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The Worst Part of the Civil War? Prison Camps.

The Buzz

The June 19, 1861, editorial in the Charleston Mercury newspaper warned: “War is bloody reality, not butterfly sporting. The sooner men understand this the better.” During the four-year course of the Civil War, the entire country—North and South—would come to the same grim realization. There were seemingly endless lists of thousands of soldiers killed or wounded in battle or dead of disease. Thousands more, both Union and Confederate, languished in prisoner of war camps, enduring hardships that previously it had been inconceivable for civilized people to inflict upon one another.

From 1861 to 1865, more than 150 prison camps were established by the Union and Confederate governments. Estimates of the total numbers of prisoners taken and deaths that occurred in captivity vary widely, and Confederate records are incomplete. However, the Official Records of the war cites a total of 347,000 men—220,000 Confederate and 127,000 Union—who endured the privations of being prisoners of war. These privations ranged from inadequate shelter and clothing, poor hygiene, and the monotonous passage of time to outright starvation, intentional cruelty, harsh summary justice, swarming vermin, and rampaging disease. More than 49,000 prisoners died in captivity, at least 26,440 Confederate and 22,580 Union, an overall mortality rate of 14 percent. Twelve percent of Confederate prisoners and 18 percent of Union captives never returned from incarceration.

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As in all wars, the victors tend to write the history, and Confederate prisons have become notorious for a litany of horrors. But the simple truth is that neither side could fully claim the moral high ground. Neither side was prepared to accommodate the large numbers of prisoners taken during the war, which many believed would be of short duration but which dragged on for four years of incredible misery.

The Burden of Prisoners of War

From the outset, the South suffered shortages of basic commodities such as medicines, foodstuffs, and textiles due to the strangling Union blockade that stretched from the major ports of the mid-Atlantic to the Gulf coast of Texas. The war on land was fought largely in the South, soaking rich farmland with blood. Thousands of Southern farmers left home to serve in the Confederate Army, and few able-bodied men remained behind to tend whatever crops could be produced in straitened circumstances.

With threadbare Confederate soldiers serving in the field without shoes, subsisting on a handful of cornmeal or a few peanuts, the Southern government faced a virtually insurmountable task to provide adequately for thousands of Union prisoners. Nevertheless, early in the war the Confederate Congress resolved that the rations furnished prisoners of war “shall be the same in quantity and quality as those furnished to enlisted men in the army of the Confederacy.” It sounded good on paper.

In the North, more plentiful food supplies, the availability of medical care, and the relative abundance of resources should have weighed positively on the treatment of prisoners. In too many instances, however, conditions were scarcely better than the worst of the prisons in the South. Administrative indifference, ineptitude, and corruption combined with a desire to mete out the same treatment to Confederate prisoners that was rumored to exist in Southern prisons. Camp Douglas in Chicago and Elmira in upstate New York—prosperous communities both—left horrible legacies of their own.

The burden of feeding and sheltering prisoners steadily increased as the war progressed. Early in the conflict, a system of parole and exchange was utilized extensively, and thousands of soldiers were returned to their units. Patterned after a similar system that had seen widespread use in Europe, officers of equal rank were exchanged one for another, while enlisted men were exchanged on a number-by-number basis. When an even exchange was not immediately possible, officers were exchanged for a certain number of enlisted men, such as one captain for six enlisted soldiers. Parole was sometimes extended to prisoners when a timely exchange was not expected. Parole often took place within 10 days of capture, and the system worked reasonably well for a while as prisoners were returned to their respective sides and rejoined the ranks when notified that a proper exchange had occurred. At times parolees went home to await the official exchange; however, these individuals were often reluctant to return to service. Therefore, paroled prisoners were frequently kept near their units until word of an exchange was received.

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The June 19, 1861, editorial in the Charleston Mercury newspaper warned: “War is bloody reality, not butterfly sporting. The sooner men understand this the better.” During the four-year course of the Civil War, the entire country—North and South—would come to the same grim realization. There were seemingly endless lists of thousands of soldiers killed or wounded in battle or dead of disease. Thousands more, both Union and Confederate, languished in prisoner of war camps, enduring hardships that previously it had been inconceivable for civilized people to inflict upon one another.

From 1861 to 1865, more than 150 prison camps were established by the Union and Confederate governments. Estimates of the total numbers of prisoners taken and deaths that occurred in captivity vary widely, and Confederate records are incomplete. However, the Official Records of the war cites a total of 347,000 men—220,000 Confederate and 127,000 Union—who endured the privations of being prisoners of war. These privations ranged from inadequate shelter and clothing, poor hygiene, and the monotonous passage of time to outright starvation, intentional cruelty, harsh summary justice, swarming vermin, and rampaging disease. More than 49,000 prisoners died in captivity, at least 26,440 Confederate and 22,580 Union, an overall mortality rate of 14 percent. Twelve percent of Confederate prisoners and 18 percent of Union captives never returned from incarceration.

