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AHHS — Chapter 27

Chapter 27 – The Sufferings of the Prisoners of War and Why it Happened, by Karen Stokes of S. C., S. I. S. H.


This is the saddest chapter of them all.  To think that Republican-led officers and soldiers would intentionally starve captured Confederates and encourage disease within prison camps is hard for Americans today to understand.  Early in the war, in addition to blockading Southern ports, the Lincoln administration took the harsh and unprecedented measure of declaring medical supplies, including surgical equipment and medicines, contraband, and their scarcity caused great suffering among Confederate soldiers as well as Federals imprisoned in the South. As the Federals continued to conquer and occupy more and more Confederate territory and to wage war on civilians – their property and their ability to produce food – everyone living within Confederate-controlled territory suffered, including POWS.  But the North had ample food, clothing and shelter.  From 1863 on, the Lincoln Administration resorted to denying prisoner exchanges as a war measure: making imprisoned federals suffer to avoid freeing imprisoned Confederates in humane exchanges.  We, the authors of Understanding the War Between the States, wish we could have avoided writing this chapter, but write we must.

History Relevant To Understanding the WBTS

When the war began, the governments of the United States and the Confederate States were not well prepared to hold and care for large numbers of prisoners of war.  As hundreds of POWs turned into thousands, more military prisons were created, as well as bureaucracies to administer them.  The Dix-Hill Cartel, an agreement between the two governments defining procedures for the parole and exchange of prisoners, was enacted in July 1862.  About a year afterward, the U.S. government put a stop to most prisoner exchanges for a considerable period.  Later, limited exchanges were resumed, but in the meantime, many thousands of men held in prisons in the north and south languished and died in captivity.

In 1864, in response to questionable allegations of deliberate mistreatment of Union prisoners by their Confederate captors, Union authorities instituted a policy of systematic retaliation against prisoners of war in their hands.  “Retaliatory” measures included reducing the food rations of Confederate prisoners, and restricting their receipt of food and other comforts sent into prisons from family and friends.  As a result, there was a rise in malnourishment, as well as all the sufferings and afflictions that went along with it, among the prisoners held by the North.


In March 1864, George H. Moffett, a Confederate POW at Fort Delaware, recalled seeing a printed order posted in the prison “from the War Department at Washington,” announcing this “retaliatory measure.”  Moffett commented: “Was it possible that there was a civilized government on earth willing to place itself on record in practicing such an enormous barbarity?  But there it was in legible characters posted up against the outside wall of the mess hall…in full view of all who cared to stop and read it.”

The “retaliatory” policy approved by U.S. Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton had been justified in part by a pamphlet produced by the Committee on the Conduct of the War, a powerful U.S. congressional committee dominated by the radical faction of the Republican Party.  In May 1864, investigating reports of intentional mistreatment of Union prisoners in the south, members of this committee visited some ex-prisoners (Federals) who were being treated for illness and wounds.  The result of their visit was a 30 page report which the U.S. government printed and distributed by the thousands, purporting to offer evidence that the Confederate authorities were maliciously and systematically starving and abusing prisoners of war in their hands.  Several months later, it was followed by a similar publication produced by the United States Sanitary Commission, a relief agency providing medical care for the sick and wounded soldiers of the U.S. Army.  Its report also concluded that there was “a predetermined plan, originating somewhere in the rebel counsels, for destroying and disabling the soldiers of their enemy.”  The authors of this report disputed notions that the Confederate government was unable to provide sufficient rations and supplies for its army and prisoners of war, and documented at length and in glowing terms the humane and sanitary conditions in United States prison camps., claiming, among other things, that rations were of good quality and quantity in all northern facilities.

In response to these two reports, a joint committee of the Confederate Congress presented its own report, near war’s end, March 1865, emphatically denying northern accusations of a diabolical “predetermined plan” to destroy helpless prisoners of war, and asserting that the Northern report was only a “false and slanderous charge against the South.”  In its report, the Confederate committee admitted that there was “a vast amount of suffering and fearful mortality among the Federal prisoners at the South,” but they placed the blame for these conditions on “the authorities at Washington” and their “settled policy in conducting the war not to exchange prisoners.”  Confederate legislators also claimed that their prison system was as humane as possible under the circumstances.  Some historians contend otherwise, and have written that there was in both of the prison systems, north and south, a considerable degree of mismanagement, neglect, and even deliberate mistreatment of prisoners.  However, the resumption of exchange, “the obviously humane solution,” as historian William B. Hesseltine put it, would have alleviated much suffering, especially for the men held in the Confederate prison system, overwhelmed as it was, especially later in the war, with enormous numbers of prisoners to feed and manage.

The most singular and unconscionable manifestation of the North’s retaliatory policy occurred when six hundred  Confederate POWs were taken out of Fort Delaware in August 1864 and sent into harsh, sometimes hellish conditions at Union prisons in South Carolina and Georgia. Known as “The Immortal 600,” most of these men were deliberately subjected to an ordeal of insufficient food rations and medicines at Fort Pulaski, Georgia.


