Prisons and Prisoners of War

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Prisons and Prisoners of War


Kevin Hillstrom


Kevin Hillstrom


Kevin Hillstrom


Robbie C. Smith

Prisons and Prisoners of War: An Overview

The history of the American Civil War is rife with examples of hardship and pain, but perhaps nowhere were conditions harsher than in the prisoner-of-war camps that dotted the interiors of both the North and South during the final two years of the conflict. Some of these prisons managed to provide enough food and shelter to sustain the physical health of their populations for the war's duration. Many others, however, became notorious for their squalid living conditions and meager rations. In the worst cases—such as at the Andersonville facility in Georgia and the Elmira camp in New YorkCivil War prison camps became incubators of disease, centers of malnutrition or outright starvation, and warrens of treachery, thievery, and brutality.

Paroles and Exchanges

In the early stages of the Civil War, feeding and sheltering captured enemy soldiers did not constitute a heavy burden for either the Federal or Confederate government. Large battles occurred infrequently compared to later years, which served to limit the number of prisoners. In addition, despite President Abraham Lincoln's initial refusal to authorize prisoner exchanges—a stance that stemmed from his belief that such negotiations might give the Confederacy a veneer of legitimacy as a distinct nation and erode Washington's efforts to frame the secessionists as a collection of treasonous agitators within an already established sovereign state—field commanders frequently arranged informal prisoner exchanges. Canny administrators on both sides of the conflict welcomed this approach, for they recognized that both the North and South were ill-equipped to handle large numbers of prisoners.

In the summer of 1862 the North and South agreed to a formal parole arrangement for prisoners of war. Under this agreement, prisoners were traded on a one-for-one basis, while officers were traded in accordance with equations that took varying ranks into consideration. "Leftover" soldiers were paroled—that is, they were released with the understanding that they would not take up arms again until they were figured into the mathematics of some future prisoner exchange. Once paroled, soldiers went home or reported to parole camps operated and maintained by their own governments until they were formally "exchanged." This system was mutually beneficial, though to function it required that each side had confidence the other would act in good faith.

The parole system was not without its problems, however. The main complaint leveled by military commanders was that many soldiers on parole—which in many ways was a sort of administrative limbo—came to feel as if they were not really in the army anymore. Not surprisingly, then, the prevailing environment in parole camps was often undisciplined and characterized by inattention to military decorum. In addition, some paroled men simply wandered off to nearby towns that promised more recreational opportunities than the spar-tan accommodations of camp could provide. Paroled prisoners who returned home were even more difficult to round up, even though they were still technically members of the military and subject to its orders. It was extremely difficult for many of these men to uproot themselves from the comforts and routines of home and return to a military life that, in most cases, no longer seemed nearly as romantic or glorious as it had back in the heady weeks after Fort Sumter.

Expanding Prison Systems

Despite its various imperfections, this state of affairs kept the prisoner-of-war populations low in both the North and South, and it ensured that most soldiers who were captured only had to spend a matter of days or weeks in enemy hands before they were exchanged or paroled.

Events in 1863 and early 1864, though, shattered this arrangement beyond repair and ushered in grim new methodologies for dealing with prisoner populations that exploded in size in a matter of months. The first major blow to the parole system came in 1863, when the administration of Confederate President Jefferson Davis threatened to take all captured black soldiers from the Union Army and place them into slavery in the factories and fields of the South. The administration further declared that it was considering executing captured white officers from black regiments for fomenting "servile insurrection." Finally, the government in Richmond announced that it would not include black Union troops in future prisoner exchanges. This stand was unacceptable to Lincoln, and it constituted the first major rupture in the parole system.

A second blow to the system came when the South unilaterally—and falsely—claimed that some of its parolees had been exchanged and were thus eligible to return to military service. This brazen move, which stemmed from the Confederacy's increasingly desperate need for men to replenish its dwindling military ranks, led the Union to further curtail its participation in the exchange and parole programs. It was at this time that both the North and South began hurriedly converting military barracks, forts, and tobacco warehouses into prisoner-of-war camps to house the growing number of captured troops.

Finally, Ulysses S. Grant's promotion to commander of all Union forces in March 1864 marked a complete end to the prisoner-exchange programs that had worked so well during the first two years of the war. Grant knew that by the spring of 1864 the South was suffering from increasingly acute shortages of manpower, and that his army enjoyed clear and growing numerical superiority over the enemy. Grant held firm to the Union decision not to exchange only white soldiers, abandoning their black comrades to slavery.

Filling Up the Prisons

When the parole system fell apart, the number of prisoners of war in both armies accelerated rapidly. Captured soldiers typically spent their first hours of captivity knotted together in crowded holding pens or in places that could easily be converted into temporary corrals, such as gullies. After officers recorded their names, ranks, and unit affiliation, provost marshals sent captured prisoners off to various prison facilities. Some fortunate prisoners were delivered to the gates of their prisons by train or boat, but most captured soldiers had to endure long marches on foot to reach their destination. By the end of the war, virtually all prisoners—especially Union prisoners of the Confederate military, which was squeezing every last bit of logistical support out of its unraveling transportation network—had to travel by foot to prison.

Captured officers generally received far better treatment than enlisted men. Union and Confederate prison authorities sometimes found space in their own quarters for captured officers, and the rations captured officers received was often a cut above the fare given rank-and-file prisoners. Other officers, however, found themselves in the general prisoner-of-war population, and shared facilities that were crowded, filthy, and disease-ridden.

