used his artistic skills to negotiate for extra rations, blankets, and other amenities needed to survive. This is one of several sketchbooks that he drew, each with a recipient’s name on the title page; it is inscribed “Sketched by Mr. Obenhauser / a Prisoner of War confined in / Prison at Lookout Md.; Charles Rambo, Sergt. Co. D 20th U. Ret.” The twenty-two drawings illustrate the hardships of the camp, but are also characterized by a strong sense of the absurd. Some explicitly address the shift in power as African American soldiers discipline their white prisoners.
Stacy C. Hollander, “Sketchbook: Point Lookout Prison,” exhibition label for Self-Taught Genius: Treasures from the American Folk Art Museum. Stacy C. Hollander and Valérie Rousseau, curators. New York: American Folk Art Museum, 2014.