Introduction to Civil War Prisons
The exigencies of Civil War (1861-1865) applied to the soldier, the grunt on the battlefield, but it also extended to the infantryman who became the prisoner of war. Union and Confederate prisons were unimaginable horror chambers employing slow agonizing deaths to its guests. Early in the war prisoner exchanges were common, but many on both sides believed that the war would only last 90 days. As months became years, it was obvious to Union and Confederate commanders that the continued battlefield gridlock and stalemate had to cease. The once honored prisoner exchanges were now viewed by Northern politicians such as Lincoln and Stanton as merely recruiting stations and reinforcements for the dwindling Confederate military. Attrition was the answer to winning the war, was the prevailing thought of Secretary of War Stanton. The Union Army could replace soldiers, but that was not the case in the South, so halting all exchanges indicated that the Confederacy would soon be unable to field an army. While it was true that it spelled the final hurrah for the men in gray, it also meant that until the war ended the Union prisoners could no longer hold to hopes of being exchanged, but they would now have to endure prison life knowing that only their death or complete Union victory would liberate them. Although the South continued to field an army for nearly two years after the prisoner exchanges halted in the summer of 1863, it was not able to adequately feed and clothe its men on the march. Since Rebel soldiers marching into the fray lacked shoes, uniforms, medicine, and food, how would Yankee prisoners fair in the Heart of Dixie? But the Confederacy continued to plead with Washington that it was vital to resume exchanges because they could not feed nor clothe Union prisoners. For the sake of humanity, we want for medicine, we can not feed nor clothe nor shelter the prisoners, so for their lives will you not exchange them? By failing to resume large scale prisoner exchanges, several thousand Union soldiers would die in Confederate prisons.
"Captain Wirz was unjustly held responsible for the hardship and mortality of Union prisoners at Andersonville, but the Federal authorities must share the blame for these things with the Confederacy, since they well knew the inability of the Confederates to meet the reasonable wants of their prisoners of war, as they lacked a supply of their own needs, and since the Federal authorities failed to exercise a humane policy in the exchange of those captured in battle." Former Andersonville prisoner-of-war Lt. James Madison Page, Company A, 6th Michigan Cavalry. After the execution of Wirz, Page, a Union officer, who had spent seven months as a prisoner at Andersonville, leveled unprecedented allegations against Washington, including remarks that Wirz was merely a scapegoat, his trial was unconstitutional, and the court was filled with perjurers. He also said that the trial was a feeble attempt by Secretary of War Edwin Stanton to divert attention away from himself, because it was Stanton's no prisoner exchange policy that killed the Union prisoners. Federal propaganda and political cover-ups wrote Page in his 1908 best seller, The True Story of Andersonville Prison: A Defense of Major Henry Wirz, were disingenuous efforts by Washington insiders for their halting all prisoner exchanges, which resulted in thousands of Union men dying needlessly in Confederate prisons. Although Page had spent seven months as a prisoner at Andersonville, his captivity and imprisonment included several months at other Confederate prisons during 1863-64.
Overview of Civil War Prisons
When the Civil War began, neither side expected a long conflict. Although there was no formal exchange system at the beginning of the war, both armies paroled prisoners. Captured men were conditionally released on their oath of honor not to return to battle. This allowed them to return to camps of instruction as noncombatants. It also meant that neither side had to provide for the prisoners' needs. An exchange system set up in 1862 lasted less than a year. North and South found themselves with thousands of prisoners of war.
The confined soldiers suffered terribly. The most common problems confronting prisoners both North and South were overcrowding, poor sanitation, and inadequate food. Mismanagement by prison officials, as well as by the prisoners themselves, worsened matters. The end of the war saved hundreds of prisoners from an untimely death, but for many the war's end came too late. Of 194,732 Union soldiers held in Confederate prison camps, some 30,000 died while captive. Union forces held about 220,000 Confederate prisoners, nearly 26,000 of whom died. The mortality rates for some of the Civil War prison camps are shown below.
Union and Confederate Prisons and Prisoners
"We will not exchange able bodied men for skeletons. We do not propose to reinforce the Rebel army by exchanging prisoners," Union Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton
Regarding the treatment of the Prisoner of War: “For the Northern side there is no excuse; for the Southern side there is one--and but one. The Union prisoners were starved, as I have said before, because we were starving ourselves; our children were crying for bread, and our Confederate soldiers were fighting on half-rations of parched corn and peas. The North had plenty of food, clothing, and provisions, but they intentionally withheld every provision from the Confederate prisoner… And it was done with calculated cruelty that has gone unmatched in any civilized society.”
