Skip to main content

Prison Camps Of The Civil War

July 2024
16min read

Andersonville was merely the worst of a bad lot; North and South alike, they were more lethal than shot and shell

On the tenth day of November, 1865, a pale, black-whiskered little man named Henry Wirz, a used-up captain in the used-up army of the late Confederate States of America, walked through a door in the Old Capitol Prison at Washington, climbed thirteen wooden steps, and stood under the heavy crossbeam of a scaffold, a greased noose about his neck. On the platform with him—with him, but separated from him by the immense gap which sets apart those who are going to live from those who are about to die—there was a starchy major in the Federal Army. To this major Captain Wirz turned, extended his hand, and offered his pardon for the thing which the Federal major, detailed to take charge of a hanging squad, was about to do.

“I know what orders are, Major,” said Captain Wirz. “I am being hung for obeying them.”

The two men shook hands and drew apart. The drop was sprung, Captain Wirz dangled briefly at the end of a rope, died, and the thing was over. And across the northern part of the recently reunited United States many people took note and rejoiced that a villain who richly deserved hanging had finally got what was coming to him.

If the people of the North in the fall of 1865 had used the language of the late 1940's they would have said that Captain Wirz was a war criminal who had been properly convicted and then had been hanged for atrocious war crimes. Today, with the more sober perspective of nearly a century of peace, the business looks a little different. The language of the Old Testament would have been better; Wirz was a scapegoat, dying for the sins of many people, of whom some lived south of the Potomac River, while others lived north of it.

Indeed, the sins were not really sins at all, but simply wrongs—grievous wrongs against humanity, done by people who had meant to do no wrongs at all; wrongs done because of hasty action taken under immense pressure, growing out of human blundering and incompetence and the tangles of administrative red tape, with final responsibility traceable to the blinding passions born of a bewildering war. They took place in the South and they took place in the North, and some 50,000 Northern and Southern boys died because of them. In the fall of 1865 Captain Wirz died because of them too, and this did not help anybody very much except that it did provide a scapegoat.

Wirz had been commandant of Andersonville Prison, the hideous prison pen set up in February of 1864 by the dying Confederacy as a proper place to keep Union prisoners of war. First and last, more than 30,000 Union prisoners were kept there, and about 12,000 of them died, and the ones who did not die had a miserable time of it, so when the war ended there was a great clamor to punish someone. Henry Wirz stood in the path of that clamor, and he swung from a scaffold for it, leather straps about his arms and legs, a black mask over his contorted face; and somehow that was not quite the end of it.

The end of it could not come until enough years had passed to enable people to take a more detached view. The view that can be had now shows, quite simply, nothing much more than the fact that dreadful things happen in time of war, that these dreadful things are the fault of war itself rather than of individual people; and that when the business is all over, there is apt to be enough accumulated ill will lying around to create an explosion.

Wirz was born in Switzerland and by profession was a doctor. He came to America in 1849 after the death of his first wife, lived in Kentucky and then in Louisiana, remarried, and enlisted in a Louisiana volunteer regiment in1861 after the fall of Fort Sumter. He was wounded in the right arm and shoulder in a battle early in the war, and the wound never healed properly. Wirz went back to duty for a time, but in 1863 he got leave and went to Europe for what he hoped would be better medical treatment. An operation was performed on his arm but it was not successful; the arm remained weak and painful, and Wirz—who was brusque and something of a martinet to begin with—grew irritable and snappish. Returning to the Confederacy, eventually, he was assigned early in 1864 to duty at the newly established prison camp at Andersonville, in the heart of Georgia.

Andersonville was destined to become the horrible example of the Civil War prison camp system, but the system itself was basically monstrous. At a time when all prison camps, in the North and South alike, were extremely bad, Andersonville became the worst of the lot, but it differed from the others in degree rather than in kind. Wirz obviously lacked the administrative capacity that a man in his job ought to have had, but given the circumstances under which Andersonville was set up and operated, it would have taken a complete administrative genius to keep the place from becoming anything but a horror.