All told, approximately 195,000 Federal soldiers were subjected to imprisonment in wartime, while about 215,000 Confederate troops were captured and imprisoned over the course of the war. According to official reports, of these more than 400,000 prisoners, approximately 56,000 died in captivity. The mortality rate in Union prisons was about 12 percent, while the rate in Confederate prisons reached almost 16 percent. These shockingly high mortality rates stemmed from prison conditions that were, more often than not, perilous and dehumanizing.

"Hell on Earth"

Malnutrition and hunger were typical of many of the Civil War prison camps. Food allocations were meager to begin with, and withholding rations emerged as a common means of reining in or otherwise modifying the behavior of prisoners. Tales of malnutrition or starvation in enemy prison camps also prompted some reductions in food rations.

Shelters, blankets, stoves, and other resources offering protection from the elements were also in short supply at many prison installations. This was particularly problematic in the North, where many Rebel prisoners endured long, cold winters in threadbare tents and tattered clothing. Sanitary conditions were notoriously poor in many prison camps in both the North and South as well, with many captives forced to drink, bathe, and dispose of human waste in the same areas—sometimes using the same water source. Medical care at these facilities ranged from poor to barbaric.

One of the worst of the Civil War camps was Ander-sonville in southern Georgia. Historian William C. Davis described a typical scene at the hospital there thusly: "Stewards cleaned wounds with dirty water poured on them, forming pools on the ground where insects bred in the moist filth. Inevitably, millions of flies swarmed over the helpless patients, relentlessly laying eggs in their open wounds and sores. Scores of men went mad from the pain of maggots eating their way through their inflamed flesh" (Davis 1991, p. 176).

All of these forces—hunger, crowded and unsanitary conditions, exposure to the elements, vulnerability to disease and depression—combined to make the prison camps horrible places. Little wonder, then, that numerous accounts of prisoner of war experiences, whether penned by Confederate or Union soldiers, describe Civil War prison camp environments as literal "hells on earth."

The Worst of the Prison Camps

Andersonville Prison, mentioned above, was the most notorious of all the Civil War prison camps. This sixteen-acre tract in southwestern Georgia, composed of open fields and swamps, housed approximately 41,000 Union prisoners during the war. Of that number, 12,000 to 15,000 perished inside Andersonville's fences. In August 1864, 100 prisoners per day were dying in that nightmarish stockade. At the end of the war, Anderson-ville's superintendent, Henry Wirz, became the only Confederate to be tried and executed by the Federal government for war crimes.

Andersonville Prison

The Confederate prison of Andersonville, Georgia, became one of the most notorious during the Civil War. Prisoners faced untold hardships: lack of rations, disease (dysentery was widespread due contaminated water), brutal guards, and hostile fellow inmates. In his 1865 book Life-struggles in Rebel Prisons: A Record of the Sufferings, Escapes, Adventures and Starvation of the Union prisoners, Joseph Ferguson describes the architecture of the prison and life within its walls for the prisoners:

The Andersonville prison was created for enlisted men, and only a few officers were taken to this pen, who were recaptured after escape, or who desired to pass for privates, believing they would have a better opportunity among so many to get away from the rebels. The pen was about two hundred yards long, and one hundred wide. Some thirty-five thousand human beings were huddled together in this small space. It was a mean-looking stockade, about seventeen feet high, the posts being sunk into the ground some four or five feet. The ground selected was on the side of a hill, part of it being a marsh… the position selected was such an [sic] one as fiends would pick out to accomplish dark crime of which the cruel keeper of Andersonville stands charged. In the enclosure there were no tents, huts, barracks or houses, to protect the inmates from the scorching rays of tropic sun of a Southern summer, or the cold and biting frost of a dreary winter. As prisoners came to the pen they were robbed of their clothing, blankets, shelter-tents, shoes, and even shirts. They were deprived of everything… and then put into the slaughter house to run around like lost sheep (pp. 75–76).


SOURCE: Ferguson, Joseph. Life-struggles in Rebel Prisons: A Record of the Sufferings, Escapes, Adventures and Starvation of the Union Prisoners. Philadelphia, PA: J. M. Ferguson, 1865. Sources in U.S. History Online: Civil War. Gale. Available from

Andersonville was by no means the only death trap maintained by Southern authorities, however. The mortality rate among prisoners at a Confederate stockade in Salisbury, North Carolina, in fact, was higher than that at Andersonville, according to historian Robert Eberly (Eberly 1999).

Several of the Union camps, meanwhile, were nearly as deadly as the infamous Andersonville. Places such as Camp Randall (in Wisconsin) and Camp Douglas (in Illinois) claimed thousands of soldiers' lives. But even these awful places paled next to Camp Elmira in upstate New York. At Elmira, nearly 800 of the 8,400 prisoners housed there died of disease within three months of their arrival, in large part because the river that flowed through the grounds quickly became fouled. All told, the death rate at Elmira, where the prison population was subjected to freezing winters, reached 24 percent (Williams 2005, p. 239).

Attempts to escape these horrible camps were launched by both Union and Confederate soldiers, but most of these desperate bids for freedom failed. Many would-be escapees were unable to get beyond the fences, and most of those who did make it out by using underground tunnels or other means were tracked down by bloodhounds and rifle-wielding guards. Over the course of the war, though, a few hundred clever and intrepid prisoners did succeed in their escape attempts. Most of these successful escapes from prison camp horrors were carried out by individuals or small groups of two to three, not by large groups of prisoners. When these fortunate individuals passed through enemy lines to safety, their accounts of inhuman conditions and brutal guards were seized on as propaganda tools by both sides. On the whole, though, few Civil War prisoners ever mounted escape attempts, as most were too worn down physically and mentally to conceive of or carry out viable plans.

