PRISONERS OF WAR
HOLLAND THOMPSON, Ph.D
Assistant Professor of History in the College of the City of New York
this mass of material the man with a preconceived notion can find facts to
his liking. . . . In no part of the history of the Civil War, is a
wholesome skepticism more desirable, and nowhere is more applicable a
fundamental tenet of historical criticism that all tile right is never on
one side and all the wrong on the other. — James Ford Rhodes in
"History of the United States."
From first to last, omitting the armies
surrendered during April and May, 1865, more than four hundred thousand
prisoners were confined for periods ranging from days to years. At the
beginning of the war no suitable provision was made on either side.
Naturally, a South which did not believe that there would be a war and,
therefore did not adequately provide for the contest, made no advance
preparation for the care of prisoners. A North which believed that the
South would be subjugated within ninety days, saw little need of making
provision for captives. When the war began in earnest, the task of
organizing and equipping the fighting men so engrossed the attention of
the authorities that no time to think of possible prisoners was found.
majority of the people, North and South, believed that an army might
spring, full-armed, from the soil at the word of command, and that
training in the duties and obligations of the soldier was not only
unnecessary but in some way inconsistent with the dignity of a free-born
American citizen. The thousands of volunteers, officers and men who made
up the armies in the years 1861-65, brought with them varying ideas and
ideals, diverse standards of courtesy and justice. These volunteers captured the prisoners
and for the most part had charge of them. They interpreted the rules for
their care and treatment in the light of their temperaments and their
The lot of captives taken in war always has been hard. Once their lives
were at the disposal of their captors, who did not hesitate to slay. A
struggling humanitarianism, combined with self-interest, next made them
bond-slaves of the conquerors, who nevertheless retained the power of life
and death. As the centuries passed, prisoners of war were placed in a
class, and only the right to hold them until the end of the conflict
The purpose of holding prisoners is, of course, to weaken the military
strength of the adversary by keeping fighting men from his ranks.
Possession of a large number of prisoners may, however, prove a source of
weakness rather than of strength, since prisoners must be guarded and fed.
Therefore the custom of paroling—that is, releasing under an oath not to
take up arms until exchanged —developed.
The first prisoners were taken very soon after the organization of the
Confederate Government, before a battle had been fought. On February 18,
1861, General David E. Twiggs, commanding the Department of Texas,
surrendered without resistance the military posts and public property of
the department to a committee appointed by the State of Texas,
stipulating, however that the troops, 2684 in all, were to retire
unmolested. Because of this act, General Twiggs was dismissed on March 1st
from the Federal service. A few transports were sent for the troops, but
before all of them had succeeded in reaching the coast, the attempt to
relieve Fort Sumter put a new face upon the situation.
President Davis had been disposed to allow the fulfilment of the original
agreement, but soon it was announced that at the time the promise was
given a state of war did not exist, and that a subsequent state of war
made it proper for the Confederate
States to disregard the agreement war the State of Texas. Therefore,
Colonel Earl Van Dorn was ordered to Texas, either to enlist the men into
the Confederate army or to take them prisoners of war. Several of the
commissioned officers resigned from the United States service and joined
the Confederacy, but the rank and file were almost unanimously loyal. On
April 23d, Colonel C. A. Waite, who had succeeded to the command of the
Department of Texas, and the other officers on duty at headquarters were
seized and paroled. On the 25th of April, Major C. C. Sibley commanding
the Third Infantry, was forced to surrender at Saluria after he had
embarked his forces. The troops, with their officers, were then allowed to
sail for New York after the officers had given the following parole:
SALURIA, TEX., April 25 1861.
TO THE AUTHORITIES OF THE CONFEDERATE
STATES OF AMERICA
I give my word of honor as
an officer and a gentleman that I will not bear arms nor exercise any of
the functions of my office under my commission from the President of the
United States, against the Confederate States of America, during the
existence of the war between the said Confederate and United States,
unless I shall be exchanged for another prisoner or prisoners of war, or
unless I shall be released by the President of the Confederate states. In
consideration of the above parole, it is understood that I am free to go
and come wherever I may see fit, except that I shall not attempt to enter
or depart from any fort, camp, or garrison of the Confederate States
without the sanction of its commanding officer.
