The Truth About the American Civil War's Terrible Prison of War Camps
April 8, 2020 Topic: History Region: Americas Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: WarMilitaryTechnologyCivil WarHistory

The Truth About the American Civil War's Terrible Prison of War Camps

A horrible shame.

Prior to his execution, Wirz wrote two notable letters. One was to Schade, asking for help for his destitute family. The other was an appeal for clemency to President Andrew Johnson. “For six weary months I have been a prisoner; for six months my name has been in the mouth of every one; by thousands I am considered a monster of cruelty, a wretch that ought not to pollute the earth any longer,” he wrote. The appeal went unanswered.

A Just Conviction?

On November 10, 1865, guarded by four companies of soldiers, Wirz was led to the gallows in the yard of the Old Capitol Prison. After ascending the stairs to the platform, the condemned man commented that he was being hanged for merely following orders. With the dome of the Capitol in the background, the hangman’s noose was placed around his neck, and the trap door was sprung at 10:32 am. Wirz’s neck did not snap with the initial drop, and he slowly strangled at the end of the rope. A crowd of about 250 spectators, each issued a ticket for admittance, watched the event with ghoulish pleasure, chanting over and over: “Wirz, remember Andersonville. Wirz, remember Andersonville.”

The debate continues to the present day over whether Wirz was justly convicted or had actually done the best he could in difficult circumstances. Initially, he was only one of several individuals who ran the risk of being charged with heinous crimes against Federal prisoners, and he was certainly a lesser target than Jefferson Davis or Secretary of War James Seddon. However, establishing a direct link between the highest echelon of the Confederate government and the sanctioning of mistreatment of Union prisoners proved a difficult proposition for prosecutors. Furthermore, placing Davis on trial might well have complicated the process of assimilating the former Confederate states back into the Union. Like the much more culpable and dishonorable Japanese emperor Hirohito following World War II, Davis went unpunished for calculated political reasons.

A lesser known figure in the prison drama was General Winder, who conveniently died of a massive heart attack on February 7, 1865. Winder was reportedly heard to brag that more Union soldiers were dying at Andersonville than the Confederate armies were killing in battle. He was also said to have turned a deaf ear to pleas from Wirz for the relief of suffering prisoners. Earlier, Winder had been responsible for the prison facilities in the Richmond area, including Libby Prison, Castle Thunder, and Belle Isle, an island in the James River where Union enlisted men were held. Had he lived, it is likely that Winder would have joined Wirz on the gallows.

“Horrors of Richmond Prisons”

Among the other prisons located throughout the South, Libby was the most prominent. Consisting of three buildings, each four stories high, the warehouse complex was commandeered by Winder for use as a prison following the July 1861 Battle of Manassas. During the war, more than 50,000 men passed through Libby, and conditions became progressively more crowded, with no fewer than 1,200 Union officers held captive there at any given time. The windows were barred, and few of them had glass panes, exposing the prisoners to weather extremes ranging from boiling hot to freezing cold. Captives were not allowed to lie on their blankets during daylight hours and were banned from looking out the windows for fear that they might signal Union sympathizers outside

A story entitled “Horrors of Richmond Prisons” appeared in the November 28, 1863, edition of the New York Times. It noted that at Libby, “the prevailing diseases are diarrhea, dysentery and typhoid pneumonia. Of late the percentage of deaths has greatly increased, the result of causes that have been long at work—such as insufficient food, clothing and shelter, combined with that depression of spirits brought on so often by long confinement.” Describing his early days of captivity at Libby, Lt. Col. F.F. Cavada wrote: “Nothing but bread has, as yet, been issued to us, half a loaf twice a day per man. This must be washed down with James River water, drawn from a hydrant over the wash-trough. There are some filthy blankets hanging about the room; they have been used time and again by the many who preceded us; they are soiled, worn, and filled with vermin but we are recommended to help ourselves in time; if we do so with reluctance and profound disgust it is because we are now more particular than we will be in time.”

