Prisoners of War

For the most part, soldiers who were taken prisoner by both sides were relatively well treated. This was the Victorian era, after all, and chivalry still had its place during wartime. More importantly, however, the soldiers of the North and South weren't fighting some unknown, foreign enemy; they were fighting people who spoke their language and had been their own countrymen. To abuse another American — even a rebellious one — wasn't in the nature of most men, though there were exceptions. In addition, every soldier knew there was a strong possibility he could be taken prisoner, so it behooved all to act with kindness toward captured enemy forces — today it was them; tomorrow it could be you.

Paroles and Exchanges

At the beginning of the war, captured soldiers were expected to “give parole,” or promise not to escape. Paroled soldiers could expect to be sent back to their own lines under a flag of truce, at which time they would be sent home until an exchange was effected. Union and Confederate military officials reached an agreement in 1862 that stipulated that all prisoners were to be exchanged within ten days of capture. The fact that promises were made and kept demonstrates the gentlemanly nature of the Civil War during its first years — a man's word was his honor. However, if a soldier broke his promise by returning to the field unexchanged, he ran the risk of being shot or hanged.

The value of a prisoner depended on his rank. A general was worth up to sixty privates; a major general was worth up to forty privates. At the bottom end, a noncommissioned officer was worth two privates, and privates were traded one for one. Approximately 200,000 soldiers from both sides were freed through prisoner exchanges.

The Union and the Confederacy both employed sharpshooters to pick off the enemy at a great distance. Southern snipers were particularly effective as a result of their incredibly accurate rifles. At the battle of Spotsylvania, one sniper shot Union General John Sedgwick dead at 800 yards.

In 1864, the Union ceased prisoner exchanges altogether in an attempt to bring the Confederacy down by attrition. Union officials finally realized that every Confederate soldier in a POW camp was one less rifle aimed at Union soldiers. The policy had a devastating effect on the South, where manpower shortages were rampant. Unfortunately, many POWs also suffered greatly as a result of the no-exchange policy.

The conditions at POW camps varied greatly. At the beginning of the war, when prisoner exchanges helped keep prisons relatively empty, conditions were fairly good on both sides. Prisoners were usually well treated, well fed, and adequately clothed. This remained true for most prisons in the North throughout the war, but the conditions of POW camps in the South deteriorated greatly as the Confederacy gradually found itself unable to feed and clothe even its own citizens and soldiers. Most prison officials did their best to maintain humane conditions, but they had less and less to work with during the final year of the war.

Northern POW Camp Conditions

The North had its share of less-than-ideal facilities. Point Lookout in Maryland, for example, was designed to house 10,000 men in tents, but it often contained 20,000 or more. Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas, off the Florida Keys, was another prison known for its brutal conditions. An old fort converted into a military prison in 1861, Fort Jefferson housed Union army criminals. The tropical climate at Fort Jefferson was stifling, and the work conditions unmerciful. Worse, unsanitary conditions promoted the spread of disease among the prison population, killing many.

Fort Jefferson's most famous prisoner was Dr. Samuel Mudd, who set John Wilkes Booth's broken leg following the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Mudd claimed he hadn't recognized Booth when he set his leg, but he was sentenced to life in prison. He was pardoned and released by President Andrew Johnson in 1869 but was never able to escape the stigma of his association to Lincoln's assassination.

Probably the worst Union POW camp was located in the town of Elmira, New York. More than 2,960 Confederate soldiers died there — almost a quarter of the prison population. According to government records, the death rate at Elmira was only slightly less than that of Andersonville, and it was more than double that of other Union prisons. The most common cause of death was disease exacerbated by starvation and filthy living conditions. Many prisoners, denied warm clothing and even blankets, froze to death during the harsh winter months. Those who survived the camp referred to it as “Hellmira.” It remains an indelible black mark on the conduct of the Union army.

Andersonville

No prisoner of war camp was more reviled than the Confederate prison constructed near the village of Andersonville in Sumter County, Georgia. Its name has become synonymous with barbarism and ill treatment.

Andersonville, officially known as Camp Sumter, was opened in February 1864 after the high number of Northern prisoners started taking a heavy toll on the food supplies in Richmond, where prisoners had previously been housed. When the first prisoners arrived at the new camp, they were greeted by sixteen acres of open land surrounded by a fifteen-foot-tall stock-ade. Originally designed to house 10,000 men, the facility soon contained more than three times that number and was expanded to twenty-six acres. Nearly 400 new prisoners arrived each day, straining the prison's meager resources to the breaking point.

Almost from the start, rations were scarce and of poor quality, and few prisoners had adequate shelter from the summer sun and the winter cold. The only fresh water came from Stockade Creek, a small stream that flowed through the prison yard. Waste was often dumped into the water, and downstream it was used as a latrine for all prisoners. The entire region was soon contaminated, but prisoners continued to drink from it. Health care was nonexistent.

At Vicksburg in 1863, General Grant paroled 31,000 Confederate soldiers rather than go through the chore of sending them all to prison camps in the North. He captured many of them again at Chattanooga. After taking command of all the Union armies, Grant ordered an end to prisoner exchanges until Confederate officials agreed to honor a one-for-one exchange.

The first commander of Andersonville was John Henry Winder, who oversaw all Confederate prisons. Winder died from exhaustion in February 1865 and was succeeded by Henry Wirz, a Swiss-born Confederate officer known for his hatred of the Union. According to reports, Wirz did little to alleviate the suffering of his inmates, and the prison's increasingly poor conditions took a heavy toll — approximately 13,000 prisoners died there, a mortality rate of about 29 percent.

At the end of the war, Henry Wirz became the only Confederate officer to be tried and convicted for war crimes. Numerous prisoners who suffered under his sadistic command testified against him, as did Clara Barton, who was outraged when she visited the prison site at the war's end to identify the dead and missing and see that they received a proper burial. Wirz was held accountable for the conditions at Andersonville, found guilty, and summarily executed. Wirz claimed he simply didn't have food, clothing, or medical supplies to give the prisoners and that his own staff suffered equally as the Confederacy began to crumble.

Acts of Kindness and Respect

In contrast to the brutality and horrifying conditions of some POW camps in the North and South are numerous reports of gallantry and kindness at others. For the most part, officers were especially well treated on both sides. They occasionally dined with the commanding officers of the camp and were often given new uniforms (minus their military buttons) when exchanged. In one example of unexpected chivalry, Union general Benjamin Butler, who was not particularly well known for his generosity, went to astounding lengths to find a special horse belonging to Confederate cavalry brigadier William H. F. Lee, the son of Robert E. Lee. The horse had been stolen during the younger Lee's capture in 1863.

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