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Civil War Military Prisons pt. 1

While looking through the Cemetery database over the last few weeks, I started to notice the names of prison camps popping up in our Confederate soldier biographies. I’ve studied the Civil War in college and in my professional life, but most of that time was spent in studying battles and politics, the more “history book” worthy history. In history class, we spent a brief amount of time discussing prisons and I kept the vague notion of them being terrible places, no more.

When the names Elmira, Point Lookout and Fort Delaware started showing up in the bios I started to delve into them a bit further. Yes, these were terrible places. Before I go on much further let me acknowledge that these prison camps were terrible on both the Union and Confederate sides. Confederate Andersonville prison in Georgia was perhaps the worst of all the camps and an absolute nightmarish place for a human being to be confined in. Men died there in the thousands and they died in horrible ways. Men died of starvation, malnutrition, disease and in some cases execution by blunt instrument. The commandant of Andersonville was executed after the War for murder. In all, 12,000 Union soldiers died in Andersonville. Lonnie R. Speer, the author of the appropriately titled Portals to Hell: Military Prisons of the Civil War, wrote of Andersonville as “nothing more than a concentration camp.” The starvation was easy to explain, the South could barely feed itself and its army, let alone thousands of prisoners of war.

In the north, conditions weren’t much better. Elmira was probably the most shocking in its treatment of prisoners while Point Lookout was the most over crowded followed by Fort Delaware(see pic right). More men buried at the Cemetery were in Fort Delaware than the other two. Elmira had a similar death rate to Andersonville, though not in the same amounts. Twenty-five percent of the 12,100 prisoners died there. Whereas Union men in Andersonville had to try and survive through the stifling Georgia summer, Confederates at Elmira died from exposure in the harsh New York winters. In addition to exposure, men died of malnutrition, lack of medical care and disease. Speer didn’t just call Andersonville a hellish place, he puts Elmira right up there writing “with the development of Andersonville in the south and Elmira in the north the period of concentration camps began.”

The terrible conditions probably sprang out of desperation and poverty on the side of the south and reaction to southern treatment of Union prisoners in the north. See a political cartoon of this concept here. Two men buried here at the Cemetery were inmates at Elmira, Henry Knauff and Joseph Bell. Bell joined the Confederacy as a drummer when he was just 14; he spent a year in Elmira when he was 17.

The escalation of what would have been unthinkable prisoner treatment before the war became de rigueur. In a dramatic example of prisoner treatment, the Union took 600 Confederate officers from Fort Delaware to a small island in the Charleston harbor to essentially act as human shields for Union parrott guns or early howitzers (see picture). While horrible, this is not unknown to human history and was done as recently as 1990 when Saddam Hussein used foreign nationals as human shields in the First Gulf War. Bear in mind that the union did this after the Confederacy used 60 Union officers to cover their batteries inside Charleston.

I'll post more in the continuation of this blog post on Friday. Be warned though, there will be some disturbing images in the next post. However, if you want to know just how bad men can treat other men, take a look. Should be up by noon.





- Will Erwin