The Final Months

In early 1865 Grant and the Federal authorities finally relented and resurrected the prisoner-exchange policies that had kept prisoner-of-war numbers down during the first half of the war. By this time, however, advancing Union troops were already seizing control of large swaths of the Southern countryside—including the stockades contained therein.

By March, many Confederate units had abandoned any pretense of holding on to enemy prisoners. Instead, Rebel commanders simply paroled them and sent them on their way. Around that same time, desperate lawmakers in Richmond authorized the recruitment of 300,000 slaves and promised full emancipation of slaves after the war if the British and French governments would give the tottering Confederacy diplomatic recognition. But these measures did nothing to stem the tide of Union military victories washing over the South. By the time Confederate General Robert E. Lee finally surrendered to Grant at Appomattox in Virginia on April 9, 1865, military prisons across both the North and South were preparing to release their long-suffering inmates.

Historians frequently cite the prison camps of the Civil War as one of the conflict's darkest elements. But most scholars agree that the devastating death toll in these facilities was not rooted in human malevolence or even indifference to the plight of those unfortunate enough to wait out the war's final months or years in captivity. In most cases, it was simply that each side felt compelled to channel the bulk of its scarce resources to its own fighting men, leaving very little for prisoners of war. "With very few exceptions, like perhaps Wirz at Andersonville, the men in charge of the camps did the best they could," wrote historian Bruce Catton. "The big trouble was that in North and South alike, as far as the authorities were concerned, the prison camps came last. They got what was left over when all of the other needs had been met. They were last on the line for food supplies, for medical supplies, for doctors, for housing, for clothing, for guards, for all of the things that are needed to run a prison camp…. The prisoner of war got the dirty end of the stick not because anybody wanted to mistreat him, but simply because it worked out that way" (Catton 1981, p. 69).


Barton, Michael, and Larry M. Logue, eds. The Civil War Soldier: A Historical Reader. New York: New York University Press, 2002.

Catton, Bruce. "Prison Camps of the Civil War. American Heritage 10, no. 5 (1959): 4–13.

Catton, Bruce. Reflections on the Civil War. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1981.

Catton, Bruce. The American Heritage New History of the Civil War, rev. ed. Ed. James M. McPherson. New York: Viking, 1996.

Davis, William C. Rebels and Yankees: The Fighting Men of the Civil War. New York: Smithmark Publishers, 1991.

Donald, David Herbert, Jean Harvey Baker, and Michael F. Holt. The Civil War and Reconstruction. New York: W. W. Norton, 2001.

Eberly, Robert E., Jr. "Prison Town." Civil War Times Illustrated 38 (March 1999): 30–33.

Hesseltine, William Best. Civil War Prisons: A Study in War Psychology. New York: F. Ungar, 1964.

Horigan, Michael. Elmira: Death Camp of the North. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2002.

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

Mitchell, Reid. Civil War Soldiers: Their Expectations and Their Experiences. New York: Viking, 1988.

Mitchell, Reid. "Our Prison System: Supposing We Had Any: The Confederate and Union Prison Systems." In On the Road to Total War: The American Civil War and the German Wars of Unification, ed. Stig Förster and Jörg Nagler. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

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

Williams, David. A People's History of the Civil War: Struggles for the Meaning of Freedom. New York: New Press, 2005.

Kevin Hillstrom

Living as a Prisoner of War

More than 400,000 Civil War soldiers spent at least part of the conflict as prisoners of war. Tens of thousands more were paroled after capture and thus evaded prison; these soldiers—most of them captured during the opening months of the war—were the fortunate ones, for the men who were captured in the last two and a half years of the conflict endured many challenges to both body and soul. In fact, parole was fairly common up through the surrender of Vicksburg in 1863, in which 30,000 Confederates prisoners were paroled. The average soldier, from either the North or South, headed off to war with a host of new hopes and fears for his new military duties, but left home without the faintest conception of the nightmarish trials that would await him if captured and held captive by his enemies.

Days of Crushing Boredom

One of the most difficult if mundane aspects of being a prisoner of war during the Civil War was the utter lack of military or recreational activities to help pass the time. The crowded prisons in both the North and South offered no diversions of any kind for prisoners, and countless men spent their days shuffling or sitting and thinking about the bitter and miserable turn that their lives had taken. As one Union soldier wrote of his stint in a Confederate prison in South Carolina, many of his fellow prisoners sat "moping for hours with a look of utter dejection, their elbow upon their knee, and their chin resting upon their hand, their eyes having a vacant, faraway look" (Cooper 1888, p. 267). Thoughts of delicious food and loved ones back home seeped into every waking moment, and with nothing to take their minds off such torturous subjects, many soldiers struggled with profound depression.

Soldiers who could read and write sought some relief from the tedium through letter writing, but shortages of paper limited this option, and censorship by authorities was so heavy-handed that many letters were rendered senseless by blacked-out marks or scissor cuts. The uncertainties of wartime mail delivery further contributed to the anxiety of prisoners desperate for even a moment of relief from the dark environment that enveloped them. "Will no one send a little word to cheer us in our gloomy hours of activity?" wailed one Southern prisoner. "Oh, God! How dreadful are these bitter feelings of hope deferred. Thus we linger, thus we drag the slow, tedious hours of prison life" (Clark 1901, p. 677).

