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Prisoners of war

Holland Thompson, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of History in the College of the City of New York

A Union sentry at Libby in 1865—Confederate prisoners


Prisoners of war in fort Delaware, May, 1864: brave and Distin-Guished southneners in a Union prison. Captain Hart Gibson (No. 4) was serving at the time of his capture as assistant adjutant-general on General John H. Morgan's staff. Colonel R. C. Morgan (No. 11) and Captain C. H. Morgan (No. 13) were brothers of General Morgan. The former served on the staff of General A. P. Hill in the Army of Northern Virginia, and subsequently commanded the Fourteenth Kentucky Cavalry. The latter served as aide-de-Camp on his brother's staff. Lieutenant Henry H. Brogden (No. 1), of Maryland, later held an official position under President Cleveland. Lieut.-Colonel Joseph T. Tucker (No. 2) served with the Eleventh Kentucky Cavalry. Brigadier-General R. B. Vance (No. 6) was a brother of the distinguished Zebulon B. Vance, who was three times Governor [21] of North Carolina, and afterwards United States Senator from that State. Lieut.-Colonel Cicero Coleman (No. 7) served with the Eighth Kentucky Cavalry. The Rev. I. W. K. Handy (No. 8) was a Presbyterian minister. B. P. Key (No. 9), ‘Little Billy,’ was a lad of about sixteen, a private in a Tennessee regiment. Brigadier-General M. Jeff Thompson (No. 10) was a native of Virginia but a citizen of Missouri. Colonel W. W. Ward (No. 12) commanded the Ninth Tennessee Cavalry. After the close of the war he was elected Chancellor in a Judicial District of Tennessee. Colonel (later General) Basil W. Duke (No. 14) was a daring cavalry leader. No. 3 was Lieutenant H. H. Smith, of North Carolina; 5, Lieutenant J. J. Andrews, of Alabama; and 15, J. A. Tomlinson, of Kentucky.


Camp Douglas, near Chicago: where Confederate prisoners from the West were confined. In the foreground stands a Confederate sergeant with rolls of the prisoners in his hands. It was the custom of the captives to choose a mess-sergeant from among their own number. These hundreds of men are a part of the thousands confined at Camp Douglas. The barracks were enclosed by a fence to confine the Confederate prisoners taken at Forts Donelson and Henry, and new barracks were afterward built. The barracks were wooden buildings ninety by twenty-four feet, of which twenty feet was cut off for the kitchen. [23]

In the remaining seventy feet an average of one hundred and seventy men slept in tiers of bunks. Camp Douglas was located on land belonging to the Stephen A. Douglas estate, and was bounded by Cottage Grove Avenue on the east, Forest Avenue on the west, Thirty-first Street on the north, and Thirty-third Street on the south. In 1911 the Cottage Grove Avenue electric cars were running past the old front, and the Thirty-first Street cross-town cars past the north boundary; the ‘Camp’ was a residence district.


In this mass of material the man with a preconceived notion can find facts to his liking. . . . In no part of the history of the Civil War is a wholesome skepticism more desirable, and nowhere is more applicable a fundamental tenet of historical criticism that all the right is never on one side and all the wrong on the other.—James Ford Rhodes in ‘ History of the United States.’

From first to last, omitting the armies surrendered during April and May, 1865, more than four hundred thousand prisoners were confined for periods ranging from days to years. At the beginning of the war no suitable provision was made on either side. Naturally, a South which did not believe that there would be a war and therefore did not adequately provide for the contest, made no advance preparation for the care of prisoners. A North which believed that the South would be subjugated within ninety days, saw little need of making provision for captives. When the war began in earnest, the task of organizing and equipping the fighting men so engrossed the attention of the authorities that no time to think of possible prisoners was found.

A majority of the people, North and South, believed that an army might spring, full-armed, from the soil at the word of command, and that training in the duties and obligations of the soldier was not only unnecessary but in some way inconsistent with the dignity of a free-born American citizen. The thousands of volunteers, officers and men, who made up the armies in the years 1861-65, brought with them varying ideas and ideals, diverse standards of courtesy and justice. [25]

Men of New York's ‘fighting sixty-ninth,’ prisoners in Charleston The prisoners shown in this photograph are members of Colonel Michael Corcoran's Irish Regiment, the Sixty-ninth New York. They were captured at the first battle of Bull Run, July 21, 1861. Colonel Corcoran (shown on a previous page) and his men were taken first to Richmond, and then in September to Castle Pinckney in Charleston Harbor. These prisoners have light-heartedly decorated their casemate with a sign reading: ‘Musical Hall, 444 Broadway.’ One of their number, nicknamed ‘Scottie,’ had been formerly with Christy's minstrels, who played at 444 Broadway, New York, during the war. According to the recollections of Sergeant Joseph F. Burke, of the Cadets, the prisoners and their youthful guards indulged in good-natured banter about the outcome of the war, the prisoners predicting that their friends would soon come to the rescue—that the positions would be reversed, so that they, not the Cadets, would be ‘on guard.’ Four terrible years elapsed before their prediction as to the outcome of the war came true.

