Andersonville Prison

In 1863, Wirz was assigned to a military prison in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. In March of 1864, he was ordered to take command of a prisoner-of-war camp outside of Ander-

sonville, a village in Sumter County, Georgia. The Anderson-ville prison had opened one month earlier. Located on sixteen acres of open land, it was designed to hold about ten thousand men. For the first two years of the war, the two sides managed to limit the number of prisoners they held by engaging in prisoner exchanges. Each side would exchange a certain number of prisoners for the same number of its own soldiers that had been captured by the enemy. In mid-1863, though, prisoner exchanges between the Federal and rebel (Confederate) armies ground to a halt because the Confederacy refused to turn over black prisoners. In the meantime, newly captured Union soldiers continued to pour into Ander-sonville, sometimes at the rate of four hundred a day.

By August 1864, Andersonville held more than thirty-three thousand Union soldiers, making it the fifth-largest city in the entire Confederacy. The size of the prison was increased to twenty-six acres, but this did not do much to improve the dreadful living conditions that the prisoners endured. Wirz did not allow them to build shelters, so most of them dug holes in the dirt and used scraps of clothing and blankets to protect themselves from the hot sun. In addition, widespread food shortages across the South meant that inmates at Ander-sonville received very little to eat. Each inmate's daily ration of food consisted of a teaspoon of salt, three tablespoons of beans, and a small amount of unsifted cornmeal. The water situation at Andersonville was terrible as well. A small stream ran through the camp, but prisoners were forced to use it both as their sole source of drinking water and as a latrine to carry away human waste. After awhile, the stream backed up and flooded large portions of the camp, turning some flooded sections into swampy areas crusted with human waste.

As the summer of 1864 came to an end, an average of more than one hundred Andersonville prisoners died each day from typhoid fever, gangrene, diarrhea, dysentery, and malnutrition. A small number were shot trying to escape or died when their burrows caved in on them, burying them alive. As the conditions worsened with each passing day, the morale of the hungry and feverish soldiers plummeted. Many imprisoned soldiers became hopelessly depressed at the idea of surviving major battles like Gettysburg (July 1863) or Antietam (September 1862), only to die slowly of diarrhea or dysentery.

^¿J Civil War Prisons

The Confederate prison in Ander-sonville, Georgia, is the best known of the many prisoner-of-war camps that operated during the American Civil War. But captured soldiers imprisoned at other camps endured horrible conditions as well. According to mortality (rate of death) statistics, Andersonville was not even the worst prison in the South. That distinction goes to a Confederate prison in Salisbury, North Carolina, where 34 percent of the 10,321 Union soldiers imprisoned died (by comparison, 29 percent of the Union prisoners held at Andersonville died). Meanwhile, at the Belle Isle Prison in Richmond, Virginia, prisoners received so little food that 90 percent of the Union soldiers who survived weighed less than one hundred pounds. "Can these be men?" asked writer Walt Whitman (1819-1892) when he saw several former prisoners at Belle Isle. "Are they not really mummied, dwindled corpses? They lay there, most of them, quite still, but with a horrible look in their eyes and skinny lips (often with not enough flesh to cover their teeth). . . . The dead [at Belle Isle] are not to be pitied as much as some of the living that have come from there . . . many of them are mentally imbecile [suffered mental collapse], and will never recuperate."

Prison conditions at some Union prisons were extremely poor as well, even though the North had far greater supplies of food, medicine, and other supplies. At the prison in Elmira, New York, for instance, approximately one out of four Confederate prisoners of war died. And at the Union prison in Rock Island, Illinois, a smallpox epidemic killed eighteen hundred Southern prisoners in a matter of weeks. Altogether, more than 56,000 Civil War soldiers (25,976 Confederate and 30,218 Union) lost their lives in prisoner-of-war camps. These terrible statistics make it clear that "the treatment of prisoners during the Civil War was something that neither side could be proud of," remarked James M. McPherson in Battle Cry of Freedom.

The terrible conditions that existed at many Civil War prison camps developed because the two sides stopped exchanging prisoners in May 1863. This halt came about because the South refused to trade black Union soldiers that it captured. Instead, they forced these black soldiers back into slavery in the South. This policy outraged President Abraham Lincoln (18091865; see entry) and his administration, which announced that all prisoner ex-

The situation at Andersonville became so bad that when newly captured Union soldiers arrived at the camp, they could hardly believe their eyes. "Hunger, sickness, exposure, and dirt had so transformed them that they more resem-

August 1864 Andersonville
Prisoners at the Confederate prison in Andersonville, Georgia, await their rations on August 17, 1864. (Photograph by A.J. Riddle. Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.)

changes would cease until black Union soldiers were included. This in turn caused the war prisons to become filled far beyond their normal capacity and made it harder for prison officials to provide for all of their inmates' needs.

"The prison camps in the Civil War were inhuman," wrote Bruce Catton in Reflections on the Civil War. "[But] with very few exceptions, like perhaps Wirz at Ander-sonville, the men in charge of the camps did the best they could. . . . The big trouble was that in North and South alike, as far as the authorities were concerned, the prison camps came last. They got what was left over when all of the other needs had been met. They were last on the line for food supplies, for medical supplies, for doctors, for housing, for clothing, for guards, for all of the things that are needed to run a prison camp."

As time passed, the end of prisoner exchanges hurt the South much more than the North, since they began to suffer from a severe shortage of soldiers. Because of this, some people have charged that the North was actually most responsible for ending the prisoner exchanges because it knew that a halt benefited its efforts to break the Confederate Army. But most historians agree that it was the South's refusal to exchange black soldiers that caused the deadlock. In fact, prisoner exchanges did take place from January 1865 forward, after the Confederate government finally agreed to exchange black, as well as white, Union troops.

bled walking skeletons, painted black," recalled one Union soldier who was part of a group of prisoners sent to Anderson-ville in the fall of 1864. "Our feelings cannot be described as we gazed on these poor human beings. . . . Such squalid

[dirty], filthy wretchedness, hunger, disease, nakedness and cold, I never saw before."

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