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Prisons During the Civil War

Elmira Prison

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.

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Belle Isle Prison

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.

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Andersonville

Andersonville was a Confederate prisoner of war camp located in Sumter County in Southwestern Georgia.

The camp was officially known as Camp Sumter by the Confederate government.

The Confederates established Andersonville on February 24th 1864.

Andersonville was originally built on 17 acres of land, it was later expanded to 27 acres. The camp was surrounded by a stockade wall made of pine logs eighteen feet high with sentry boxes located every 30 yards. There was also a twelve foot outer wall.

Andersonville Prison Dead-Line

Andersonville Prison Dead-Line

There was artillery located in each of the four corners of the camp which could cover the entire camp in case of a revolt.

There was also a dead-line located 17 feet from the main wall of the stockade.

This was used to keep the prisoners away from the stockade wall. Prisoners were forbidden to go past this line, if they did they were immediately shot without warning.

The interior of the camp where the prisoners were held was 1,540 feet long and 750 feet wide.

The camp was built to hold a maximum of 10,000 prisoners.

If you would like to learn more about the worst prisoner of war camp of the Civil War take a look at the novel Andersonville

Living Conditions at Andersonville

Andersonville was built on a very good piece of land. This land was perfectly suitable to hold a large number of men for an extended period of time. It was located in a good climate, and had plenty of clean flowing water provided by a stream that flowed through the camp. It also had small trees that could afford people protection from the sun.

When the camp opened it easily held the first Union prisoners. This did not last long as more and more prisoners began to arrive. In April 1864 the camp reached it’s capacity of 10,000 men and it continued to rise.

Andersonville Prison, August 17th 1864

Andersonville Prison, August 17th 1864

In August 1864 the camp was holding 32,899 prisoners. This was far beyond anything the camp could sustain.

The trees were gone, cut down by the prisoners and used to fuel fires or to make huts for the men to live in.

With the removal of the trees the men had no protection from the hot Georgia sun. They resorted to digging holes in the ground and living in them covered by makeshift tents.

The clean water from the stream that flowed through the camp became a slow running sludge filled cesspool with all sorts of disgusting things such as human excrement, filth, maggots and other vile things. It was not fit for drinking and it spread disease throughout the entire camp.

There were also an abundance of fleas and mosquitoes which attacked the men at night leaving them covered with large bite marks all over their faces and bodies. This made life miserable for not only the prisoners but the Confederate guards as well.

Food at Andersonville

Food was scarce in the camp. The Union’s constant attacks made life very difficult for the entire Confederacy. The Union army burned and looted anything of any value they came across, they had a naval blockade which cut off any outside shipments of food or medicine, and they halted all large scale prisoner exchanges since the Confederates would not agree to exchange black soldiers.

Andersonville Prison, Men Receiving Rations

Andersonville Prison, Men Receiving Rations

These things made it virtually impossible for the Confederacy to properly take care of it’s prisoners. The men in Andersonville were on a starvation diet.

The Confederate authorities could barely provide adequate provisions for their own troops. They did not take much interest in providing food for the prisoners.

The Confederate government saw the prisoners as aiding the federal government who were trying to inflict great pain on the people of the south, so they were not terribly sympathetic to their problems.

Prisoner Run Government

Within the confines of Andersonville the Confederates did not bother the men, they did not enforce laws, they did not regulate anything and they did not protect the prisoners. The Confederate army was stretched very thin at this point in the war and did not have the manpower to properly man prisoner of war camps.

The guards that were there generally were unfit for regular military service. They were either too old, too young, or unable to fight due to wounds they received previously.

The Confederate guards simply stood in their guard towers and oversaw the camp. Their only job was to put down a revolt and make sure no prisoners escaped.

Andersonville Prison Northwest View, August 17th 1864

Andersonville Prison Northwest View, August 17th 1864

The prisoners were left to govern and protect themselves. A few prisoners in the camp were very bad people, which resulted in a lot of crime.

These men would prey on the weak and sick, they would steal from them, beat them, and even murder them just to obtain a small piece of food or clothing. People were even killed at night while they slept.

This small group of prisoners terrorized the rest of the men in the camp.