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As in all wars, the victors tend to write the history, and Confederate prisons have become notorious for a litany of horrors. But the simple truth is that neither side could fully claim the moral high ground. Neither side was prepared to accommodate the large numbers of prisoners taken during the war, which many believed would be of short duration but which dragged on for four years of incredible misery.

The Burden of Prisoners of War

From the outset, the South suffered shortages of basic commodities such as medicines, foodstuffs, and textiles due to the strangling Union blockade that stretched from the major ports of the mid-Atlantic to the Gulf coast of Texas. The war on land was fought largely in the South, soaking rich farmland with blood. Thousands of Southern farmers left home to serve in the Confederate Army, and few able-bodied men remained behind to tend whatever crops could be produced in straitened circumstances.

With threadbare Confederate soldiers serving in the field without shoes, subsisting on a handful of cornmeal or a few peanuts, the Southern government faced a virtually insurmountable task to provide adequately for thousands of Union prisoners. Nevertheless, early in the war the Confederate Congress resolved that the rations furnished prisoners of war “shall be the same in quantity and quality as those furnished to enlisted men in the army of the Confederacy.” It sounded good on paper.

In the North, more plentiful food supplies, the availability of medical care, and the relative abundance of resources should have weighed positively on the treatment of prisoners. In too many instances, however, conditions were scarcely better than the worst of the prisons in the South. Administrative indifference, ineptitude, and corruption combined with a desire to mete out the same treatment to Confederate prisoners that was rumored to exist in Southern prisons. Camp Douglas in Chicago and Elmira in upstate New York—prosperous communities both—left horrible legacies of their own.

The burden of feeding and sheltering prisoners steadily increased as the war progressed. Early in the conflict, a system of parole and exchange was utilized extensively, and thousands of soldiers were returned to their units. Patterned after a similar system that had seen widespread use in Europe, officers of equal rank were exchanged one for another, while enlisted men were exchanged on a number-by-number basis. When an even exchange was not immediately possible, officers were exchanged for a certain number of enlisted men, such as one captain for six enlisted soldiers. Parole was sometimes extended to prisoners when a timely exchange was not expected. Parole often took place within 10 days of capture, and the system worked reasonably well for a while as prisoners were returned to their respective sides and rejoined the ranks when notified that a proper exchange had occurred. At times parolees went home to await the official exchange; however, these individuals were often reluctant to return to service. Therefore, paroled prisoners were frequently kept near their units until word of an exchange was received.

Pages

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The Buzz

The June 19, 1861, editorial in the Charleston Mercury newspaper warned: “War is bloody reality, not butterfly sporting. The sooner men understand this the better.” During the four-year course of the Civil War, the entire country—North and South—would come to the same grim realization. There were seemingly endless lists of thousands of soldiers killed or wounded in battle or dead of disease. Thousands more, both Union and Confederate, languished in prisoner of war camps, enduring hardships that previously it had been inconceivable for civilized people to inflict upon one another.

From 1861 to 1865, more than 150 prison camps were established by the Union and Confederate governments. Estimates of the total numbers of prisoners taken and deaths that occurred in captivity vary widely, and Confederate records are incomplete. However, the Official Records of the war cites a total of 347,000 men—220,000 Confederate and 127,000 Union—who endured the privations of being prisoners of war. These privations ranged from inadequate shelter and clothing, poor hygiene, and the monotonous passage of time to outright starvation, intentional cruelty, harsh summary justice, swarming vermin, and rampaging disease. More than 49,000 prisoners died in captivity, at least 26,440 Confederate and 22,580 Union, an overall mortality rate of 14 percent. Twelve percent of Confederate prisoners and 18 percent of Union captives never returned from incarceration.

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As in all wars, the victors tend to write the history, and Confederate prisons have become notorious for a litany of horrors. But the simple truth is that neither side could fully claim the moral high ground. Neither side was prepared to accommodate the large numbers of prisoners taken during the war, which many believed would be of short duration but which dragged on for four years of incredible misery.

The Burden of Prisoners of War

From the outset, the South suffered shortages of basic commodities such as medicines, foodstuffs, and textiles due to the strangling Union blockade that stretched from the major ports of the mid-Atlantic to the Gulf coast of Texas. The war on land was fought largely in the South, soaking rich farmland with blood. Thousands of Southern farmers left home to serve in the Confederate Army, and few able-bodied men remained behind to tend whatever crops could be produced in straitened circumstances.

With threadbare Confederate soldiers serving in the field without shoes, subsisting on a handful of cornmeal or a few peanuts, the Southern government faced a virtually insurmountable task to provide adequately for thousands of Union prisoners. Nevertheless, early in the war the Confederate Congress resolved that the rations furnished prisoners of war “shall be the same in quantity and quality as those furnished to enlisted men in the army of the Confederacy.” It sounded good on paper.

