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.

Depending on the sources consulted, the population of Camp Douglas peaked at anywhere from 9,000 to 12,000, fell sharply later in 1862 following an exchange under the Dix-Hill Cartel, and then rose significantly by mid-1863. During the winter of 1862-1863, more than 200 prisoners were crowded into barracks measuring no more than 20 by 70 feet. Prisoners were required to stand in ranks in ankle-deep snow and ice. Temperatures dipped below zero, and up to 1,700 died during that winter alone.

A number of Illinois Militia and U.S. Army officers were in command at Camp Douglas. One of the more memorable was Colonel Charles V. DeLand, previously the commander of the 1st Michigan Sharpshooters. DeLand took charge of the camp on August 18, 1863, and attempted to tighten discipline by putting the prisoners to work on an improved stockade. More than 70 escapes were attempted at Camp Douglas, and while DeLand was in command more than 150 prisoners, 26 in a single incident, broke out. DeLand was known for the severe punishment he dispensed, once having prisoners of the 8th Kentucky Cavalry remain standing at attention for a lengthy period after a tunnel was discovered under their barracks and ordering guards to shoot any of the prisoners who sat down. One was killed and two were wounded. On another occasion, three men were hung by their thumbs for an hour with their toes barely touching the ground because they allegedly threatened another prisoner who had been an informer.


As the war progressed, the Union armies took prisoners in ever-growing numbers. Of the 12,000 Confederates that inhabited the prison at Rock Island, Illinois, during the war, 2,000 died. At Point Lookout, Maryland, 50,000 prisoners passed through during the war and from 12,000 to 20,000 were housed there at any given time. Among these, an estimated 4,000 deaths occurred, for a rate of roughly eight percent. The famous Southern poet Sidney Lanier was a captive at Point Lookout and contracted tuberculosis there that dramatically shortened his life. He died at age 39.

At Fort Delaware, on Pea Patch Island in New Castle County, Delaware, the population swelled to more than 13,000 prisoners following the Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863 and increased to more than 30,000 by the end of the war. The prisoners suffered about 2,500 deaths. One prisoner from Georgia was starved from a healthy weight of 140 pounds to 80, while another prisoner wrote graphically, “The bacon was rusty and slimy, the soup was slop filled with white worms a half-inch long.”

In the spring of 1864, the problem of overcrowding had become so severe that a new prison was constructed on the site of a former mustering location for Union troops at Elmira, near the banks of the Chemoung River in upstate New York. Troops were detailed to convert the dilapidated camp into a prison and build a stockade. By July, 700 prisoners had been transferred from Point Lookout, and a month later the prison population swelled to more than 10,000 Confederate enlisted men. Conditions at Elmira were terrible from the beginning. The prison was below the level of the river, making drainage problematic. The barracks could hold only about half the prisoners; the rest were forced to live in tents. With the onset of winter, the men were exposed to extreme cold. Disease was widespread. By war’s end, more than 12,000 prisoners had occupied Elmira, known to many of them as “Hellmira.” Nearly 3,000 died, yielding a harvest of death approaching 25 percent and rivaling that of Andersonville.

On November 1, 1864, Dr. Eugene Sanger, the commander and camp surgeon at Elmira, wrote to U.S. Army Surgeon General Joseph Barnes: “Since August there have been 2,011 patients admitted to the hospital and 775 deaths. Have averaged daily 451 in hospital and 601 in quarters, an aggregate of 1,052 per day sick. At this rate the entire command will be admitted to hospital in less than a year and thirty-six percent die.” Elmira operated for 15 months, and on July 1, 1865, nearly three months after Lee’s surrender, 218 Confederates remained in the facility’s hospital. The last prisoner departed Elmira on September 27.

The Frugal Commissary General William Hoffman

Union Commissary General Hoffman has been both praised and vilified for his administration of the Union prisons during the Civil War. A career officer, he had been a classmate of Lee’s at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He was a veteran of the Indian wars and the Mexican War. Captured in Texas at the beginning of the Civil War, he was exchanged on August 27, 1862. As commissary general, he was subordinate to Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs, who instructed him that the barracks at the Rock Island prison should be “put up in the roughest and cheapest manner, mere shanties, with no fine work about them.” Meigs, who had lost a son in the war, had no sympathy to spare on Confederate prisoners.

While adequate supplies of food and clothing were available most of the time, some civilian contractors took government funds and either failed to deliver goods or dealt in such shoddy products that clothing and blankets were of such inferior quality as to be of little use. Likewise, contracted meat was delivered to prisoners already spoiled and unfit to eat. At Point Lookout, Major Allen G. Brady, the prison provost, was widely believed to have taken provisions meant for prisoners and kept them for himself.

Hoffman’s frugality became legendary. Although Congress had appropriated adequate funds for the purpose of caring for prisoners, he was reluctant to make such purchases and actually returned $2 million to the Treasury at war’s end. He once ordered a prison commander, “As long as a prisoner has clothing upon him, however much torn, you must issue nothing to him.” When a Confederate officer questioned Hoffman about his ill treatment at Camp Chase, the commissary general bluntly stated that it was “retaliation for innumerable outrages which have been committed on our people.” After the war, Hoffman was officially commended for his “faithful, meritorious, and distinguished services as Commissary-General during the Rebellion.” He retired from the army in 1870 with his permanent rank of colonel and died at the age of 77 in 1884.

The Controversy Around Civil War Prison Conditions Continues to This Day

An 1864 report by the U.S. Sanitary Commission accused the Confederates of a predetermined plan to mistreat Union prisoners. No doubt this charge, unproven then or now, influenced the desire for retribution against Rebel authorities who supposedly had perpetrated such an outrage. The debate continues to rage among historians to this day. At the very least, it appears that the Federal government endorsed a policy of retaliation for the poor treatment of Union prisoners in Confederate hands. Secretary of War Stanton went on record, writing to Hoffman: “The Secretary of War is not disposed, in view of the treatment our prisoners are receiving, to erect fine establishments for their prisoners.” That the North, largely untouched by the war, was much better able to care humanely for its prisoners than the starving South, is beyond dispute. Whether it cared to do so remains an open question—at least in the minds of pro-Union historians.

In the end, Henry Wirz, the only individual on either side to be punished for inhumane treatment of prisoners, remains the most controversial figure of the Civil War’s tragic prison legacy. One historical footnote remains. The defense that he had only followed orders failed to absolve Wirz of guilt in the mind of the court and established a precedent for the trials, 80 years later, of Nazi war criminals who made the same claim at Nuremberg following World War II. Simply acting on orders, it was judged, does not relieve an individual of his larger responsibility to humanity. It is a distinction that remains, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks and the government’s concomitant response to terrorism, very much in question today.

This article originally appeared on the Warfare History Network.

Image: Reuters