Statistics indicate that the U.S. Government exchanged and paroled 329,963 "Rebels" and the Confederacy exchanged and paroled 152,015 "Federals." Because exchanges and paroles often occurred on the battlefield, the soldiers were not subjected to the privations of prison. Once Total War was implemented, however, the exchanges halted abruptly. The North had recognized that the paroled and exchanged prisoners were merely being recycled into the Confederate army, thus prolonging what it now viewed as a war of attrition. Of 194,732 Union soldiers who were held in Confederate prison camps, some 30,000 died in prison. While Union forces detained nearly 220,000 Confederate prisoners, nearly 26,000 died. An exact number of deaths will never be known because of poorly kept and destroyed records.
While the North had no shortage of troops, the South, however, could not afford to lose a single soldier. It was now simply a war of attrition, but, on the other hand, although it favored the Union on the battlefield, it had strong ramifications for the Federal prisoners.
Grant, in his Memoirs, discusses why the Federal government, as late as 1863, paroled the enemy during the Civil War. On the Confederate capitulation at Vicksburg, Grant wrote: "The enemy surrendered this morning. The only terms allowed is their parole as prisoners of war. This I regard as a great advantage to us at this moment. It saves, probably, several days in the capture, and leaves troops and transports ready for immediate service. Sherman, with a large force, moves immediately on Johnston, to drive him from the State. I will send troops to the relief of Banks, and return the 9th army corps to Burnside."
At Vicksburg alone, 31,600 prisoners were surrendered, with 172 cannon, approximately 60,000 muskets, and a large amount of ammunition. Whole regiments were captured and paroled at Vicksburg, and most of the paroled Confederates simply reformed or mustered into their prior (paroled) units and then returned to battle.
The attitude of United States Secretary of War Stanton and of General Grant that no exchange so long as the North held the excess of prisoners was a necessity of war is best seen in their own communications on the subject. On August 8, 1864, Grant sent the following telegram to General Butler: "On the subject of exchange of prisoners, however, I differ with General Hitchcock. It is hard on our men held in Southern prisons not to release them, but it is humanity to those left in the ranks to fight our battles. To commence a system of exchange now, which liberates all prisoners taken, we will have to fight on until the whole South is exterminated. If we hold those already caught, they amount to no more than so many dead men. At this particular time to release Rebel prisoners would insure Sherman's defeat and compromise our safety here."
"General Grant is a great general. I know him well. He stood by me when I was crazy, and I stood by him when he was drunk; and now, sir, we stand by each other always." Words of General William Tecumseh Sherman in 1864 regarding his successful March to the Sea
To Exchange or Not to Exchange Prisoners of War
Grant states in his Memoirs that "the exchanged Confederate was equal on the defensive to three Union soldiers attacking." In other words, an exchanged Confederate soldier would divert and engage three Union soldiers. Grant simply did not want to allow and permit the South that luxury.
Stanton's words are well known: "We will not exchange able bodied men for skeletons. We do not propose to reenforce the Rebel army by exchanging prisoners."
In a letter from Washington September 30, 1864, H. W. Halleck, major general and chief of staff, says to Major General Foster, in charge of exchange of prisoners at Hilton Head, S C.: "Hereafter no exchange of prisoners shall be entertained except on the field when captured."
General Grant in a telegram August 21, 1864, to Secretary Stanton says: "Please inform General Foster that under no circumstances will he be authorized to make an exchange of prisoners of war. Exchange simply reenforces the enemy at once, while we do not get the benefit for two or three months, and lose the majority entirely. I telegraph this from just hearing that some five or six hundred prisoners have been sent to General Foster."
Skeletons For Soldiers, No Thank You
On one occasion, when General Ould had effected arrangements with General Butler for an exchange at Fortress Monroe, Grant's order that no able bodied man should be exchanged without his consent came into effect. (General Butler stated on the floor of Congress that after he had arranged with the Confederate authorities for an exchange of prisoners on his own terms, the whole plan was defeated by the intercession of Mr. Stanton and General Grant. They claimed that by such an exchange Lee would get thirty thousand fresh troops, and that Grant's position at Petersburg would be endangered and the war prolonged.) A little later Grant telegraphed to Butler to take all the sick and wounded the Confederates would send him, but to return no more in exchange therefor.
At one time President Davis ordered General Lee to go under a flag of truce to Grant and ask in the name of humanity that exchange of prisoners be granted, showing him how proper care of the captives was beyond control of the South. Grant did not allow the interview, and treated everything with a deaf ear. On Lee's testimony before the Congressional Reconstruction Committee he said: "I made several efforts to exchange the prisoners after the cartel was suspended." When his attempts at exchange had met only with failure, General Lee reported to President Davis: "We have done everything in our power to mitigate the suffering of prisoners, and there is no just cause for a sense of further responsibility on our part."
