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Why the Prison Camps During the American Civil War Were So Terrible

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The prison camps of the American Civil War were terrible due to the falling apart of prisoner exchange programs, the decline of paroles available for officers, and poor war strategies by both sides. Camps were scattered across the country in both the North and the South. The best known of the Union camps were; Fortress Monroe, Virginia; Ohio State Penitentiary, Ohio and point Lookout, Maryland. The better known of the Confederate camps were; Danville, Virginia; Libby Prison, Richmond, Virginia and Andersonville, Georgia. Conditions where many inmates died would send chills down the spine of anyone in this day and age. The camps ended up so crowded there wasn’t enough space to shelter every inmate, some died of exposure to the elements, and others of malnutrition for the camp didn’t have enough food for every prisoner. Some people died of diseases through poor sanitation, the grounds were dirty, barely cleaned, the inmates lived in their own muck.

The Andersonville prison in Georgia was built in 1864 . The original structure covered 16.5 acres, with a 15 foot wall surrounding it . Later that year it was increased to 26.5 acres and made to a parallelogram shape . Sentry boxes ere stationed every 30 yards along the fence . White posts marked a line, 19 feet from the wall all the way around the inside, if crossed by a prisoner they would be killed . A stream called “Stockade Branch” ran through the stockade and supplied most of the water for the camp. The camp was designed to hold 13,000 prisoners but in August of 1864 confined a total of 32,000 men ! Over its 14 months of existence it contained a total of 45,000 Union soldiers . Almost 13,000 of these died, from diseases, such as Gangrene, Scurvy and Dysentery, malnutrition, poor sanitation, and constant biting of flies and mosquitoes, overcrowding or exposure to the elements . The prisoners had meager shelters built stacked near open sewers causing intoxication of another level from the diseases that dwelled there. There were no medical supplies available for the prisoners because the North had blocked off all the Southern ports.

The few prisoners caught in 1861 didn’t seem to cause many problems; there were enough forts and buildings to occupy them safely and sanitarily. The Confederacy wished for a formal exchange cartel in which they could exchange back prisoners to their enemy for someone of the same rank on their side, thus getting rid of someone useless and gaining someone they could use to fight. This exchange worked not only for people of the same rank but for example; four privates could be exchanged for one lieutenant, and sixty privates for one commanding general. The main reason the Confederates liked this idea was also because it released them of the burden of having to feed the prisoners, leaving more food for their own troops.

The administration of President Lincoln was not as keen on this idea, for they would have to grant official recognition of such activities. After the battle at Fort Donelson, so many more prisoners poured into prison camps that the conditions were poor, and they became overcrowded. With increased pressure from the North for the cartel, the Lincoln administration finally gave in and the Union army accepted the exchange cartel on July 22 1862 .

This arrangement lasted for about ten months in total, freeing around 200,000 men . After those ten months blacks began serving the in the Union army and the Confederates were outraged. In May of 1863 , the Confederate Congress declared that if a colored soldier was captured they would re-enslave him and could execute him and/or his white commander as well. The agreement of prisoner exchange was officially terminated when the North tried to pressure the Confederates into acknowledging that the black soldiers were legitimate prisoners of war, and they refused to. As a consequence of the downfall of the prisoner exchange program the populations of the prison camps increased dramatically.

To start with the parole of officers went alongside the prisoner exchanges. A captured officer could be released back to their own side undo a flag of truce, not allowing them to fight, if they did fight and were caught once again they were executed. In late 1863 Grant paroled 30,000 Vicksburg prison captives to lessen the number of prisoners in the overcrowded prisons, Banks soon followed in his footsteps, releasing 7,000 parolees from Port Hudson . The South failed to handle these parolees well and acted as if a legal exchange had been done and so putting them back on the front line. Grant discovered this when some of the same were recaptured at Chattanooga. This led to the last crack in the stern of the ship of prisoner exchanges. Grant had been so outraged he terminated all prisoner exchange policies.

Grant reiterated the North’s position on the prisoner exchange cartel and the difference for blacks and whites and stated that “no distinction whatever will be made in the exchange between white and colored prisoners” . Some think that Grant had another purpose in my mind in this statement; not only against racism but that he would sacrifice thousands of soldiers to enemy prisons because the South would be hurt more by the loss of men.

Confederate raider, John Hunt Morgan’s brother, was captured on an expedition into the Ohio Valley. He and his fellow explorers were stripped of their clothes, their heads were shaved and they were imprisoned in cells that were only 38 inches wide and 6.5 feet long . There was a suspicion they may attempt to escape and so were put into unheated cells with no blankets or beds and not enough space to keep themselves warm in the sub-zero weather. They were stuck like this for 16 days, in a living torture because they would not confess to their plans to escape, which, to this day, are still unknown, if there were any plans at all. This story proves the terrors held within the walls of prison camps all over America, during the civil war.

One Federal soldier commented “[I]f a man died in good clothes, he was buried nearly naked. The living needed apparel; the dead none.” This shows the desperation the prisoners had come to in their time at the prison camps. The death toll day to day reached over 100 and instead of being buried in coffins the bodies were buried shoulder to shoulder in long trenches. Poor rules in the war led to the death of thousands of inmates. The different political views from the North and South on the treatment of ex-slaves caused numberless deaths.

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