Prisoners held at Andersonville





Prison camps Introduction


Rock Island Prison Barracks

Elmira Prison Camps

Libby Prison and Belle Island

Prisoner Exchange


Prison camps Introduction


The Civil War was the bloodiest conflict fought on American soil. One reason for this may have been the balance of both armies. The Union had long-term advantages, and the South had short term.[1] Another of the many causes for the bloodiest war on American soil is the time era. Napoleonic tactics were still looked upon as the way to launch an offensive or defensive attack, but the weapons were different from what the army of France under Napoleon had experienced. The defensive weapons were much more effective, due to the mini’ ball and advances in artillery. Toward the end of the War the Gatlin gun foreshadowed the firepower, which would come about in the First World War.

The balance of the two sides and the the time era of conflict between the era of Napolean and World War I caused a great amount of bloodshed. The Battle of Gettysburg alone had combined over 50,000 causalities on both sides; the United States loss less than 60,000 during the whole Vietnam War. European countries could even see the horror of the American Civil War.[2] The military battles obviously reflect the horrors of the Civil War, but are not the only way. Other places, which also reflected the war, are the prison camps, where thousands upon thousands of atrocities were committed.

During the years of the conflict neither side can morally wipe their hands completely clean of the hardships dealt upon their prisoners. Some of the military prisons active during the Civil War can be described accurately as “hell on earth”. The most famous of these prisons ranged from Georgia, Andersonville, to Elmira, New York, to Salisbury, North Carolina, to Fort Johnson and various other camps. As a whole, even though there are many accounts and figures which show the Northern treatment of Confederate prisoners as brutal, careful study shows that Southern prisons were worse than Northern. The prisons of Andersonville and Florence were not matched in brutality, as whole, to other Northern prisons.



Andersonville- a name which has been stamped so deeply by cruelty into the pages of American history- is one of those miserable little hamlets, of a score of scattered and dilapidated farm-houses, which relieve the monotony of the wide and dreary level of sand plains, which covered with immense forests, interspersed with fens, marshes, corn and cotton fields, stretch away in unbroken surface from Macon down to the Florida shores.[3]


        The south build Andersonville Prison in response to the growing number of prisoners that they had been unprepared to deal with. Unfortunalty, Northern prisoners were brought to Andersonville before it was finished. 

The first detachment left Richmond February 18, and arrived at the new prison February 27, and, of course, the prisoners arrived at Andersonville before the preparations for their reception had been completed. There were not buildings in the prison, which consisted of sixteen and a half acres of land enclosed in a stockade. The stockade was constructed of pine logs twenty feet in length, hewed about twelve inches in thickness, and planted five feet in the ground. The logs were joined so closely that it was impossible to see through the wall.[4]

             Andersonville was located in lower Georgia. Although Upper Georgia was very rich, lower Georgia was “starved, sterile land, impressing one as a desert in the first stages of reclamation into productive soil, or as productive soil in the last steps of deterioration into a desert.”[5] John McElroy, a prisoner in Andersonville, described in on his first day as an “immense pen”.[6]

            In charge of Fort Sumter (Andersonville) was General John H. Winder with Captain Henri Wirz being the Commander of the interior of the prison.[7] The cruelty, which Wirz expressed, can be seen vividly in the roll call taken his first day. He took roll and three hours later when he was finished the first detachments, which he had called upon, were out of rank. He did not allow food rations to the prisoners that day. The next day some of the prisoners were out of rank again and again no food rations were given out.[8]

        Low food rations were very common for the prisoners that called Andersonville their temporary home. McElroy reports of the food situation. He tells of how, at first, the prisoners were issued a “quart of tolerably good meal, a sweet potato, a piece of meat about the size of one’s two fingers, and occasionally a spoonful of salt.”[9] As time passed the rations decreased. The salt was soon taken away, then the sweet potato. Instead of the sweet potato the confederates issued cowpeas. The first issue of cow-peas was “only a quart to a detachment of two hundred and seventy men!”[10] The number of days, which the prisoners did not get any meal at all increased, and finally the meat was taken away, as a ration, for good.[11]

        There was also a stream, which went through Andersonville, which soon became very polluted from the lack of an adequate sewage system. This stream’s pollution, and the inadequate food rations caused an abundance of death. “The small rations and the polluted stream were blamed by the prisoners, after their release, for the sickness and death at Andersonville.”[12]

