Point Lookout State Park
The Cavalry and the Pony Express
Ghosts of Confederate soldiers are said to roam the grounds of the restored fort perched on this lonely spit of land that is the southernmost tip of St. Mary’s County. And who knows? Perhaps ghosts of horses roam too, as this site’s rich history includes occupation by legions of mounted cavalry during the Civil War, and the southern stop of the Pony Express that took news of the war to Washington in the early 1800s.
Today, bordered by the Chesapeake Bay and the Potomac River, Point Lookout is frequented by fishermen and families with picnics, its peaceful surroundings in stark contrast to the bloody history of the fort and prison camp, believed to have housed more than 52,000 worn and starving Confederate soldiers. A museum on site recounts this vivid history.
At the time of the occupation of Point Lookout by the United States Army from July 1862 until August 1865, companies of the 2nd and 5th United States Cavalry, Purnell’s Cavalry (a part of Purnell’s Legion from Maryland), Smith’s Independent Cavalry (Maryland) and mounted infantry from the various units posted there occupied Point Lookout. The 5th Massachusetts (colored) Cavalry, even though not mounted, were deployed as prison guards.
In 1813, during the War of 1812, a secret relay system of post riders (much like the Pony Express) was run from a clandestine American intelligence force in Point Lookout. St. Mary’s County’s roads were notoriously rough at the time, and the trek by horse was more than 80 miles, so a relay system was set up, passing messages from one rider to the next. The service operated for months, its messengers evading British troops all the way to Washington, D.C., to give intelligence on British naval movements in the Chesapeake Bay and the Potomac and Patuxent rivers. Operations ceased when the British finally seized Point Lookout later that year.
Today, the park is the site of the restored fort and lighthouse, and offers fishing, camping and picnicking facilities. Tours and signage help visitors explore the site’s heritage. See the website for park hours, fees and more.