Religious services also helped pass the time for some soldiers and gave many religiously inclined soldiers a badly needed spiritual boost. An even greater number of imprisoned soldiers passed the time in conversation. These conversations—sometimes desultory, other times passionate—ranged over every conceivable subject, from the prewar lives that they had left behind to the character of fellow prisoners. But perhaps no topic preoccupied the soldiers as much as the question of when and under what circumstances their deliverance might come. Not surprisingly, then, newly arrived prisoners were barraged with requests for information about the progress of the war, and the prospects for a prisoner exchange.

Battling Hunger and Disease

Civil War prisoners from both the Union and Confederate ranks often found their worst suspicions about the other side confirmed once they were in the clutches of the enemy. In reality, however, the mistreatment and hardships that prisoners of war endured stemmed less from sanctioned policies of brutality than from individual acts of cruelty and, most pertinently, coldly logical decisions on the parts of the Federal and Confederat governments to divert the bulk of their limited resources to the armies still operating out in the field.

Food rations in virtually all stockades were insufficient to stave off at least mild malnutrition, and scurvy and other diet-related maladies became epidemic. In some prisons, however, food rations were so meager that outright starvation was a genuine possibility for some soldiers. Ghastly levels of emaciation prevailed in these places, and the intellectual, emotional, and physical health of countless men became eroded or shattered by what they endured in these hopeless locales. Starvation was a particular risk for prisoners who had neither the physical strength nor allies to keep their rations from predatory men with whom they were incarcerated, but in some prisons starvation threatened virtually the entire population. Hunger led captives to take desperate measures:

Many captives supplemented their diet with anything in the form of nutrition they could get their hands on, cats and dogs included. Some were strays, but others were pets of the guards or officers…. To be caught eating someone's pet could result in severe punishment, so rats were more often the targets of hungry soldiers. Besides, they were much more abundant. (Williams 2005, p. 238)

The plight of Confederate prisoners of war was worsened by the fact that the Union commissary general of prisoners was Colonel William Hoffman (1807–1884). A bureaucrat with little regard for the welfare of the prisoners in his charge, Hoffman ordered a succession of cold-hearted measures during the course of the war. These ranged from dramatic reductions in rations in retaliation for reports of similar reductions in Southern prisons (which had far fewer resources to begin with) to burning packages of blankets and clothing sent to inmates at Elmira by loved ones (Hoffman reportedly only allowed clothing and blankets that were gray to be used by the inmates at Elmira, one of the coldest locations in the entire Union prison system). Even Hoffman's reduced rations were more generous than what Union soldiers received in most Confederate prisons, especially Andersonville. At war's end, Hoffman proudly returned to the Federal Treasury nearly $2 million he had saved through reductions in the rations given to Confederate prisoners.

In both Northern and Southern prisons, clean water was in short supply. Water used for drinking and washing was taken from streams and wells fouled by human waste. Given the circumstances, all stockades inevitably deteriorated into squalid pits. Maintaining a reasonable level of personal hygiene was impossible, and the stench of sweat and human waste hung over every prison. Clouds of fleas, mosquitoes, biting flies, and other insects tortured countless men during the summertime, and during the winter Southerners in particular struggled with the crushing cold. One Confederate prisoner, for example, recalled that the camp where he was imprisoned allotted only one stove per barracks, even though the barracks was crammed with 200 or more prisoners. Every morning, remembered the soldier, "the men crawled out of their bunks shivering and half frozen, when a scuffle, and frequently a fight, for a place by the fire occurred. God help the sick or the weak, as they were literally left out in the cold."(Robertson 1984, pp. 128–129)

Preyed on by Comrades

Thievery, assaults, and intimidation among prisoners were unfortunate realities in the inmate populations of many Civil War prisons. These dark events played out on a routine basis in many stockades in both the North and South, but the most grimly spectacular example of this sort of in-fighting took place at the Confederate prison at Andersonville, Georgia. Conditions there were so awful that normal rules of civilized behavior and military brotherhood fell by the wayside. Survivors recalled that the daily food allotment at Andersonville generally consisted of three tablespoons of beans, a teaspoon of salt, and half a pint of unsifted cornmeal. A Confederate doctor who worked at Andersonville, meanwhile, reported that "from the crowded conditions, filthy habits, bad diet, and dejected, depressed condition of the prisoners, their systems had become so disordered that the smallest abrasion of the skin, from the rubbing of a shoe, or from the effects of the sun, the prick of a splinter or the scratching of a mosquito bite, in some cases took on a rapid and frightful ulceration and gangrene" (Davis 1991, p. 176).

Hard Living

William Harris, a Yankee soldier who was imprisoned during the Civil War details his captivity in his 1862 book Prison-life in the Tobacco Warehouse at Richmond. His sufferings focus on the day-to-day injustices and hardships. Here he describes the exorbitantly inflated prices for food, which soldiers had to pay to supplement their meager rations:

The Confederate government furnishes the rations of bread and beef, with salt and brown soap. All other articles of food are provided by the prisoners, at the following prices:—Tea, $4 per pound; coffee $1 per pound; brown sugar, 20 cents; butter, 60 cents; potatoes, $2 per bushel; molasses, $1.25 per gallon. The cost of extra rations, which are confined to the foregoing articles, averages $2.50 per week for each officer. (p. 23)

At other times, however, Harris's account turns toward the emotionally crushing realities of captivity. Aside from the physical pangs of empty stomachs and exposure, boredom and depression wore on the prisoners, who dreamed of being reunited with their loved ones:

The avidity with which each man gnawed his crust was ample evidence of his hunger. But a few moments elapsed before we received our allowance of boiled beef without salt; yet the bread by this time, in many cases, was all devoured. Breakfast being over… [the prisoners] seated themselves on our only chair (the floor) and engaged in an exciting game of "penny poker"; others pitched pennies, played euchre, draughts, etc. But the main portion would for a while gaze at the capital of Rebeldom, and then, taking the floor for a stool, sit like "Patience on a monument, smiling at grief." In retired spots could be seen the more thoughtful, perusing with manifest delight a Bible or Testament, rendered doubly sacred by being the last token of the affection of a doting parent or loving sister… it is here that we feel the loss of home comforts, our jovial associates, and all we once held dear. (pp. 58–59)

carly s. kaloustian

SOURCE: Harris, William C. Prison-life in the Tobacco Warehouse at Richmond. Philadelphia, PA: G. W. Childs, 1862. Sources in U.S. History Online: Civil War. Gale. Available from

The deterioration of conditions at Andersonville became so great that even the most partisan Southerners began to feel as if they were party to a great moral wrong. As one woman from the Andersonville area admitted, "My heart aches for these poor wretches, Yankees though they are, and I am afraid God will suffer some terrible retribution to fall upon us for letting such things happen" (Williams 2005, p. 238).

Meeting the Enemy

One of the less remarked-upon aspects of the Civil War prison camps was that the capture and incarceration of prisoners afforded soldiers with opportunities to meet and size up the enemy face-to-face. Reactions to captives and their circumstances ran the gamut of human emotions. Some Yankee and Rebel soldiers gloried in seeing the enemy humiliated and helpless. Many others recognized the similarities between themselves and the captured men before them, and their interactions were suffused with empathy for their plight. Surviving journals and letters from the war, for example, indicate that the tattered and shoeless appearance of Confederate captives in the last years of the war made a particularly deep impression on Union soldiers.

Prisoners who became acquainted with guards, meanwhile, sometimes fell prey to the temptation to befriend the enemy, thus risking retribution from fellow prisoners. This temptation was particularly great for conscripts and other prisoners who had not entered the war with enthu-siasm. But it also bedeviled veteran Confederate prisoners, especially during the last months of the war when Southern defeat looked inevitable.


Barton, Michael, and Larry M. Logue, eds. The Civil War Soldier: A Historical Reader. New York: New York University Press, 2002.

Catton, Bruce. Reflections on the Civil War, ed. John Leekley. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1981.

Clark, Walter, ed. Histories of the Several Regiments and Battalions from North Carolina, in the Great War 1861–'65. Goldsboro, NC: Nash Brothers, 1901.

Cooper, Alonzo. In and Out of Rebel Prisons. Oswego, NY, 1888.

Davis, William C. Rebels and Yankees: The Fighting Men of the Civil War. New York: Smithmark Publishers, 1991.

Donald, David Herbert, Jean Harvey Baker, and Michael F. Holt. The Civil War and Reconstruction. New York: W. W. Norton, 2001.

Eberly, Robert E., Jr. "Prison Town." Civil War Times Illustrated 38 (March 1999): 30–33.

Hesseltine, William Best. Civil War Prisons: A Study in War Psychology. New York: F. Ungar, 1964.

Horigan, Michael. Elmira: Death Camp of the North. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2002.

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

Mitchell, Reid. Civil War Soldiers: Their Expectations and Their Experiences. New York: Viking, 1988.

Mitchell, Reid. "Our Prison System: Supposing We Had Any: The Confederate and Union Prison Systems." In On the Road to Total War: The American Civil War and the German Wars of Unification, 1861–1871, ed. Stig Forster and Jorg Nagler. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Robertson, James I., Jr., and the editors of Time-Life Books. Tenting Tonight: The Soldier's Life. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1984.

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

Williams, David. A People's History of the Civil War: Struggles for the Meaning of Freedom. New York: New Press, 2005.

Kevin Hillstrom

African American Prisoners of War

When the Civil War erupted in the spring of 1861, thousands of African American men in the North asked to take up arms as part of the Union Army. They did so in part because of their hatred of the Confederacy and its allegiance to the "peculiar institution" of slavery, and in part because they believed that proving their mettle on the battlefield would advance their quest to gain American citizenship. It was not until July 1862, however, that the U.S. Congress passed legislation that permitted black men to serve as soldiers in the Union Army. This legislation specified that all-black units were to be led by white officers.

The entrance of black soldiers into the conflict was a great boon to the Union war effort, but Southern reaction to this development triggered a series of events that greatly increased the number of prisoners of war held by both sides. Prior to the summer of 1862, North and South had cobbled together a prisoner exchange and parole system that, despite some flaws, kept prisoner numbers relatively low. But the Confederacy flatly refused to even consider exchanging captured black soldiers. Instead, the administration of Jefferson Davis threatened to enslave captured blacks and execute their white officers. President Abraham Lincoln responded by vowing to reciprocate in kind: For every white officer the South executed, the North would execute a Confederate prisoner; for every black soldier reenslaved, the North would assign one of its prisoners hard labor. Federal authorities also suspended Union participation in the exchange system until the Confederacy agreed to exchange black soldiers. This deadlock produced a tremendous upsurge in the number of prisoners held by both sides.