        The death at Andersonville was also caused by the poor condition of the hospital. Those who had arrived at Andersonville sick, or those who became ill in Andersonville, were not offered much hope of surviving because of the condition of the hospital. Pollution from the prisoner’s sinks leaked into the hospital. Also, the guards could not prevent the well Union prisoners from stealing from the sick.[13]

        The brutality enforced by the guards at Andersonville can be seen vividly be the dead line. The dead line was a line in which the prisoners were not allowed to pass in fear of escape. Unfortunately, many Confederate guards used this as an excuse to murder innocent prisoners. McElroy claims “ I can recall of my own seeing at least a dozen instances where men of the 55th Georgia killed prisoners under the pretense that they were across the Dead Line, when the victims were a yard or more from the Dead Line and had not the remotest idea of going any nearer.”[14]

        Besides food, a proper water supply, sufficient hospitals, shelter, and mercy, the Confederate prison camp called Andersonville lacked another item. This was an internal police force that could prevent the murders, stealing, and fights that went on. Speaking of Andersonville, Hesseltine writes, “Internal discipline, essentially the function of the captors, could not be administered.”[15] In Andersonville there existed a group of prisoners known as the “raiders”. The raiders would steal, murder, and manipulate to gain what ever they wanted. The raiders were finally dealt a destructive force of other prisoners grouped together. This group of anti- raider prisoners were called the “regulators”.[16]

        There is no justification for a place like Andersonville. Many make the argument that the South did not have the money or resources for a better Andersonville, but that still does not justify putting human beings in hell. Perhaps they should have offered no surrender and allowed the Union soldiers the chances of escaping on the battlefield. Their chances probably would have been better on the battlefield.

        The final statistics show the agony of Andersonville better than anything else does, or ever could. Andersonville was a prison that was meant for ten thousand troops but ended up containing over thirty-three thousand. To say Andersonville was overcrowded is an understatement. Twenty-nine percent of the prisoners housed in Andersonville died.[17]




 While the life of the camp was relatively short, the Rock Island Barracks stirred  a  controversy that long outlived it. Popular fiction and news articles presented a   picture of the prison as an “Andersonville of the North.” But was it a Northern  counterpart to the Southern “hell hole,” or was it merely a reflection of all prisoner of war camps of the period? [18]

             While the Northern cries could be heard for the prisoners in Andersonville, it was vice versa for the prisoners located in Rock Island.  Rock Island was constructed in July 1863, because Confederate prisoners were beginning to increase too rapidly for the Union to keep track of and a new prison needed to be built, preferably far from action. The ideal place was Rock Island, Illinois.[19]

            The prison contained eighty-four buildings, which were 22 by 100 feet. There also was an 18 by 22 feet kitchen, and eighty more feet used for sleeping quarters in the western part of the prison. A twelve feet high fence surrounded the whole prison. Because of Northern victories, the prison had to be opened before it was completely finished. This posed problems because many of the prisoners being forced to the prison were very ill and an adequate hospital had not been built.[20]

            Since the hospital was not finished, the spread of smallpox and other illness could not be prevented. “The prisoners had suffered from exposure and brought smallpox with them.”[21]The worse problem that the hospital faced, by far, was the general lack of cleanliness. “There was swamp on the island, the drainage poor, and the water for the prisoners was pumped from the river.”[22]The acting Surgeon General, William Watson, wrote of Rock Island:

 I found a great want of cleanliness among the patients and attendants, which is  disappearing under  stringent regulations requiring the regular use of baathtubs and the labors of permanent detail as laundrymen. The  good effects of this is most apparent in the smallpox wards, where the  impression  seemed to prevail that it was injurious to wash, which resulted in an accumulation of filth that, in connection with the disease, suspended entirely  the functions of the skin, producing congestion in cases that might have progressed without unpleasant symptoms…[23]


            The prison did not have the best drainage system with caused harm to prisoners. Another problem, mostly inside, but also outside of, the hospital was a lack of clothing supplied to the prisoners. Much of the clothing that the sick had before were destroyed for fear of spread of disease.[24]

        By early August, 1864, the prison looked better. New barracks were finished, along with a hospital. The population of prisoners, 8,600, were much safer than before. However, because of the horrible conditions of the prison in the first eight months, 1,3000 had died. “fully- two thirds of the prisoner deaths that were going to occur during the life of the camp.”[25] It is clear, from these statistics that the blame should definitely go to those who had ordered the prisoners to be accepted into the prison early.