[26] These volunteers captured the prisoners and for the most part had charge of them. They interpreted the rules for their care and treatment in the light of their temperaments and their previous environment.

The lot of captives taken in war always has been hard. Once their lives were at the disposal of their captors, who did not hesitate to slay. A struggling humanitarianism, combined with self-interest, next made them bond-slaves of the conquerors, who nevertheless retained the power of life and death. As the centuries passed, prisoners of war were placed in a class, and only the right to hold them until the end of the conflict remained.

The purpose of holding prisoners is, of course, to weaken the military strength of the adversary by keeping fighting men from his ranks. Possession of a large number of prisoners may, however, prove a source of weakness rather that of strength, since prisoners must be guarded and fed. Therefore, the custom of paroling—that is, releasing under an oath not to take up arms until exchanged—developed.

The first prisoners were taken very soon after the organization of the Confederate Government, before a battle had been fought. On February 18, 1861, General David E. Twiggs, commanding the Department of Texas, surrendered without resistance the military posts and public property of the department to a committee appointed by the State of Texas, stipulating, however, that the troops, 2684 in all, were to retire unmolested. Because of this act, General Twiggs was dismissed on March 1st from the Federal service. A few transports were sent for the troops, but before all of them had succeeded in reaching the coast, the attempt to relieve Fort Sumter put a new face upon the situation.

President Davis had been disposed to allow the fulfilment of the original agreement, but soon it was announced that at the time the promise was given a state of war did not exist, and that a subsequent state of war made it proper for [27]

In casemate no. 2 Union prisoners, Castle Pinckney Among the Union prisoners taken at the first battle of Bull Run and transferred to Castle Pinckney, besides the Seventy-ninth New York (Scotch) Regiment, the Sixty-ninth New York (Irish) Regiment, and the Eighth Michigan Infantry, were some of the Eleventh Fire Zouaves, recruited from the New York Fire Department. These prisoners were an extremely intelligent lot of men, and adapted themselves to the situation. They willingly performed police duty. Their casemates were kept in excellent condition. They shared the same fare as their guards, and taught them the army method of softening ‘hard-tack’ so that they could eat it with less violent exercise of their jaws and danger to their molars. The Charleston Zouave Cadets was a company of very young men, residents of Charleston, full of patriotic ardor and well disciplined. The State of South Carolina seceded from the Union at three o'clock in the afternoon of December 20, 1860, and at four o'clock the young company was on duty. Their uniform was gray with a red stripe and trimmings, red fatigue-caps, and white cross-belts. Later in the war they saw service at the front.

[28] the Confederate States to disregard the agreement with the State of Texas. Therefore, Colonel Earl Van Dorn was ordered to Texas, either to enlist the men into the Confederate army or to take them prisoners of war. Several of the commissioned officers resigned from the United States service and joined the Confederacy, but the rank and file were almost unanimously loyal. On April 23d, Colonel C. A. Waite, who had succeeded to the command of the Department of Texas, and the other officers on duty at headquarters were seized and paroled. On the 25th of April, Major C. C. Sibley, commanding the Third Infantry, was forced to surrender at Saluria after he had embarked his forces. The troops, with their officers, were then allowed to sail for New York after the officers had given the following parole:

Saluria, Tex., April 25, 1861.
To the authorities of the Confederate States of America:
I give my word of honor as an officer and a gentleman that I will not bear arms nor exercise any of the functions of my office under my commission from the President of the United States, against the Confederate States of America, during the existence of the war between the said Confederate and United States, unless I shall be exchanged for another prisoner or prisoners of war, or unless I shall be released by the President of the Confederate States. In consideration of the above parole, it is understood that I am free to go and come wherever I may see fit, except that I shall not attempt to enter or depart from any fort, camp, or garrison of the Confederate States without the sanction of its commanding officer.


The following oath was administered to the enlisted men:

To the authorities of the Confederate States of America:
We do solemnly swear that we will not bear arms against the Confederate States of America, nor in any way give aid and comfort to the United States against the Confederate States, during the existence of the war between the said United States and Confederate States, unless [29]

Colonel Corcoran, who was chosen by lot for death Around the tall, commanding figure of Colonel Michael Corcoran, of the New York ‘Fighting Sixty-ninth,’ a storm raged in the summer of 1861. Corcoran had been chosen by lot to meet the same fate as Walter W. Smith, prize-master of the schooner Enchantress, with a prize-crew from the Confederate privateer Jeff. Davis, who was captured July 22, 1861, tried for piracy in the United States Court in Philadelphia, October 29d-28th, and convicted of the charge. Soon after the news of his conviction reached Richmond, Acting Secretary of War J. P. Benjamin issued an order to Brigadier-General John H. Winder to choose by lot, from among the Federal prisoners of war, of the highest rank, one who was to receive exactly the same treatment as prize-master Walter W. Smith. He also ordered that thirteen other prisoners of war, the highest in rank of those captured by the Confederate forces, should be served as the crew of the Savannah. It fell to Colonel Corcoran to become the hostage for Smith. Since only ten other Federal field-officers were held as prisoners, three captains were chosen by lot to complete the quota, and all were placed in close confinement. The United States was forced to recede from its position, which was untenable. Judge Grier, one of the bench who tried Smith in Philadelphia, aptly remarked that he could not understand why men taken on the sea were to be hanged, while those captured on land were to be held as prisoners or released.