The following oath was administered to the enlisted men:
TO THE AUTHORITIES OF THE CONFEDERATE
STATES OF AMERICA
We do solemnly swear that
we will not bear arms against the Confederate States of America, nor in
any way give aid and comfort to the United States against the Confederate
States, during the existence of the war between the said United States and
Confederate States, unless we shall be
duly exchanged for other prisoners of war, or until we shall be released
by the President of the Confederate States. In consideration of this oath,
it is understood that we are free to go wherever we may see fit.
the 9th of May, Lieutenant-Colonel I. V. D. Reeve, who was on his way to
the coast from the forts in New Mexico surrendered ten officers and two
hundred and seventy men at San Lucas Spring, near San Antonio. Meanwhile,
President Lincoln had issued his proclamation threatening to treat
privateers as pirates. Therefore, Colonel Van Dorn restricted the limits
of these men to Bexar County, Texas, and the officers to the Confederate
States, though the officers were later limited to the State of Texas.
Because of the death of his daughter, Colonel Van Dorn gave
Lieutenant-Colonel Reeve the privilege of going North.
On May 10th, a brigade of Missouri State Militia at Camp Jackson, near St.
Louis, Missouri, was taken by Captain Nathaniel Lyon, U. S. A., and the
officers and men were paroled not to serve again during the war. Several
hundred prisoners were taken by General George B. McClellan at Rich
Mountain Virginia in July, and all were paroled, except two who had
previously served in the United States army. These the War Department
ordered General McClellan to retain. Then, on July 21, 1861, came the
battle of Bull Run, or Manassas, when the Confederates took more than a
thousand prisoners. The war was on in earliest.
The Federal government was inclined to refuse to recognize the validity of
the Texas paroles, and was only prevented from such action by the firmness
of the officers themselves. Secretary of War Cameron, for example, ordered
Lieutenant-Colonel Reeve to disregard his parole or else leave the army by
resignation or dismissal. Colonel Reeve appealed to President Lincoln, who
overruled the secretary Other paroled officers were ordered to duty before
exchange but all declined.
According to the laws of war, prisoners taken in an armed contest between
two belligerents must be protected, are entitled to quarters, to proper
food and clothing, to medical attendance, and to a reasonable amount of
fuel, bedding, and camp equipage. They may be required to labor, except
upon military works, and in attempting to escape they commit no crime. In
fact, it is the duty of a prisoner to escape if he can, and he should not
be punished therefor, though he may be confined with greater strictness.
Prisoners may be exchanged as the captor wills, though no obligation rests
upon him to enter into such an agreement. A captor also may allow his
prisoner, if he so wills, to sign a written parole, or may accept a parole
in an oral form. Generally only an officer is given the privilege of a
parole, while an oath is administered to an enlisted man. If a prisoner's
government refuses to recognize the instrument, the prisoner is bound in
honor to return to captivity.
Some of these provisions are the ordinary dictates of humanity. Others are
conventions which have been accepted by the common consent of nations. In
previous wars they had been generally violated, and the same thing
happened during the Civil War. Sometimes the violation was unintentional;
at other times, because some apparent advantage was gained. Some officers
in charge of prisoners looked upon them as felons and acted as the warden
of a penitentiary might. Others seemed to feel that "all is fair in war."
If the contest had been between two independent nations, the captives upon
each side would naturally have been exchanged, but it was the theory of
the United States that the contest was an insurrection, not a war, and
therefore the authorities were at first inclined to treat their prisoners
as civil delinquents, guilty of treason. It was feared that an agreement
to exchange prisoners would be regarded as a recognition of the
Confederacy as a nation, and it was determined to avoid such action. After
the battles of Bull Run and Ball's Bluff,
the number of prisoners in Confederate hands was so large and their
political influence so great, that commanders were authorized to make
special exchanges, and many were made both in the East and in the West.
This denial of belligerent rights could not be maintained, since the
Government was forced to take warlike measures for the suppression of the
so-called insurrection, and no real attempt was made to carry this theory
to its logical conclusion except in the case of the first privateers
captured. Learning that the Confederacy had issued commissions for
privateers to prey upon the commerce of the United States, President
Lincoln issued a proclamation on April 19, 1861, declaring that these
would be treated as pirates.
An opportunity to enforce the proclamation soon arose. The privateer
Savannah, with thirteen men on board, was captured off Charleston
Harbor on June 3d. The prisoners were taken to New York and placed in the
"Tombs" (the city prison), where they remained until turned over to the
War Department and transferred to Fort Lafayette, on February 3, 1862.
