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Union & Confederate
Prisoner of War Camps 1861-1865

Search, View, Print Union & Confederate Civil War Prisoner of War Records, 1861-1865

There were numerous "Prison Camps", both big and small, used during the Civil War. New information will be added to the prisons as we find it. Later in the war, after the Union army overran the Confederate prisons, they were used as Union prisons. This is why listings of some Confederate prisons are listed as Union prison camps in the latter days.

Prisons Types

The 150 prisons can be grouped into 7 classes. They are as follows:

  1. Existing jails and prisons- first to come into use, ranged in size from small city jails to medium sized county jails to large state prisons
  2. Coastal fortifications- second to be pressed into use, mostly in the North, were forts along the Atlantic Ocean
  3. Old buildings converted into prisons- used mainly in the South
  4. Barracks enclosed by high fences- these were groups of wooden buildings on a large plot of land previously used as basic-training camps or rendevous points for recruits. High fences were later built around the camps to enclose/confine the prisoners. Existed mostly in the North
  5. Clusters of tents enclosed by high fences- one of the cheapest types
  6. Barren stockades- cheapest and worst of the 7 types. Exclusively used in the South
  7. Barren ground- nothing more than gathering of prisoners on barren ground surrounded with a guardline

Prisoner of War Overview

No aspect of the American Civil War left behind a greater legacy of bitterness and acrimony than the treatment of prisoners of war. Although the Confederacy had a number of horrid prison camps, the Union had its share of equally horrific camps. Prison camps on both sides produced scenes of wretched, disease-ridden and emaciated prisoners as repulsive as any to come out of the Second World War.

Partisans in both the North and the South produced wildly exaggerated novels, reminiscences of prisoners, journalistic accounts and even official government reports which charged the enemy with wanton criminal policies of murderous intent. It took several decades for Revisionist historians to separate fact from propagandistic fancy and deliberate distortion from misunderstanding. Even today the bitter legacy of hate lingers on in widespread but often grossly distorted accounts from this tragic chapter of American history.

Neither side deliberately set out to maltreat prisoners. Arrangements were made hurriedly to deal with unexpected masses of men. As neither side expected the war to last long, these measures were only makeshifts undertaken with minimum expenditure. Management was bad on both sides, but worse in the South owing to poorer, more decentralized organization and more meager resources. Thus, prisoners held by the Union were somewhat better off.

In the first phase of the war, 1861-1862, the relatively small numbers of prisoners taken by both sides were well treated.

There were over 160 prisons used throughout the Civil War. These institutions were established all along the East Coast as far north as Boston, as far south as Dry Tortugas Island off Key West, Florida, and as far west as Fort Riley, Kansas, and Fort Craig, New Mexico. They began as prisons or holding facilities but, with few exceptions, quickly became nothing more than American concentration camps. Prisoners were crammed into them with complete disregard to capacity limits, hygiene, nutrition, or sanitation needs. Within a short time, neither government could cope with the problems created by such a high concentration of people in such small areas or the lack of coordination within the prison system. In the end, more than 56,000 prisoners of war died in confinement, and many more were in poor or failing health when they were finally released.

Neither side was more at fault than the other. Although propoganda during and after the war convinced many people that Confederate prisons were much worse than those maintained by the Union, a close examination reveals that there were few differences. If Union soldiers were stricken with fear upon entering the gates of Andersonville Prison, Confederates were shocked upon learning that they were headed for Fort Delaware or Elmira prisons.

The death rate in all the prisons amounted to nearly to 13% of the total confined. In comparison, those who remained on the battlefield fared much better. based on available figures there, only 5% of the total enlistments of both sides were killed.

Prisoner Exchange

At the start of the Civil War, a formal exchange system for prisoners of war was not arranged because President Lincoln did not recognize the Confederacy as having wartime rights. However, after the defeat of Union forces at 1st Manassas/ Bull Run, with a large number of Union prisoners held by the Confederacy, the U.S. Congress requested that Lincoln take measures to effect an exchange. Up to this time opposing commanders sometimes would arrange an exchange of their prisoners under a flag of truce, but these transactions were few.

The first government-sanctioned exchanges took place in February 1862, but it was not until July 22 that a formal cartel detailing the exchange system was agreed to by the two governments. Under this agreement, all prisoners were to be released- either exchanged or paroled- within 10 days of capture. An equivalency table was devised in which a certain number of enlisted men could be exchanged for an officer. Excess prisoners who could not be exchanged were to be released on parole, which meant they could not perform any military service until they were officially notified that they had been exchanged.

The system was bogged down by paperwork, and each side found reason to interrupt exchanges from time to time, but the cartel operated reasonably well until it broke down in the summer of 1863. By that time the federal government had begun to use black soldiers in its war effort. Refusing to recognize black soldiers as prisoners of war, the Confederacy reduced them to slave status and threatened to execute as insurrectionists the Union officers who had commanded them. A retaliatory threat by the Union prevented the Confederacy from carrying out any executions but did not restore the cartel. Several times later in the war, the Southern states needed soldiers and requested the exchanges resume, but Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, with plenty of Union soldiers, refused.

Both sides agreed to a prisoner exchange arrangement which operated during the latter half of 1862. Under the cartel, captives remaining after the exchanges were paroled. But the agreement broke down, in part because of Northern refusal to recognize the Confederate authorities as anything other than "rebels," and in part over the Negro question.

Following the promulgation of the Emancipation Proclamation on New Year's Day, 1863, the North began enlisting former slaves into the Federal army. Confederate President Jefferson Davis declared that "all Negro slaves captured in arms" and their White officers should be delivered over to the South to be dealt with according to law. That could mean rigorous prosecution under strict laws relating to Negro insurrections.

Still, special exchanges on a reduced scale continued, but from 1863 onwards, both sides were holding large numbers of prisoners.