[30] we shall be duly exchanged for other prisoners of war, or until we shall be released by the President of the Confederate States. In consideration of this oath, it is understood that we are free to go wherever we may see fit.


On the 9th of May, Lieutenant-Colonel I. V. D. Reeve, who was on his way to the coast from the forts in New Mexico, surrendered ten officers and two hundred and seventy men at San Lucas Spring, near San Antonio. Meanwhile, President Lincoln had issued his proclamation threatening to treat privateers as pirates. Therefore, Colonel Van Dorn restricted the limits of these men to Bexar County, Texas, and the officers to the Confederate States, though the officers were later limited to the State of Texas. Because of the death of his daughter, Colonel Van Dorn gave Lieutenant-Colonel Reeve the privilege of going North.

On May 10th, a brigade of Missouri State Militia at Camp Jackson, near St. Louis, Missouri, was taken by Captain Nathaniel Lyon, U. S. A., and the officers and men were paroled not to serve again during the war. Several hundred prisoners were taken by General George B. McClellan at Rich Mountain, Virginia, in July, and all were paroled, except two who had previously served in the United States army. These the War Department ordered General McClellan to retain. Then, on July 21, 1861, came the battle of Bull Run, or Manassas, when the Confederates took more than a thousand prisoners. The war was on in earnest.

The Federal government was inclined to refuse to recognize the validity of the Texas paroles, and was only prevented from such action by the firmness of the officers themselves. Secretary of War Cameron, for example, ordered Lieutenant-Colonel Reeve to disregard his parole or else leave the army by resignation or dismissal. Colonel Reeve appealed to President Lincoln, who overruled the secretary. Other paroled officers were ordered to duty before exchange, but all declined. [31]

Mrs. Greenhow, the Confederate spy, with her daughter, in the old capitol prison Mrs. Rose O'Neal Greenhow, a zealous and trusted friend of the Confederacy, lived in Washington at the opening of the war. It was she who, on July 16, 1861, sent the famous cipher message to Beauregard, ‘Order issued for McDowell to move on Manassas to-night.’ Acting on this, Beauregard promptly arranged his army for the expected attack, while Johnston and ‘StonewallJackson hastened from the Valley to aid in repelling the Federal advance. Mrs. Greenhow's secret-service work was cut short on August 26th, when Allan Pinkerton, the Federal detective, arrested her and put her under military guard at her home, 398 Sixteenth Street. Afterward she was transferred to the Old Capitol Prison. She remained there until April, 1862. On June 2d, after pledging her world not to come north of the Potomac until the war was over, Mrs. Greenhow was escorted beyond thee lines of the Union army and set at liberty. It was later discovered that she had, even while in prison, corresponded extensively with Colonel Thomas Jordan, of General Beauregard's staff.


According to the laws of war, prisoners taken in an armed contest between two belligerents must be protected, are entitled to quarters, to proper food and clothing, to medical attendance, and to a reasonable amount of fuel, bedding, and Camp equipage. They may be required to labor, except upon military works, and in attempting to escape they commit no crime. In fact, it is the duty of a prisoner to escape if he can, and he should not be punished therefor, though he may be confined with greater strictness. Prisoners may be exchanged as the captor wills, though no obligation rests upon him to enter into such an agreement. A captor also may allow his prisoner, if he so wills, to sign a written parole, or may accept a parole in an oral form. Generally, only an officer is given the privilege of a parole, while an oath is administered to an enlisted man. If a prisoner's government refuses to recognize the instrument, the prisoner is bound in honor to return to captivity.

Some of these provisions are the ordinary dictates of humanity. Others are conventions which have been accepted by the common consent of nations. In previous wars they had been generally violated, and the same thing happened during the Civil War. Sometimes the violation was unintentional; at other times, because some apparent advantage was gained. Some officers in charge of prisoners looked upon them as felons and acted as the warden of a penitentiary might. Others seemed to feel that ‘ all is fair in war.’

