The Photographic History of the Civil War
                  Volume 7 -
Prisons and Hospitals

  Life in the Prisons


Life in the Prisons

By Holland Thompson

            To go into a prison of war is in all respects to be born over…. And so in this far little world, which was as much separated from the outer world as if it had been in the outer confines of space, it was striking to see bow society immediately resolved itself into those three estates invariably constituted elsewhere. ‑ Sidney Lanier in “Tiger Lilies."

            Sidney Lanier, the Southern poet, in the novel "Tiger Lilies," from which the quotation at the head of the chapter was taken, has elaborated some of his reflections during his own prison life at Point Lookout, in the American Civil War. The individuals comprising the three estates, however, were not wholly the same in prison and out. Life in prison brought out unexpected capabilities and unsuspected deficiencies. Men who in the ordinary routine of life, and even in the new environment of the ranks had been respected, sometimes failed when subjected to the severer strain of prison life. The eccentric and the misfits sometimes showed themselves able to cope with situations before which their supposed superiors quailed and surrendered.

            This was not always true. Often the strong and energetic men preserved those characteristics in prison, and the weak became helpless. On the other hand, those who had been rated indifferent or ordinary showed unexpected treasures of strength and resourcefulness, cheering their despondent comrades, and preventing them from giving up the fight. The veneer of convention often peeled away, showing the real man beneath, sometimes attractive, sometimes unpleasant. Men who were confined for any length of time stood naked, stripped of all disguise, before their fellows. Where conditions were particularly hard the stories of the attitude of some of the prisoners toward their companions are revolting. In Andersonville and Salisbury, organized bands preyed upon the weak or upon those who had managed to retain, or to obtain, some desired necessity or luxury. The possession of a little money, a camp-kettle, a blanket, or an overcoat was sometimes the occasion for jealousy and covetousness which led to a display of primeval characteristics. The trial and execution of a number of prisoners by their companions in Andersonville is well known.

            In those prisons where the prisoners cooked their own food, the possession of a skillet or a tin pail raised a man much above the level of his fellows. Such a plutocrat might, if he were so disposed, gain greater riches by charging rent. Perhaps he claimed a share of everything cooked, or else he demanded a button, a pin, a sheet of paper, a chew of tobacco, or other valuable consideration. For it must be remembered that prison standards of value differed from those in the world without.

            There were traders, speculators, and business men in the prisons, as well as the thriftless and improvident. Some prisoners always had money, and bought the belongings of the spendthrifts. Even in Andersonville, prisoners kept restaurants and wood-yards, and hundreds peddled articles of food or drink they had managed to procure. "The venders, sitting with their legs under them like tailors, proclaimed loudly the quantity and quality of beans or mush they could sell for a stated price."

            The great difficulty in all prisons was the necessity of getting through the twenty-four hours. With nothing to do these hours dragged slowly. Some were able to pass a great number in sleeping. Those of lymphatic temperament slept fifteen or more hours, but others found such indulgence impossible and were forced to seek other methods of enduring the tiresome days. The nervous, mercurial men devised games, laying out checker- or chess-boards on pieces of plank of which they somehow managed to get possession. These boards were never idle, and many a rural champion owes his title to the hours he spent playing checkers in a military prison. Major Putnam tells us that some of his companions in Libby Prison became so intensely interested in chess that they fainted from excitement, induced of course by their weakened condition, and that the senior officer present forbade further indulgence.

            Cards were used long after the corners disappeared and the number and shape of the spots upon their faces became more or less a matter of uncertainty. In some prisons there was a positive mania for making jewelry of gutta-percha buttons, though often a pocket-knife was the only tool. Sometimes, where there were no iron bars which might be cut, the commander allowed the prisoners to own jewelers' saws. Almost any piece of metal could be tortured into some sort of tool. Just as the Eskimos spend a part of the Arctic night carving walrus' teeth, so the prisoners exhibited their skill and expended their patience upon beef bones. Where wood was procurable prisoners whittled. Some made fans really surprising in the delicacy of the carving. This work and play prevented them at least from going mad.

            Another popular occupation was discussing the probability of being exchanged. There were always those who would discuss this question from morning to night. Occasionally an officer possessed a work on international law, and the principles set forth in its pages afforded material for endless discussions. There were always those who took different sides on any question. The optimists believed that exchange was a matter of only a few days. The pessimists were sure that only the incompetence of their Government prevented their immediate release, but of this incompetence they were so strongly convinced that they did not expect release under any circumstances.

            Though the laws of war permit the imposition of labor, in rare instances was any work other than police duty or the preparation of their own food required of prisoners. They were always glad, however, to volunteer, deeming themselves amply paid by slightly increased rations or by the few cents in money allowed them as compensation. Thus, additional barracks were constructed in some Northern prisons largely by prison labor, and the ditch through which fresh water was led into the stagnant pond at Elmira, was dug by the prisoners.

            The Confederacy attempted to establish shoe and harness shops at Andersonville, Millen, and perhaps other places, to utilize the skill of the mechanics in prison and the hides of the slaughtered cattle which were going to waste. Assignments to the burial squad at all these Southern prisons were eagerly sought, and men also were glad to be detailed to the wood-squad, which brought in fuel, thinking themselves well repaid by the opportunity of getting outside the stockades for a few hours daily. Then, too, there was always a chance of escape if the guard were careless.

            Life in all prisons was very much the same. The inmates rose in the morning and made their toilets, but during the winter, at least, necessity forced them to sleep in their clothes, often in their shoes, and this task was not onerous. The water supply was seldom abundant, and in the winter often frozen. Therefore ablutions were not extensive and were often neglected. The officer in charge sometimes found it necessary to hold inspections and require a certain standard of cleanliness. Breakfast came, usually not a lengthy meal. Then a squad generally policed the camp.