Bad as they were, Andersonville and Libby Prison were not alone in their records of deprivation. A camp at Salisbury, North Carolina, housed prisoners as early as 1861, after the Confederate government had paid $15,000 for a 16-acre tract there, including the three-story main building, six smaller brick buildings, and other structures that had once been used as a cotton mill. In the autumn of 1864, nearly 9,000 prisoners were held at Salisbury, considerably outnumbering the inhabitants of the nearby town. One prisoner referred to Salisbury as a “dark hole.” Private Benjamin Booth of the 22nd Iowa Infantry kept a daily log of deaths in the camp, noting that 58 men died on December 1, 1864, alone, and another 40 on January 12, 1865. More than 15,000 Union captives were held at Salisbury during the war, and approximately 5,000 of them died, a mortality rate of 33 percent that may have actually eclipsed that of Andersonville.

The Union Prison Camps

Confederate captives fared little better in Union camps. Captain Francis Marion Headley of the Confederate 8th Kentucky Mounted Infantry was captured in 1862 at Champion Hill, Mississippi, exchanged, and then captured a second time while on recruiting duty in his home state. Headley was sent to the Federal prison at Johnson’s Island, just off the coast of Lake Erie and about three miles from the city of Sandusky, Ohio. The prison opened in April 1862 and consisted of a 1.65-acre tract that included 12 two-story barracks and a hospital building enclosed by a wooden stockade with walls 15 feet high. Prisoners were allowed to receive mail and purchase food and other goods from a sutler. Some were given surplus Union uniforms to replace their worn-out clothing.

Although Johnson’s Island was intended to house only 2,500 men, the prison was regularly overcrowded and as many as 15,000 captives, most of them officers, passed through its gates during the war. The Ohio winters were harsh, and the men were subjected to sub-freezing temperatures and bitter winds that swept through their barracks off Lake Erie. Remarkably, only about 300 died. The difficult experience, however, remained with Headley for the rest of his life and contributed to his declining health.

Elsewhere in Ohio, the prisoners fared much worse. At Camp Chase, established on the outskirts of Columbus in May 1861 as a training facility for Union volunteers, 2,260 Confederate prisoners died. Three separate prisons inside the camp encompassed six acres and were intended to hold a total of 4,000 men. At its peak, the population of Camp Chase numbered from 7,000 to 10,000. Captain H.M. Lazelle, a Federal inspector who visited the camp in July 1862, noted that many of the barracks roofs leaked and that the buildings themselves were constructed so low that standing water soaked the floors for days following even moderate rain. Overcrowding, along with open latrines and cisterns, contributed to an outbreak of smallpox, and the quality of the food was so poor that the commissary officer was relieved of his post and summarily dismissed from the military.

Counting only the 2,260 noted burials and the estimated 25,000 Confederate prisoners who transited Camp Chase during its operation as a prison from the summer of 1861 through the end of the war, the mortality rate at the facility may be estimated at just under 10 percent. Camp Douglas, the most infamous of Northern prisons, opened in Chicago in 1861 as a training camp for volunteer infantry units and was permanently designated a prison camp in January 1863. At times, both Confederate prisoners and Union parolees were held there together.

Camp Douglas

During the war, more than 26,000 Confederates were imprisoned at Camp Douglas at various times, and the estimated number of deaths ranged from 4,500 to more than 6,000. Controversy surrounds the final mortality rate due to the allegation that a large number of prisoner deaths were never recorded, the bodies either buried in unmarked mass graves or simply considered unaccounted for. On the other hand, it was charged that an unscrupulous contractor simply buried a number of empty caskets to increase his payment from the U.S. government. Regardless, the generally accepted mortality rate at Camp Douglas is 17 to 23 percent.

Constructed on land previously owned by U.S. senator Stephen Douglas (hence the name), the camp was in a low-lying area where drainage was inadequate. Conditions deteriorated to such an extent that Henry W. Bellows of the U.S. Sanitary Commission wrote to Maj. Gen. William Hoffman, commissary general of prisons: “Sir, the amount of standing water, unpoliced grounds, of foul sinks, of unventilated and crowded barracks, of general disorder, of soil reeking miasmatic accretions, of rotten bones and emptying of camp kettles, is enough to drive a sanitarium to despair. I hope that no thought will be entertained of mending matters. The absolute abandonment of the spot seems to be the only judicious course. I do not believe that any amount of drainage would purge the soil loaded with accumulated filth or those barracks fetid with two stories of vermin and animal exhalations. Nothing but fire can cleanse them.”