(Fort Wayne Monthly “Along the Heritage Trail with Tom Castaldi” – August 2010 No. 69.)
At the far west end of Berry Street at Thieme Drive, looking across the Saint Mary’s River on the western bank, is Camp Allen Drive. It’s best accessed from West Main Street after crossing the Carole Lombard Memorial Bridge turning south on Center Street and leads to the small playground space at the southeast corner of Center and Huron.
During the dark days of the Civil War between 1861 and 1865, this was a site of a beehive of activity as thousands of eligible young men from around the region answered the call.
When President Abraham Lincoln first called for volunteers to defend the Union on April 15th 1861 after the outbreak of war with the Confederacy, many Allen County residents, like others throughout Indiana, rushed to join the army for what they believed would be a short and glorious adventure.
At that time, however, there were no formal recruiting depots in the area, and the local companies of volunteers who signed up at the courthouse quickly went to the State Camp in Indianapolis. From there, after almost no training, the men from Allen County, as part of the 9th Regiment of Indiana Volunteers, were sent to the theaters of war in western Virginia. This was the first Indiana engagement with the southern Rebels.
After the first patriotic rush to war and in the wake of the horrors of the first battles, it became clear that a more organized and regular approach to recruitment would be necessary. The establishment of a military camp was entirely a local affair. Fort Wayne community leaders were eager to make the city an official rendezvous point for all recruits of northeastern Indiana. A committee was formed, private funds were raised, and Camp Allen was built at a cost of $1,312.
The first commandant of Camp Allen was Colonel Hugh B. Reed. Appointed by Governor Oliver P. Morton, Reed was an outspoken Republican and a druggist by trade who had served in the Kekionga Guards, a local militia unit.
After overseeing the creation of several regiments, Colonel Reed left Camp Allen to take command of the 44th Indiana Regiment. The chief recruiting officer at Camp Allen in its first years was City Attorney William “Popgun” Smith, an 1852 settler from Maryland.
Camp Allen was a small tent city carved out of the wooded area across the Saint Mary’s River from the Methodist College. There were 24 tents on the western side of the camp. The officers’ tents were located near the roughly built quartermaster’s building, and an infirmary was built of slats behind the privates’ tents. Each company had its own table, and food was cooked either over a large log fire or on open-air stoves.
Not everyone in Fort Wayne was eager to have a military camp on the doorstep. John Dawson, the sharp-tongued editor of the Fort Wayne Daily Times, wondered about “the difficulties, which a body of inactive, warm-blooded, promiscuous volunteers might bring about.”
The editor was quick to point out that Fort Wayne at that time – in 1861 – had many unwholesome enticements, with its more than 180 whiskey and beer shops, a score of houses of ill fame, “lewd women in the nearby woods,” and a “timid, irresponsible constabulary.” Fortunately, Dawson’s fears of riot and un-soldierly abandon were unfounded. Only two notable incidents of disruption occurred during the entire war and the camp was generally free of scandal.
Through the duration of its war time mission as a military camp, thousands of troops assembled at Camp Allen. These soldiers eventually served in seven infantry regiments and one artillery battery and served with distinction mostly in the western campaigns.
Later in the 19th century, in 1884, old Camp Allen was the rendezvous site for more than 5,000 veterans who gathered in Fort Wayne for one of the annual reunions sponsored by the Grand Army of the Republic, the Union Army’s veteran organization. In the years afterward, families moved into this area and in 1912 the city bought a portion, created Camp Allen Park, and renamed Bluff Street…Camp Allen Drive.
Allen County Historian Tom Castaldi is author of the Wabash & Erie Canal Notebook series; hosts “On the Heritage Trail” which is broadcast Mondays on 89.1 fm WBOI; and “Historia Nostra” heard on Redeemer Radio 106.3 fm. Enjoy his previously published columns on the History Center’s blog “Our Stories” at historycenterfw.blogspot.com.