If the contest had been between two independent nations, the captives upon each side would naturally have been exchanged, but it was the theory of the United States that the contest was an insurrection, not a war, and therefore the authorities were at first inclined to treat their prisoners as civil delinquents, guilty of treason. It was feared that an agreement to exchange prisoners would be regarded as a recognition of the Confederacy as a nation, and it was determined to avoid such action. After the battles of Bull Run and Ball's Bluff, [33]

Confederates captured at Cedar Mountain, in Culpeper Court House, August, 1862 The Confederate prisoners on the balcony seem to be taking their situation very placidly. They have evidently been doing some family laundry, and have hung the results out to dry. The sentries lounging beneath the colonnade below, and the two languid individuals leaning up against the porch and tree, add to the peacefulness of the scene. At the battle of Cedar Mountain, August 9, 1861, the above with other Confederates were captured and temporarily confined in this county town of Culpeper. Like several other Virginia towns, it does not boast a name of its own, but is universally known as Culpeper Court House. A settlement had grown up in the neighborhood of the courthouse, and the scene was enlivened during the sessions of court by visitors from miles around.

[34] the number of prisoners in Confederate hands was so large and their political influence so great, that commanders were authorized to make special exchanges, and many were made both in the East and in the West.

This denial of belligerent rights could not be maintained, since the Government was forced to take warlike measures for the suppression of the so-called insurrection, and no real attempt was made to carry this theory to its logical conclusion, except in the case of the first privateers captured. Learning that the Confederacy had issued commissions for privateers to prey upon the commerce of the United States, President Lincoln issued a proclamation on April 19, 1861, declaring that these would be treated as pirates.

An opportunity to enforce the proclamation soon arose. The privateer Savannah, with thirteen men on board, was captured off Charleston Harbor on June 3d. The prisoners were taken to New York and placed in the ‘ Tombs ’ (the city prison), where they remained until turned over to the War Department and transferred to Fort Lafayette, on February 3, 1862. They were brought to trial on the charge of piracy on October 23, 1861, but they had excellent counsel and their case was presented with such skill and vigor that the jury disagreed. Before another trial could be had, it had been decided to treat them as prisoners of war. Undoubtedly this decision was hastened by the attitude of Great Britain, which was decidedly unfriendly to the claim of the United States, but the principal cause was the action of the Confederate Government, to be mentioned hereafter.

The day after the battle of Bull Run (or Manassas), July 22d, the schooner Enchantress, under charge of a prize crew from the privateer Jeff Davis, was captured and the crew was taken to Philadelphia. There, Walter W Smith, prize-master, was tried for piracy in the United States Court, October 22-28th, and was convicted. Soon after the news reached Richmond, the following order was issued: [35]

Awaiting transportation to a Northern prison, 1863 In this photograph appear more of the prisoners represented on the previous page, captured at the battle of Chattanooga, November 23, 24, and 25, 1863. In the background rises Lookout Mountain, where Hooker fought his sensational battle above the clouds, driving his opponents from every position. Their work is over for the present; in a few days more these prisoners will be shivering in the unaccustomed climate of the North. Shelter was provided for such unfortunates in Federal prisons, but fuel was often scanty and in some cases wholly lacking. The Northern winters destroyed many Southern lives. The medical and surgical attendance of the prisoners was unsatisfactory on both sidles; 10,000 of the flower of the Northern medical profession were at the front. To say that abundant bedding and clothing was issued to Confederate prisoners in the North is too sweeping. Report after report of Federal medical inspectors states that prisoners were frequently without blankets or straw. The problem of caring for them was a tremendous one.


War Department, Richmond, Nov. 9, 1861.
sir: You are hereby instructed to choose, by lot, from among the prisoners of war, of highest rank, one who is to be confined in a cell appropriated to convicted felons, and who is to be treated in all respects as if such convict, and to be held for execution in the same manner as may be adopted by the enemy for the execution of the prisoner of war Smith, recently condemned to death in Philadelphia.

You will also select thirteen other prisoners of war, the highest in rank of those captured by our forces, to be confined in the cells reserved for prisoners accused of infamous crimes, and will treat them as such so long as the enemy shall continue so to treat the like number of prisoners of war captured by them at sea, and now held for trial in New York as pirates.

As these measures are intended to repress the infamous attempt now made by the enemy to commit judicial murder on prisoners of war, you will execute them strictly, as the mode best calculated to prevent the commission of so heinous a crime.

Your obedient servant,

(Signed) J. P. Benjamin, Acting Secretary of War. To Brig.-Gen. John H. Winder.


The order was obeyed the next day, and Colonel Michael Corcoran of the Sixty-ninth New York was chosen by lot as the hostage for Smith. As only eleven Federal field-officers were held as prisoners, three captains were chosen by lot to complete the quota, and all were placed in close confinement.

This move caused intense excitement in the North. The friends of the officers bombarded the War Department with letters pleading for exchange, and finally the United States Government receded from its position, which was untenable. Judge Grier, one of the bench who tried Smith in Philadelphia, aptly said that he could not understand why men taken on the sea were to be hanged while those captured on land were to be held as prisoners, or released.

