The Civil War Concentration Camps

Published: 1981-07-01

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No aspect of the American Civil War left behind a greater legacy of bitterness and acrimony than the treatment of prisoners of war. “Andersonville” still conjures up images of horror unmatched in American History. And although Northern partisans still invoke the infamous Southern camp to defame the Confederacy, the Union had its share of equally horrific camps. Prison camps on both sides produced scenes of wretched, disease-ridden and emaciated prisoners as repulsive as any to come out of the Second World War.

Partisans in both the North and the South produced wildly exaggerated novels, reminiscences of prisoners, journalistic accounts and even official government reports which charged the enemy with wanton criminal policies of murderous intent. It took several decades for Revisionist historians to separate fact from propagandistic fancy and deliberate distortion from misunderstanding. Even today the bitter legacy of hate lingers on in widespread but often grossly distorted accounts from this tragic chapter of American history.

Neither side deliberately set out to maltreat prisoners. Arrangements were made hurriedly to deal with unexpected masses of men. As neither side expected the war to last long, these measures were only makeshifts undertaken with minimum expenditure. Management was bad on both sides, but worse in the South owing to poorer, more decentralized organization and more meager resources. Thus, prisoners held by the Union were somewhat better off.

In the first phase of the war, 1861–1862, the relatively small numbers of prisoners taken by both sides were well treated. Both sides agreed to a prisoner exchange arrangement which operated during the latter half of 1862. Under the cartel, captives remaining after the exchanges were paroled. But the agreement broke down, in part because of Northern refusal to recognize the Confederate authorities as anything other than “rebels,” and in part over the Negro question.

“In a war of this kind, words are things. If we must address Davis as president of the Confederacy, we cannot exchange and the prisoners should not wish it,” declared the influential Harper’s Weekly.

Following the promulgation of the Emancipation Proclamation on New Year’s Day, 1863, the North began enlisting former slaves into the Federal army. Confederate President Jefferson Davis declared that “all Negro slaves captured in arms” and their White officers should be delivered over to the South to be dealt with according to law. That could mean rigorous prosecution under strict laws relating to Negro insurrections.

Still, special exchanges on a reduced scale continued, but from 1863 onwards, both sides were holding large numbers of prisoners.

On 17 April 1864, General Grant ordered that no more Confederate prisoners were to be paroled or exchanged until there were released a sufficient number of Union officers and men to equal the parolees at Vicksburg and Port Hudson and unless the Confederate authorities would agree to make no distinction whatsoever between White and Negro prisoners.

On 10 August, the Confederate government offered to exchange officer for officer and man for man, accompanying the proposal with a statement on conditions at Andersonville. This offer induced General Grant to reveal his real reason for refusing any further exchanges. “Every man we hold, when released on parole or otherwise,” Grant reported to Washington, “becomes an active soldier against us at once either directly or indirectly. If we commence a system of exchange 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 men. At this particular time to release all rebel prisoners North would insure Sherman’s defeat and would compromise our safety here.” (Rhodes, pp. 499–500)

In October, Lee proposed to Grant another man-to-man exchange of prisoners. Grant asked whether Lee would turn over Negro troops “the same as White soldiers?” When Lee declared that “Negroes belonging to our citizens are not considered subjects of exchange,” the negotiations completely broke down.

After the cessation of prisoner exchanges under the cartel, the camps of the South became crowded and the growing poverty of the Confederacy resulted in excessive suffering in the Southern stockades. Reports about these conditions in the Northern press created the belief that the ill treatment was part of a deliberate policy. The inevitable war hatred made such a belief readily credible.

After the war, Confederate partisans laid responsibility for camp conditions (on both sides) at the feet of the Federal authorities. They pointed to the Northern cancellation of the parole and exchange cartel which put a heavy and unexpected strain on the Southern prisoner program. They also condemned the North for its deliberate cut in rations for Confederate prisoners as a reaction to reports of bad conditions in the Southern camps.

