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Ranked as the largest Confederate military prison in Texas, Camp Ford was established in August 1863, four miles northwest of the town of Tyler. Black slaves constructed the open stockade, leaving the inmates, as in many other Southern prison camps, to build their own shelters. Captured Union officers and enlisted men used materials at hand to assemble a ragtag mix of log houses, sod huts, and even rough holes in the ground with canvas roofs. Yet by late 1864, when the prison population peaked at 4,900 during the Red River campaign, new arrivals reported that adequate housing was available.

Camp Ford inmates were fortunate to have a plentiful water supply, with a stream running right through the camp into wooden reservoirs. Although prisoners were supplied with a diet of fresh beef, cornmeal, bacon, and baked beans, some food shortages were reported. Authorities alleviated the problem in 1864 by allowing local farmers to sell produce to the prisoners, as well as sanctioning a few sutlers' stores, supposedly managed by officers of the 42nd Massachusetts.

Those with money could buy flour for $1 per pound. Most inmates earned money by selling homemade items, mostly crafts carved from bits of wood or bone, to the townspeople. A camp newspaper, The Old Flag, was published by Captain William H. May, who offered subscriptions at $5 per year, payable in advance; he also gratefully accepted "seegars" in lieu of cash.

Camp Ford's 21 months of existence were relatively uneventful. Given the miles of desolate terrain, not to mention the hostile Indians, that separated the camp from friendly Union forces, most of the 50 participants in the three escape attempts were recaptured. Despite a few reports of guard brutality, health conditions were considered so good that no hospital was ever constructed. "Only" 250 to 300 men had died of disease by the time the last prisoners were released on May 17, 1865.