Prisons

The Civil War prisons were by and large makeshift creations with little considerations in planning or engineering and consequently were home to some of the most abhorrent conditions ever observed in human history. If judged against the quality and standards of modern prison and detention systems, even including temporary field brigs, almost all of them would have been condemned as being fundamentally inhumane. Almost universally these prisons were overcrowded far beyond capacity and adequate food and sanitation were limited or non-existent. Complicating manners, the legal standards we attribute to prisoners and soldiers today were not in effect or were just coming into effect by the end of the war and no international body had formed to observe and judge internal atrocities as the UN does today. The first incarnation of the Geneva Conventions was not ratified until deep into the war by 1864 but the United States did not sign it until 1882 under President Chester Arthur. In the end little but the moral conscience of those in command was determinant in deciding the fate of prisoners. Prisons were especially crude and unfit for human occupation in the CSA, which unable to spare resources and manpower resorted to fencing in huge swathes of land and holding men as cattle, as at Andersonville.

By spring of 1864 Sherman’s Atlanta campaign had begun to see success as Joseph E. Johnston’s outmatched Confederate army was pushed closer and closer toward the city. In an attempt to relieve Johnston Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest was dispatched on a scorched earth campaign behind and between enemy lines in an attempt to slow the offensive and to strike at vulnerable targets. Forrest spent the preceding months before the fall of Atlanta ambushing Union reinforcements, capturing supply trains, destroying logistical framework and skirmishing with federal detachments. Forty miles north of Memphis on March 16th, 1864 Forrest assaulted and captured the lightly defended Fort Pillow with his army of 2,500[i] and in cold blood massacred most of the garrison of 600 after they had surrendered[ii]. The immediate reaction from Union high command was to halt the prisoner exchange system and thus would come the creation of the vast system of intolerable prisons which would cause the death of at least 56,000 men[iii].

As the amount of prisoners on either side of the conflict began to increase little additional resources were allocated to house them. Military men, as always in history, would fend and provide for their own company first and the enemy second. While apathy and ignorance inspired unfit prisons in the north a lack of resources and manpower would lead to the same in the south. The CSA, unable to even provide adequate supplies and logistics for the national army was in no condition to provide for the rapidly increasing population of prisoners. Rather than free the Union prisoners under their control CSA generals opted to create vast fenced in areas such as Andersonville prison. To complicate the extent of human misery common to these overcrowded, unsanitary, muddy plots of land rations were intolerably small and camp commandants often barred inmates from creating any form of shelter, forcing them to sleep on the open ground, as at Andersonville under Commandant Henry Wirz. Andersonville under the command of Wirz became a living hell, perhaps only exceeded by the horrors of places like Auschwitz, Birkenau and Treblinka:

“As we entered the place, a spectacle met our eyes that almost froze our blood with horror, and made our hearts fail within us. Before us were forms that had once been active and erect;-stalwart men, now nothing but mere walking skeletons, covered with filth and vermin. Many of our men, in the heat and intensity of their feeling, exclaimed with earnestness. “Can this be hell?” “God protect us!” and all thought that He alone could bring them out alive from so terrible a place. In the center of the whole was a swamp, occupying about three or four acres of the narrowed limits, and a part of this marshy place had been used by the prisoners as a sink, and excrement covered the ground, the scent arising from which was suffocating. The ground allotted to our ninety was near the edge of this plague-spot, and how we were to live through the warm summer weather in the midst of such fearful surroundings, was more than we cared to think of just then.”[iv]

After the war had ended Wirz was subjected to JAG and became the only Confederate officer to be tried and executed for war crimes,[v] with even the bloody Forrest escaping the yoke of the law under President Andrew Johnson’s general pardon. Among Wirzs’ convictions were counts of murder and conspiracy. In retrospect the contemporary observer might be prone to support such a judgment as the conditions at Andersonville were intolerable and lead to the undue suffering of tens of thousands and the deaths of over 12,913 men.[vi] We must not hurry away with this judgment however, as the CSA had virtually no resources to spare in sustaining the increasing prison population, a population which only increased with the Union’s decision to suspend the prisoner exchange program. While prison conditions prior to the suspension of the prisoner exchange may have been crude and unfit they were surely not universally murderous and only served as temporary places of rest in-between transfers.  In the end the suffering of the prisoners was only alleviated by the surrender of the CSA and the final cessation of hostilities. While the rifles had ceased firing by wars end the horrible conditions both on the field and in detention would fester in the minds of the people to create a rift between south and north which has only in contemporary years started to mend.


[i] Eicher, David J., The Longest Night: A Military History of the Civil War, Simon & Schuster, 2001, ISBN 0-684-84944-5. pp. 657

[ii] Castel, Albert, “The Fort Pillow Massacre: A Fresh Examination of the Evidence,” Civil War History 4 (March 1958). pp. 37-50.

[iii] http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2003/07/0701_030701_civilwarprisons.html U.S. Civil War Prison Camps Claimed Thousands

[iv] Kellogg, Robert H. Life and Death in Rebel Prisons. Hartford, CT: L. Stebbins, 1865.

[v] http://www.nps.gov/nr/twhp/wwwlps/lessons/11andersonville/11facts1.htm Andersonville Prison

[vi] Ibid.