The best known of all the Civil War camps today is Andersonville. Officially designated Camp Sumter, the prison stockade was located in south-central Georgia, about 20 miles from Plains. More than 45,000 Union soldiers were confined there between February 1864, when the first prisoners arrived, and April 1865, when it was captured. Of these, 12,912 died, about 28 percent of the total, and were buried on the camp grounds, now a National Cemetery. (Baker, p. 10)

Andersonville was a prison for enlisted soldiers. After the first few months, officers were confined at Macon. The camp was originally designed to hold 10 000 men, but by late June that number had jumped to 26 000. By August the 26½ acre camp was holding over 32,000 soldiers. Overcrowding continued to remain a serious problem. Guards kept watch from sentry boxes and shot any prisoner who crossed a wooden railing called the “deadline.” A strip of ground between the “deadline” and the palisades was called the “deadrun.”

The Confederates lacked necessary tools for adequate housing. Some of the early prisoners were able to construct a few rude huts of scrap wood. Many more sought shelter in dilapidated tents. Others dug holes in the ground for protection, but hundreds had no shelter of any kind against the pouring rain, southern heat and winter cold.

No clothing was provided, and many prisoners who were transferred to Andersonville from other camps were dressed only in rags. Even decent clothing deteriorated quickly, and some prisoners had virtually nothing to wear.

The prisoners received the same daily ration as the guards: one and one-fourth pound of corn meal and either one pound of beef or one-third pound of bacon. The meager diet was only occasionally supplemented with beans, rice, peas or molasses. Northern soldiers were unused to this ration. But Southern troopers had fought long and hard on the usual fare of “hog and hominy.”

A stream flowed through the treeless stockade, dividing it roughly in half. It quickly became polluted with waste, creating a horrible stench over the whole camp.

Almost 30 percent of the prisoners confined to Andersonville during the camp’s 13 month existence died there. Most succumbed to dysentery, gangrene, diarrhea and scurvy. The Confederates lacked adequate facilities, personnel and medical supplies to arrest the diseases. An average of more than 900 prisoners died each month. The poorly-equipped and -staffed camp hospital was woefully inadequate to deal with the wretched conditions. Confederate surgeon Joseph Jones called Andersonville “a giant mass of human misery.”

Thieves and murderers among the prisoners stole food and clothing from their comrades. The most notorious were part of a large, organized group called the “Andersonville Raiders” which held sway within the stockade for nearly four months. Robberies and murders were daily occurrences until six of the ringleaders were caught and hanged. Other members of the Raiders were forced to run a gauntlet of club-wielding prisoners.

The camp guard force consisted of four regiments of the Georgia militia, generally made up of undisciplined older men and untrained young men. Efforts by the camp commander to replace them with more seasoned soldiers remained futile since every able-bodied man was needed to meet Gen. Sherman’s troops advancing toward Atlanta.

Prisoners on both sides were held in some 150 prison camps. And while Andersonville is the best remembered, several others equalled or even surpassed the Georgia camp in squalor and deadliness.

Some 12,000 Union soldiers were confined at Richmond in several centers, the worst of which was Belle Isle, a lowlying island on the James River. Less than half of the 6,000 prisoners could seek shelter in tents; most slept on the ground without clothing or blankets. Many had no pants, shirts or shoes, and went without fuel or soap. At least ten men died a day in vermin-ridden conditions of inexpressible filthiness. The entire surface of the island compound became saturated with putrid waste matter. Hospitals for the prisoners in Richmond quickly became overcrowded and many died on Belle Isle without ever having seen a doctor.

Rations were meager indeed. Christmas Day, 1863, saw the prisoners without rations of any kind. The daily ration of a pound of bread and a half-pound of beef was steadily reduced. Bread gave way to cornbread of unsifted meal. One small sweet potato replaced the meat. For the last two weeks of captivity the entire daily ration consisted of three-fourths of a pound of cornbread.

The Confederate diet was hardly better. A Confederate official declared that the prisoners in Richmond were given the same rations as the Southern troops and that if the food was inadequate, it was due to the destructive warfare being waged by the North. Confederate soldiers in Richmond went without meat by January 1864. Severe shortages in the Southern capital brought astronomical food prices and bread riots.