At first buildings already constructed were used for the confinement of prisoners. The abandoned penitentiary at Alton, [37]

Confederate prisoners waiting for the railroad train Chattanooga, Tennessee 1864 At the battle of Chattanooga the Army of the Cumberland under General Thomas assailed the field-works at the foot of Mission Ridge, November 25, 1863, and captured them at the point of the bayonet. Then, without orders, the troops, eager to wipe out the memory of Chickamauga, pressed gallantly on up the ridge, heedless of the deadly fire belched into their very faces, and overran the works at the summit like a torrent, capturing thirty-five guns and prisoners wholesale. As this photograph was taken, some of the Confederate prisoners were standing at the railroad depot awaiting transportation to the prisons in the North. There such bodies were usually guarded by partially disabled soldiers organized as the Veteran Reserve Corps. They had more to eat than the Northern prisoners in the South, yet often less than the amount to which they were entitled by the army regulations. In the South, during the last years of the war, prisoners almost starved, while their guards fared little better. With all the resources of the North, Confederate prisoners often went hungry, because of the difficulty of organizing such a tremendous task and finding suitable officers to take charge. The Northern soldiers in the field frequently suffered from hunger for days at a time.

[38] Illinois, was taken for the accommodation of Confederate prisoners in the West, while in the East the forts along the seaboard, including Fort Warren in Boston Harbor, Forts Lafayette and Columbus at New York, Fort McHenry in Chesapeake Bay, Fort Delaware in the Delaware River, and the Old Capitol at Washington, were converted into prisons. In Richmond, tobacco-factories which could be transformed with comparatively little work into places for the detention of prisoners, were leased. Among these were Liggon's, Crew's, Castle Thunder, Pemberton, and others. Later Libby, which had been an old warehouse, became the chief officers' prison. Castle Pinckney in Charleston Harbor, and some empty buildings in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, were also used.

As the war went on, it was found that such accommodations were entirely inadequate. The capacity of the forts along the seaboard was limited, with the exception of Fort Delaware, and besides they were soon full of political prisoners. Fort Warren, in Boston Harbor, sheltered a number of Confederate privates during the first year of the war, but later was used chiefly for the confinement of political prisoners and general officers. Likewise, the Old Capitol at Washington, which had been built after the destruction of the Capitol during the War of 1812, and in which for several years the sessions of Congress had been held, while the present Capitol was building, was very seldom used for prisoners of war, but was devoted to the detention of citizens suspected of disloyalty to the Union. The pressure upon the accommodations at Richmond led to the transfer of the private soldiers to an enclosure on Belle Isle in the James River.

For the purpose of better administration, the government at Washington, in October, 1861, appointed LieutenantCol-onel William Hoffman, one of the officers who had been surrendered in Texas, commissary-general of prisoners. Colonel Hoffman, for he was soon promoted, served to the end of the war, though for a few months he was transferred west of the [39]

Distant view of Belle Plain Camp of Confederate prisoners, May, 1864 This photograph was taken just after the Spotsylvania campaign, in the course of which Grant lost thirty-six thousand men in casualties but captured several thousand Confederates, part of whom appear crowding this prison camp. A tiny tortuous stream runs through the cleft in the hills. Near the center of the picture a small bridge spanning it can be descried. Farther to the right is a group of Union soldiers. The scene is on the line of communication from Belle Plain, the base of supplies, to the army at the front. Exchanges had been stopped by order of General Grant on the 17th of the previous month, when he started the hammering process by which he ultimately exhausted the Confederacy, but at the price of terrible losses to the Union. The prisons in the North became populated to suffocation, yet Grant held firm until it was certain that exchanges could have little influence on the final result.

[40] Mississippi. All correspondence in regard to prisoners passed through his hands, and whatever uniformity there was in the conditions in Federal prisons was largely due to this fact, as he established rules for the guidance of the commandants, and provided for an elaborate system of inspections and reports. The rules, unfortunately, were not interpreted uniformly by the officers in charge, and he was hampered in administration by political influences.

The Confederacy created no such office until November 21, 1864, when General Winder was appointed. After his death in February, 1865, General G. J. Pillow served for a few days, and was then succeeded by General Daniel Ruggles. In the last days of the Confederacy it was too late to reduce chaotic conditions to order. When prisoners were kept chiefly in Richmond, General Winder had command, and had an undefined supervision over those outside. When the greater number of prisoners was sent South, he was placed in command of the prisons in Georgia and Alabama, July 26, 1864, while General W. M. Gardner was given charge of prisons in Virginia and the Carolinas. The latter officer was partially disabled and was never able to assert his authority, on account of friction with local military commanders.

Citizens suspected of disloyalty to the Confederacy were confined in Richmond chiefly in the ‘ Negro Jail,’ so called, usually known as Castle Godwin, and after this building was given up, were transferred to Castle Thunder. The prison at Salisbury, North Carolina, sheltered a number of this class, though later it was filled to overflowing with prisoners of war. The provost-marshals kept others under this charge in prisons scattered over the Confederacy.

