Did you know that an estimated 410,000 soldiers were held captive in prison camps during the Civil War? In addition, a large portion of the prisoners perished while they were detained in the prison camps. Approximately 16% of captives held in Southern prisons died, and about 12% of captives in the Northern prisons died. There were multiple prisons throughout the North and the South, and many different conditions within the prisons.
During the early years of the Civil War, between 1861 and 1863, prison camps were not very common because prisoners of war were either paroled or exchanged, usually within a matter of days after capture. Exchanges of prisoners were based on the military ranking of that person. For example, a military private or a seaman were seen as equal ranks; whereas, an Army colonel or a Navy captain were also seen as equals. If the exchange involved a high-ranking person, then they could be exchanged for several privates or seamen, if they were not being exchanged for an equally important military person. The exchange system eventually broke down during the Civil War, mainly because the Confederacy refused to treat black prisoners the same way that the white prisoners were treated. Southerners believed that the black Northern soldiers were probably ex-slaves; therefore, they really didn’t belong to the Union Army, so an exchange was not possible for them. After the exchange system collapsed, prison camps in the South and in the North soared in population. For this reason, many more prison camps were created and conditions within the camps went from terrible to unbearable.