The camps at Salisbury, North Carolina, and elsewhere reproduced the worst features of Andersonville on a smaller scale. A lack of water at Salisbury brought conditions of filth and unbearable stench. The daily ration there for both prisoner and guard was soup and twenty ounces of bread without meat or sorghum. Many internees lacked clothing or shelter and “muggers” among the prisoners robbed their comrades. The disease rate soared. From October 1864 to February 1865, 3,479 prisoners died out of the 10,321 confined there, or over one third of the total. (Hesseltine,1964, p. 170)

Conditions in the North were little better. One of the worst of the Union camps was Ft. Delaware, located on an island about 14 miles south of Wilmington. The filth and vermin in the damp fortress prison encouraged a high death rate. Most of the 2436 Confederate prisoners who died in what some called “The Andersonville of the North” succumbed to scurvy and dysentery.

Another infamous Union camp was Rock Island, located on an island in the Mississippi River between Davenport, Iowa, and Rock Island, Illinois. A report in the New York Daily News of 3 January 1865 stated that the Confederate prisoners were reduced to eating dogs and rats, and that many were virtually naked and without adequate protection against the chilling winter cold. Recalcitrant prisoners were subject to a variety of imaginative punishments, including hanging by thumbs.

A total of 12,409 men were confined to Rock Island prison during its 20 month existence. Of these, 730 were transferred to other stations, 3,876 were exchanged, 41 successfully escaped, 5,581 were paroled home, and some 4,000 enlisted in Federal units slated for Western duty, and 1,960 died in captivity. (Hesseltine, 1972, p. 58)

By far the most horrendous Northern camp was Elmira, located in New York a few miles from the Pennsylvania line. Some 9000 prisoners were confined to a camp meant to hold only 5,000.

Two observation towers were erected right outside the prison walls. For 15 cents, spectators could watch the wretched prisoners within the compound. When winter struck Elmira in late 1864, prisoners lacking blankets and clad in rags collapsed in droves from exposure. By early December, half-naked men stood ankle-deep in show to answer the morning roll call.

A one-acre lagoon of stagnant water within the 30-acre stockade served as a latrine and garbage dump, giving rise to disease. Scurvy and diarrhea took many lives. By November 1864, pneumonia had reached plague proportions. An epidemic of smallpox broke out a month later and remained an ever-present killer.

Repeated requests for badly needed medicines were ignored by officials in Washington. The pathetically equipped hospital lacked beds, equipment and personnel. By late December 1864, at least 70 men were lying on bare hospital floors and another 200 diseased and dying men lay in the regular prison quarters, contaminating their healthier comrades.

Non-cooperative prisoners were punished in a variety of ways. Some were confined to the “sweat box” in which the occupant stood immobile and received no ventilation, food or water for the duration of the punishment period. Other men were gagged or hung by their thumbs. Because no prisoner received his regular rations while serving a sentence, punishment meant virtual starvation.

One prison commander would often visit the camp at midnight in freezing weather to have the men called out for “roll call.”

In February 1865, the camp held 8996 prisoners, of whom 1398 were sick and 426 died. In March an average of 16 prisoners were dying each day. Of a total of 12 123 soldiers imprisoned at Elmira during its one year existence, 2963 died, or about 25 percent. The monthly death rate, however, topped the one at Andersonville. (Hesseltine,1972, p. 96)

In addition to camps for captured soldiers, the North also established concentration camps for civilian populations considered hostile to the Federal government. Union General Thomas Ewing issued his infamous Order Number 11 in August 1863, whereby large numbers of civilians in Missouri were relocated into what were called “posts.”

In Plain Speaking, “an Oral Biography of Harry S. Truman,” the former President tells what happened:

Everybody, almost the entire population of Jackson County and Vernon and Cass and Bates counties, all of them were depopulated, and the people had to stay in posts.

They called them posts, but what they were, they were concentration camps. And most of the people were moved in such a hurry that they had to leave all their goods and their chattels in their houses. Then the Federal soldiers came in and took everything that was left and set fire to the houses.

That didn’t go down very well with the people in these parts; putting people in concentration camps in particular didn’t. (pp 78–79)

President Truman’s grandmother loaded what belongings she could into an oxcart and, with six of her children, among them the President’s mother, made the journey to a “post” in Kansas City. Martha Ellen Truman vividly remembered that trek until she died at the age of 94.