New Heights of Fury

Official Confederate policy called for captured black Union soldiers to be incarcerated and prepared for eventual enslavement in Southern fields or factories. Many Confederate officers in the field, though, encouraged the men under their command to kill all black soldiers who came in their sight, even if they were wounded or attempting to surrender. Some Rebel soldiers objected to these instructions on moral grounds, but others reveled in brutalizing their black foes. In a few cases, outright massacres of captured black soldiers took place. The most infamous of these events occurred at Fort Pillow, Tennessee, on April 12, 1864. On this day, Rebel soldiers under the command of Nathan Bedford Forrest (1821–1877) killed nearly 300 black Union troops—including dozens who had reportedly surrendered.

For black Union soldiers who were thrown into Southern stockades, conditions were so bleak that some lamented not dying on the battlefield. Life for all prisoners of war was marked by pain, hunger, and feelings of hopelessness, but for black prisoners conditions were particularly harsh. "We were kept at hard labor and inhumanely treated," recalled one black Unionist. "If we lagged or faltered or misunderstood an order we were whipped and abused…. For the slightest causes we were subjected to the lash [and] we were very poorly provided for with food" (Speer 1997, p. 113). Medical treatment for black prisoners was virtually nonexistent as well, and the shelter they received was frequently even more negligible than that provided to white prisoners. All told, blacks held in Confederate prison camps died at a rate of 35 percent, more than twice the average for white captives (Speer 1997, p. 113).

Black prisoners also sometimes endured the indignity of mistreatment at the hands of white inmates. Hostility to black soldiers stemmed partly from bigotry, but it also was rooted in the knowledge that the prisoner exchange system had fallen apart as a direct result of the introduction of black soldiers into the conflict. Other white Yankee prisoners, however, firmly supported the Lincoln administration's decision to refuse exchanges until Richmond agreed to include black prisoners in such trades. "Anyone, whatever may be his color, who wears the blue of Uncle Sam is entitled to protection," wrote one captain imprisoned in a Georgia stockade (Mitchell 1988, p. 49).


Cimprich, John, and Robert C. Mainfort Jr., eds. "Fort Pillow Revisited: New Evidence about an Old Controversy." Civil War History 28, no. 4 (1982): 293–306.

Davis, William C. Rebels and Yankees: The Fighting Men of the Civil War. New York: Smithmark Publishers, 1991.

Glatthaar, Joseph T. Forged in Battle: The Civil War Alliance of Black Soldiers and White Officers. New York: Free Press, 1990.

Mitchell, Reid. Civil War Soldiers: Their Expectations and Their Experiences. New York: Viking, 1988.

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

Prisoner Exchange and Parole

Conflict on the scale experienced during the Civil War found North and South alike ill-prepared. The magnitude of the war's repercussions were exposed dramatically in the administration of captured combatants. Hurriedly improvised measures to accommodate an unforeseen number of prisoners resulted in appalling living conditions. Civil War prisons have become synonymous with deprivation, hardship, and a lack of the basic necessities to sustain life: food, clothing, hygiene, and shelter.

Stephen Minot Weld, a Union officer captured during the Seven Days campaign, described the rations served in Richmond's Libby Prison: "The only food furnished us was sour bread, meat, and salt, and at times a little vinegar. The meat was made into greasy soup, entirely unfit for a human being's stomach. If we had not had some money, we should have starved" (Weld 1979 [1912], p. 126). The menu available to Confederate prisoners was little, if any, better. Confederate Captain John Dooley, held captive in the Federal prison at Johnson's island in Ohio relates, "many go to the slop barrels and garbage piles to gather from the refuse a handful of revolting food" (Dooley 1945, p. 165).

In some instances, in both Union and Confederate prisons, the captives were treated to slightly better fare. Ambrose Spencer lived near Andersonville, the Confederate prison in Georgia. He penned an account of conditions faced there by Union prisoners. Making mention of the victuals, Spencer observed, "the rations for one day generally consisted of two ounces of bacon, a sweet potato when is season, a piece of bread two and a half inches square, composed of corn and cowpeas ground together into meal and unsifted" (Spencer 1866, p. 75). Sergeant Bartlett Malone of the 6th North Carolina infantry noted, "our rations at Point Lookout was 5 crackers and a cup of coffee for Breakfast. And for dinner a small ration of meat 2 crackers three Potatoes and a cup of Soup" (Malone 1987 [1960], p. 93). South Carolinian Berry Benson confirms the frequency of meals at the Federal Point Lookout, Maryland site. He mentioned, "we were given only two meals a day, breakfast at eight, dinner at two" (Benson 1992, p. 93). Commenting on the late meal, Benson went on to say, "…we had dinner, but it seemed to me very scanty. As a whole, I don't think Confederate prisoners suffered greatly for food, tho' we had none too much truly" (p. 94).

Food, while at a minimum was at the same time at a premium. In some instances prisoners were able to supplement their meager fare of rations by purchasing surplus food items or scavenging nearby resources. Dooley related, "Rats are found to be very good for food, and every night many are captured and slain. So pressing is the want of food that nearly all who can have gone into the rat business, wither selling these horrid animals or killing them and eating them" (1945, p. 163). Dooley recounted a favorite Johnson's Island story that called into question even the supply and survival of rodents: "…one night it was so cold in … block 2 that a little mouse starting from its hole to run across the floor, was unable to complete its journey and expired frozen to death in the middle of the room" (p. 166). Although Dooley recounts this tale somewhat facetiously, it demonstrates prisoners' efforts to alleviate extreme conditions through humor and exaggeration.