            Malnutrition haunted the prison from the start, but did not cause that many deaths until after June, 1864.[26]   Food rations had decreased since the commissary- general of prisoners heard about reports from the cruel treatment of prisoners at Andersonville. He wanted retaliation.[27]

Over all, Rock Prison was not the “Andersonville of the North” that many thought it was. It actually was a good prison, even when compared to the other Union prisons. “Its mortality rate over its twenty-month existence (expressed in the number of deaths per thousand per year) was 193.2 – below that for the average Union prison camp…and far below that for Andersonville, which was 732.6.”[28]




            “…is the uncontestable fact that Northern prisons killed more than their share of Southern soldiers. And far ahead of the list was Elmira Prison Camp, whose 24 percent death rate topped even that of the more publicized compound at Camp Sumter, Georgia.”[29] (This number may be debatable, but the fact that Elmira was full of atrocities is not.)

            Elmira, New York, was within five miles of the Pennsylvania line. The prisoner barracks, which were 30 acres,  were located on the Chemung River. [30]

On May 20, 1864, Colonel Seth Eastwood received orders to prepare barracks because around 10,000 prisoners were being transferred there. However, Eastwood only counted on 5,000 prisoners. To add to the unsatisfactory set up was the fact that there was no official hospital, just tents that were to be used.[31] The fact that the hospital was only half finished led to poor medical care.[32]

The cold weather was a huge problem for the Confederate prisoners but there were also other problems. The prison was plagued with offensive, vicious odor and air pollution. The prisoners released over “2,600  gallons” of urine, a day, into the pond located on the prison grounds.[33]  Like Andersonville, the Elmira camp contained a stream that had formed a dreadful summer pond that was a “festering mass of corruption, impregnating the entire camp with the pestilential odors…”.[34] Eastman eventually had to use prison labor to drain the pond. This led to more disease.[35]

Lack of clothing in the extreme cold winter months was a common problem in the Elmira camp. Eastman would not allow any clothing to be worn by the prisoners except for gray. When southerners were sent clothes, Eastman would burn them if they were not a shade of their chosen color, even though the prisoners were “half naked standing in the snow.”[36]

Hunger was another issue that did not favor the prisoners. However, the two very small meals a day were better than the Union prisoners at Andersonville who, many of times, received nothing[37]. .

Out of 12, 123 prisoners at Elmira, 2,963 died.[38]

   Libby prison and Belle Island


            Libby Prison was an old warehouse in Richmond and Belle Island was an island on the James River.[39] Libby Prison for Officers consisted of eight rooms that 403 by 42 feet.[40] General Dow reported Belle Island,, as “low and unhealthy”. Ten prisoners a day, out of 5,400, died when the mortality rates began to rise around the middle of the war. The half that had no tents slept on the ground with no tents or clothes.[41]

            The soldiers imprisoned in Libby Prison and Belle Island suffered from a food shortage in late 1862 till the end of the war because of the insufficient supplies and money of the South.  The South had barely enough money and supplies for their own army.[42] The prisoners had a lack of clothing and blankets. Many slept on the floor. The North began shipping clothing and supplies to the prisoners.[43] Rumors surfaced in the North that most of the clothing and supplies shipped to the prisoners actually went to the soldiers in Lee’s Army. Because of the controversy, the South disallowed clothing or supplies to reach the prisoners. After this, conditions quickly got worst in the camps.[44]

On Belle Island the prisoners could not visit the sinks during the night and seldom did during the day. This caused human waste to saturate the camp. This condition, along with poor food, added to the sick.[45]

The mortality rate gradually increased in Richmond due to the poor hospital equipment and over crowdedness.[46] Belle Island, like Andersonville, had problems of internal control. The “Raiders”, the same Raiders that were at Andersonville, were able to run ramped until they were shipped to Andersonville.[47]  For fear of prisoner uprisings and escapes, along with the advancing Federal lines, many of the prisoners were shipped to Andersonville.[48]