Perhaps the most relevant aspect of this whole chapter for our generation is not the existence of the camps or even the wretched conditions there, but rather the enormous prison propaganda campaign complete with charges that the camps were really killing centers designed to exterminate the inmates. That war psychosis campaign during and following the Civil War is strikingly reminiscent of the one which grew out of the Second World War.

Journalists, preachers and politicians on both sides portrayed the enemy as fiends who relished in diabolical atrocities. Imaginative prisoners had neither the will nor the ability to make objective judgments about what was going on around them. They often greatly exaggerated conditions and claimed that their suffering was part of a monstrous conspiracy.

As the war progressed, the prisons of the South became crowded and Confederate poverty and organizational disruption resulted in excessive suffering. Reports about these conditions in the North encouraged the belief that the suffering was part of a deliberate design.

The worst cases of the sick prisoners from Belle Isle who were still able to travel were sent North. The ghastly and emaciated condition of these survivors confirmed the already widespread impression that all prisoners held by the South were being slowly killed off.

Northern polemicists declared that the Union had been too cool to these barbarities and demands for retaliation grew.

In anticipation of retaliatory measures, a Northern General ordered “special treatment similar to that which the rebels extend to Union prisoners in Richmond prisons” for a captured Confederate General. (Hesseltine, 1964, p. 186). This Civil War rendition of Sonderbehandlung never achieved the sinister notoriety of its Second World War counterpart.

“Retaliation,” stated the New York Times, “is a terrible thing, but the miseries and pains and the slowly wasting life of our brethren and friends in those horrible prisons is a worse thing.” (Hesseltine, 1964, pl94). The result of the campaign was that prisoners in Northern prisons were forced to suffer needlessly in retaliation for alleged Southern cruelty.

Lieutenant Colonel William H. Hoffman, the Federal Commissary General of Prisons, ordered a preliminary 20 percent reduction of rations in the Union camps. He then ordered increased guard forces in preparation for further ration cuts. Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton approved another order by Hoffman to further sharply reduce food, fuel, shelter and clothing of prisoners to levels which Union propagandists claimed were equal to those prevailing in the South. Much of the death and suffering in the Northern prisons was a direct result of this action.

Only a sharply increased guard force was able to contain the serious danger of rioting at Camp Morton when the new rations went into effect.

Inspired by the stated policy of retaliation, some camp commanders vindictively took it upon themselves to impose even more suffering on the prisoners in their control.

Congress gave official sanction to the propaganda campaign. The House Committee on the Conduct of the War investigated the condition of prisoners in the Confederate camps. Secretary of War Stanton told the Committee that “the enormity of the crime committed by the rebels toward our prisoners is not known or realized by our people, and cannot but fill with horror the civilized world when the facts are fully revealed. There appears to have been a deliberate system of savage and barbarous treatment the result of which will be that few, if any, of the prisoners that have been in their hands during the past winter will ever again be in a condition to render any service or even to enjoy life.” (Hesseltine,1964, p. 196)

The House Committee published Report No. 67, which included eight pictures of naked or partly naked prisoners released from Belle Isle in the worst state of emaciation and utter despondency. The official report declared that the evidence proved a fixed determination by the Confederates to kill the Union soldiers who fell into their hands.

Several months later, the United States Sanitary Commission (a forerunner of the American Red Cross) published its own Narrative of the Privations and Sufferings of the United States Officers and Soldiers while Prisoners of War in the Hands of the Rebel Authorities. Complete with colored pictures of sick released prisoners, the Narrative contained all of the atrocity tales told up to that time, and then some. It falsely contended that prisoners were stripped of their clothing and robbed of their money upon capture, and that naked bodies were heaped into piles awaiting burial to be eaten by hogs, dogs and rats. Not surprisingly, the official Narrative concluded that the suffering and death was the result of “a predetermined plan, originating somewhere in the rebel counsels, for destroying and disabling the soldiers of their enemy, who had honorably surrendered in the field.” (Hesseltine, 1964, pl99). By contrast, conditions for prisoners in the Union camps were described in glowing terms of comfort and abundance.

The Union hailed the account as a truthful portrayal of conditions. Harper’s Weekly predicted that it would help the Federal cause not only at home but in Europe as well.