During the early months of hostilities, both sides struggled to provide housing for captured combatants. Union prisoners captured in early engagements in Virginia were transported to the fledgling Confederacy's capital at Richmond. Corporal William H. Merrell of the 27th New York remembered conditions in Richmond's Tobacco Warehouse:

There were no artificial conveniences for either eating or sleeping. At night the prisoners stretched themselves upon the bare floor, uncovered; and at meal time — if the irregular and melancholy farce of eating may be thus interpreted—they sat upon the floor, ranging against the wall, and (in primitive style) devoured whatever they could obtain. A more gloomy and revolting spectacle can hardly present itself to the imagination, than was afforded by these filthy quarter (1862, p. 25).

As the war progressed, facilities for holding captives were chosen for convenience with an appreciation for size and security, as in the case of Point Lookout, Fort Delaware, Belle Isle, and Tobacco Warehouse. Little if any thought was given however to providing prisoners with the basic necessities much less anything to ease an otherwise severe existence. In addition, existing prisons became overcrowded adding to the occupants' discomfort. Merell commented, "… I was transferred from the general hospital to Prison No. 1—a tobacco warehouse … its interior dimensions being seventy feet in length by twenty-six in width. It was in a most crowded state, as may be inferred from the fact that at no time were there less than one hundred and thirty, and often as many as one hundred and fifty occupants" (1862, p. 25). Private William Oake, of the 26th Iowa Infantry had a similar experience: "In the room in which we were there were about three hundred prisoners, and although the room was 40 × 100 feet I can assure my readers there was not much room for rent" (Oake 2006, p. 122)

In some instances prisoners were barely, if at all, afforded shelter. Vermont private Charles Fairbanks remembered such conditions at one of the more infamous Confederate prisons near Richmond: "… We were taken to Belle Island, about one-half mile from the city. Here we were surrounded by earth works, within an enclosure of four acres, where were confined over four thousand prisoners without shelter, except a few 'Cibley tents', the majority of the prisoners being exposed to the weather day and night" (Fairbanks 2004, p. 71). According to Benson, a similar situation existed at Point Lookout: "The prison was a rectangular enclosure of about ten acres … Inside the fence were rows of tents with streets between … In the tent where I was placed, were 15 others, and it may be well believed that 16 men, even in a Sibley tent, were badly crowded" (Benson 1992, pp. 90–91).

Even though additional housing was acquired and prisoners were separated according to rank, conditions improved little. Captives faced not only extreme overcrowding, but complications incident to that condition. Weld recounted, "My chief annoyance was from the lice. Every morning for over six weeks I looked over my clothes carefully, and as regularly found two or three of the disgusting old fellows besides any amount of nits and young ones. The building was full of them and whenever any one hammered on the floor above, down came lice. I have always had a great horror of them, and found them rather hard to bear" (1979 [1912], p. 128). Dooley noted, "Mice and roaches gamboled round our heads, performing feats of wondrous skill to astonish us who were now in this dismal world of theirs. No pillows and no blankets to cover up, and then the vermin!" (1945, p. 125).

Under such conditions it is not surprising that hygiene was non-existent, although prisoners made a valiant effort in the attempt. Oake related, "We of course had an abundance of water but having no soap we did not as a general thing do a very good job in our laundry work, but still it would freshen up our old rags, and for a short time would feel quite comfortable until the heat of our bodies began to revive the greybacks that had for a short time been put out of commission by being immersed cold water" (Oake 2006, p. 122). Dooley noted,

We have great trouble to get water for washing and cooking purposes. Two holes in the enclosure have been furnishing us with drinking, washing and cooking water. This water being clearer in the morning we try to furnish each room with a supply of drinking water for the day; but after some few thousands of buckets have been plunged in may be used only for washing and cooking purposes. At present one of the holes is out of order, and all come down to our small well, which refused to accommodate all as abundantly as it did a few. (1945, p. 145).

Merrell commented, "Let the reader picture a hundred haggard faces and emaciated forms — some with hair and beard of three months growth — so miserably clothed, in general, as scarcely to subserve the purposes of decency; and many limping about with pain from healed wounds …" (1862, p. 25). "It was utterly impossible to keep clean. The only clothing I had was what I had on when captured, which consisted of a woolen shirt, blouse and pants. Each day as long as I was able to sit up, I took off my shirt and pants and killed the lice between my thumb nails," wrote Fairbanks (2004, p. 77).

By the end of June 1862, there was a growing accumulation of captives that were becoming increasingly unmanageable. Consequently, the Union and Confederate governments agreed to a plan for prisoner exchange known as the Dix-Hill cartel. "Immediately following the fights around Richmond in 1862, General D. H. Hill, of the Confederate Army and General Jno. A. Dix, of the Federal Army, were chosen by their respective governments to arrange a cartel for the exchange of prisoners" (Ratchford 1971 [1908], p. 27). The effect of potential exchange is found in numerous memoirs, letters, and diaries. The thought of exchange gave captives hope not only of relief from suffering but also for their very survival. Private Fairbanks, who was not expected to survive his ordeal to see parole, remembered his experience:

Ten days later … word was passed around that another squad was to be paroled, and only those who were sick, one hundred eighty six men, were to be selected from the four thousand. My heart almost stopped its action when the thought came, 'what if I am left behind this time' but I did not give up … as the number increased and my name was not called, I began to grow weak. When one hundred eighty had been called, one hundred eighty-one, one hundred eighty-two, and I knew there were only three more, I heard my name …" (Fairbanks 2004, p. 81).