Approximately 13,000 Union prisoners died at the Confederate's Andersonville Prison, Georgia, because of starvation, malnutrition, diarrhea, and disease. Meanwhile, Prisoner of War Camp Douglas in Chicago was considered the “Andersonville of the North,” because of similar conditions that resulted in nearly 6,000 Confederate deaths.
Regarding prisoner exchange, during Union General Stoneman's Raid in North Carolina in 1865, General Gillem, commanding the cavalry division, appropriated and sacked the house of Mr. Albert Hagler. Gillem, furthermore, was especially impertinent to Mrs. Hagler, an accomplished young lady, though she parried his attacks with the civility of a lady. On one occasion he said to her rudely, "I know you are a rebel from the way you move--an't you a rebel?" She replied, "General Gillem, did you ever hear the story of the tailor's wife and the scissors?" "Yes." "Then I am a rebel as high as I can reach." Coarseness, however, can not always be met playfully, and Mrs. Hagler incurred his anger to its fullest extent when, in reply to his violent denunciation of the Confederates for starving their prisoners, she ventured to suggest that the Federal authorities might have saved all this suffering had they agreed to [prisoner] exchange and take them North, where provisions were plenty. The General's reply to this was the giving his men tacit license to plunder and destroy the houses of Mrs. Howard's daughter (Mrs. Hartley) and niece (Mrs. Clark), who both lived near her. No houses in the place suffered more severely than theirs. The house of her daughter, Mrs. Hartley, was pillaged from top to bottom. Barrels of sorghum were broken and poured over the wheat in the granary, and over the floors of the house. Furniture and crockery were smashed, and what was not broken up was defiled in a manner so disgusting as to be unfit for use. Mrs. Clark, the niece, was driven out of her house by the brutality of her plunderers.
General Grant in his "Memoirs" bluntly but honestly gives the reason for not exchanging prisoners. It seems that it was decided at Washington that exchange meant the reinforcement of the rebel army, and he goes on to explain that the exchanged rebel soldier behind barricades and fortifications fighting on the defensive was equivalent to three Union soldiers attacking him. This was the Stanton policy, and if this atrocious and inhuman doctrine is anyway meritorious, the "War Secretary" is entitled to the credit.
"The Government held a large excess of prisoners, and the rebels were anxious to exchange man for man; but our authorities acted upon the coldblooded theory of the Secretary of War, that we could not afford to give well-fed, rugged men for invalids and skeletons. Those 5,000 loyal graves at Salisbury, North Carolina, will ever remain fitting monuments of rebel cruelty and the atrocious inhumanity of Edwin M. Stanton, who steadfastly refused to exchange prisoners. The war office at Washington preferred to let us die rather than exchange us! The refusal upon the part of our government to exchange prisoners was now an assured fact. The sick lost hope and died. Those in better condition physically became disheartened and sick. It is no wonder that during August, 1864, nearly 3,000 prisoners died at Andersonville." Lieut. James Madison Page, Company A, 6th Michigan Cavalry, after spending seven months at Andersonville.
In December 1865, the New York News printed a contrarian story that sent shockwaves across the Northern states. "Stanton wanted to treat the populace at the North to a bloody spectacle; they believed he wanted to divert attention from his own barbarous and persistent refusal to exchange prisoners of war; they believed he deliberately resolved to make poor Wirz the scapegoat of the iniquities of his own Government and of himself, and to this end he violated the spirit and the letter of the military convention between Johnston and Sherman as well as the fundamental law of the land. They believed, moreover, that the military commission before which Wirz was tried, setting aside all decency and catching at the spirit of the Secretary of War, was overbearing and dictatorial, and that he did not have a fair trial. And, finally, they believed the war minister of the Government, taking counsel of his passions, his prejudices, and his hatreds, sought by the conviction and execution of Wirz to write a false chapter in the history of the war and to infamize the South. The revulsion of feeling in the North over the unjust execution of poor Wirz was too strong even for "the great War Secretary" to face, and Jefferson Davis, Alex. H. Stephens, General Cobb, Josiah H. White, R. R. Stevenson, W. J. W. Kerr, Captain Reed, and last but not least, Colonel Ould, the "Confederate Commissioner of Exchange," were never brought to trial. Therefore, poor ill-fated Wirz must have "conspired" single-handed and alone to starve and murder Union prisoners."
Image: "The 100." When A.J. Riddle took this photograph on August 17, 1864, there were nearly 33,000 Union prisoners confined within Andersonville's 26-1/2 acres. In May of '64, 708 prisoners died, but while scorching temperatures loomed during August, approximately 3,000 died -- an average of 100 prisoners per day.