Citizens charged with disloyalty in the North were confined in various places. The Old Capitol, Fort Lafayette, Fort Warren, and dozens of other places were used for this purpose. At the end of the war, Jefferson Davis was confined in Fortress Monroe, but this had been too near the lines during [41]

A closer view of the Confederate prisoners at Belle Plain The photographer had worked up the valley nearer to the Camp of Confederate prisoners at Belle Plain when this view was taken. The bed of the little stream is now visible, with the group of soldiers lounging by its banks. It was on May 23-26, 1864, that Lee had checkmated Grant at the North Anna River in the latter's advance toward Richmond. While the army was at Spotsylvania, its water base had been at Belle Plain, on Potomac Creek, but when Grant moved to the North Anna the base was transferred to Port Royal, on the Rappahannock, and the Confederates at Belle Plain were sent on to Northern prisons. The burden placed upon the South in feeding and guarding its prisoners was overwhelming, and Colonel Robert Ould, agent of exchange, offered, later in the year, to deliver the sick and wounded at Savannah without equivalent. Transportation was sent late in November, and here and at Charleston, when the delivery was completed after the railroad leading to Savannah was cut, about thirteen thousand men were delivered. More than three thousand Confederates were delivered at the same time. After January 24, 1865, exchanges were recommenced and continued with little interruption to the end of hostilities in April.


Where five thousand Confederate prisoners lay encamped: a scene after the battle of Spotsylvania—May, 1864 On the heights above the hollow the Union sentries can be descried against the sky-line. The cluster of huts on the right-hand page is part of the Federal camp. From December, 1862, to June, 1863, the gloomiest half-year of the war for the North, the Federal army was encamped near Falmouth, Virginia, a little town on the Rappahannock River opposite Fredericksburg. The winter-quarters stretched back for miles toward Belle Plain and Aquia Creek, the bases of supplies. Continuous scouting and skirmishing went on throughout the winter, and the Confederate prisoners captured during this time were confined at Belle Plain until arrangements could be made to send them to Northern prisons. Here also was the great quartermaster's supply depot, and these prisoners at least never lacked ample rations. They were but a [43] few of the 462,634 Confederate soldiers who were captured during the war. This figure is that of General F. C. Ainsworth, of the United States Record and Pension Office. Of this number 247,769 were paroled on the field, and 25,796 died while in captivity. The Union soldiers captured during the war numbered 211,411, according to the same authority, and of these 16,668 were paroled on the field, and 30,218 died while in captivity. The difference between the number of Union and Confederate prisoners is due to the inclusion in the Confederate number of the armies surrendered by Lee, Johnston, Taylor, and Kirby Smith during the months of April and May, 1865. There are other estimates which differ very widely from this, which is probably as nearly correct as possible, owing to the partial destruction of the records.

[44] the war to risk the placing of prisoners of importance there. Provost-marshals arrested thousands in the North, who were often held for months and frequently dismissed without being informed of the charges against them. The number thus arrested in the South was large, but much smaller than in the North. Military commanders attempted to play the despot both North and South.

As the war went on and prisoners were taken in larger and larger numbers, it was seen on both sides that greater provision must be made for them. In the North, some prisons were constructed especially for this purpose. In other cases camps of instruction were surrounded by fences and the enclosed barracks were filled with captives. The most important of the first class were Johnson's Island, in Sandusky Bay, Ohio; City Point, Maryland, and Rock Island, in the Mississippi River. Among the second were Camp Douglas, at Chicago, Illinois; Camp Butler, at Springfield, Illinois; Camp Morton, at Indianapolis, Indiana; Camp Chase, at Columbus, Ohio; and the Barracks, at Elmira, New York.

The Gratiot Street Prison in St. Louis had been an old medical college, and Myrtle Street Prison had been used as a negro market. Fort Delaware, on an island in the Delaware River, had been constructed by General McClellan while a member of the Engineer Corps. A dike kept out the tide which would otherwise have washed over the island, and barracks were constructed within the enclosure. At various times and for short periods, prisoners were held in other places, but those mentioned were the most important.

The principal Confederate prisons besides those already mentioned were Camp Sumter at Anderson, Georgia; Camp Lawton, at Millen, Georgia, established late in 1864, to relieve Andersonville; Camp Asylum, at Columbia, South Carolina; Macon, Georgia; Florence, South Carolina; and Charleston, South Carolina. Large numbers of prisoners were also confined for short periods at Raleigh, Charlotte, and Savannah. [45]

Four conspicuous Union inmates of Libby prison.

General Graham was wounded and taken prisoner at Gettysburg, after having distinguished himself at Glendale and Malvern Hill. He was confined for several months in Libby Prison, and after his exchange he had command of the gunboat flotilla and took part in the attack on Fort Fisher. General Hayes was taken prisoner in the operations around Richmond and held in Libby almost to the end of the war. He was appointed to distribute the supplies sent to the Federal prisoners in Richmond by the United States Government and the Sanitary Commission. While Colonel Sanderson was confined in Libby Prison he issued a statement sustaining the contention of the Confederate authorities regarding the rations issued the prisoners, for which he was denounced by a mass-meeting of officers held in the prison, who declared that their food was insufficient to sustain life. General Dow was wounded and captured in the attack on Port Hudson in July, 1863. For more than eight months he was confined in Libby Prison, but was afterward sent South. He was exchanged for W. H. F. Lee, nephew of Robert E. Lee.