They were brought to trial on the charge of piracy on October 23, 1861,
but they had excellent counsel and their case was presented with such
skill and vigor that the jury disagreed. Before another trial could be
had, it had been decided to treat them as prisoners of war. Undoubtedly
this decision was hastened by the attitude of Great Britain, which was
decidedly unfriendly to the claim of the United States, but the principle
cause was the action of the Confederate Government to be mentioned
The day after the battle of Bull Run (or Manassas), July 22d , the
schooner Enchantress under charge of a prize crew from the privateer Jeff
Davis, was captured and the crew was taken to Philadelphia. There, Walter
W. Smith, prize-master, was tried for piracy in the United States Court,
October 22 - 28th, and was convicted. Soon after the news reached Richmond
the following order was issued:
WAR DEPARTMENT, Richmond Nov. 9, 1861.
Sir: You are hereby
instructed to choose, by lot, from among the prisoners of war, of highest
rank, one who is to be confined in a cell appropriated to convicted
felons, and who is to be treated in all respects as if such convict, and
to be held for execution in the same manner as may be adopted by the enemy
for the execution of the prisoner of war Smith, recently condemned to
death in Philadelphia.
You will also select
thirteen other prisoners of war, the highest in rank of those captured by
our forces, to be confined in the cells reserved for prisoners accused of
infamous crimes, and will treat them as such so long is the enemy shall
continue so to treat the like number of prisoners of war captured by them
at sea, and now held for trial in New York as pirates.
As these measures are
intended to repress the infamous attempt now made by the enemy to commit
judicial murder on prisoners of war, you will execute them strictly, as
the mode best calculated to prevent the commission of so heinous a crime.
Your obedient servant,
(Signed) J. P.
Acting Secretary of War.
To Brig.-Gen. John H. Winder.
The order was obeyed the next day, and Colonel Michael Corcoran of the
Sixty-ninth New York was chosen by lot as the hostage for Smith. As only
eleven Federal field-officers were held as prisoners, three captains were
chosen by lot to complete the quota, and all were placed in close
This move caused intense excitement in the North. The friends of the
officers bombarded the War Department with letters pleading for exchange
and finally the United States Government receded from its position, which
was untenable. Judge Grier, one of the bench who tried Smith in
Philadelphia, aptly said that he could not understand why men taken on the
sea were to be hanged while those captured on land were to be held as
prisoners, or released.
At first buildings already constructed were used for the confinement of
prisoners. The abandoned penitentiary at Alton, Illinois, was taken for the accommodation of Confederate
prisoners in the West, while in the East the forts along the seaboard,
including Fort Warren in Boston Harbor, Forts Lafayette and Columbus at
New York, Fort McHenry in Chesapeake Bay, Fort Delaware in the Delaware
River and the Old Capitol at Washington, were converted into prisons. In
Richmond, tobacco-factories which could be transformed with comparatively
little work into places for the detention of prisoners, were leased. Among
these were Liggon's, Crew's, Castle Thunder, Pemberton, and others. Later
Libby, which had been all old warehouse, became the chief officers'
prison. Castle Pinckney in Charleston Harbor, and some empty buildings in
Tuscaloosa, Alabama, were also used.
As the war went on, it was found that such accommodations were entirely
inadequate. The capacity of the forts along the seaboard was limited, with
the exception of Fort Delaware, and besides they were soon full of
political prisoners. Fort Warren in Boston Harbor, sheltered a number of
Confederate privates during the first year of the war, but later was used
chiefly for the confinement of political prisoners and general officers.
Likewise, the Old Capitol at Washington, which had been built after the
destruction of the Capitol during the War of 1812, and in which for
several years the sessions of Congress had been held, while the present
Capitol was building, was very seldom used for prisoners of war, but was
devoted to the detention of citizens suspected of disloyalty to the Union.
The pressure upon the accommodations at Richmond led to the transfer of
the private soldiers to an enclosure on Belle Isle in the James River.
For the purpose of better administration, the government at Washington in
October, 1861, appointed Lieutenant-Colonel William Hoffman one of the
officers who had been surrendered in Texas, commissary-general of
prisoners. Colonel Hoffman, for he was soon promoted, served to the end of
the war, though for a few months he was transferred west of the Mississippi. All correspondence in
regard to prisoners passed through his hands, and whatever uniformity
there was in the conditions in Federal prisons was largely due to this
fact, as he established rules for the guidance of the commandants, and
provided for an elaborate system of inspections and reports. The rules,
unfortunately were not interpreted uniformly by the officers in charge,
and he was hampered in administration by political influences.
The Confederacy created no such office until November 21, 1864, when
General Winder was appointed After his death in February, 1865, General G.
