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

  Treatment of Prisoners


Treatment of Prisoners

By Holland Thompson

            During the Civil War more than four hundred thousand men drawn from every section of the country and from all ranks of society, diverse in character, previous training, and experience, were confined under charge of perhaps one hundred thousand others, likewise drawn from every stratum of society. More than one hundred and fifty prisons, widely separated in space, served to confine these men. Some one, a Frenchman perhaps, has said, “All generalizations are false, including this one.” No sweeping statement regarding the treatment of prisoners during the war can be true.

            There is testimony of every conceivable sort. Southerners have stated that Federal prisoners were well treated and that they were badly treated, that the commandants of prisons were harsh and callous, and that they were kind and considerate. On the other hand, Federal prisoners have testified to acts of kindness and consideration and to acts of brutality. The same conflict of testimony exists regarding prisons in the North. This discrepancy is even more confusing when the same commandants are described as kind and careless, slothful and vigilant, indifferent and considerate.

            Some prisoners saw in their keepers and their guards men charged with an unpleasant duty, but who, nevertheless, were struggling to make the best of hard conditions. Others confined in the same prison at the same time, paint them as willing instruments of a policy cunningly devised to break the spirit and the strength of their charges.

            We are told that prisoners were starved, and that they were well fed; that they were well clothed and that they were naked; that the guards, though efficient, were considerate and kind, and that they were careless but despotic. We are told that the hospital service was efficient and skilful, and that it was careless and neglectful. Probably all of these statements have something of truth in them, and yet they do not tell the whole truth. They may represent the attitude of a commandant before a particular emergency, which did not truly represent his character, for few men are thoroughly consistent; or they may indicate conditions in a prison at a particular time when it was at its best or at its worst.

            There is little formal Congressional legislation on the prison question. The policies of the Governments were fixed very largely, as might be expected, by the Department of War, which issued orders for the care of prisoners. The army regulations provided, in a general way, for the prisoners taken by the Federals, but the circulars of instruction issued from the office of the commissary-general of prisoners formed the basis for most of the rules of the separate prisons. Later, the distinguished publicist, Francis Lieber, was selected to draw up rules for the conduct of armies in the field. These were published as General Orders No. 100, April 24, 1863, and constitute a long and minute code, including regulations for prisoners.

            The only general legislation of the Confederate Congress during the whole period of the war was an act approved May 21, 1861. It reads as follows:

An Act Relative to Prisoners of War Approved May 21, 1861

                The Congress of the Confederate States of America do enact. That all prisoners of war taken, whether on land or at sea, during the pending hostilities with the United States shall be transferred by the captors from time to time, and as often as convenient, to the Department of War; and it shall be the duty of the Secretary of War with the approval of the President to issue such instructions to the quartermaster-general and his subordinates as shall provide for the safe custody and sustenance of prisoners of war; and the rations furnished prisoners of war shall be the same in quantity and quality as those furnished to enlisted men in the army of the Confederacy.

            A few special acts were passed: one authorizing the close confinement of the higher Federal officers in Richmond and Charleston as hostages for the privateers; one declaring that the men of Butler's command would not be treated as prisoners of war; one declaring that the officers of Pope's command were also to be treated as criminals, and the famous act in regard to negro troops. This is the sum of Confederate Congressional legislation upon the treatment of prisoners.

            There are three distinct periods to be recognized while writing of the Civil War prisoners and the treatment they received: one, extending from the beginning of the war to the adoption of the cartel for exchange, July 22, 1862; a transition period, covering the operations of that instrument until its suspension, May 25, 1863, and the third, extending to the end of the war.

            During the first period, there is comparatively little complaint which the same men, three years afterward, would not have considered unjustifiable. The prisoners sometimes complained that their rations and accommodations were not elaborate enough to suit their fancy; but for that matter, complaints of food and quarters in their own camps were common. Soldiers cannot be made in a day. A Confederate officer at Alton complained that his breakfast bacon was too salty and that the coffee was too weak. One of the officers in charge of a Richmond prison was disliked because his voice was harsh, and another inmate of the same prison complained that a woman visitor looked scornful. This does not mean that conditions were ideal, even for prisons; few of them were clean, for neither army had learned to live in crowds.