       Prisoner Exchange


            The first prisoners were from  Texas and Missouri. A Confederate militia seized the Alamo, which was held by Federal troops. The troops were allowed to leave and go back North if they surrendered. The Federal troops accepted the proposition and made preparations to travel North by sea when they were taken prisoners.[49]

            In Missouri, Federal troops surrounded and captured members of the Missouri State Militia. This event happened since the Government thought that these members were successionist.  After the taking of an oath not to “bear arms against the United States” they were released.[50]

            In the beginning stages of the War Lincoln did not feel compelled to exchange prisoners. He knew by doing so he would indirectly recognize the authority of the Confederate Government but  he wanted the South to be seen as Rebels. For this very reason the South worked hard in trying to work out official prisoner exchanges.[51] They did not want to be regarded as mere traitors.

            The first unofficial exchanges happened in Missouri. Three prisoners who had been in the Missouri State guard were traded for three Union prisoners. This began Grants “exchanging”. In Richmond the South released fifty-seven wounded prisoners and Lincoln released the same amount.[52]

            The prisoners in the South wrote to Northern newspapers telling of the deathly conditions. These reports rose public support in the North of an exchange and this forced Lincoln to pursue “systematic” official exchanges.[53] For the two sides to agree on a general exchange was very unlikely since the North would be getting the bad end of the deal since they had more rebel prisoners than the South had of the Union soldiers.[54] This intensified the issue of general exchanges, seeked by the south, or partial exchanges, seeked by the north. Lincoln’s appointees designed a cartel for the exchange of prisoners due to the poor conditions of the prisoners in the south and the number of northerners dodging the draft. John A. Dix, of the Union Army, and D. H. Hill, of the Confederate Army, both signed the cartel.[55]

            The cartel contained a section that required an army to parole their prisoners ten days within capture. Then they were sent back to their respective lines as long as they would not take an active position in the army. The North, from the start, had problems with this since many Union soldiers would intentionally surrender since they knew they would be sent home in ten days.[56]

            Ludlow was appointed the exchange agent for the North and Ould for the South.  Exchanges were not plentiful because disagreements between the two sides grew. Meredith replaced Ludlow and the tensions between Meredith and Ould were even greater than with Ludlow and Ould. Conflicts over paroles, the holding of prisoners, and the South reusing their excaptives in different campaigns, along with the issue of the exchanging of Negro soldiers, stopped the exchanging process temporarily in the summer of 1863. [57]

            Butler was appointed by the North to replace Meredith hoping to spark more exchanges on December 17, 1863.[58] Butler wanted to succeed in a liberal policy for exchange and soon after he took his office sent five hundred and five prisoners to Richmond. The South exchanged these prisoners for the same number of Union prisoners but in the future they would not exchange unless it was according to the cartel.[59]

            Exchanges were took place under Butler but many were unofficial and not according to the cartel. Ould and Butler had disagreements over the paroles and the Negro soldiers. Ould thought that the exslaves should be given back to their slaveholders when Butler wanted all Negroes to have the opportunity to be sent back to the North.[60]

            General Grant was one reason why large numbers of prisoners were not exchanged. He did not think that it was fair to the active men in the army to capture the enemy, then months later have to fight that same enemy again. He declared “if we commense a system of exchanges which liberates all prisoners taken, we will have to  fight on until the whole South is exterminated." If we hold those caught they amount to no more than dead.” Grant was in favor of exchanging those who obviously could not fight, but was passionate against the exchanging of prisoners who could.[61]

            Grant can be seen as an evil man be declaring this but that is not the case. Karl Von Clausewitz, one of the most credited theorist of war, states that the enemy’s “military force must be destroyed; that is, put into such a condition that they can no longer continue the war…’destruction of the enemy’s military forces’ is to be understood only in this sense.”[62] Had prisoners been exchanged in a general exchange of all prisoners, as the South had wanted, the North would have been forced to fight these same troops again and put in jeopardy the outcome of the war. It was a good idea, however, to be willing to exchange the men who obviously were in to poor a condition to fight.