Both of these official reports gave an aura of authenticity to the wild propaganda campaign that was sweeping the North. They helped legitimize Federal measures which resulted in preventable suffering and death in the Northern camps. And they helped to justify the harsh and vengeful occupation policy of “reconstruction” imposed by the North at the end of the war.

Federal newspapers blamed the social-political system of the Confederacy for the horrors of the Southern camps. Reports of wretched conditions in the camps confirmed the view that the Confederate system was incurably evil and had to be unconditionally destroyed.

“We’ve not heard as much lately as formerly of the maltreatment of prisoners in Richmond,” wrote the New York Times, “but it has not abated. Nay, their diabolism will never abate as long as it is in their power to exercise its The slaveholder is born to tyranny and reared to cruelty.” (Hesseltine, 1964, p l95). Another paper declared that “only slavery could so harden a man,” ignoring the fact that owning slaves was still legal in some Union states, and that Washington and Jefferson had been slaveholders!

The New York Times went a step further to malign even the personal character of the Southerner: “The Southern character is infinitely boastful, vainglorious, full of dash, without endurance, treacherous, cunning, timid, and revengeful.”

The propaganda campaign did not die at all with the end of the war. In fact, accounts of conditions in the southern prison camps became even more exaggerated. In 1869, the House of Representatives issued another official publication on the Treatment of Prisoners of War by the Rebel Authorities. This House Report No. 85 amplified the distortions contained in the 1864 House Report and the Sanitary Commission Narrative.

The new Report stated:

The opinion of the committee carefully and deliberately formed (is) that the neglect and refusal of the rebel author ities to provide sufficient and proper rations was the result of a premeditated system and scheme of the confederate authorities to reduce our ranks by starvation, and that they were not forced to these deprivations from accident or necessity. (Rhodes, pp 503–504)

Former prisoners kept on turning out personalized and rabidly polemical accounts of camp conditions which found ready readerships. Many of those who published “personal memoirs” of their experiences rewrote copiously from the official Federal government “documentary” reports. But many dubious readers were impressed by the volume of camp literature. The years 1862–66 saw 54 books and articles published describing the experiences of prisoners in the South. Of these, 28 appeared in the years 1865 and 1866. Twenty more appeared in 1867–70. (Hesseltine, 1964, pp. 247, 252)

The author of Prisoner of War, a typical example of the genre, wrote: “I send out this book trusting that whatever influence it may exercise will aid in bringing the guilty leaders of Treason to just punishment for their enormous crimes against humanity.”

The polemical post-war writers faced something of a problem with figures in trying to prove that the South had killed off prisoners as part of a deliberate extermination policy. The number of Union prisoners who died was not large enough to substantiate the claim. So the myth-makers either ignored the numbers completely, or came up with new figures of their own. One writer claimed, for example, that no record remains of the many prisoners who “were pursued through fen and forest by bloodhounds and demons and their mangled corpses left to the carrion birds.”

Republican party politicians waved the “bloody shirt” of Southern atrocity stories to keep themselves in power. But the most regrettable effect of the post-war propaganda campaign was to exacerbate the horrors of Reconstruction in the occupied South.

The high point in the atrocity campaign came with the farcical show trial and execution of Henry Wirz, the commandant of Andersonville. Next to the assassination of President Lincoln, the Andersonville story was the most effective propaganda weapon in the arsenal of those who wanted to deal harshly with the defeated South.

During the war, the Northern press described Wirz as a “monster” and a “beast” and portrayed him as a vicious sadist. He was nothing of the kind, but because he spoke with a foreign accent and was the officer with whom the prisoners had the most contact, he bore the brunt of blame for conditions in the camp.

Henry Wirz was born in Zurich, Switzerland, and emigrated to the United States in 1849. He worked as a weaver in Massachusetts and as a doctor’s assistant in Kentucky before moving to a plantation in Louisiana. He joined the Confederate army when war broke out and was severely wounded at the Battle of Seven Pines. After recovering he was promoted to Captain and assigned as commandant of Andersonville in March 1864.

Wild rumors about Wirz made their way within the stockade. What one prisoner suspected was told to the next as fact. In the imagination of the inmates, Wirz became the cruel and inhuman author of all their sufferings.

