- 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
The climate often added to the prisoners’ woes. Southern boys were not used to cold northern winters, and they usually lacked adequate clothing and blankets; the camp for Confederate officers on Johnson’s Island, in Lake Erie, seems to have been an especially chilly place, although it must be added that the death rate at this prison was never high. Northern boys, similarly, found the hot summers of the Deep South hard to endure, especially in some of the stockaded camps where they could not get shelter from the sun. The notorious Libby Prison in Richmond, a ponderous building that used to be a tobacco warehouse, was verminous and, like most prisons, served terrible food, but had the advantage of being less than escape-proof; in February, 1864, prisoners dug a tunnel, and 109 of them got out, 48 being recaptured before they could reach the Union lines.
High bounty laws in the North caused special problems in certain Southern prisons, most notably in Andersonville. When a man who enlisted could get more than $1,000 in cash—which was the case in many northern states in 1864—many out-and-out thugs took this route to easy riches, signing up as volunteers with every intention of deserting promptly and re-enlisting under another name somewhere else. Most of them got away with it, but some got into action and were captured by the Confederates before they could desert, and in the prison camps they were dangerous nuisances, forming gangs to rob their fellow prisoners of anything worth taking, from rations to blankets to cash. Since the Confederacy had just barely enough soldiers to guard its prison camps, they were rarely able to police the activities of the prisoners. At Belle Isle, a pen on an island in the James River at Richmond, the commandant confessed that he could do nothing to suppress the gangsters’ activities; it was all he could do to keep the whole set of prisoners from escaping en masse. At Andersonville the prisoners themselves formed a vigilance committee and tried and hanged six of the worst gangsters, with Wirz’s approval. Eighteen other gangsters who escaped hanging were beaten so badly that three of them died.
Early in the fall of 1864, the warring governments did work out a deal for the exchange of prisoners who were obviously too sick to be put back in combat assignments. The prison authorities at Elmira culled out 1,200 such men and put them on a train for Baltimore, where they would take ship for some Southern port. Federal doctors who met the train protested that many of the men shipped off were in no condition to travel; five had died on the train, sixty more had to be sent off to hospital as soon as they got to Baltimore, and the steamer that was waiting for them had neither doctors, orderlies, nor nurses. The medical officers who had chosen the men to be transferred, these surgeons complained, had been guilty of “criminal neglect and inhumanity,” and the commander of the Elmira camp wrote that even though he had sent away 1,200 of his worst cases, his hospital soon was as crowded as ever, with a fearful death rate.
If an indictment can be drawn up against Andersonville, then, indictments can also be brought against the other camps. Andersonville, to be sure, was by all odds the worst place of the lot, and, quite naturally—because it was the worst, and also because it was the biggest—it got the most attention. And when the war ended, Andersonville became, in the eyes of the people of the North, the great symbol of all of the needless suffering the war had caused, the prime example of man’s inhumanity to man, which, because it had caused so much misery for so many people, must somehow be punished.
So Wirz was arrested, lodged in prison, and on August 21, 1865, he went on trial before a military commission in Washington. He was charged with conspiring with other Confederate officers to weaken or kill Union prisoners, and with murder “in violation of the laws and customs of war.” If Andersonville was the accepted symbol of the barbarities of war, Wirz had become the symbol of Andersonville. The press characterized him as “the Andersonville savage,” “the inhuman wretch,” and “the infamous captain,” and his leading attorney remarked, with some reason, that Wirz was doomed before he even got a hearing.
To the Union soldiers who had been at Andersonville Wirz seemed a villain. They knew that they had suffered infamous treatment; Wirz was the man, as far as they could see, through whom this treatment had come. He had tried to run a decent prison, but no living mortal could have accomplished that at Andersonville, considering all of the handicaps, and anyway the men who had been imprisoned there knew nothing of his efforts or of his problems; they know only that the place had been a hellhole, that he apparently had been in charge of it, and that he was stiff, arrogant, and peevish in his demeanor. The military court clearly shared their feeling. It heard a vast amount of evidence about horrible conditions in the prison, passed lightly over the evidence that went to show that Wirz had tried without success to get these conditions bettered, and refused to hear any testimony which might indicate that Northern prison camps were not very much better than Andersonville. In the end, as might have been expected, Wirz was convicted and was sentenced to be hanged. President Andrew Johnson refused to intervene, and the sentence was carried out.