Brevet major-general Charles K. Graham

Brevet major-general Joseph Hayes

Lieutenant-Colonel James M. Sanderson

Brigadier-General Neal Dow

[46] In addition, for a time prisoners were held at Cahaba, Alabama, and during almost the entire war there were prisoners at Camp Ford, Tyler, Texas, and at Camp Groce, at Hempstead, Texas.

The question of the treatment of prisoners on both sides will be discussed more at length in a subsequent chapter. According to the rules and regulations, first set forth by both Departments of War, prisoners were to be fed precisely as regular troops, and humane regulations were announced. All rules, laws, and regulations must be carried out by men, and in the enforcement and administration of regulations there was much variance on both sides. In the North, the prisons were overcrowded, though none, perhaps, except Gratiot Street and Myrtle Street prisons in St. Louis, was so badly overcrowded as Andersonville, where hardly thirty-five square feet of ground to the individual was available when the stockade held the largest number.

Prison work is generally unpleasant, and difficulty in securing efficient commandants and guards was encountered. The more energetic and ambitious officers preferred active service in the field, and on both sides efficient soldiers were needed at the front. In some instances the commandants were civilians, given military rank for the purpose, and placed in charge of raw levies, who knew little or nothing of military discipline. In other cases they were partially disabled soldiers, organized in the North as the Veteran Reserve Corps. In the South, the guards were sometimes conscripted militia. Negro troops formed a part of the guard at several Northern prisons. Seldom was the nominal rank of the commandant higher than that of colonel, and yet many prisons held more than five thousand men; several, more than ten thousand, and Andersonville had at one time more than thirty thousand. Some men who might have been good officers had their responsibilities been less, failed ignominiously in the face of difficulties confronting them. They must satisfy their superiors, escape [47]

Federal officers held as hostages.

As Colonel Michael Corcoran was held as hostage for Walter W. Smith, prize-master of the schooner Enchantress, who was convicted of piracy in the United States Court in October, 1861, so the officers shown on this page were held as hostages for the privateers taken aboard the Savannah. They were to receive exactly the same treatment as that meted out to the privateers. General Neff was lieutenant-colonel of the Second Kentucky at that time, General Revere major of the Twentieth Massachusetts, General Vogdes a major in the regular artillery, and General Lee was colonel of the Twentieth Massachusetts.

Brevet Brigadier-General G. W. Neff

Brevet Brigadier-General P. J. Revere

Brigadier-General I. Vogdes

Colonel W. E. Woodruff

Brevet Brigadier-General W. R. Lee

Colonel A. M. Wood

[48] the unreasoning censure of public opinion, and at the same time keep their prisoners.

Prisoners in the North got more to eat than in the South, after 1862, at least, yet they often got less than the amount to which they were entitled by the army regulations. In the South during the last year of the war, prisoners starved, while their guards fared little better. With all the resources of the North, prisoners were often hungry, frequently because of the inefficiency of their commanders. Commissaries in collusion with contractors sometimes reduced the rations of the prisoners both in quality and quantity. In one case, at least, a commissary was dismissed from service, but because of his political friends was restored. The reports of the Federal inspectors are set forth in the ‘ Official Records.’

Shelter was provided in the North, but fuel was often scanty, and in some cases lacking. In some of the Southern prisons no shelter was provided, and fuel was likewise scanty, though fortunately not so much needed for comfort. The medical and surgical attendance was very often unsatisfactory. For, as in the case of the commanding officers, surgeons preferred service among their own people to that of attending prisoners. Even where the intentions of the surgeon were the best, they had lately come, in most cases, from civil life. Many were not commissioned, but were hired by the month. Of the management of hospitals many knew almost nothing. Some rose to their responsibilities, others did not. Where they did not the prisoners suffered.

Nor must the influence of climate be neglected. To many of the Northern prisoners the prolonged heat of the Southern prison-camps during the summer caused disease regardless of other factors. It is no less true that, if the Southern sun was disastrous to the Northerner, so the Northern winter destroyed many Southern lives. The men taken to Elmira or Johnson's Island in the summer-time, wearing thin summer clothes, often without blankets or overcoats, suffered during the winter. The [49]

Commissioned non-commissioned officers of the nineteenth Iowa

These pictures represent some of the ragged non-commissioned officers and commissioned officers of the Nineteenth Iowa Infantry after they reached New Orleans for exchange. Razors and scissors had evidently been held at a premium in Camp Ford, from which they had come. During almost the entire war this Confederate prison was maintained near Tyler, Texas. For a time it seemed forgotten. Up to the spring of 1864, conditions here were better than in many other prisons. The stockade included a number of noble trees, several springs, and a stream of some size. Abundant opportunities for bathing were afforded. Drinking water was excellent. Wood was plentiful and an abundant supply of fresh meat was furnished. Prisoners at first built themselves log huts. Later any simple shelter was a luxury. Many of the captives were forced to burrow into the sides of the hill. The supply of wood became scanty. Meat grew scarcer until at last corn-meal was the staple article of diet. Clothes wore out and were not replaced.