After his arrest, Wirz was taken to Washington where a military commission charged him with “conspiring” with Confederate President Davis, General Robert E. Lee and others to “impair and injure the health and destroy the lives of large numbers of Federal prisoners.” All of this was allegedly done “in furtherance of his evil design.” The commission further charged Wirz with several specific acts of murder “in violation of the laws and customs of war.”

While Wirz was sometimes gruff and ill-natured, the prosector could not prove that he ever murdered a single prisoner. Neither the judge-advocate who drew up the thirteen specifications nor any of the witnesses called by the government were able to name any of the alleged victims. To substantiate the conspiracy charge, the prosecution cited an order by Confederate General Winder which instructed an artillery battery to open fire upon the Andersonville camp. The order was a forgery. Other “documents” cited to prove a conspiracy were equally baseless.

The Northern press couldn’t find words strident enough to characterize the defendant: “the Andersonville savage,” “the inhuman wretch,” “the infamous captain,” “the barbarian,” “the most bloodthirsty monster which this or any other age has produced.”

Actually, Wirz was merely an unfortunate victim of circumstance-a target of unrestrained hysteria. Confederate officers sent to inspect the camp during the war were unanimous in their praise of Wirz’s energy and diligence. His commanding General praised his performance. An inspector from Richmond declared that he was firm and rigid in discipline but kind to the prisoners. Wirz tried repeatedly to provide adequate shelter, food and medical supplies, but governmental red tape, local opposition, and the rapidly deteriorating economy of the beleaguered South frustrated his efforts.

Held in the vengeful climate that followed the Lincoln assassination, the trial was used to boost the post-war campaign to new heights of hysteria. The New York Times commented on the Wirz case in vindictive and emotional prose that could almost have been written in the late 1940s:

The assassins of the president disposed of, the Government will next take in hand the ruffians who tortured to death thousands of Union prisoners. The laws of civilized warfare must be vindicated; and some expiation must be exacted for the most infernal crime of the century. In respect to Captain Werz (sic), for instance it may be shown that he went into his business of wholesale murder on express instructions by superior authority. It is manifest that this maltreatment must have proceeded from some general design upon the part of the rebel Government. The persons detailed for the charge of the military prisons in the “Confederacy” were men whose natural disposition especially qualified them for a brutal and base business.

The influential paper demanded full punishment for “every rebel official who has been concerned, directly or indirectly, in the torturing and murdering of our prisoners. Of all rebel crimes, that was the most devilish, the least capable of extenuation or pardon.” (Hesseltine, 1964, pp. 237–38)

A Federal official sent to Andersonville recommended that the camp be taken over by the government and maintained as a permanent reminder of Confederate horror. (Shades of Dachau!) The New York Times agreed: “The thing most needed since the prostration of the rebellion is to make it (Andersonville) odious and famous.” Another leading Union paper stated that the South must be made to “ face” the horrors of Andersonville. It advised the Federal government to publish the most self-incriminating documents in the Confederate archives and declared the that “loyal men should strive to keep alive the infamy of the rebellion.” (Hesseltine, 1964, p. 239). For added justification and propaganda effect, the Federal government issued a lengthy publication, The Trial of Henry Wirz, which gave a veneer of legitimacy to the trial and execution.

The commissioners were grossly unfair in their conduct of the trial. Wirz’ defense attorneys despaired of fair treatment for their client and quit in frustration. They returned to represent Wirz only after the friendless defendant begged their help in utter despair. Despite the pathetic lack of evidence, the commission found Wirz guilty and sentenced him to death. He was hanged in Washington on 10 November 1865.

In the wake of the publicity surrounding the trial, former prisoners founded the “Andersonville Survivors Association” and the “National Ex-Prisoners of War Association” to lobby Congress for disability pension legislation. The “Survivors” claimed that the mere fact of having spent the summer of 1864 at Andersonville should be adequate evidence of permanent disability.

Many aspects of the Wirz trial are strikingly similar to the “war crimes” trials following the Second World War. Both followed intense propaganda campaigns to which the government contributed authoritative but spurious “documentation.” Both were concerned only with the “crimes” of the defeated power. Both were used to indict the socialpolitical system of the losing side. Both called upon self-serving witnesses who had motives of their own for testifying. Both trials alleged an elaborate “conspiracy” of murderous intent. Both used phoney “documents” to substantiate their case.