On 17 April 1864, General Grant ordered that no more Confederate prisoners were to be paroled or exchanged until there were released a sufficient number of Union officers and men to equal the parolees at Vicksburg and Port Hudson and unless the Confederate authorities would agree to make no distinction whatsoever between White and Negro prisoners.

On 10 August, the Confederate government offered to exchange officer for officer and man for man, accompanying the proposal with a statement on conditions at Andersonville. This offer induced General Grant to reveal his real reason for refusing any further exchanges. "Every man we hold, when released on parole or otherwise," Grant reported to Washington, "becomes an active soldier against us at once either directly or indirectly. If we commence a system of exchange which liberates all prisoners taken, we will have to fight on until the whole South is exterminated. If we hold those caught they amount to no more than dead men. At this particular time to release all rebel prisoners North would insure Sherman's defeat and would compromise our safety here." (Rhodes, pp499-500)

In October, Lee proposed to Grant another man-to-man exchange of prisoners. Grant asked whether Lee would turn over Negro troops "the same as White soldiers?" When Lee declared that "Negroes belonging to our citizens are not considered subjects of exchange," the negotiations completely broke down.

After the cessation of prisoner exchanges under the cartel, the camps of the South became crowded and the growing poverty of the Confederacy resulted in excessive suffering in the Southern stockades. Reports about these conditions in the Northern press created the belief that the ill treatment was part of a deliberate policy. The inevitable war hatred made such a belief readily credible.

After the war, Confederate partisans laid responsibility for camp conditions (on both sides) at the feet of the Federal authorities. They pointed to the Northern cancellation of the parole and exchange cartel which put a heavy and unexpected strain on the Southern prisoner program. They also condemned the North for its deliberate cut in rations for Confederate prisoners as a reaction to reports of bad conditions in the Southern camps.

Prisoners were exchanged on the following basis

  • 1 general = 46 privates
  • 1 major general = 40 privates
  • 1 brigadier general = 20 privates
  • 1 colonel = 15 privates
  • 1 lieutenant colonel = 10 privates
  • 1 major = 8 privates
  • 1 captain = 6 privates
  • 1 lieutenant = 4 privates
  • 1 noncommissioned officer = 2 privates

Breakdown of Prisoner Exchange System: The breakdown that had existed between Union and Confederate military leaders early in the Civil War caused tremendous hardship and many deaths among the prison populations of both sides. The great battles of 1864 sent tens of thousands of soldiers into hastily built and overcrowded prisons and brought about a wave of suffering that became an embarrassment for both governments. Disease, starvation, lack of adequate shelter and clothing, and cruel guards were as common at Elmira, NY, and Fort Delaware, DE, as they were at Andersonville, GA, and Salisbury, NC.

Though the North refused to allow regular exchanges to take place, sporadic limited exchanges occurred. An exchange of sick prisoners in April 1864 resulted in the return terribly emaciated Union soldiers to the North. Once photographs of the "living skeletons" were circulated, there was an outcry for revenge that resulted in drastic reductions in the rations issued to Rebel prisoners. There was also a more strident call for the North once again to allow exchanges. The call came not only from the South but also from Northern citizens. Inmates from Southern prisons were freed to carry petitions signed by their fellow prisoners to Washington, where they pleaded for a renewal of exchanges. Lincoln's refusal to allow exchanges hurt him in the 1864 presidential election; local Republican leaders reported that many of their compatriots would "work and vote against the President, because they think sympathy with a few negroes, also captured, is the cause of a refusal" to exchange.

The primary reason for the breakdown of the exchange system was the South's refusal to treat captured black soldiers as prisoners of war. In January 1865, the Confederacy finally gave in on that point and offered to exchange all prisoners, regardless of race. Exchanges began once again and continued for several more months until the ending of the war freed all the captured soldiers.

Army Total Paroled* Imprisoned Died % Died
Confederate 462,634 247,769 214,865 25,796 12.1
Union 211,411 16,668 194,743 30,218 15.4
*Paroled on the field. All numbers are estimates compared to other prison/prisoner death sources

Parole System (A Pledge Not To Fight): Lacking means for dealing with large numbers of captured troops in the early years of the war, the U.S. and Confederate governments both relied on the traditional European system for the parole and exchange of prisoners. Any prisoner not exchanged within 10 days of being captured was to be released upon signing a pledge not to take up arms against hiss captors until he had been formally exchanged for an enemy prisoner.

The system operated on the good faith of the governments and the accompanying governmental paperwork, and sometimes several months would pass before the paroled soldier would be notified that he had been exchanged. During that time, the lucky soldiers would be allowed to go to their homes and wait until instructed to rejoin their units. When the failure of exchanged soldiers to return to their units became a problem, Union parolees would sometimes be held in military custody in federal detention camps until exchanged. The United States also attempted to give noncombat assignments to soldiers waiting to be exchanged or sent them to fight Indians instead of Rebels. These measures were a violation of the intent of the system in that parolees were not to be given any duties that would free other soldiers for combat.

Although discussions of formal exchange began between the 2 governments in February 1862, no agreement came until Union Gen. John A. Dix and Confederate Gen. Daniel H. Hill established an agreement on July 22, 1862. The parole system grew increasingly complex and expensive as the war progressed. Hoping to be sent home on parole, soldiers would sometimes allow themselves to be captured. This became such a problem that one Confederate general notified his men that they would remain prisoners of war and not be paroled or exchanged until the honorable conditions of their capture were verified.

One of the largest paroles of the war came with the capture of Vicksburg, Miss. Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant paroled about 31,600 Confederate defenders of the city at one time. Two days later, at Appomattox, he paroled the 28,231 members of Lee's Army of Northern Virginia- and they were never exchanged

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