Disagreements between the contending governments over United States Colored Troops, the alleged abuse of the cartel by Confederate bureau chief Robert Ould, and the recognition by Union General Ulysses S. Grant that returning prisoners strengthened the enemy, forced a halt to the exchange program. Regular exchanges dwindled in late 1863 and were discontinued in 1864, not to be resumed until the final months of the war. The impact is reflected in the writings of John Dooley: "New Year's Day 1865. Gloom—blood—and repining everywhere … All things appear so very dark and sad I feel like writing no more." Over the course of the next seven days his outlook changed considerably because of the hope of exchange: "News somewhat more cheering for us … Trans-Mississippi prisoners ordered to be prepared to leave at a moment's notice … One hundred and seventy prisoners of the trans-Mississippi department … left today for exchange. This is cheering indeed … it gives us some hope that they will not be the only ones who may be exchanged and once having set the ball in motion we may all be rolled to our homes…" (1945, p. 165).

Conditions in terms of food, clothing, shelter, and hygiene barely sustained existence. Treatment at the hands of the enemy, however, varied widely. Treatment encompassed the kindest compassion and the most wanton cruelty. Benson remembered with appreciation the compassion of some Union soldiers: "The Sergt. Of the guard, a tall, fine-looking fellow … had been very kind to us, giving us his own rations when we could draw none… We might have suffered severely for food, if our guards had not been good fellows and divided with us" (Benson 1992, p. 90). Weld noted both extremes in treatment:

In regard to my treatment in Richmond, I met with very kind treatment from the officer in charge, Lieutenant Trabue. The first officer who had charge of us, Captain William Read, was as conceited a puppy as ever lived. He was impudent to the officers, and was consequently removed. Tra-bue then had charge of us and was very kind and obliging… Most of the officers who had anything to do with us, treated us personally in a very kind manner… (Weld 1979 [1912], pp. 125–126).

Malone recalled more than one account of seemingly unjustified cruelty: "A Yankey shot one of our men the other day wounded him in the head shot him for peepen threw the cracks of the planken … Captain shot his Pistel among our men and wounded 5 of them; since one has died—he shot them for crowding arond the gate" (Malone 1987 [1960], p. 94).

Civil War military prisons were synonymous with deprivation, suffering, and death. Some of the more notorious were Libby Prison, Point Lookout, Belle Island, Elmira, and Andersonville. Andersonville prison in Georgia is remembered, arguably, as the most egregious example of utter destitution among them. Ambrose Spencer was a staunch Unionist who lived near Andersonville. In his account of conditions at the prison, Spencer noted:

meanwhile the crowds within the stockade had attained the highest limits as to numbers which was reached during its continuance, there being … thirty-six thousand four hundred and eighty … With this increase there was a corresponding augmentation of their sufferings. The rains …together with the constant tread of so many men, converted the interior at times into one vast bed of muddy slush nearly a foot deep—an aggregation of semi-liquid filth, through which the miserable prisoners unceasingly tramped in the unvarying round of pointless existence. Then for some days the hot sun would pour down upon this quagmire, feculent with putrefaction, and draw from its depths vapors saturated with fetid stench that it exhaled, and which corrupted the air they had to inhale. With their faces begrimed with smoke and dirt, their clothes in tatters and impregnated with vermin, shoeless and hatless, now up to their knees in mud, then breathing the pestilential atmosphere which a September sun had evoked, the wonder is that human nature did not succumb more rapidly and in greater numbers than the irresponsible death registers indicated" (1866, p. 109).

Spencer, like most of Northern America at that time, held the Confederate authorities of the prison, and especially its commandant Henry Wirz responsible. Wirz was convicted and hanged by the United States government as a result.

In contrast to the perspective of Spencer as an outsider looking into the horror that was Andersonville, is the actual experience of Edward Boate who, as a prisoner, suffered its reality. Boate was a captive at Ander-sonville and a parolee who served his sick comrades by working in the Surgeon General's Headquarters. Boate, therefore, offers a unique perspective on his enemy's efforts on behalf of Andersonville's imprisoned: "I know the efforts that were being daily made to sustain the prisoners. The country for twenty and fifty miles around was being laid under contribution for meat and meal for our men. The surgeon in charge daily employed messengers to scour the country for vegetables for our sick men; for straw for their tents; and for every necessary that could contribute to their comfort, but too often without success." (Boate 2004, p. 22). On behalf of Wirz, Boate said,

When I became a paroled prisoner, I had to alter my opinions of Captain Wirz. What I thought harsh in him was more assumed than real; while what was kind in the man was real, not assumed. He had the least amount of sectional feeling I met in the South. He would often say: 'If the d—d fanatics on both sides were put into a barrel and thrown into the sea and if they could escape through the bung-hole, let them do so; but it if they sank to the bottom the country at large would be the better of it (Boate 2004, p. 35).

Boate went on to comment on the accusations of atrocities committed by Wirz: "Among Wirz's 'atrocities,' was a principle he adopted and acted upon throughout, that whenever there was a chance of giving fresh air, an additional or better ration or an opportunity of purchasing a little vegetables, it was reserved for men who came from Belle Island, as they were the men who[se] incarceration had been the most protracted" (Boate 2004, p. 37).

The harshness of prison life was a reality attested to almost without exception in surviving accounts of prison life. Prison existence was however, recalled with an admirable lack of animosity and in a detached, objective manner by those who suffered within its grasp. Edward Boate, as an example, processed his experience and considered his captors in a most compassionate and nonjudgmental fashion. Similarly, what grace the pages of a surprising number of letters, diaries and memoirs in spite of the baseless inhumanity of living conditions, is the endurance of the human will and the resilience of the human spirit.


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