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Prisoners in the Civil War

        The discussion of practices concerning prisoners in the Civil War has become so largely the theme of vituperation and recrimination on both sides that it may well give pause to the historian. Harrowing stories of suffering among prisoners can be produced ad nauseam; volumes of abuse, growing out of the desperate feeling engendered by such suffering, were Poured forth on both sides. Professor Channing concludes that "each government cared for its enemy prisoners about as well as . . for its own soldiers"; while Dr. Hesseltine has pointed out that each side displayed mismanagement, congestion, and unfitness in officer personnel, and that in the North as well as the South one finds disease, filth, depression, disorder, vermin, poor food, lack of elementary sanitation, and, as a result, intolerable misery and death on an appalling scale.1 Had the struggle not been between sections of a once-united country a system for the exchange of prisoners might have been worked out which would have mitigated the evil by greatly reducing the number of prisoners held. As it was, this problem, though a matter of frequent negotiation, became so entangled with the issue of Confederate status, and so involved in recriminating and retaliatory declarations, that efforts toward a consistent general policy broke down; and, though exchanges and releases on parole did take place to a certain extent especially earlier in the war, there was never any enduring plan for such exchange and release worked out by the belligerents.
        Early in the war the threat to treat Confederate privateersmen as pirates, which involved the penalty of death, was met by Southern counter threats of retaliation against selected Northern hostages; and until this was adjusted by the Northern decision that privateersrmen were to be dealt with as prisoners of war, no general cartel could be reached. If during this period captives were exchanged or released, it was done on the basis of some special understanding between commanders. As the war progressed and the number of captives increased, the demand for some general plan of exchange became insistent; and a cartel was arranged on July 22, 1862, by General John A. Dix for the United States and General D. H. Hill for the Confederacy. The purpose was to effect the release of all prisoners of war and to deal with the problem of an excess on one side or the other by having surplus prisoners released under parole not to take up arms again, while prisoners released on the basis of even exchange were not denied further military service.
        While this cartel was in force the general situation regarding prisoners was in far better case than later in the war; but there arose many obstacles to the continuance of the arrangement. Camps of paroled prisoners were maintained in order to keep the men under surveillance and release them for service when exchanged, such camps being located, for instance, at Columbus, Ohio (Camp Chase), at Benton Barracks, Missouri, and at Annapolis. When certain Iowa men among the paroled prisoners at Benton Barracks were placed on guard duty in their own camp, thereby releasing a force of men for service in the field, Iowa authorities protested that such duty was inconsistent with their paroles, and that, in addition to the point of honor involved, if the men were caught by the enemy they would be severely handled. As a result it was ordered at Washington that such service should he discontinued. But this was only one of many complications. It was discovered that order in the parole camps was hard to keep; that paroled prisoners expected to be sent home, not to camps; that guerrillas presented a special problem; and that, with the prospect of being paroled, men would purposely fall into the hands of the enemy.
        While the exchange system was thus under constant strain, military severity, followed by retaliation and counter-retaliation, caused a breakdown. On June 7, 1862, General B. F. Butler, in occupation of Louisiana, caused a Southern citizen, Mumford by name, to be executed by sentence a military commission for tearing down the Union flag in New Orleans. This brutal and needlessly severe act, coining at a time when Confederate authorities were charging Union commanders with similar seventies elsewhere, brought sorry consequences to both North and South and contributed materially to the discontinuance of the cartel. On December 23, 1862, President Jefferson Davis proclaimed Butler (known in the South as "Beast Butler") a felon, an outlaw, and an enemy of mankind; and ordered that in the event of his capture "the officer in command of the capturing force do cause him to be immediately executed by hanging." In the same proclamation Davis also ordered "that no commissioned officer of the United States, taken captive, shall be released on parole, before exchange, until the said Butler shall have met with due punishment for his crime.
