Civil War prisons sometimes worse than battlefields

Published 9:44 am Saturday, March 24, 2012

by Jon D. Pyle

Editor’s Note: This is another in a series of commentary written by members of the Urquhart Gillette Camp No. 1471 Sons Of Confederate Veterans in commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War.

In 1864, President Abraham Lincoln and Gen. Ulysses S. Grant stopped the practice of prisoner exchange.

This forced both the North and the South to build prisons to hold the large number of war prisoners. All of these prisons were terrible, but the Southern Andersonville prison is the only one that is talked about.

The living conditions there were terrible, and the death rates were high. Because of the federal blockade, there were few resources for civilians, soldiers or prisoners in the South.

There were very few blankets, clothing, tents for housing, food or medicine even though there were repeated requests for such needs.

After the war, the commandant of Andersonville was tried, convicted and hanged for his mismanagement of the prison and the high death rate.

What most people don’t hear or read about is there were three Northern prisons with worse death rates by percentage of prisoners than those at Andersonville, and the North had plenty of resources to supply the prisons.

Camp Douglas in Illinois had terrible conditions and a higher death rate than Andersonville.

Point Lookout, Md., was open for a little more than a year. It was an open stockade, meaning there were no buildings or roofed shelters for the prisoners. It had few tents, almost no blankets and very little clothing other than the rags the prisoners were wearing when they arrived.

In February 1865, hundreds froze to death. More than 3,000 died there in the few months it was open.

In Elmira, N.Y., the prisoners did have some barracks but were almost never furnished any fuel for the stoves. In the first months, prisoners with money were allowed to buy fruit and vegetables from local farmers who would come and sell through the cracks in the stockade wall.

But then word came down from Washington to stop this. Records show that when meat shipments came in, a good percentage was declared unfit and did not go to the prisoners but usually showed up in the guards’ mess instead.

In a rich farming area, and with the North having abundant resources, these prisoners also had very few provisions such as clothing, blankets, food, or medicine.

The Elmira prison opened July 6, 1864, and closed July 11, 1865. During that one year 12,123 Confederate prisoners entered its gates and 2,950 are still there buried in Woodlawn Cemetery, including my great-great-grandfather, who died of starvation Feb. 16, 1865.

It is said that Lincoln established a commission to develop standards for the treatment of prisoners, but if he did, it criminally failed with the high death rates at Camp Douglas, Point Lookout and Elmira. Almost 25 percent of the prisoners at Elmira died.

None of the commandants at these prisons were court martialed or hung for their atrocities. So much for Mr. Lincoln’s standard of treatment for prisoners.

There is a factual book on Elmira prison called “Elmira, Death Camp of the North” by Michael Horigan, copyright 2002.

A resident of the Elmira area, Horigan states that in all his research of the records in Elmira, Washington, etc., he could not find any paper trail to Lincoln or Secretary of War Edwin Stanton for written orders of retribution against Southern prisoners.

But there was also no evidence of anything being done to stop the inaction. One officer at Elmira tried to get a swamp drained in the camp and a better water supply was transferred very quickly.

In the last months of the war with Grant’s policy of using superior numbers of soldiers to overwhelm the Southern lines, the mass slaughter of Northern troops and the carriage at the front caused some drastic measures in Northern ranks.

Some Northern soldiers would change clothes off of the dead Confederate soldiers so they would be sent back as prisoners to get away from the front. Had they known how bad the conditions were, they may have stayed at the front.

In the book on Elmira, the prisoners came in by train and had to march through town to the prison, and some of the town’s people noticed a couple of local boys in the ranks of prisoners. It wasn’t noted whether they had joined as boys of Gray or as prisoners of Gray.

JON D. PYLE is commander of Urquhart-Gillette Camp 1471 Sons of Confederate Veterans. He can be reached at