            In the first Confederate prison in Richmond, where the officers and part of the privates taken at Manassas and Ball's Bluff were confined, there seems to have been, in the beginning, a total lack of system. Negroes came and went, making purchases for prisoners, especially officers, who could command money. Prisoners under guard went out to buy provisions. There was little or no restriction on visiting, and some prisoners seem to have made social calls in company with some of the young officers of the guard. In the officers' division were rough bunks and tables and a rude bathroom. The privates' prison had no bunks, but the inmates had an abundant water supply. The regular ration of beef and bread was cooked for the prisoners, but anything else was prepared by the prisoners themselves or by some old negro paid by the mess.

            In 1862, some of the Confederate privates taken at Glendale, or Frayser's Farm, were sent to Fort Warren, in Boston Harbor, then under the command of Colonel Dimick, where they remained until after the cartel had been signed. Alexander Hunter, a private in a Virginia regiment, thus speaks of the life in Fort Warren, in "Johnny Reb and Billy Yank": "Those were halcyon days, those days of July, 1862; light spots in a generally dark life. Our soldier prisoners, so inured to hardship, want, and suffering, had now not a care on their minds, not a trouble in their hearts; they drew long breaths of content, and could only sigh sometimes at the thought of the dark future, which was doomed to hold so marked a contrast to that perfect rest and satisfaction." As they arrived at Aiken's Landing, on the James River, they met a number of prisoners released from Fort Delaware, where conditions seem to have been quite different from those at Fort Warren. To quote Hunter again: “Those prisoners that trooped slowly over the gangplank, looking like the vanguard of the Resurrection, were from Fort Delaware. Scores seemed to be ill; many were suffering from the scurvy, while all bore marks of severe treatment in their thin faces and wasted forms."

            During the operation of the cartel, complaints of the conditions on Belle Isle began to be heard. The surgeon who attended a number of exchanged Federal prisoners confined upon Belle Isle reported that “every case wore upon it the visage of hunger, the expression of despair.... Their frames were, in the most cases, all that was left of them." On the other side, we find charges of inhumanity against keepers.

            After the suspension of exchanges under the order of May 25, 1863, these complaints increased both in volume and in bitterness, and attempts were made on both sides to send provisions to their men. The boxes sent by relatives or friends were generally delivered. In the fall of 1862, considerable quantities of clothing were sent to Richmond to be distributed by Federal officers, and also a number of boxes of food, so that certain tents in Belle Isle were declared to present the “appearance of a first-class grocery store." The boxes, some sent by the Sanitary Commission and others by private parties, were not examined until a letter, dated November 7, 1863, from General Neal Dow, himself a prisoner, was intercepted. In this he made the suggestion that, as the boxes were not examined, money be sent in cans labeled “Preserved Fruit," which money might be used for bribing the guards and thus effecting escapes. After this, all boxes were opened and carefully examined. Much food was spoiled from delay, or was eaten by hungry Confederates.

            It was believed widely in the North that much of the food sent to Richmond was appropriated for the Confederate army, but there seems to be no evidence to sustain such a conclusion. The report had its origin, apparently, in the statement made to a prisoner by a carpenter employed about one of the prisons in Richmond. Without investigation, this was at once accepted as the truth, and blazoned abroad. An interesting feature of the study of the “Official Records” is the discovery of the origin of many of the almost universally accepted beliefs of the day. Beginning as mere camp rumors reported to a superior officer, they are quoted “on reliable authority," which soon becomes “unquestionable," and are spread broadcast. Meanwhile, the first reporter had, perhaps, repudiated the rumor the following day. For a time the issue of boxes was suspended, though we are told by General Butler that this arose from the fact that they were addressed by zealous persons in the North to "Our Brave Defenders in Richmond," or to "Our Starving Soldiers in Richmond." Colonel Ould, the Confederate agent of exchange, says that persistent misrepresentation of the action of the Confederate authorities caused the withdrawal of the privilege.

