Civil War Prisons

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The Prisons and Treatment of POWs During the Civil War.

For years it has been widely accepted by many groups of historians that prisons in the South, during the Civil War, were in a destitute state as compared to those in the North. What might not be taken into consideration is that in the final years of the conflict the South had become seriously dilapidated by Grant¡¯s idea of ¡°total war¡± and by the blockade of all the Southern ports. The North, however, had no excuse for the poor treatment of Confederate POWs. The Union had a considerable amount of money, as compared to the South, which was deeply in debt. Federal troops had more food, more medical supplies, and more manpower to help care for the prisoners. Never the less, each side had deplorable conditions in their prisoner of war camps.

Southern Prisons Richmond Virginia the capital of the Confederate States of America was also the distribution center for the Confederate prison system.

Until the battle of First Manassas many captured Union Soldiers were exchanged or paroled on the field. But with the first true battle of the Civil war brought 1,300 Union POW¡¯s to the Confederate Capital. This caused an immediate problem, which called for immediate action. Jefferson Davis called for a state of martial law, within three weeks of Davis¡¯s declaration; Richmond¡¯s Provost Marshal Brigadier General John H. Winder took control of the John L. Ligon and Sons Tobacco Factory to be converted into the three story Ligon Military Prison. Many of the buildings that were commandeered for use as prisons were nothing more than plain warehouses with nothing inside for use as heating or toilet facilities. All of the men were forced to sleep on the floor due to lack of beds or material.

Libby Prison was brought into operation in 1862 and it was the only converted prison to have running water but on the other hand the water was drawn from a nearby river so the quality of the water was almost intolerable. Libby was the Richmond prison for commissioned officers while its counterpart Belle Isle was for enlisted men.

Belle Isle was commissioned around the same time as Libby for the same reason, the city was running out of space to hold its POW¡¯s. Belle Isle was an island southwest of Libby prison and was established to detain Federal enlisted troops. There was only one way off the island to the mainland and that was a narrow bridge that was easily guarded and was very close to the local railroad stations. Yet in its final years in operation the guards wouldn¡¯t let the prisoners venture to the ¡°sink¡± after lights out for security reasons a practice which was established in Yankeeprisons this in turn led to some very unsanitary conditions. Prisoners were forced to answer the call of nature wherever possible that led to a horrible stench that citizen of Richmond complained of. So by 1864 the prison was shutdown for good but not after over 300 Union soldiers died within its confines.

Salisbury Prison was one of the more populated prisons during the war. Established in 1861 after the Confederate government purchased the Old Salisbury North Carolina cotton factory. The old cotton factory was originally slated to hold Confederate soldiers guilty of an infraction against the C.S.A. But due to the dire situation in Richmond, Salisbury became a Military Prison on December 21. Salisbury Prison was located in the heart of North Carolina Farm lands and at the cross roads of major railways. The C.S.A had great ideas for this prison ¡°The Property, consisting of a large four-story brick building and six small cottages on sixteen acres heavily shaded by oak trees¡± this description of the prison paints a pretty picture of what would be the last place for many people. From the start Salisbury had its problems. When the first Yankee captives came to the prison they arrived to a rundown unfinished cotton mill. The original plan was to have Confederate soldiers awaiting court martial to complete all of the repairs needed to make it a success. The prison was so unprepared for prisoners that the guard unit that was originally slated to guard to POW¡¯s hadn¡¯t even been established. The government had to procure the services of nearby Trinity College students and the president of the school Reverend Braxton Craven commanding the unit. Among the numerous problems with the prison was one very important oversight the only well on the site ran out of water by about noon everyday, prisoners had to be escorted under a heavily armed guard into town to use one of the public wells.

Salisbury prison remained in tolerable condition until October 5, 1864 when a train carrying over 5000 federal prisoners arrived the healthy maximum capacity of the prison is 2,000, by the end of October the prison held 10,321. Prison officials were devastated by the sudden influx of prisoners; there simply weren¡¯t enough resources in the war torn South to support such a large concentration of men in such a confined space. Gradually the wells become contaminated with human waste and a Typhoid outbreak occurred which accounted for as many as 75 prisoners dieing each day. Another huge problem was the growing food crisis as Grants ¡°Total War¡± plan took effect the South was starving. Not to mention the many Federal POW¡¯s confined in the South.

Andersonville or Camp Sumter as it was officially recognized has become synonymous with suffering in our society even today. It was so bad that ¡°after the first few months prisoners reported entering the gates, would literally double over and vomit from the first sight and smell of the stockade.¡± In August of 1864 with the prison having over 33,000 occupants the small town in southwest Georgia became the fifth-largest city in the Confederacy. Prison conditions quickly got worse the men inside were starving but the C.S.A claims that the guards received the same rations as the prisoners. Their rations consisted of a half-pound slab of bacon and some corn meal. While the food was of poor quality all of the men were too hungry to really care. Many of the men lowered themselves to fighting for scraps of food tossed down by the guards.

The sanitation in Andersonville was deplorable the prison stockade was originally designed to hold 10,000 prisoners but as was stated earlier there were as many as 33,000 confined there during its two year period of existence. There was only one source of water a small creek that ran through the stockade. This inadequate source had to be used as a latrine, a place for the men to wash themselves, and as drinking water. Needless to say this caused many outbreaks of cholera, dysentery, yellow fever and typhoid. Also many of the prisoners suffered from scurvy, which is caused by lack of nutrition. In only two years of existence Andersonville Prison camp gained notoriety for being poorly managed and for out of 32,899 prisoners as many as 12,919.

Both sides committed