Originally, the method of handling prisoners during the Civil War was based on a system of exchange. Early in the war the two governments, following long-established military precedent, signed a cartel, which was in effect a sort of gentlemen’s agreement providing that at frequent intervals the governments would exchange prisoners on a man-for-man basis. There was an intricate table of values: a lieutenant was worth a certain number of privates, a colonel was worth a larger number, and so on, and the bookkeeping occasionally became rather difficult. Many prisoners had to wait a long time for exchange, and now and then the warring governments found it hard to go along with a system which depended finally on mutual co-operation and trust, but in the main the thing worked tolerably well. At the very least it kept the prisoner-of-war population on both sides fairly stable and held the whole problem down to manageable size.

But in 1863 the business began to collapse, for a number of reasons which add up to the fact that the infinite pressures of wartime provided a load too heavy for any gentlemen’s agreement to carry.

To begin with, the North had organized a number of Negro regiments, most of whose members were fugitive slaves, and the South refused to agree that these soldiers, when captured, were subject to ordinary exchange procedure; in retaliation, the North balked at making any exchanges at all. In addition, in the border states each side arrested a number of civilians, and there was endless argument as to whether these people came under the cartel. When Vicksburg and Port Hudson surrendered in July, 1863, some 35,000 Confederate prisoners were released on parole, and the Federals charged that the Confederate authorities restored these men to duty in violation of the cartel.

Finally, Lieutenant General U. S. Grant became general in chief of the Union armies, and he surveyed the collapsing cartel with a coldly realistic eye. By this time there were more Confederate prisoners in the North than there were Union prisoners in the South, and the Confederacy was much more badly pinched for manpower than was the North. Grant concluded that the cessation of exchange hurt the South and, indirectly but effectively, helped the North. This, he admitted, was rough on the prisoners, but it brought Union victory nearer—and so the Northern government made very little ellort to restore the exchange system to its former activity.

Because of all of this the population of Northern and Southern prison camps began to grow and kept on growing, and as it did so the camps became places of great hardship, suffering, and death. The size of the problem is shown by figures which the War Department in Washington compiled in July, 1866. These figures showed that from first to last the North held a total of 220,000 Confederates as prisoners, while the South held 126,000 Unionists. Of these, 24,436 Southerners died in the Northern camps, while 22,576 Northerners died in the Southern camps. The official who drew up the figures hastened to point out that this made the death rate in the Southern camps substantially higher than in the Northern camps, and he added that his estimate of Federal deaths was probably too low anyway.

As it happened, these figures are subject to a great deal of revision. The Northern historian, James Ford Rhodes, studied the whole business forty years later and concluded that the Confederacy had imprisoned some 194,000 Union soldiers and that the North had imprisoned about 215,000 Confederates. The War Department tabulation of deaths was fairly accurate. These figures indicate that by and large neither side had much reason to point any accusing fingers at the other side. Whether they were situated in the North or in the South, prison camps in the Civil War were almost incredibly lethal, and no refinement of figuring leaves one side looking much better than the other.

To understand how appallingly deadly the prison camps really were, one need do no more than reflect on this simple fact: about two and one-half times as many soldiers were exposed to the dangers of the prison camps as were exposed to the dangers of the great Battle of Gettysburg—and the camps killed nearly ten times as many as were killed at Gettysburg.

At the time, good people on both sides felt that their enemies were willfully and maliciously mistreating prisoners in order to kill them, but it is clear by now that nothing much more than sheer human clumsiness was involved. Looking back with the added knowledge of Civil War affairs which is available today, it is easy to understand why the prison camps became so terrible.

Each government, the one at Washington and the one at Richmond, was straining itself and its country’s economy to conduct the war. Each government had many things to think of—raising and supporting armies, providing food and munitions and equipment, maintaining its finances and its industries and its transportation system, trying in short to handle an all-out war for which there had been no preparation of any consequence. In all of this, on each side, the conduct of the prison camps usually came last. Whatever time, money, energy, and administrative competence were left over, after the business of fighting the war was taken care of, could be applied to the care of prisoners. As the record proves, this was not nearly enough.

