Prisons During the Civil War
Elmira Prison Camp began operations on July 6th 1864. The camp was one that would be infamous for its brutality and high death count. Originally named Camp Rathbun, it was a Federal Government Camp for captured Confederate soldiers.
Revamped and re-tooled with more barracks added, the prison camp emerged as Elmira Prison Camp. There were actually four camps in the north that were designated as prison camps for the Confederate soldiers that were captured during battle. Most of these camps were located in western New York State, far away from the Civil War lines.
In order to transition the Confederate prisoners, they would be housed at one of four prison camps in the northeast, processed, and then sent to Elmira as it had the most space and could hold the largest amount of prisoner population. On July 6, 1864, 400 Rebel prisoners of war were sent marching from Erie Station Prison Camp, to the new camp. These were the first 400 Confederate prisoners that would make up the total of 12,000 prisoners that were being held at Elmira.
This camp was rumored to be one of the worst Union prison camps in the North. It became over crowded within months of opening. The standard population which was mandated by the Union leadership in Washington, D.C. was around 4,000 prisoners of war.
That population had grown to 12,123 Confederate soldiers within a month. 2,963 of those soldiers died. Many Confederate soldiers knew that if they were sent there they would not come out the same person. Death at the camp was due to; lack of food, inadequate shelter, lack of medical supplies, and unsanitary conditions.
When the war ended the prisoners took a loyalty oath and were given railway passes to get back home to the South. The last prisoner at the camp left on September 27, 1865. The camp was then shut down, and demolished.
Belle Isle Prison is located west of Richmond Virginia. It is a small island located in the James River that was used as a Civil War Prison for captured Union soldiers. The prison only held a few small shacks, called prisoner quarters and the island afforded no protection from the elements that the Union soldiers had to endure.
There were no wooden structures at this camp such as barracks. Instead there were tents for prisoners to sleep in, but there were not enough for every prisoner. There were 3000 tents, and at least 10,000 soldiers by 1863. There was a hospital for the prisoners and also an iron-factory where prisoners would work.
Union prisoners were allowed to swim in the James River that surrounded Belle Isle. The James River was extremely dangerous with sharp currents, jagged rocks and violent endings. The James River is a very large river that seems more of a lake that has a current. Some Union soldiers would try to escape while swimming the James River. Most were shot and many drowned in their attempts. Some however, did swim to their freedom
There is uncertainty regarding prisoner death rates that has endured since the end of the Civil War. The South claimed that the actual Union prisoner death rate was very low, in the hundreds, while the Union declared that upwards of 15,000 soldiers lost their lives at Belle Isle Prison Camp.
When the war was over and men began to leave the prison. Upon witnessing the newly released prisoners the famous poet Walt Whitman couldn’t believe what he saw. He thought that the soldiers did not look like men. He thought they looked like creatures or dwindled corpses. Many of the prisoners at Belle Isle were Union soldiers from the 2nd Tennessee Infantry. They were captured at the Battle of Rogersville on November 6, 1863.