Prison Camps Of The Civil War


Originally, the method of handling prisoners during the Civil War was based on a system of exchange. Early in the war the two governments, following long-established military precedent, signed a cartel, which was in effect a sort of gentlemen’s agreement providing that at frequent intervals the governments would exchange prisoners on a man-for-man basis. There was an intricate table of values: a lieutenant was worth a certain number of privates, a colonel was worth a larger number, and so on, and the bookkeeping occasionally became rather difficult. Many prisoners had to wait a long time for exchange, and now and then the warring governments found it hard to go along with a system which depended finally on mutual co-operation and trust, but in the main the thing worked tolerably well. At the very least it kept the prisoner-of-war population on both sides fairly stable and held the whole problem down to manageable size.

But in 1863 the business began to collapse, for a number of reasons which add up to the fact that the infinite pressures of wartime provided a load too heavy for any gentlemen’s agreement to carry.

To begin with, the North had organized a number of Negro regiments, most of whose members were fugitive slaves, and the South refused to agree that these soldiers, when captured, were subject to ordinary exchange procedure; in retaliation, the North balked at making any exchanges at all. In addition, in the border states each side arrested a number of civilians, and there was endless argument as to whether these people came under the cartel. When Vicksburg and Port Hudson surrendered in July, 1863, some 35,000 Confederate prisoners were released on parole, and the Federals charged that the Confederate authorities restored these men to duty in violation of the cartel.

Finally, Lieutenant General U. S. Grant became general in chief of the Union armies, and he surveyed the collapsing cartel with a coldly realistic eye. By this time there were more Confederate prisoners in the North than there were Union prisoners in the South, and the Confederacy was much more badly pinched for manpower than was the North. Grant concluded that the cessation of exchange hurt the South and, indirectly but effectively, helped the North. This, he admitted, was rough on the prisoners, but it brought Union victory nearer—and so the Northern government made very little ellort to restore the exchange system to its former activity.

Because of all of this the population of Northern and Southern prison camps began to grow and kept on growing, and as it did so the camps became places of great hardship, suffering, and death. The size of the problem is shown by figures which the War Department in Washington compiled in July, 1866. These figures showed that from first to last the North held a total of 220,000 Confederates as prisoners, while the South held 126,000 Unionists. Of these, 24,436 Southerners died in the Northern camps, while 22,576 Northerners died in the Southern camps. The official who drew up the figures hastened to point out that this made the death rate in the Southern camps substantially higher than in the Northern camps, and he added that his estimate of Federal deaths was probably too low anyway.

As it happened, these figures are subject to a great deal of revision. The Northern historian, James Ford Rhodes, studied the whole business forty years later and concluded that the Confederacy had imprisoned some 194,000 Union soldiers and that the North had imprisoned about 215,000 Confederates. The War Department tabulation of deaths was fairly accurate. These figures indicate that by and large neither side had much reason to point any accusing fingers at the other side. Whether they were situated in the North or in the South, prison camps in the Civil War were almost incredibly lethal, and no refinement of figuring leaves one side looking much better than the other.

To understand how appallingly deadly the prison camps really were, one need do no more than reflect on this simple fact: about two and one-half times as many soldiers were exposed to the dangers of the prison camps as were exposed to the dangers of the great Battle of Gettysburg—and the camps killed nearly ten times as many as were killed at Gettysburg.

At the time, good people on both sides felt that their enemies were willfully and maliciously mistreating prisoners in order to kill them, but it is clear by now that nothing much more than sheer human clumsiness was involved. Looking back with the added knowledge of Civil War affairs which is available today, it is easy to understand why the prison camps became so terrible.

Each government, the one at Washington and the one at Richmond, was straining itself and its country’s economy to conduct the war. Each government had many things to think of—raising and supporting armies, providing food and munitions and equipment, maintaining its finances and its industries and its transportation system, trying in short to handle an all-out war for which there had been no preparation of any consequence. In all of this, on each side, the conduct of the prison camps usually came last. Whatever time, money, energy, and administrative competence were left over, after the business of fighting the war was taken care of, could be applied to the care of prisoners. As the record proves, this was not nearly enough.