In early 1864, the Confederates constructed a 20-acre camp at Andersonville, Georgia.  Meant to contain 10,000 prisoners, it was soon overwhelmed by many thousands more, and enlarged to 30 acres.  Though the site had been chosen for humane reasons, including a pure water supply, conditions there became terrible.  Sanitation was a major problem, medicines were scarce, and the POWs were dying of diarrhea, dysentery, scurvy and gangrene at a fearful rate.  Louis Manigault, a Confederate medical officer, observed that many of the Andersonville prisoners were malnourished because they were not accustomed to “our corn hominy…the Confederate Government not having it in their power to furnish them with wheat.”  The Confederacy urgently pressed for the resumption of prisoner exchanges, proposed sending home sick and wounded prisoners without the equivalent exchange of Confederate POWs, and offered to buy medicines for the prisoners in the South; but the U.S. government made little response to these proposals.

Andersonville is often singled out as one of the worst atrocities of the war, but there were a number of Northern prison camps that were just as horrible or worse in many ways.  Elmira prison camp in New York, and Camp Douglas in Chicago, Illinois, were two of the worst examples.  At Elmira, as rations were progressively reduced under the “retaliatory regime,” many Confederates died in an epidemic of scurvy, a disease of malnourishment.  They also perished because of filthy conditions and for want of sufficient shelter in the brutally cold northern winters.  After the war, a northern medical officer who served at Elmira wrote that out of about 11,000 Confederate prisoners there, over 3,000 “now lie buried in the cemetery near the camp … a mortality equal, of not greater than that of any prison in the South.” He added about Elmira: “The sick in hospitals were curtailed in every respect (fresh vegetables and other anti-scorbutics were dropped from the list); the food scant, crude, and unfit; medicine so badly dispensed that it was a farce for the medical man to prescribe.  At large, in the camp, the prisoner fared still worse; a slice of bread and salt meat was given him for his breakfast; a poor, hatched-up concocted cup of soup, so called, and a slice of miserable bread, was all he could obtain for his coming meal; and hundreds of sick, who could in nowise obtain medical aid, died ‘unknelled, un-coffined, and unknown.’”

Similarly, at Camp Douglas in Chicago, large numbers of Confederate prisoners died from a lack of shelter, clothing and nutritious food.  Smallpox also killed many POWs there.  Two physicians working for the U.S. Sanitary Commission, reported: “From January 27, 1863, when the prisoners (in number about 3,800) arrived at Camp Douglas, to February 18, the day of our visit, 385 patients have been admitted to the hospitals, of whom 130 had died.  This mortality of 33 per cent does not express the whole truth, for of the 148 patients then remaining in hospital a large number must have since died.  Besides this, about 130 prisoners had died in barracks, not having been able to gain admission even to the miserable accommodations of the hospital, and at the time of our visit 150 persons were sick in barracks waiting for room in [the] hospital.”  This report, which was sent to the U.S. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, further stated that the deplorable condition of Camp Douglas was “disgraceful to us as a Christian people.”  One of the Camp Douglas guards wrote of the fearful winter of 1863-64 that “the mercury often fell to 20 degrees below zero.  The sight of 4 sallow [Confederates], clad in butternut, bearing the corpse of a comrade to the dead house was an almost hourly spectacle.”  The exact number of Confederate POWs who died at Camp Douglas is not known, but long after the war, a monument built on the site of the prison graveyard bore the inscription: “Erected to the memory of the six thousand southern soldiers here buried who died in Camp Douglas Prison, 1862-5.”  George Levy’s book about Camp Douglas, To Die in Chicago, describes a period from August to December 1863 as a particularly cruel one overseen by a commandant named Charles De Land.  A Federal inspector criticized De Land for taking blankets and clothing from prisoners to discourage escapes, and for punishing insubordinate prisoners by confining them in a small, grossly overcrowded room known as the “White Oak Dungeon.”  De Land also tortured prisoners for information by hanging them by their thumbs.

In Jefferson Davis’s two-volume history, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, written in the 1880’s, the former Confederate president stated, “The report of the Secretary of War E. M. Stanton, made on July 19, 1866, shows that, of all the prisoners in our hands during the war, only 22,576 died, while, of the prisoners in our opponent’s hands, 26,246 died; second, the official report of Surgeon General Barnes, an officer of the United States government, states that, in round numbers, the numbers of Confederate States prisoners in their hands amounted to 220,000, the number of United States prisoners in our hands amounted to 270,000.  Thus 12% of the prisoners in our opponent’s hands died, and less than 9% of the prisoners in our hands died.  When, in this connection, it is remembered that our resources were greatly reduced, that our supply of medicines required in summer diseases was exhausted, and that Northern men when first residing at the South must undergo acclimation, and that those conditions in the Northern states were the reverse in each particular – the fact that greater mortality existed in the Northern than in Southern prisons can be accounted for only by the kinder treatment received in the latter.”  (Volume 2, page 513)


The U.S. government had it in its power to exchange prisoners, yet generally refused to do so in the last half of the conflict, and though other motives for this policy were publicly given out to the people of the north, General Ulysses S. Grant made the carefully calculated decision to put an end to most exchanges as a matter of military strategy: keeping southern prisoners in captivity helped to deplete the manpower of the Confederate Army.

Suggestions for Class Discussion

How could the sufferings of the prisoners of war in the North and South have been avoided or reduced?

Recommended Reading

  • Portals to Hell: Military Prisons of the Civil War, by Lonnie R. Speer, pub. 1997.
  • Civil War Prisons: A Study in War Psychology, by William B. Hesseltine, pub. 1964.
  • The Immortal 600: Surviving Civil War Charleston and Savannah, by Karen Stokes, pub. 2013.
  • Elmira, Death Camp of the North, by Michael Horigan, pub. 2002.