J. Pillow served for a few days, and was then succeeded by General Daniel
Ruggles. In the last days of the Confederacy it was too late to reduce
chaotic conditions to order. When prisoners were kept chiefly in Richmond,
General Winder had command, and had an undefined supervision over those
outside. When the greater number of prisoners was sent South, he was
placed in command of the prisons in Georgia and Alabama, July 26, 1864,
while General W. M. Gardner was given charge of prisons in Virginia and
the Carolinas. The latter officer was partially disabled and was never
able to assert his authority, on account of friction with local military
Citizens suspected of disloyalty to the Confederacy were confined in
Richmond chiefly in the "Negro Jail," so called, usually known as Castle
Godwin, and after this building was given up, were transferred to Castle
Thunder. The prison at Salisbury, North Carolina, sheltered a number of
this class, though later it was filled to overflowing with prisoners of
war. The provost-marshals kept others under this charge in prisons
scattered over the Confederacy.
Citizens charged with disloyalty in the North were confined in various
places. The Old Capitol, Fort Lafayette, Fort Warren, and dozens of other
places were used for this purpose. At the end of the war, Jefferson Davis
was confined in Fortress Monroe, but this had been too near the lines
during the war to risk the placing of
prisoners of importance there. Provost-marshals arrested thousands in the
North, who were often held for months and frequently dismissed without
being informed of the charges against them. The number thus arrested in
the South was large, but much smaller than in the North. Military
commanders attempted to play the despot both North and South.
As the war went on and prisoners were taken in larger and larger numbers
it was seen on both sides that greater provision must be made for them. In
the North, some prisons were constructed especially for this purpose. In
other cases camps of instruction were surrounded by fences and the
enclosed barracks were filled with captives. The most important of the
first class were Johnson's Island, in Sandusky Bay, Ohio; Point Lookout,
Maryland, and Rock Island, in the Mississippi River. Among the second were
Camp Douglas at Chicago, Illinois; Camp Butler, at Springfield, Illinois;
Camp Morton at Indianapolis, Indiana; Camp Chase, at Columbus, Ohio; and
the Barracks, at Elmira, New York.
The Gratiot Street Prison in St. Louis had been all old medical college,
and Myrtle Street Prison had been used as a negro market. Fort Delaware,
on an island in the Delaware River, had been constructed by General
McClellan while a member of the Engineer Corps. A dike kept out the tide
which would otherwise have washed over the island, and barracks were
constructed within the enclosure. At various times and for short periods,
prisoners were held in other places, but those mentioned were the most
The principal Confederate prisons besides those already mentioned were
Camp Sumter at Anderson, Georgia; Camp Lawton, at Millen, Georgia,
established late in 1864, to relieve Andersonville; Camp Asylum, at
Columbia, South Carolina; Macon, Georgia; Florence, South Carolina; and
Charleston, South Carolina. Large numbers of prisoners were also confined
for short periods at Raleigh, Charlotte, and Savannah. In addition, for a time prisoners were
held at Cahaba, Alabama and during almost the entire war there were
prisoners at Camp Ford, Tyler, Texas, and at Camp Groce, at Hempstead,
The question of the treatment of prisoners on both sides will be discussed
more at length in a subsequent chapter. According to the rules and
regulations, first set forth by both Departments of War, prisoners were to
be fed precisely as regular troops, and humane regulations were announced.
All rules, laws, and regulations must be carried out by men, and in the
enforcement and in the enforcement and administration of regulations there
was much variance on both sides. In the North, the prisons were
overcrowded, though none, perhaps, except Gratiot Street and Myrtle Street
prisons in St. Louis, was so badly overcrowded as Andersonville, where
hardly thirty-five square feet of ground to the individual was available
when the stockade held the largest number.
Prison work is generally unpleasant, and difficulty in securing efficient
commandants and guards was encountered. The more energetic and ambitious
officers preferred active service in the field, and on both sides
efficient soldiers were needed at the front. In some instances the
commandants were civilians, given military rank for the purpose, and
placed in charge of raw levies, who knew little or nothing of military
discipline. In other cases they were partially disabled soldiers,
organized in the North as the Veteran Reserve Corps. In the South, the
guards were sometimes conscripted militia. Negro troops formed a part of
the guard at several Northern prisons. Seldom was the nominal rank of the
commandant higher than that of colonel, and yet many prisons held more
than five thousand men; several, more than ten thousand, and Andersonville
had at one time more than thirty thousand. Some men who might have been
good officers had their responsibilities been less, failed ignominiously
in the face of difficulties confronting them. They must satisfy their
superiors, escape the unreasoning
censure of public opinion, and at the same time keep their prisoners.
