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Camp Chase was named for Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase, who had also been governor of Ohio. Located four miles west of Columbus, it was first used as a training camp for Union volunteers, but it also held a few prisoners. In November 1861 Camp Chase received a large influx of Confederate prisoners. As long as the state of Ohio administered the camp, Rebel officers were permitted to go into Columbus on oath of honor to return. State authorities also allowed the public to tour the grounds as if the camp were a tourist attraction.

When the federal government took control of Camp Chase, stricter rules applied: visitors were prohibited, no prisoners left the camp, and almost 7,000 Rebel soldiers and some "disloyal" citizens were crammed into facilities meant to house 4,000. Prisoners were put to work extending the camp, but overcrowding remained a problem, and the prison held more than 9,000 prisoners by the war's end.

As the war lingered on, conditions worsened. Already scanty food rations were cut by two-thirds to retaliate for lack of food in Southern prisons. Unlike superintendents of prisons in the South, however, Yankee officials had food available, but withheld it from prisoners. Filth, overcrowding, disease, starvation, and exposure to the elements, especially the freezing winters, caused as many as 40 Confederate prisoners to die each day.