U.S. Civil War Prison Camps Claimed Thousands

Yancey Hall
for National Geographic News
July 1, 2003

While the Civil War etched the names Gettysburg, Antietam, and Vicksburg into the historical consciousness of the United States, a more subversive skirmish went by almost unnoticed.

Although precise figures may never be known, an estimated 56,000 men perished in Civil War prisons, a casualty rate far greater than any battle during the war's bloody tenure.

The high mortality rate was not deliberate, but the result of ignorance of nutrition and proper sanitation on both sides of the conflict, according to scholars. "Intent and malice were never intended," said James Robertson, a history professor at Virginia Tech, in Blacksburg.

Yet ignorance—coupled with shortages of food, shelter, and clothing—produced a cauldron of disease and death for inmates. While previous wars harbored similar prison conditions, the Civil War was unique in the sheer numbers of men confined.

"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 Horrible Than Battle

Prisons often engendered conditions more horrible than those on the battlefield. The Union's Fort Delaware was dubbed "The Fort Delaware Death Pen," while Elmira prison in New York saw nearly a 25 percent mortality rate. The South's infamous Camp Sumter, or Andersonville prison, claimed the lives of 29 percent of its inmates.

More than 150 prisons were established during the war. All were filled beyond capacity, with inmates crowded into camps and shelters with meager provisions.

The North incarcerated most of their POWs in an array of coastal fortifications, existing jails, old buildings, and barracks enclosed by high fences. But early on, both sides realized that less formal, make-shift facilities would be required to house the overwhelming numbers of POWs. Union prisons such as Maryland's Point Lookout housed soldiers in tent cities walled in by high fences. While the South, lacking the means to build adequate structures, forced men into crowded stockades.

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 (11 hectares) 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.

Mental Toll

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.

Continued on Next Page >>


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