            During 1863, the number of prisoners had increased so largely that their care began to be a serious matter upon both sides, both because of the expense of feeding them, and on account of the number of guards withdrawn from service. From the south and west, only a few lines of rickety, single-track railway ran toward Richmond, by which supplies of every sort might be brought. The expense of feeding and guarding prisoners by the tens of thousands began to be felt in the North, and it was impossible for the commandants to maintain longer their personal acquaintance with individuals.

            The statement that the Confederate prisoner in the North was given the same food and the same clothing as his guard has been often made and has been generally believed. A study of the “Official Records” shows that such was not the case. The Confederate prisoner did not in fact receive the same clothes as his captor, or the same quantity of food, except for a few months at the beginning of the war. It was announced, in 1862, that the regular soldier's ration had been found too large for men living lives of absolute idleness, and therefore on July 7, 1862, the commissary-general of prisoners issued a circular authorizing its reduction at the discretion of the commandants.

            The difference between the cost of this reduced ration and the regular soldier's ration was to constitute a prison fund, out of which articles for the comfort and health of the prisoners were to be bought. This prison fund was in some cases very large, and, while used to buy articles of food for the prisoners, was converted largely into permanent improvements which more properly might have been charged to the Quartermaster's Department. For example, at Rock Island, a hospital costing more than thirty thousand dollars was paid for out of the prisoners' rations, while in some prisons, for months at a time, no vegetables were issued. The accumulation of a large prison fund was a matter of much pride to some officers.

            During the latter part of 1863 and the beginning of 1864, the reports of suffering in Southern prisons multiplied, and the belief that it was intentionally inflicted grew to be almost universal in the North. Many suggestions of retaliation were made, and, influenced by this sentiment, the prisoner's ration was reduced, first by a circular dated April 20, 1864, and this was soon superseded by another issued June 1, 1864. Tea and coffee were cut off, and the other items were reduced.

            The ration as reduced was then as follows:


  Pork or bacon 10 ounces, in lieu of fresh beef.
  Fresh beef 14 ounces.
  Flour or soft bread 16 ounces.
  Hard bread 14 ounces, in lieu of flour or soft bread.
  Corn‑meal 16 ounces, in lieu of flour or soft bread.
  Beans or peas 12 ½ pounds   to 100 rations.
  Or rice or hominy







3 ¾



            As will be seen, this ration is bread, meat, and either beans, peas, rice, or hominy. The manner in which these articles were to be served was left to the discretion of the commandant. This ration, even though reduced, should have been enough to prevent serious suffering, but the testimony of men whose reputation for veracity cannot be questioned, indicates that, after this order went into effect, in some prisons the men were often hungry; and the zest with which prisoners ate articles which a man normally fed would refuse can hardly be explained by their innate perversity. The inspectors' reports show several cases of collusion between commissary and contractor, or else lax supervision which allowed the contractor to do his own weighing and to furnish inferior qualities. Large prison funds continued to accumulate, and the attitude of some of the commandants seems to have been influenced by the idea of retaliation.

            The site, the organization, and the history of Andersonville have already been described, and the story of that “gigantic mass of human misery” need not be retold. To many, Andersonville connotes all of prison life in the South. Yet only about twenty per cent of the total number of prisoners taken by the Confederate forces was sent there. A large proportion of these had been previously confined elsewhere, and later were transferred to other prisons. The mortality rate in some other Confederate stockades was quite as heavy, perhaps heavier, though the records of the others are very incomplete. In several prisons, North and South, the percentage of mortality was higher for short periods, but in none was it so uniformly high for its whole existence.

            The charge often made that the site of Andersonville was essentially unhealthful seems to be met by the report of Doctor Jones, who, after analyses of the soil and water of the immediate vicinity, claims that there was nothing in either to have caused excessive mortality. The fearful crowding, insufficient and improper food, lack of clothing, shelter, and fuel, lack of medicines and medical attendance, and the effects of the hot Southern sun, together with the depressed condition of the spirits of the inmates of all prisons, are enough. The hospital arrangements were insufficient, medicines were lacking, the country was thinly populated, and proper food for the sick was unobtainable. Milk and eggs could not be had.