Under any circumstances, indeed, prison camps in that generation were certain to be bad. Even in his own army, when he was far removed from the battlefield and situated where he could get the best care his government could give him, the Civil War soldier existed under conditions that were just barely endurable. His food was bad, his housing was usually atrocious, his medical care was cruelly imperfect; disease and malnutrition killed far more soldiers (leaving those who died in prison entirely out of consideration) than ever died in combat, just to be in the army at all was a serious danger to life and limb in the 1860’s. To be a prisoner of war inevitably intensified that danger, not because anyone planned it that way but simply because it was bound to happen so.

The Army of the Potomac, for instance, spent the winter of 1863 in camp near Fredericksburg, Virginia, fifty miles from Washington, with plenty of steamers plying an open waterway to bring supplies. In that winter, a number of the soldiers in that army died of scurvy, a malady that comes from nothing on earth but dietary deficiency: in this case, it was the result of a continued diet of salt pork and crackers. (The number of men in that army who died that winter of pneumonia, or of intestinal maladies stemming from bad food and bad sanitation, was ever so much greater than the number that died of scurvy.) These things happened to men who were in winter quarters, within easy traveling distance of their own capital, under a government which was doing its best to provide them with every necessity. This being the case, it is not hard to see why men in prison camps had it really rough.

Andersonville Prison came into existence in February, 1864, under conditions which made it inevitable that it would become the worst of the lot.

The site had been selected a few months earlier, when the Confederate authorities concluded that they needed a prison camp far enough from the fighting fronts to provide security and large enough to accommodate prisoners who would have to be removed from places dangerously near the advancing Federal armies. A sixteen and one-half acre enclosure was set up in a rolling meadow crossed by a little stream, and a stockade was built around it; the first prisoners arrived before the stockade was finished, and before the prison bake house had been built, and there were no barracks or huts of any kind; and before the authorities could get hold of the situation and get the place into proper order, they began to be swamped by an unceasing influx of prisoners whose rate of arrival constantly outpaced the authorities’ efforts to prepare for their reception. The stockade was indeed finished, and the cook-house was completed, but 400 prisoners were arriving every day; by March there were 7,500 of them in the stockade, and by May the enclosure which had been designed to accommodate 10,000 men had 15,000 prisoners, with new ones coming in every week.

Wirz got to Andersonville early in April, and he did his best to cope with the situation, but things were simply out of hand. Many things needed to be done. The prisoners had no housing, except for such foxholes as they might grub out or such makeshift tents as they could put together out of blankets, branches of trees, and odds and ends of planks. The authorities possessed no axes, spades, shovels, picks, or other tools, and found it almost impossible to get any. At about the time Wirz got there, a worried Confederate colonel was reporting that although many prisoners were dying every day, he lacked even implements to dig graves. Wirz said that it was well along in May before he got the tools he had to have, and although he did his best to dig drainage ditches and keep the little stream unpolluted, the problem of sanitation was forever beyond solution. By midsummer he had managed to enlarge the stockade by ten acres, but by now there were 30,000 prisoners and the prison pen was little better than a slimy quagmire. A Confederate officer who inspected the place in August reported that there was just enough room to provide about six square feet of ground for each prisoner, and men were dying at the rate of 100 a day.

It was never possible to do much about it, although Wirz tried. His real problem was beyond him: the Confederate economy, ground down by four years of war, was collapsing, and the task of maintaining a decent prison for 30,000 men was impossible. The ruinous inability even to get tools to build the place was symptomatic. Near the prison there were enough trees to provide lumber for all the barracks, hospitals, and other buildings anyone could have wanted, but the manpower, money, and equipment to turn these trees into lumber and then into prison buildings just were not there. Georgia had a big surplus of food—when Sherman’s boys marched through in the fall of 1864 they found more than they could eat, and wasted tons of good food—but the railroads were breaking down, government machinery was doing the same, and Confederate armies were going hungry. When the Confederacy could not even feed its own soldiers, it was not going to be able to give much food to its war prisoners. So the boys at Andersonville got, mostly, corn meal made out of corn with the cobs ground in with it, unsifted, and a good many of them died because of it; they blamed Wirz, as they blamed him because the prison hospital was terrible, and because the whole camp was terrible, and because he was a short-tempered man trying to do an impossible job with next to no help at all; but it was not Wirz’s fault. He did his best, his best was not good enough, but nobody’s best would have been adequate.