Commissioned officers of the nineteenth Iowa infantry as prisoners of war

Non-commissioned officers of the nineteenth Iowa at New Orleans

[50] statement an abundance of clothing and bedding was issued to Confederate prisoners in the North is too sweeping. Large quantities of cast-off and rejected clothing were issued, but report after report of Union medical inspectors states that prisoners were frequently without blankets or straw. This was usually because the quartermaster was inefficient or careless.

The number of prisoners held during the war can, perhaps, never be accurately known. General F. C. Ainsworth, when chief of the United States Record and Pension Office, is quoted by Rhodes as follows: ‘According to the best information now obtainable from both Union and Confederate records, it appears that 211,411 Union soldiers were captured during the Civil War, of which number 16,668 were paroled on the field and 30,218 died while in captivity; and that 462,634 Confederate soldiers were captured during that war, of which number 247,769 were paroled on the field and 25,976 died while in captivity.’ A letter under date of March 9, 1911, says that he has no further information justifying a change in these figures. Of course, this large number of Confederates captured includes the armies of Lee, Johnston, Taylor, and Kirby Smith surrendered during the months of April and May, 1865.

This report is probably as nearly correct as can be made, owing to the partial destruction of records, though it differs very widely from two other reports which are often quoted: one by partisan historians of the North, attempting to prove inhumanity on the part of the South, and the other by Southerners who have attempted by it to show that conditions in Northern prisons were more fatal than those in the Southern. The first contention is based upon a report of Secretary Stanton, from information furnished by the commissary-general of prisoners. This says that ‘220,000 rebel prisoners were held in the North and about 126,950 Union prisoners in the South,’ and that 26,436 deaths of Confederate prisoners occurred, while 22,576 Union prisoners are reported to have died in Southern prisons. [51]

Prison near Tyler, Texas.

The prison near Tyler, Texas, known as Camp Ford, was always an interesting place, even when food and clothing were most scanty. The prisoners here were an ingenious lot, who apparently spent their time in unmilitary but natural fraternizing with their guards, with whom their relations were nearly always pleasant. In spite of all the efforts of the officers, the guards could not be prevented from trading with the prisoners. The latter slaughtered the cattle for their own food; and from the hoofs and horns they made effective combs, and carved beautiful sets of checkers and chessmen. Conditions in this prison were not hard until 1864, when the concurrent increase in numbers and exhaustion of supplies and wood in the neighborhood brought much suffering. It is reported that when the guards learned of the capture of Richmond, they went to their homes, leaving the prisoners almost without supervision to make their way to New Orleans. With continued confinement, clothes wore out, as is evident in the photographs, which represent officers and enlisted men of the Nineteenth Iowa. With their bare feet they were evidently not in a condition to be presented in ‘society.’

Dilapidated Union prisoners after eighteen months at Tyler, Texas

Enlisted men of the nineteenth Iowa after their captivity


The second estimate, used by Alexander H. Stephens, Senator Benjamin H. Hill, and President Davis, cites an alleged report of J. K. Barnes, Surgeon-General, U. S. A., which purports to give the number of Confederate prisoners as 220,000, and the number of Union prisoners in the South as 270,000. The authority quoted is an editorial in the National Intelligencer, of Washington, which seems not to have been contradicted, though General Barnes lived for many years afterward. The report, however, is not to be found in the Federal archives; it is claimed that there is no evidence that it was ever made, and further that there is no way in which Surgeon-General Barnes could have secured these figures. This, however, does not seem an impossibility, as the surgeons naturally made reports of the sick to him, and these reports always included the number in prison quarters as well as the number in hospital. Whether or not such a report was ever made, it does not now seem to be in existence.

Absolute accuracy cannot now be secured, if indeed such accuracy was ever possible. During the last six months of the war, the Federal prisoners were transferred hither and thither, sometimes stopping for a week or less in one place, in the attempts to avoid the raids of Sherman's cavalry and the constantly tightening coils which were closing around the Confederates. In these changes, as the prisoners were handed from commander to commander, were unloaded from one train into another, and transferred from one set of inefficient guards to another, hundreds escaped.

Furthermore, since a Confederate commissary-general of prisoners was not appointed until the war was almost over, many commandants of prisons in the South made reports only to the commanders of departments, who often failed to forward them to Richmond. Any statement of the number of Federal prisoners held in the South is, therefore, only an estimate. The relative mortality growing out of prison life will be discussed in another chapter.

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