            The officers of Andersonville were charged with not providing a sufficient quantity of wood, since raw rations were issued to a large proportion of the prisoners. A one-time prisoner, In a private letter. dated January 16, 1910, says: “If I had been able to cook what I had after it was properly bolted, I should not have been so hungry, and the ration would have sufficed.  A man can eat heartily and then die from starvation if he does not digest what he eats, and this was just exactly our condition.” Again he says; “I, who drew raw rations for more than one hundred days, ate corn-meal which had just barely been boiled, and which was by no means cooked, or the pea-bean which was not at all softened.... I venture the statement that not one-third of the food I ate was digested, or could be digested, and this was true with all those around me."

            The officers at this prison lived in constant dread of an uprising.  At a time when there were thirty-two thousand prisoners, the guard amounted to less than twenty-three hundred effectives, all except two hundred and nineteen of whom were raw militia, and generally inefficient. In Georgia, practically all the able-bodied men were in the army, leaving only the aged and the youths at home. In many families no white man was left, and while, on the whole, the negroes were loyal to their white mistresses, it was, of course, known that many of them were  torn by conflicting emotions ‑ that of regard for the white people they had known, and that of gratitude toward the Federals who were to set them free. These facts, perhaps, may explain ‑ not excuse ‑ the famous order of General Winder ordering the battery of artillery on duty at Andersonville to open on the stockade, when notice had been received that the approaching Federals were within seven miles of Andersonville.

            During a large part of 1864, prisoners on neither side were permitted to receive supplies from outside. As the complaints grew more frequent, the relatives and friends of prisoners demanded that some arrangement be made to supply them. After some preliminary correspondence   with Major John E. Mulford, the Federal agent for exchange, Colonel Robert Ould, the Confederate agent, asked General Grant, on October 30, 1864, whether he would permit a cargo of cotton to pass through the blockade, for the purpose of securing money to furnish necessities to the prisoners in the North. The agreement was reached November 12th, but, through various delays, the cotton did not leave Mobile, Alabama, until January 15, 1865. A large part of it was sold in New York for eighty-two cents a pound, and from the proceeds General W. N. R. Beall, a prisoner of war paroled for the purpose, sent to Confederate prisoners in seventeen hospitals or prisons, 17,199 blankets, 18,872 coats, 21,669 pairs of trousers, 21,809 shits, 22,509 pairs of shoes, besides considerable quantities of underclothing, He distributed 2218 boxes from the South.

            Reciprocally, the Federal commanders were permitted to send large quantities of clothing and supplies to the prisoners confined in various parts of the Confederacy. The resumption of the exchange of prisoners, however, soon made further actions of this sort unnecessary. Since the action of General Halleck, May 25, 1863, regarding exchange of prisoners was based to a considerable extent on the attitude of the Confederate Government toward the negro troops and their white officers, it may be worth while to mention that there seems to be little evidence that any white officer, after he had surrendered, was ever put to death because he had commanded negro troops, though there is testimony that quarter sometimes was refused. A few captured negroes claimed by citizens of South Carolina were put to death on the ground that they were in armed insurrection but this action was unusual and was soon forbidden. Generally, slaves were restored to their owners, or else were held to work on the fortifications.

            Free negroes taken were held as ordinary prisoners of war, though two, at least, were sold into slavery in Texas. That on some occasions no quarter was given to negro soldiers seems certain. Generally speaking, as was clearly set forth by the memorial of the Federal officers confined at Charleston, the lot of the captured negroes was easier than that of the whites, since they were “distributed among the citizens or employed upon Government works. Under these circumstances they receive enough to eat and are worked no harder than accustomed to."

            Stories of placing prisoners under the fire of their own batteries occasionally occur. On the evidence of two deserters that certain captured negroes had been ordered to work on fortifications under fire, General Butler put a number of Confederate prisoners to work upon the Dutch Gap canal. On the denial of General Lee that it was intended to place prisoners under fire, and the statement of his position in regard to negro soldiers, General Grant ordered the squad withdrawn. During the bombardment of Charleston, Federal prisoners were confined there under fire, though the city was still inhabited. In retaliation, six hundred Confederate officers were sent from Fort Delaware to Morris Island, and there confined in a stockade in front of the Federal lines, where the projectiles from the Confederate artillery passed over them. Little or no damage was done. There are hundreds of other threats to be found in the correspondence contained in the “Official Records." Prisoners were often designated as hostages for the safety of particular persons, but the extreme penalty was visited on few. Many of the threats on both sides were not intended to be executed.

