- Historic Sites
Prison Camps Of The Civil War
Andersonville was merely the worst of a bad lot; North and South alike, they were more lethal than shot and shell
August 1959 | Volume 10, Issue 5
Under any circumstances, indeed, prison camps in that generation were certain to be bad. Even in his own army, when he was far removed from the battlefield and situated where he could get the best care his government could give him, the Civil War soldier existed under conditions that were just barely endurable. His food was bad, his housing was usually atrocious, his medical care was cruelly imperfect; disease and malnutrition killed far more soldiers (leaving those who died in prison entirely out of consideration) than ever died in combat, just to be in the army at all was a serious danger to life and limb in the 1860’s. To be a prisoner of war inevitably intensified that danger, not because anyone planned it that way but simply because it was bound to happen so.
The Army of the Potomac, for instance, spent the winter of 1863 in camp near Fredericksburg, Virginia, fifty miles from Washington, with plenty of steamers plying an open waterway to bring supplies. In that winter, a number of the soldiers in that army died of scurvy, a malady that comes from nothing on earth but dietary deficiency: in this case, it was the result of a continued diet of salt pork and crackers. (The number of men in that army who died that winter of pneumonia, or of intestinal maladies stemming from bad food and bad sanitation, was ever so much greater than the number that died of scurvy.) These things happened to men who were in winter quarters, within easy traveling distance of their own capital, under a government which was doing its best to provide them with every necessity. This being the case, it is not hard to see why men in prison camps had it really rough.
Andersonville Prison came into existence in February, 1864, under conditions which made it inevitable that it would become the worst of the lot.
The site had been selected a few months earlier, when the Confederate authorities concluded that they needed a prison camp far enough from the fighting fronts to provide security and large enough to accommodate prisoners who would have to be removed from places dangerously near the advancing Federal armies. A sixteen and one-half acre enclosure was set up in a rolling meadow crossed by a little stream, and a stockade was built around it; the first prisoners arrived before the stockade was finished, and before the prison bake house had been built, and there were no barracks or huts of any kind; and before the authorities could get hold of the situation and get the place into proper order, they began to be swamped by an unceasing influx of prisoners whose rate of arrival constantly outpaced the authorities’ efforts to prepare for their reception. The stockade was indeed finished, and the cook-house was completed, but 400 prisoners were arriving every day; by March there were 7,500 of them in the stockade, and by May the enclosure which had been designed to accommodate 10,000 men had 15,000 prisoners, with new ones coming in every week.
Wirz got to Andersonville early in April, and he did his best to cope with the situation, but things were simply out of hand. Many things needed to be done. The prisoners had no housing, except for such foxholes as they might grub out or such makeshift tents as they could put together out of blankets, branches of trees, and odds and ends of planks. The authorities possessed no axes, spades, shovels, picks, or other tools, and found it almost impossible to get any. At about the time Wirz got there, a worried Confederate colonel was reporting that although many prisoners were dying every day, he lacked even implements to dig graves. Wirz said that it was well along in May before he got the tools he had to have, and although he did his best to dig drainage ditches and keep the little stream unpolluted, the problem of sanitation was forever beyond solution. By midsummer he had managed to enlarge the stockade by ten acres, but by now there were 30,000 prisoners and the prison pen was little better than a slimy quagmire. A Confederate officer who inspected the place in August reported that there was just enough room to provide about six square feet of ground for each prisoner, and men were dying at the rate of 100 a day.