It took several decades before intense vindictiveness gave way to a modicum of reconciliation. Truth-seeking historical accounts slowly replaced the bitterly partisan diatribes. Revisionist historians eventually discredited the many phoney “documents,” “memoirs,” and “true accounts” about the Civil War prison camps.

There is, of course, no doubt that prisoners on both sides suffered and died, often under regrettable conditions. But neither side deliberately killed prisoners. Prisoners on both sides were always well treated at the front. It was behind the lines where bad management, especially in the South, resulted in so much death and suffering.

The same factors which contributed to military defeat also made it virtually impossible for the Confederacy to operate an efficient prisoner-of-war system. Southern industrial output was inadequate for logistical support of the armed forces, with the result that prison camps were extremely primitive in construction and maintenance. For various reasons, the military leadership was never able to properly clothe and feed Confederate soldiers, much less enemy prisoners of war. And finally, the Southern rail and water transportation system was so crippled during the final two years of the war that movement of supplies, especially to peripheral points like Andersonville, frequently became impossible.

Exact figures on the number of prisoners held on both sides and a precise comparison of the mortality rates on each side are impossible to obtain. After the war, Confederate and Federal partisans each cited statistics to prove that the death and suffering had been greater in the enemy camps. Former Confederate President Davis and former Vice President Alexander Stephens cited rather dubious figures to support their claim that the mortality rate in the Northern prisons was twelve percent, as compared to less than nine percent for the South.

The best and most reliable estimate available seems to be the one provided by Adjutant General F.C. Ainsworth in 1903 to the eminent historian James F. Rhodes. The Chief of the Record and Pension Office stated that the best information obtainable from both Union and Confederate records showed that the North held 214 865 Southern soldiers, of whom 25 976 died in captivity, while the South held 193 743 Union men, of whom 30 218 died in captivity. Rhodes concluded that slightly over 12 percent of the prisoners held by the Union perished, while 15.5 percent died in Southern camps. But Rhodes felt that given the superior hospitals medicines, and abudance of food, mortality in the Northern prisons should have been lower.

“All things considered,” Rhodes concluded, “the statistics show no reason why the North should reproach the South. If we add to one side of the account the refusal to exchange the prisoners and the greater resources, and to the other the distress of the Confederacy, the balance struck will not be far from even. Certain it is that no deliberate intention existed either in Richmond or Washington to inflict suffering on captives more than inevitably accompanied their confinement.” (Rhodes, p. 508)

In the Civil War, as in the Second World War, the victorious side hysterically distorted the actual conditions in the camps of the enemy to brand the defeated adversary as intrinsically evil and to justify a harsh and vindictive occupation policy. All the suffering and death in the camps of the side that lost the war was ascribed to a deliberate policy on the part of an inherently atrocious power. The victorious powers demanded “unconditional surrender” and arrested the defeated government leaders as “criminals.”

After both wars, Revisionist historians who worked to set the record straight were denounced for trying to “rehabilitate” a discredited and abominable social order. The social-political system of the side that lost each war was deemed not merely different, but morally depraved. The defeated side was judged ethically in terms of its readiness to atone for past sins and embrace the social system of the conquerors.


  • Baker, Raymond F., Andersonville: The Story of a Civil War prison camp, Washington, DC, 1972.
  • Futch, Ovid L., History of Andersonville Prison, University of Florida Press, 1968.
  • Hesseltine, William B., Civil War Prisons: A Study in War Psychology, New York, 1964.
  • Hesseltine, William B., ed., Civil War Prisons, Kent State UniversityPress, 1972.
  • Miller, Merle, Plain Speaking (An Oral Biography of Harry S. Truman) New York. 1974.
  • Rhodes, James F., History of the United States, (Vol. V. 1864–1865, Ch. XXIX),1904, and Port Washington, NY, 1967.

Additional information about this document
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Author(s): Mark Weber
Title: The Civil War Concentration Camps
Sources: The Journal of Historical Review, vol. 2, no. 2 (summer 1981), pp. 137-153
Published: 1981-07-01
First posted on CODOH: Nov. 7, 2012, 6 p.m.
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