In the North, more plentiful food supplies, the availability of medical care, and the relative abundance of resources should have weighed positively on the treatment of prisoners. In too many instances, however, conditions were scarcely better than the worst of the prisons in the South. Administrative indifference, ineptitude, and corruption combined with a desire to mete out the same treatment to Confederate prisoners that was rumored to exist in Southern prisons. Camp Douglas in Chicago and Elmira in upstate New York—prosperous communities both—left horrible legacies of their own.

The burden of feeding and sheltering prisoners steadily increased as the war progressed. Early in the conflict, a system of parole and exchange was utilized extensively, and thousands of soldiers were returned to their units. Patterned after a similar system that had seen widespread use in Europe, officers of equal rank were exchanged one for another, while enlisted men were exchanged on a number-by-number basis. When an even exchange was not immediately possible, officers were exchanged for a certain number of enlisted men, such as one captain for six enlisted soldiers. Parole was sometimes extended to prisoners when a timely exchange was not expected. Parole often took place within 10 days of capture, and the system worked reasonably well for a while as prisoners were returned to their respective sides and rejoined the ranks when notified that a proper exchange had occurred. At times parolees went home to await the official exchange; however, these individuals were often reluctant to return to service. Therefore, paroled prisoners were frequently kept near their units until word of an exchange was received.

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The Buzz

The June 19, 1861, editorial in the Charleston Mercury newspaper warned: “War is bloody reality, not butterfly sporting. The sooner men understand this the better.” During the four-year course of the Civil War, the entire country—North and South—would come to the same grim realization. There were seemingly endless lists of thousands of soldiers killed or wounded in battle or dead of disease. Thousands more, both Union and Confederate, languished in prisoner of war camps, enduring hardships that previously it had been inconceivable for civilized people to inflict upon one another.

From 1861 to 1865, more than 150 prison camps were established by the Union and Confederate governments. Estimates of the total numbers of prisoners taken and deaths that occurred in captivity vary widely, and Confederate records are incomplete. However, the Official Records of the war cites a total of 347,000 men—220,000 Confederate and 127,000 Union—who endured the privations of being prisoners of war. These privations ranged from inadequate shelter and clothing, poor hygiene, and the monotonous passage of time to outright starvation, intentional cruelty, harsh summary justice, swarming vermin, and rampaging disease. More than 49,000 prisoners died in captivity, at least 26,440 Confederate and 22,580 Union, an overall mortality rate of 14 percent. Twelve percent of Confederate prisoners and 18 percent of Union captives never returned from incarceration.

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Recommended: How an ‘Old’ F-15 Might Kill Russia’s New Stealth Fighter

Recommended: How China Plans to Win a War Against the U.S. Navy

As in all wars, the victors tend to write the history, and Confederate prisons have become notorious for a litany of horrors. But the simple truth is that neither side could fully claim the moral high ground. Neither side was prepared to accommodate the large numbers of prisoners taken during the war, which many believed would be of short duration but which dragged on for four years of incredible misery.

The Burden of Prisoners of War

From the outset, the South suffered shortages of basic commodities such as medicines, foodstuffs, and textiles due to the strangling Union blockade that stretched from the major ports of the mid-Atlantic to the Gulf coast of Texas. The war on land was fought largely in the South, soaking rich farmland with blood. Thousands of Southern farmers left home to serve in the Confederate Army, and few able-bodied men remained behind to tend whatever crops could be produced in straitened circumstances.

With threadbare Confederate soldiers serving in the field without shoes, subsisting on a handful of cornmeal or a few peanuts, the Southern government faced a virtually insurmountable task to provide adequately for thousands of Union prisoners. Nevertheless, early in the war the Confederate Congress resolved that the rations furnished prisoners of war “shall be the same in quantity and quality as those furnished to enlisted men in the army of the Confederacy.” It sounded good on paper.

In the North, more plentiful food supplies, the availability of medical care, and the relative abundance of resources should have weighed positively on the treatment of prisoners. In too many instances, however, conditions were scarcely better than the worst of the prisons in the South. Administrative indifference, ineptitude, and corruption combined with a desire to mete out the same treatment to Confederate prisoners that was rumored to exist in Southern prisons. Camp Douglas in Chicago and Elmira in upstate New York—prosperous communities both—left horrible legacies of their own.

The burden of feeding and sheltering prisoners steadily increased as the war progressed. Early in the conflict, a system of parole and exchange was utilized extensively, and thousands of soldiers were returned to their units. Patterned after a similar system that had seen widespread use in Europe, officers of equal rank were exchanged one for another, while enlisted men were exchanged on a number-by-number basis. When an even exchange was not immediately possible, officers were exchanged for a certain number of enlisted men, such as one captain for six enlisted soldiers. Parole was sometimes extended to prisoners when a timely exchange was not expected. Parole often took place within 10 days of capture, and the system worked reasonably well for a while as prisoners were returned to their respective sides and rejoined the ranks when notified that a proper exchange had occurred. At times parolees went home to await the official exchange; however, these individuals were often reluctant to return to service. Therefore, paroled prisoners were frequently kept near their units until word of an exchange was received.

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