- 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
It was never possible to do much about it, although Wirz tried. His real problem was beyond him: the Confederate economy, ground down by four years of war, was collapsing, and the task of maintaining a decent prison for 30,000 men was impossible. The ruinous inability even to get tools to build the place was symptomatic. Near the prison there were enough trees to provide lumber for all the barracks, hospitals, and other buildings anyone could have wanted, but the manpower, money, and equipment to turn these trees into lumber and then into prison buildings just were not there. Georgia had a big surplus of food—when Sherman’s boys marched through in the fall of 1864 they found more than they could eat, and wasted tons of good food—but the railroads were breaking down, government machinery was doing the same, and Confederate armies were going hungry. When the Confederacy could not even feed its own soldiers, it was not going to be able to give much food to its war prisoners. So the boys at Andersonville got, mostly, corn meal made out of corn with the cobs ground in with it, unsifted, and a good many of them died because of it; they blamed Wirz, as they blamed him because the prison hospital was terrible, and because the whole camp was terrible, and because he was a short-tempered man trying to do an impossible job with next to no help at all; but it was not Wirz’s fault. He did his best, his best was not good enough, but nobody’s best would have been adequate.
Andersonville, in short, was about as bad as a place could conceivably be. Its horrors were publicized then and have been described in detail at intervals ever since, and there is no point in repeating the catalogue of horrors. But all of the other prison camps were bad, too, and the Northern camps killed their full quota of Southerners.
There was, for instance, a Northern camp at Elmira, New York; another camp in the middle of a prosperous state, this one situated in a country whose economy was booming, maintained by a government which was strong and rich and which was going to live for a long time. In the fall of 1864 the hospital surgeon at Elmira complained to the War Department. In three months, he said, with some 8,347 prisoners in camp, 2,011 had been admitted to the prison hospital, and 775—over a third of those admitted—had died. On the average, he pointed out, there were 451 men in hospital every day and 601 more sick in their quarters, which meant that about one eighth of the number in prison was on the sick list. He added: “At this rate the entire command will be admitted to hospital in less than a year and 36 per cent. die.” He reported that the entire prison enclosure stank to the high heavens, that a river which flowed through the ground had formed a gummy pond, “green with putrescence, filling the air with its messengers of disease and death,” that his applications for medicines were ignored, and that because he had been unable to get straw a good many of his patients had to lie on the hospital Hoor.
Elmira was a fair sample. There was a Federal prison camp on an island in the Mississippi at Rock Island, Illinois, where more than 1,800 Confederates died; a medical inspector reported that this was partly because smallpox struck the camp and partly because, when the place was laid out, no one had bothered to put up any hospital facilities. Certain barracks were set apart for the purpose, but smallpox patients had to lie in wards with men suffering from lesser ailments, and a Federal doctor complained that there was “a striking want of some means for the preservation of human life which medical and sanitary science has indicated as proper.”
At Fort Delaware, on Pea Patch Island near the mouth of the Delaware River, barracks were built on marshy ground which was so soggy that the buildings settled and were in danger of toppling over; cooking facilities were inadequate, sanitary conditions were so bad that typhoid fever was prevalent, and long after the war a marker was erected in memory of the 2,436 Confederate prisoners who died in the place. During 1864 the big prison camp at Point Lookout, Maryland, put over 1,200 Confederate soldiers into their graves. Filth, poor drainage, and overcrowding created a horror at Camp Douglas, on the edge of Chicago, and the president of the United States Sanitary Commission after inspecting the place asserted that the conditions were “enough to drive a sanitarian mad.” In the fall of 1864 the colonel who commanded this camp reported that 984 of his 7,402 prisoners were sick, said that there had been “a lack of efficiency in the management of the medical affairs of the post,” and complained that many prisoners had scurvy because no vegetables or other antiscorbutics were available.