In July 1864 the other prisoners rose up against this group. They attacked and captured six of the worst offenders and put them on trial. These men were found guilty of theft and murder and were condemned to death.

The six men were all hanged on the same day while thousands of their fellow inmates watched their execution.

The Confederates did nothing to intervene and allowed the trial and execution to take place without any interference.

Andersonville Prisoners Join the Confederate Army

In the middle of 1864 the Confederate government desperately needed more men. They offered the Union prisoners the chance to join the Confederate army.

In return they would be released from prison, given food, clothing, and treated like other Confederate soldiers.

Andersonville Prison Southeast View, August 17th 1864

Andersonville Prison Southeast View, August 17th 1864

Some Union prisoners took this offer and joined the Confederate ranks.

These men joined the Confederate army for two reasons.

First it gave them a great opportunity to get out of the miserable conditions of the camp, a place where they were unlikely to survive until the end of the war.

Second it gave these Union prisoners a chance to escape.

On December 28th 1864 the Battle of Egypt Station in Mississippi took place.

The night before the battle six rebel soldiers went over to the Union line and surrendered. They claimed to be Union soldiers that were captured and sent to Andersonville.

They had joined the Confederate army in order to escape. They told their captors that many of the Confederate soldiers the Union would be fighting the next day were also prisoners who joined the Confederate army.

These men explained that the Confederates would not put up much of a fight and would surrender quickly.

The men were eager to rejoin their regiments and continue the fight against the Confederates.

At the beginning of the battle on December 28th Union cavalry began to advance on the Confederate line. Confederate skirmishes opened fire on these troops killing three officers, twenty soldiers, and wounding 74 other troops.

Andersonville Prison South View, August 17th 1864

Andersonville Prison South View, August 17th 1864

Responding to this attack Union cavalry charged the Confederates who quickly threw down their weapons and surrendered. 254 Confederate soldiers were taken prisoner.

The Confederates immediately claimed to be Union soldiers who joined the rebel army in order to escape.

It was determined after an investigation that these men did not intend to escape based on their actions during the battle.

Since they were placed in front of the main Confederate line as skirmishers they could easily have entered Union lines and surrendered, which they did not do.

They also took deliberate aim at Union soldiers killing and wounding them. If they truly intended to rejoin the Union army they would have intentionally missed when they fired.

For these reasons they were charged with desertion. The six soldiers that surrendered the night before the battle were allowed to rejoin their old regiments since they were sincere in their efforts to escape the Confederacy and provided valuable information to Union authorities prior to the battle.

Andersonville Commandant Henry Wirz

Henry Wirz became commandant of Andersonville in April 1864.

Henry Wirz was cruel and very tough with the prisoners under his command. He was responsible for the conditions in the camp, which were horrible. While not entirely his fault the blame still fell on him.

Execution of Henry Wirz, November 10th 1865

Execution of Henry Wirz, November 10th 1865

Andersonville was liberated by Union troops and shutdown on May 22nd 1865.

On August 23rd 1865 Henry Wirz was put on trial by the federal government. Many former Andersonville prisoners testified against Henry Wirz. They accused him of torturing and murdering inmates. He was even accused of having prisoners ripped apart by dogs.

It is debatable whether these accusations were entirely true or not. Regardless Henry Wirz was found guilty of war crimes and sentenced to death.

He was hanged on November 10th 1865 at the Old Capital Prison in Washington D.C.

Total Death Toll at Andersonville

More than 100 prisoners died per day as a result of a lack of food and the abundance of diseases such as diarrhea, dysentery, scurvy and many other ailments.

Union prisoners were ordered to carry the bodies of their comrades outside of the wall. The bodies were then transported by cart a quarter mile away to a cemetery.

The bodies were buried in trenches side by side about three feet deep.

Wood was so scarce at the camp that coffins could not be made for the dead, so they were simply placed in a hole that was dug for them.

On July 26th 1865 James M. Moore the assistant quartermaster for the United States army began the task of exhuming and identifying all of the bodies buried outside of the prison.

The total number of Union soldiers that died at Andersonville prison camp was 12,912.

Of these, 12,461 were identified. 451 could not be identified and were listed as unknown soldiers.

Some of these men were murdered however the vast majority of them died from disease and starvation.

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