        Butlers vicious act and Davis's hot retaliation had injected a new element into the cartel situation. On December 28, I862, Stanton ordered the exchange of commissioned officers to be discontinued. Further difficulties arose because of the use of Negro troops by the United States, refusal of Confederate authorities to exchange these Negro soldiers and their white officers as prisoners of war, and misunderstanding as to Southern prisoners released on parole at Vicksburg and Port Hudson. Grant charged the Confederates with bad faith in later using these paroled men as soldiers, while the Confederate authorities answered that the paroles were irregular and invalid.
        As a result of all this, the system of exchanges under the cartel broke down; and from 1863 forward the number of prisoners on each side enormously increased. There were, it is true, some exchanges later in the war; there was a Confederate attempt to negotiate a new cartel through Vice-President A. H. Stephens; and there was endless negotiation between Robert Ould, Confederate agent of exchange, and W. H. Ludlow, Union agent for the same purpose. All this, however, failed to bring a restoration of any such system as the Dix-Hill cartel. Then in 1864 another factor arose--the grim, fight-it-out attitude of General Grant, who ordered on April 17, 1864, that no more exchanges of Confederate prisoners he permitted until the Confederates should cease discriminating against colored prisoners and should release enough Union prisoners to offset the paroled men of Vicksburg and Port Hudson who in his view had violated their paroles. Various proposals for even exchange, man-for-man and officer-for-officer, were now being put forward by the Confederates; but they were rejected until January, 1865, when Grant, realizing that the war was nearly over, consented to the policy of even exchange.
        This subject of the exchange of prisoners, bothersome as it is, is at the heart of the problem and must be understood before any comment on the treatment of prisoners can be attempted. Amazing numbers of prisoners were taken and held. According to official reports as analyzed by J. F. Rhodes, the Confederates captured 211,000 Federal soldiers, of whom 16,000 were released on the field; while the Federals captured the enormous number of 462,000, of whom 247,000 were paroled on the field. Subtracting those paroled on the field, the Confederates took nearly 195,000 Unionists and the Unionists about 215,000 Confederates. The embarrassment of the South, especially in the latter part of the war, in attempting to care for these hordes of captives at a time when its own transportation and supply system was breaking down, when Sherman and Grant were hammering at the gates, and when effective officers and men were desperately needed at the front, must be remembered in judging the admittedly frightful conditions which existed at Andersonville, Belle Isle, and Salisbury.
        The Andersonville prison, until the soldiers built huts for themselves, was but a stockaded enclosure of sixteen and a half acres in southwestern Georgia. Mosquito-infested tents; myriads of maggots; pollution and filth due to lack of sanitation; soldiers dying by thousands; men desperately attempting to tunnel their way to freedom; prison mates turning on their fellows whom they suspected of treachery or theft; unbaked rations; inadequate hospital facilities; escaping men hunted down by bloodhounds--such are the details that come down to us from incontrovertible sources. The causes of such conditions are to be found in the sheer inability of officers in charge to cope with the immense number of prisoners pouring in on them before preparations could be made to receive them, the insurmountable difficulties in obtaining supplies and equipment, and the poverty of the Confederacy in material resources. Union prisoners at Andersonville were in no worse case than many of the soldiers of Lees army; and it should be remembered that "the prisoners received the same rations as . . . the soldiers who were guarding them." On this point of the food furnished to prisoners the following statement appears in a Southern official report:

"The evidence proves that the rations furnished to prisoners of war in Richmond and on Belle Isle, have been never less than those furnished to the Confederate soldiers who guarded them, and have at some seasons been larger in quantity and better in quality than those furnished to Confederate troops in the field. This has been because, until February, 1864, the Quartermasters Department furnished the prisoners, and often had provisions or funds, when the Commissary Department was not so well provided. Once and only once, for a few weeks, the prisoners were without meat, but a larger quantity of bread and vegetable food was in consequence supplied to them. How often the gallant men composing the Confederate Army, have been without meat, for even longer intervals, your committee do not deem it necessary to say. . . . It is well known that this quantity of food [given the prisoners] is sufficient to keep in health a man who does not labour hard. [The statements issued by the Northern Sanitary Commission] are merely conjectural . . . , and cannot weigh against the positive testimony of those who superintended the delivery of large quantities of food, . . . . according to a fixed ratio, for the number of men to be fed."

        It was in February of 1864 that prisoners began to arrive at Andersonville; in May the number had reached 15,000; by the close of July there were over 31,000. In the one month of August nearly three thousand prisoners are reported to have died (approximately one hundred a day). Some of the figures are unreliable, but one may note that prisoners graves in the Andersonville cemetery number 12,912. The sickening story of Andersonville, however, is not to be set down, in the manner of lurid prison literature, as a chapter in Confederate cruelty; it is the tragedy of an impossible situation forced by the barbarity of war. Of Libby prison at Richmond, of Belle Isle (a misnamed island in the James at Richmond), and of minor Southern prisons at Macon, Salisbury, and Columbia, at Millen, Charleston, Savannah, and Florence, there is no room to speak. In most of these prisons conditions were better than at Andersonville, some of the evils that did exist being traceable to the vicious character of the prisoners themselves; for Northern bummers, criminals, and bounty-jumpers were among the Union men captured. As Dr. Hesseltine points out, the harrowing personal memoirs of prisoners, which generally follow a set pattern, are to be taken cum grano salis; and the careful student will tend to agree with him in rejecting the legend of willful Southern atrocities.
        Among the prisons of the North were Johnsons Island (in Lake Erie near Sandusky), some barracks at Elmira, New York, various forts (e.g., Castle Williams and Fort Lafayette) in New York harbor, Fort Warren (Boston), Fort MeFlenry (Baltimore), Point Lookout (St. Marys County, Maryland), Rock Island Prison (Rock Island, Illinois), Benton Barracks (Missouri), and various "Camps" named for this or that statesman, such as Camps Morton (Indianapolis), Chase (Columbus), Randall (Madison, Wisconsin), Douglas (Chicago), and Butler (Springfield, Illinois). To describe in detail the varying conditions in these many prisons would require a volume for each one; it is enough, perhaps, to observe with Bruce Catton that "Northern camps killed their full quota of Southerners." At Elmira, for instance, 775 of the 8347 prisoners died of disease within three months, and no wonder, for the river that flowed through the grounds was "green with putrescence, filling the air with its messengers of disease and death." At Rock Island doctors reported "a striking want of some means for the preservation of human life which medical and sanitary science has indicated as proper." At Camp Douglas "Filth, poor drainage, and overcrowding created a horror. . . . "
        On the other hand, if one were minded to consider the less gruesome aspects of the situation, it could be shown that prisoners were permitted to receive gifts from friends; that often they were given better clothing than they had when captured; that Confederate officers in uniform "continued to wander the streets of Columbus and to register at the best hotels"; that Southern officers at Camp Chase were "permitted to retain their negro servants"; that time and again efforts were made to improve conditions; and that genuine kindness was shown by prison officials, as in the case of Col. Richard D. Owen (in charge of Camp Morton), who has been honored by an inscription now to be seen in the Indiana State House, in which Southern soldiers under his charge pay tribute to his generosity.
        It should not be forgotten that in treating the subject of prisoners one is dealing with some of the most venomous aspects of war psychosis. In this state of mind shocking tales of atrocities were deliberately circulated and widely believed. Harrowing stories of prisoners sufferings appeared in the daily papers. Secretary of War Stanton announced: "The enormity of the crime committed by the rebels towards our war prisoners . . . cannot but fill with horror the civilized world when the facts are revealed. There appeared to have been a deliberate system of savage and barbarous treatment and starvation." Public opinion in the North was fed upon stories of Southern vindictiveness, and Northern readers were informed of the superiority of Union prisons in the treatment of Southerners. Conversely in the South there were fierce denunciations of Yankee brutality. E. A. Pollard, for example, wrote of the Yankees "cruel purpose to let their prisoners rot and die," while on the other hand he blames conditions in Southern prisons upon the authorities at Washington. As already explained, the Confederates resented the failure of the United States government to cooperate in the exchange of prisoners, such failure being attributed to a deliberate purpose to inflict suffering upon enemy captives in disregard of the woes of Northern as well as Southern soldiers.
        To pursue the subject fully would be to examine mountains of testimony, to note wide variations between different prisons, to support many accusations while refuting others, to record the effects of threatened retaliation, and to observe the apparent inability of the statesmanship of the period to deal adequately with a problem which was unavoidably vexatious. In so complex a field any offhand generalization must break down; and after following the subject to its farthest limits the fair-minded observer, though he may find many a commentary on the hideous realities of war, will be likely to discountenance any sweeping reproach by one side upon the other, and to conclude that whatever he the message of the dead at Andersonville and Bock Island, that message is not to be read as a mandate for the perpetuation of sectional blame and censure.
Source: "The Civil War and Reconstruction" by Randall and Donald

This Page last updated 02/16/02


This article consists of the Part 3 of Chapter 18, The Civil War and Reconstruction, by J.G. Randall and David Herbert Donald.  Parts 1 & 2  of this chapter may be found on this page:

Administration of the Union Army


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