Andersonville, in short, was about as bad as a place could conceivably be. Its horrors were publicized then and have been described in detail at intervals ever since, and there is no point in repeating the catalogue of horrors. But all of the other prison camps were bad, too, and the Northern camps killed their full quota of Southerners.

There was, for instance, a Northern camp at Elmira, New York; another camp in the middle of a prosperous state, this one situated in a country whose economy was booming, maintained by a government which was strong and rich and which was going to live for a long time. In the fall of 1864 the hospital surgeon at Elmira complained to the War Department. In three months, he said, with some 8,347 prisoners in camp, 2,011 had been admitted to the prison hospital, and 775—over a third of those admitted—had died. On the average, he pointed out, there were 451 men in hospital every day and 601 more sick in their quarters, which meant that about one eighth of the number in prison was on the sick list. He added: “At this rate the entire command will be admitted to hospital in less than a year and 36 per cent. die.” He reported that the entire prison enclosure stank to the high heavens, that a river which flowed through the ground had formed a gummy pond, “green with putrescence, filling the air with its messengers of disease and death,” that his applications for medicines were ignored, and that because he had been unable to get straw a good many of his patients had to lie on the hospital Hoor.

Elmira was a fair sample. There was a Federal prison camp on an island in the Mississippi at Rock Island, Illinois, where more than 1,800 Confederates died; a medical inspector reported that this was partly because smallpox struck the camp and partly because, when the place was laid out, no one had bothered to put up any hospital facilities. Certain barracks were set apart for the purpose, but smallpox patients had to lie in wards with men suffering from lesser ailments, and a Federal doctor complained that there was “a striking want of some means for the preservation of human life which medical and sanitary science has indicated as proper.”


At Fort Delaware, on Pea Patch Island near the mouth of the Delaware River, barracks were built on marshy ground which was so soggy that the buildings settled and were in danger of toppling over; cooking facilities were inadequate, sanitary conditions were so bad that typhoid fever was prevalent, and long after the war a marker was erected in memory of the 2,436 Confederate prisoners who died in the place. During 1864 the big prison camp at Point Lookout, Maryland, put over 1,200 Confederate soldiers into their graves. Filth, poor drainage, and overcrowding created a horror at Camp Douglas, on the edge of Chicago, and the president of the United States Sanitary Commission after inspecting the place asserted that the conditions were “enough to drive a sanitarian mad.” In the fall of 1864 the colonel who commanded this camp reported that 984 of his 7,402 prisoners were sick, said that there had been “a lack of efficiency in the management of the medical affairs of the post,” and complained that many prisoners had scurvy because no vegetables or other antiscorbutics were available.

The climate often added to the prisoners’ woes. Southern boys were not used to cold northern winters, and they usually lacked adequate clothing and blankets; the camp for Confederate officers on Johnson’s Island, in Lake Erie, seems to have been an especially chilly place, although it must be added that the death rate at this prison was never high. Northern boys, similarly, found the hot summers of the Deep South hard to endure, especially in some of the stockaded camps where they could not get shelter from the sun. The notorious Libby Prison in Richmond, a ponderous building that used to be a tobacco warehouse, was verminous and, like most prisons, served terrible food, but had the advantage of being less than escape-proof; in February, 1864, prisoners dug a tunnel, and 109 of them got out, 48 being recaptured before they could reach the Union lines.

High bounty laws in the North caused special problems in certain Southern prisons, most notably in Andersonville. When a man who enlisted could get more than $1,000 in cash—which was the case in many northern states in 1864—many out-and-out thugs took this route to easy riches, signing up as volunteers with every intention of deserting promptly and re-enlisting under another name somewhere else. Most of them got away with it, but some got into action and were captured by the Confederates before they could desert, and in the prison camps they were dangerous nuisances, forming gangs to rob their fellow prisoners of anything worth taking, from rations to blankets to cash. Since the Confederacy had just barely enough soldiers to guard its prison camps, they were rarely able to police the activities of the prisoners. At Belle Isle, a pen on an island in the James River at Richmond, the commandant confessed that he could do nothing to suppress the gangsters’ activities; it was all he could do to keep the whole set of prisoners from escaping en masse. At Andersonville the prisoners themselves formed a vigilance committee and tried and hanged six of the worst gangsters, with Wirz’s approval. Eighteen other gangsters who escaped hanging were beaten so badly that three of them died.