            The most prominent figures at Andersonville, and hence in the prison history of the Confederacy, were General John H. Winder and Captain Henry Wirz. The former officer, who was a son of General William H. Winder of the War of 181.2, had been graduated at West Point in 1820, and with the exception of four years, had served continuously in the army of the United States, being twice brevetted for gallantry during the Mexican War. As a resident of Maryland he had much to lose and little to gain in following the cause of the South, but, it is alleged, through the personal friendship of President Davis, was promoted early in the war to the rank

of brigadier-general, and made inspector-general of camps around Richmond with charge of prisons. He soon became commander of the Department of Henrico, which is the county including the city of Richmond. Later he was placed in charge of all the prisons of Richmond, with a shadowy authority over those outside. After the prisoners were sent South, he was assigned to command the prisons in Alabama and Georgia. Finally, November 21, 1864, he was made commissary-general of prisoners east of the Mississippi.

            Evidence shown by his official papers is contradictory. Congressman Ely, who had been it prisoner in Liggon's factory calls him "the kind-hearted general," but Colonel Chandler, in the supplement to his famous report, in words that sting and burn, holds him largely responsible for conditions at Andersonville, while other charges against his character are made. A wounded Federal officer writes of the tenderness with which General Winder carried him in his arms, and yet Richmond drew a sigh of relief when he was ordered away.

            We find that he quarreled with Lucius B. Northrop, the Confederate commissary-general of subsistence, insisting that the latter did not furnish sufficient food for the prisoners, and he constantly urges the construction of new prisons to relieve the crowding at Andersonville, and to enable the officers in charge to get food more easily for their prisoners. He many times makes requisitions for food and tools and, finally, when conditions had become intolerable, twice recommended that the prisoners be paroled, even without equivalents, declaring that it was better that they should go than that they should starve. On the other hand, he disputed with some of the surgeons whose reports upon hospitals and prisons had seemed to reflect upon his administration, and denounced Colonel Chandler, making a defense of the Andersonville prison not warranted by his own reports. His death, in February, 1865, did not end the controversy.

            The life of Wirz has been mentioned. At the close of the war he was arrested, tried by a military commission on charges of "combining, confederating and conspiring... to injure the health and destroy the lives of soldiers in the military service of the United States, then held and being prisoners of war, and... murder in violation of the laws and customs of war." He was convicted and executed November 10, 1865. There has been little attempt to rehabilitate him in the eyes of the world. While many Southerners have felt that he suffered for conditions for which he was not responsible, comparatively little has been said in his defense; but Colonel Chandler, whose terrible arraignment of Andersonville was so potent a factor in crystallizing the sentiment in regard to that place, says that Wirz struggled against uncontrollable conditions.

            Not long ago, a Federal soldier, once an inmate of the prison, reviewed the prison conditions at Andersonville, and came to practically the same conclusion. Another prisoner recently wrote: "I have always thought that Wirz was unfitted by nature and by natural ability for the command of as many men and of as important interests as was given to him during those sad months of 1864. He was a man of mercurial temperament, prone to anger, and prone to abuse. When things went well he was kind and good-natured; when they went ill he was the reverse.... He might have commanded a company well, and possibly a regiment, but thirty thousand men got away with him. He was at sea in their management."

            Other commandants and officers of prisons, including Major Thomas P. Turner of Richmond, Richard Turner of Libby, W.S. Winder and R.B. Winder of Andersonville, were imprisoned for a time after the war, but they were never brought to trial. Major Gee's acquittal has been mentioned.

            Because of the early appointment of a United States commissary-general of prisoners, conditions in Northern prisons were more nearly uniform than those in the South. The railroad lines were never closed, and the Commissary and Quartermaster's departments were able at all times to furnish any quantity of supplies demanded. It was not difficult to procure guards for the prisoners, the number of medical men and the amount of medical supplies were unlimited, and since all of these could be transferred easily from one locality to another, there was no physical reason why a prison in one State or section might not be as good as that in another.