            The only occupation of the others was to wait for dinner, which came sometime in the afternoon. A frugal man reserved a piece of his bread for supper; the reckless one ate all his allowance at dinner and then waited for breakfast. Seldom were more than two meals served in a prison. While sutlers were allowed in the prison the gormand might buy some potatoes or some of the other vegetables offered, and then prepare for a feast. But most of the prisoners were confined to the ordinary prison ration. Private soldiers were always expected to wash their own clothes, and often officers were compelled to do the same. The sight of a bearded major or colonel draped in a blanket washing his only pair of trousers was not uncommon at Macon. At some of the prisons proper facilities were provided, but, oftener, men reverted to the habits of the cave-man. Says Sidney Lanier, in the book already quoted:

            "For this man's clothes, those three thieves, grease, dirt, and smoke, had drawn lots; but not content with the allotment, all three were evidently contending which should have the whole suit. It appeared likely that dirt would be the happy thief.

            “ ‘Wash 'em?' said this man one day, when the Federal corporal bad the impudence to refer to the sacred soil on his clothes ‑ 'wash 'em, corp'ral? I'm bound to say 'at you're a damn fool! That mud's what holds 'em together; sticks 'em fast-like! Ef you was to put them clo's in water they'd go to nothing just like a piece o' salt!'

            "Inside of these clay‑clothes a stalwart frame of a man lived and worked, a fearless soul, which had met death and laughed at it, from the Seven Days to Gettysburg, but which was now engaged in superintending a small manufactory of bone trinkets and gutta-percha rings, the sale of which brought wherewithal to eke out the meager sustenance of the prison ration."

            The determination to escape held first place with thousands. Where the prison was a stockade such men were always engaged on a tunnel, or else devoted their minds to working out some fantastic plan which would not fail to give them their liberty. Some plotted rebellion against authority, which seldom, however, was carried out. Some became expert psychologists, able to calculate to a nicety how much impertinence any particular officer would endure. Others played with fire by devoting their whole minds to the task of irritating the guards and yet affording them no pretext for punishment.

            The passion for gambling was even stronger in prison than out. Prisoners staked their food, their clothing, their blankets, their most precious belongings which had escaped the vigilance of the prison guard. Some prisoners were often cold and hungry because of their flirtation with the goddess of chance. To many of the prisoners with a limited outlook on life, some excitement was a necessary stimulus, and this was most easily obtained by a game of chance or, if facilities for a game were lacking, by making wagers upon every conceivable event.

            At times even some of the poorly clothed prisoners on Belle Isle and in Andersonville and Florence gambled away the clothing and blankets sent by the Sanitary Commission or by the Federal Government. Others, North and South, would wager their rations and then go hungry for days, if chance proved unkind, unless some good Samaritan took pity and stinted himself that the hungry might be fed.

            There was little indulgence in athletic sports even where the physical condition of the prisoners would have allowed such exertion. Generally, the prisons North and South were too crowded to afford the necessary room. We hear, however, of balls where half the participants in blanket skirts provided themselves with dance-cards, which were filled out with great formality. Wrestling-matches sometimes occurred, and occasionally boxing-matches. Some of the commanders, however, were chronic alarmists, always expecting a break for liberty, and such always forbade anything which would tend to collect a crowd. In some prisons personal encounters were frequent, and wherever conditions were hardest, then fights naturally were most frequent. Tempers flashed up in times of strain and stress over incidents which would ordinarily have been passed without notice.

            Thousands found no pleasure in any of these amusements. Prison life to them was a disaster, appalling and overwhelming. This was particularly true with raw recruits from the country, captured before they had become seasoned by life in the camps. Some relapsed almost at once into helpless and hopeless apathy, caring for nothing, thinking of nothing except the homes and friends they had left. Huddled in corners they sat for hours gazing into vacancy. Nostalgia (homesickness) occasionally appears on the surgeons' reports as the cause of death of a prisoner, but there can be no question that it was a contributing cause in many cases attributed to other diseases.

            Where the prisoners were educated men with resources in themselves, they struggled bravely to keep up their courage, for if this were lost their chances of survival were lessened. The Confederate officers at Johnson's Island had debating societies, classes in French, dancing, and music; they organized a government and debated and raised questions in their House of Representatives. The same sort of thing went on at Libby and at other places, and some of the discussions given in the books of reminiscences are exceedingly interesting, At Camp Ford, in Texas, at Fort Lafayette, and at one of the Richmond prisons, newspapers written out by hand were published.

            A study of mortality statistics shows that there were fewer deaths in the prisons for officers than in those for privates. Their treatment was not essentially different and their food was often the same, yet they endured the hardships more successfully. Generally, they were, of course, men of more education and training than the privates, and had greater resources in themselves. They were determined not to lose heart and become apathetic, and for this reason they lived.

            Though the subject is not pleasant, in reading of the experiences of prisoners of war one must be struck with the prominent place given to vermin in every description of prison life. In few cases did the prisoners have proper opportunities for bathing. In many cases they had no change of clothing, and vermin of various kinds seemed to have multiplied, North and South, with marvelous rapidity. No proper systematic effort to disinfect and cleanse the barracks seems to have been made. But even where such efforts were made, so tenacious of life were these creatures and the hasty construction of the barracks afforded so many hiding-places, that in a few weeks conditions were as bad as ever.

pages 124, 126, 128, 130, 132, 134, and 136  in 1911 book

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