Early in the fall of 1864, the warring governments did work out a deal for the exchange of prisoners who were obviously too sick to be put back in combat assignments. The prison authorities at Elmira culled out 1,200 such men and put them on a train for Baltimore, where they would take ship for some Southern port. Federal doctors who met the train protested that many of the men shipped off were in no condition to travel; five had died on the train, sixty more had to be sent off to hospital as soon as they got to Baltimore, and the steamer that was waiting for them had neither doctors, orderlies, nor nurses. The medical officers who had chosen the men to be transferred, these surgeons complained, had been guilty of “criminal neglect and inhumanity,” and the commander of the Elmira camp wrote that even though he had sent away 1,200 of his worst cases, his hospital soon was as crowded as ever, with a fearful death rate.

If an indictment can be drawn up against Andersonville, then, indictments can also be brought against the other camps. Andersonville, to be sure, was by all odds the worst place of the lot, and, quite naturally—because it was the worst, and also because it was the biggest—it got the most attention. And when the war ended, Andersonville became, in the eyes of the people of the North, the great symbol of all of the needless suffering the war had caused, the prime example of man’s inhumanity to man, which, because it had caused so much misery for so many people, must somehow be punished.

So Wirz was arrested, lodged in prison, and on August 21, 1865, he went on trial before a military commission in Washington. He was charged with conspiring with other Confederate officers to weaken or kill Union prisoners, and with murder “in violation of the laws and customs of war.” If Andersonville was the accepted symbol of the barbarities of war, Wirz had become the symbol of Andersonville. The press characterized him as “the Andersonville savage,” “the inhuman wretch,” and “the infamous captain,” and his leading attorney remarked, with some reason, that Wirz was doomed before he even got a hearing.

To the Union soldiers who had been at Andersonville Wirz seemed a villain. They knew that they had suffered infamous treatment; Wirz was the man, as far as they could see, through whom this treatment had come. He had tried to run a decent prison, but no living mortal could have accomplished that at Andersonville, considering all of the handicaps, and anyway the men who had been imprisoned there knew nothing of his efforts or of his problems; they know only that the place had been a hellhole, that he apparently had been in charge of it, and that he was stiff, arrogant, and peevish in his demeanor. The military court clearly shared their feeling. It heard a vast amount of evidence about horrible conditions in the prison, passed lightly over the evidence that went to show that Wirz had tried without success to get these conditions bettered, and refused to hear any testimony which might indicate that Northern prison camps were not very much better than Andersonville. In the end, as might have been expected, Wirz was convicted and was sentenced to be hanged. President Andrew Johnson refused to intervene, and the sentence was carried out.

So on November 10, 1865, Wirz was led into the courtyard at Old Capitol Prison. En route he stopped at the door of a fellow prisoner and asked the man to take care of Mrs. Wirz and the Wirz children, and to do what he could to clear Wirz’s name of the stigma which had been put upon it. Then he went on, to meet his death with a cool composure which moved Leslie’s Illustrated (which had denounced him bitterly during his trial) to remark that there was “something in his face and step which, in a better man, might have passed for heroism.”

If there had been a conspiracy to kill Union prisoners, nobody ever heard any more about it. All of the men who had been accused with Wirz were released without trial. The War Department theory that Jefferson Davis, president of the Southern Confederacy, had himself motivated this “conspiracy” evaporated, and Davis too was finally released from his confinement.

Andersonville remained a reproach for years to come, a favorite topic during the 1880’s and 1890’s for Northern political candidates who sought election by the process of “waving the bloody shirt.” But the passage of the years has at last brought a new perspective. Andersonville is now seen as a creation of its time and place, the worst of a large number of war prisons, all of which were almost unbelievably bad. And the real culprit is seen now not as Wirz, the luckless scapegoat, but as war itself.

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.