Prisons and Prisoners of War, 1816–1900

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Soldiers fear captivity. Regardless of international rules agreed to by participating nations, few universal laws govern the behavior of captors. Captivity denies civil rights

to an individual by the physical constraint imposed by the captor and confirms the reality of failure in an assigned mission. Hostile and punitive captivity not only threatens a soldier's mental well-being during a conflict, but can cause deep institutional and personal distress among those who survive the experience.

By the nineteenth century, laws and policies regulating POW treatment among European and American armies leaned toward the Golden Rule: the mutual usefulness of providing humane treatment for the enemy's soldiers with the reasonable expectation of the same for one's own, tempered by military necessity.

During the War of 1812, an extraordinary number of American naval personnel, privateers for the most part, were captured and taken as POWs by British forces. About 14,000 men of a total seafaring manpower pool of approximately 100,000 were held captive for months to years. On April 20, 1815, 263 Americans left the British Dartmoor prison; a few days later 5,193 freed prisoners followed with a large white flag that depicted the goddess of liberty sorrowing over the tomb of their dead compatriots with the legend, "Columbia weeps and will remember!" During the Mexican-American War (1846–1848), few American soldiers fell into Mexican hands; for those who did, treatment was fair and humane.

During the Civil War (1861–1865), Union and Confederate forces were unprepared for the enormous numbers of POWs, which eventually reached 211,400 Union POWs in the South and 220,000 Confederates in the North. Exchanges took place regularly according to the Dix-Hill Cartel until 1864, when Union General Ulysses S. Grant, ordered a halt because of Confederate mistreatment of black Union soldiers and the belief that Confederate parolees were returning to their units. That decision cost thousands of lives on both sides. Thereafter, the South was glutted with huge numbers of starving Union prisoners it could not support. Civil War POWs on both sides endured the ordeal of being quarantined in stockades, converted armories, or former fairgrounds. By the autumn of 1864, nearly 14,000 Union prisoners had died at the infamous prison camp Andersonville. Thousands of Confederate prisoners suffered and died at prison camps at Elmira, New York, and Rock Island, Illinois.

When the Civil War broke out, there were still no written international statutes concerning the conduct of war and the humane treatment of prisoners, binding belligerents to reasonable behavior. Francis Lieber, a Prussian German immigrant who soldiered against Napoleon and who had a keen understanding of war and captivity, produced the first comprehensive code for the rules of war. This code could be used by any government anywhere and was the first recognized published legal code pertaining to issues concerning POW treatment. President Abraham Lincoln issued it on July 3, 1863, through the War Department, ordering the document delivered to every field commander in the Union and Confederate armies. Still in force today, General Order 100: The Rules of Land Warfare rests on the firm moral foundation that an enemy is a fellow human being with dignity and lawful natural rights. If these rights are violated, the offender can be brought to trial. After the Civil War, Confederate Captain Henry Wirz, Interior Commandant of Camp Sumter, Georgia (Andersonville), was tried, convicted, and executed for murder; however, some historians have argued that the miseries of Andersonville were the fault of the system, not the individuals.

Prisoners of war have rarely changed the course of history; wars have been won or lost not because of them but in spite of them. Although the technology of warfare has changed, the horrors of captivity have not. For the individual soldier thrown into the uncertain life of a POW, victory becomes a daily commitment to survival through the development and maintenance of the will to live. To meet their physical needs, prisoners have been forced to secure food by any and all means. But there is also strong and powerful evidence suggesting that POWs' will to live stems from a deep well of religious, ethical, and moral faith. Freedom becomes an ever-present dream of the faces of home and family. Memoirs and letters by soldiers who were imprisoned have had a strong impact on how Americans view war.


Doyle, Robert C. Voices from Captivity: Interpreting the American POW Narrative. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1994.

Doyle, Robert C. A Prisoner's Duty: Great Escapes in U. S. Military History. Annapolis, MD: United States Naval Institute Press, 1997.

Futch, Ovid L. History of Andersonville Prison. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1968.

Hesseltine, William Best. Civil War Prisons: A Study in War Psychology (1930). Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1998.

Marvel, William. Andersonville: The Last Depot. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994.

Speer, Lonnie. Portals to Hell: Military Prisons of the Civil War. Harrisburg, PA: Stackpole, 1997.

U.S. War Department. War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1880–1901.

Robert C. Doyle

See also:Grant, Ulysses S.

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Prisons and Prisoners of War, 1816–1900

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