            Due to the personal accounts of the prisoners at Florence and Andersonville Grant was pressured by public opinion to seek further exchanges. He was put in charge of exchange.[63] The South also needed to exchange the prisoners since it was too hard to keep the prisoners fed and fight the enemy at the same time. Grant planned to send “three thousand a week” to the confederates.” He wanted the prisoners from Louisiana, Tennessee, Arkansas, and Kentucky to be sent since these would be the hardest to be put back into the Confederate Army.[64] Ould also did his part in the exchange process, attempting to send a thousand prisoners a day back north.[65] As the War closed, the North had won. If Transportation provided, they allowed most of the prisoners to be sent back home as long as they said an oath to the Union.[66]

[1] Dr. Harold Talent, Civil War and Recontruction, November 6, 2000.

[2] William H. McNeill, The Pursuit of Power (Chicago: University Chicago Press, 1982), 253.

[3] William Best Hesseltine, Civil War Prisons (New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co. 1958), 133.

[4] Ibid, 135.

[5] Roy Meredith, This was Andersonville (New York: Bonanza Books, 1957), 6.

[6] Ibid, 8.

[7] Ibid, 20

[8] ibid, 21

[9] Ibid, 27.

[10] Ibid, 27.

[11] Ibid, 28.

[12] William Best Hesseltine, Civil War Prisons, 138.

[13] Ibid, 138.

[14] Roy Meredith, This was Andersonville, 30.

[15] Hesseltine, Civil War Prisons, 144.

[16] Roy Meredith, This was Andersonville, 62-73.

[17] Meredith, 120.

[18] Otis Bryan England, A Short History of the Rock Island Prison Barracks,   (Rock Island, Illinois: US Army Armament, Munitions, and Chemical Command, 1985), preface.

[19] Ibid, 1.

[20] Ibid, 7.

[21] Hesseltine, Civil War Prisons, 192.

[22] Ibid, 192.

[23] England, A Short History of the Rock Island Prison Barracks, 9.

[24] Ibid, 10.

[25] Ibid, 15.

 [26] Ibid, 31.

[27] Ibid, 23.

[28] Ibid, 31.

[29] James I. Robertsontson, The Scourge of Elmira, ed. Hesseltine, .Civl War Prisons (Kent, Ohio: The Kent State University Press, 1962), 84.

[30] Ibid, 80-81.

[31] Ibid, 81.

[32] Ibid,  91.

[33] Ibid, 84.

[34] Bruce Catton, Civil War. (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1984), 622.

[35] Robertson, The Scourge of Elmira, 84.

[36] Ibid, 87.

[37] Ibid, 89.

[38] Ibid, 96.

 [39] Hesseltine, Civil War Prisons, 114.

[40] Ibid, 121.

[41] Ibid, 120.

[42] Ibid, 117 – 119.

[43] Ibid, 120.

[44] Ibid, 123-124.

[45] Ibid, 127.

[46] Ibid, 127.

[47] Ibid, 128.

[48] Ibid, 131-132.

[49] Ibid, 3-5.

[50] Ibid, 5-6.

[51] Ibid, 7.

[52] Ibid, 12.

[53] Ibid, 14-15.

[54] Ibid, 25.

[55] Ibid, 31-32.

[56] Ibid, 76.

[57] Ibid, 110-111.

[58] Ibid, 210.

[59] Ibid, 210-211.

[60] Ibid, 221-225.

[61] Ibid 223-224.

[62] Karl Von Clauswitze. War, Politics, and Power (Washington, DC: Regnery Publishing, Inc., 1965), 57.

[63] Hesseltine, Civil War Prisons, 228-230.

[64] Ibid, 230.

[65] Ibid, 231.

[66] Ibid, 232.


Catton, Bruce. Civil War. New York: The Fairfax Press, 1984.

Clausewitz, Karl Von. War, Politics, and Power. Washington, DC: Regenery 

    Publishing, Inc., 1965.

England, Otis Bryan. A Short History of the Rock Island Prison Barracks. Rock 

    Island, Illinois: US Army Armanent, Munitions, and Chemical Command, 1985.

Hesseltine, William Best. Civil War Prisons. New York: Frederick Ungar 

    Publishing  Co., 1958.

McNeill, William H. The Pursuit of Power. Chicago: University of Chicago

    Press, 1982..

Meredith, Roy. This was Andersonville. New York: Bonanza Books, 1957.

Robertson, James  I. Scourge of Elmira. Edited by W.B. Hesseltine. Civil War 

    Prisons. Kent, Ohio: The Kent State University Press, 1962.


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