            The prisoner in the North got more to eat, and yet, during 1864, there can be no doubt that he often went hungry. The evidence seems to show that the claim so vigorously made by the Confederates that the prisoners received practically the same rations as the troops in the field was, broadly speaking, true, but the soldier had always the opportunity of picking an apple from a tree, or a turnip from a field. Stray chickens, sheep, or pigs occasionally disappeared mysteriously, and there were sometimes rabbits in the fields, squirrels in the woods, birds in the trees, and fish in the streams. A box from home came, to be shared, of course, with all his friends, who in turn would share theirs. If all these failed the citizens were expected, as a matter of course, to give food to hungry soldiers. And yet we are told that many of the Confederate prisoners captured during the last year of the war were so worn out by hardships and short rations that they fell an easy prey to disease in the Northern prisons.

            Students of the war almost universally agree that the commissary-general of the Confederacy was unequal to his responsibilities, though the difficulties with which he had to contend were enormous. Even to the end there was food in the South, but it was in the wrong place. While citizen, soldier, and prisoner were starving in Richmond, Sherman was destroying millions of dollars' worth of supplies in Georgia. If the soldiers were hungry, it is not to be expected, perhaps, of human nature that the prisoners would be fed luxuriously. After 1863, the prisoners held by the Confederates were, generally speaking, hungry all the time. The same fact is true, however, of the armies of the Confederacy.

            That some of the suffering in Southern prisons might have been prevented if men of greater energy had been charged with the care of prisoners, is doubtless true. The almost superhuman efforts requisite for success were not always made, and for this the feeling of despair, which began to creep over the spirits of many men during 1864, was partly responsible. That any considerable amount of the suffering was due to deliberate intention cannot be maintained but the result was the same.

            The prisoner in the North was better clothed than in the South, where, during the last eighteen months of the war, even soldiers depended to a large extent upon the clothes they captured from the Federals, but the statement that all Confederate prisoners were always well clothed is by no means accurate. Large quantities of condemned and cast-off clothing were issued, but in the bitter winter climate of northern New York or in the Lake region, prisoners from the Gulf States found it almost impossible to keep warm. In the particular of clothing, much depended upon the attitude of the prison commandant, who made requisitions for clothing at his discretion.

            In the Southern stockades, there was little shelter except what the prisoners improvised, and wood was often insufficient in quantity. Shelter was always furnished in the North, and fuel in somewhat variable quantities. Where the barracks were new and tight there was generally sufficient warmth; in other cases, the number of stoves allowed did hardly more than temper the air, and as a result, every window and door was kept tightly closed.

            The attitude of the guards was variable, North and South. Generally speaking, they were not cruel, though they were sometimes callous. It is the unanimous testimony that soldiers who had seen actual service were more considerate than raw recruits or conscripted or drafted militia. Undoubtedly the negroes who formed a part of the guard at several prisons were disposed to be strict and to magnify their authority, sometimes to the humiliation of their charges.

            In all the prisons, Northern or Southern, enclosed by a fence or a stockade, there was a "dead-line," or what corresponded to it. Its necessity, from the standpoint of the guard, was obvious. If the inmates were allowed to approach the fence, a concerted rush would result in many escapes. Prisoners were shot on both sides for crossing this danger line, and for approaching or leaning out of the prison windows.

            Correspondence was restricted as to length and frequency in all prisons, and both incoming and outgoing letters were read by some one detailed for the purpose. Money sent in letters was occasionally abstracted, and not placed to the prisoner’s account. After the first year, money was always taken from the prisoners on entering, as it was found that a guard was not always above temptation. When a sutler was allowed in a prison, a prisoner with a balance to his credit was allowed to give orders on his account, or else he was furnished with checks good for purchases. The amount remaining to his credit was supposed to be returned to the prisoner on his release, or to be transferred with him when sent to another prison.

            The relative mortality in prisons, North and South, has been much discussed, and very varying results have been reached. The adjutant-general of the United States, in 1908, published a memorandum summarizing the results of his investigations.

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.

From this it would appear that the mortality in Federal prisons was twelve per cent., while in Confederate prisons it was fifteen and one-half per cent. of the total number confined.

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