Prisoners in the North got more to eat than in the South, after 1862, at
least, yet they often got less than the amount to which they were entitled
by the army regulations. In the South during the last year of the war,
prisoners starved, while their guards fared little better. With all the
resources of the North, prisoners were often hungry, frequently because of
the inefficiency of their commanders. Commissaries in collusion with
contractors sometimes reduced the rations of the prisoners both in quality
and quantity. In one case, at least, a commissary was dismissed from
service, but because of his political friends was restored. The reports of
the Federal inspectors are set forth in the "Official Records."
Shelter was provided in the North, but fuel was often scanty, and in some
cases lacking. In some of the Southern prisons no shelter was provided,
and fuel was likewise scanty, though fortunately not so much needed for
comfort. The medical and surgical attendance was very often
unsatisfactory. For, as in the case of the commanding officers, surgeons
preferred service among their own people to that of attending prisoners.
Even where the intentions of the surgeon were the best, they had lately
come, in most cases, from civil life. Many were not commissioned, but were
hired by the month. Of the management of hospitals many knew almost
nothing. Some rose to their responsibilities, others did not. Where they
did not the prisoners suffered.
Nor must the influence of climate be neglected. To many of the Northern
prisoners the prolonged heat of the Southern prison-camps during the
summer caused disease regardless of other factors. It is no less true
that, if the Southern sun was disastrous to the Northerner, so the
Northern winter destroyed many Southern lives. The men taken to Elmira or
Johnson's Island in the summer-time wearing thin summer clothes, often
without blankets or overcoats, suffered during the winter. The statement an abundance of clothing and
bedding was issued to Confederate prisoners in the North is too sweeping.
Large quantities of cast-off and rejected clothing were issued, but report
after report of Union medical inspectors states that prisoners were
frequently without blankets or straw. This was usually because the
quartermaster was inefficient or careless.
The number of prisoners held during, the war can, perhaps, never be
accurately known. General F. C. Ainsworth, when chief of the United States
Record and Pension Office, is quoted by Rhodes as follows : "According to
the best information now obtainable from both Union and Confederate
records, it appears that 211,411 Union soldiers were captured during the
Civil War, of which number 16,668 were paroled on the field and 30,218
died while in captivity; and that 462,634 Confederate soldiers were
captured during that war, of which number 247,769 were paroled on the
field and 25,976 died while in captivity." A letter under date of March 9,
1911, says that he has no further information justifying a change in these
figures. Of course, this large number of Confederates captured includes
the armies of Lee, Johnston, Taylor, and Kirby Smith surrendered during
the months of April and May, 1865.
This report is probably as nearly correct as can be made, owing to the
partial destruction of records, though it differs very widely from two
other reports which are often quoted: one by partisan historians of the
North, attempting to prove inhumanity on the part of the South, and the
other by Southerners who have attempted by it to show that conditions in
Northern prisons were more fatal than those in the Southern. The first
contention is based upon a report of Secretary Stanton, from information
furnished by the commissary-general of prisoners. This says that "220,000
rebel prisoners were held in the North and about 126,950 Union prisoners
in the South," and that 26,436 deaths of Confederate prisoners occurred,
while 22,576 Union prisoners are reported to have died in Southern
The second estimate, used by Alexander H. Stephens, Senator Benjamin H.
Hill, and President Davis, cites an alleged report of J. K. Barnes,
Surgeon-General, U. S. A., which purports to give the number of
Confederate prisoners as 220,000, and the number of Union prisoners in the
South as 270,000. The authority quoted is an editorial in the National
Intelligencer of Washington, which seems not to have been contradicted
though General Barnes lived for many years afterward. The report, however,
is not to be found in the Federal archives; it is claimed that there is no
evidence that it was ever made, and further that there is no way in which
Surgeon-General Barnes could have secured these figures. This, however,
does not seem an impossibility, as the surgeons naturally made reports of
the sick to him, and these reports always included the number in prison
quarters as well as the number in hospital. Whether or not such a report
was ever made, it does not now seem to be in existence.
Absolute accuracy cannot now be secured, if indeed such accuracy was ever
possible. During the last six months of the war, the Federal prisoners
were transferred hither and thither sometimes stopping for a week or less
in one place, in the attempts to avoid the raids of Sherman's cavalry and
the constantly tightening coils which were closing around the Confederates.
In these changes, as the prisoners were handed from commander to
commander, were unloaded from one train into another, and transferred from
one set of inefficient guards to another, hundreds escaped.
Furthermore, since a Confederate commissary-general of prisoners was not
appointed until the war was almost over, many commandants of prisons in
the South made reports only to the commanders of departments, who often
failed to forward them to Richmond. Any statement of the number of Federal
prisoners held in the South is, therefore, only an estimate. The relative
mortality growing out of prison life will be discussed in another chapter.