After the suspension of the Dix-Hill Cartel, both sides set up prisoner of war camps and prisons all across the country. Never having incarcerated large numbers of captured soldiers before, they were forced into learning about the practice as they went along. Unfortunately, the learning process had side effects: captured soldiers suffered and died in the process.
As many as 56,000 men died in the civil war camps and prisons through ignorance of nutrition and proper sanitation. “Intent and malice were never intended,” said James Robertson, a history professor and nationally-recognized civil war authority at Virginia Tech, in Blacksburg. “Americans had never been faced with what to do with more than 100 men in captivity before,” said Robertson.
The hundreds of thousands of men imprisoned simply exceeded either side’s ability or will to manage. More than 150 prisoner of war camps and prisons were established by both sides. All were filled beyond capacity with prisoners crowded into inadequate facilities with meager provisions. Neither side dedicated enough of their scant resources to the care and feeding of prisoners. And there simply were no organizations available to check on the facilities, such as, the American Red Cross.
Some of the camps such as the Union’s Camp Delaware or Elmira Prison, or the South’s Camp Sumter, also known as Andersonville, had as many as 25 to 29% mortality rates. Most of the Northern facilities were coastal fortifications, existing jails, old buildings, and barracks enclosed by high fences. But both sides realized that, as increasing numbers of soldiers were captured, less formal, make-shift facilities would be required.
These facilities, such as Maryland’s Point Lookout and the Confederacy’s Andersonville Prison were simply stockades with inadequate shelters for the prisoners. Andersonville, by far the most notorious Civil War prison, housed nearly 33,000 men at its peak, one of the largest “cities” of the Confederacy.
Inmates crowded into 26.5 acres of muddy land, constructing “shebangs,” or primitive shelters, from whatever material they could find. Lacking sewer or sanitation facilities, camp inmates turned “Stockade Creek” into a massive, disease-ridden latrine.
Summer rainstorms would flood the open sewer, spreading filth. Visitors approaching the camp for the first time often retched from the stench. The prison’s oppressive conditions claimed 13,000 lives by the war’s end.
Prison diets consisted of pickled beef, salt pork, corn meal, rice, or bean soup. The lack of fruits or vegetables often led to outbreaks of scurvy and other diseases. In many northern prisons, hungry inmates hunted rats, sometimes making a sport of it. Starvation and poor sanitation inflamed outbreaks of diseases like smallpox, typhoid, dysentery, cholera, and malaria. Sores, left untreated, led to gangrene, a disease curable only by amputation.
Of all these diseases, perhaps the most dangerous was depression. “A good number of the prisoners became catatonic and most realized it was all over when they reached this state,” Robertson said. Prisoners often wasted away. Some elected for suicide, taunting guards to shoot them.
Like many soldiers who were incarcerated during wartime, those in the Civil War attempted to maintain their unit cohesion by keeping some form of organization while in the camps. Soldiers formed organizations and societies in order to maintain their cohesion. They bartered and sold primitive trade goods in each camp.
Often times, escape attempts maintained the sanity of the prisoners. There were as many different ways of attempting to escape. Perhaps, the most popular was feigning death or sickness. The men would be removed from confinement and at a point would simply walk away from the camp. At Camp Douglas in Chicago, Illinois, inmates darkened their skin and walked out with the African-American workers. So many men escaped in this fashion that the prison authorities stopped using African-Americans as workers in the camp.
Tunneling was, by far, the most popular method of escape. In one of the most famous prison breaks, known as the “Great Yankee Tunnel,” 109 Union prisoners crawled to freedom from Libby Prison in Richmond, Virginia, after digging a 60-foot tunnel with clam shells and case knives. However, as many as half were later recaptured.
There was a plan to break large numbers of prisoners out of the camps put forward by both sides. During Confederate General Jubal Early’s 1864 attack on Washington, there were as plan to break out the 10,000 prisoners at Point Lookout, Maryland. Approved by President Jefferson Davis and General Robert E. Lee, a joint Army-Navy force was to attack the facility and free the prisoners. The operation never reached the operational stage due to problems with timing. Here is a recent post with the details of the planned raid.
Another plan involved a supposed plan to breakout prisoners from Camp Douglas in Chicago. To this day, historians don’t know if this was a real plan or a hoax. To some it was a plot in the minds of only Union authorities. To others, it was an attempt to round up and arrest the pro-Southern ‘Sons of Liberty’. In the end there was no mass breakout and only 66 men were ever tried for the supposed plot.
After the war Henry Wirz, commandant of the inner stockade at Camp Sumter, was improperly tried by a military tribunal on charges of conspiracy and murder. The trial was presided over by Union General Lew Wallace and featured chief JAG (Judge Advocate General)’s prosecutor Norton Parker Chipman.
A number of former prisoners testified on conditions at Andersonville, many accusing Wirz of specific acts of cruelty, most of which could not be substantiated, for some of which Wirz was not even present in the camp. The court also considered official correspondence from captured Confederate records. Perhaps the most damaging was a letter to the Confederate surgeon general by Dr. James Jones, who in 1864 was sent by Richmond to investigate conditions at Camp Sumter (Andersonville). Wirz presented evidence that he pleaded to Confederate authorities to try to get more food and tried to improve the conditions for the prisoners inside.
Unfortunately for Wirz, President Abraham Lincoln had recently been assassinated, so the political environment was not sympathetic. Wirz was found guilty of murder and was sentenced to death. On November 10, 1865, he was hanged. Wirz was the only Confederate “official” to be tried and convicted of war crimes resulting from the Civil War. The revelation of the sufferings of the prisoners was one of the factors that shaped public opinion in the North regarding the South after the close of the Civil War.