Prisoners of War


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.

One of the most notable prison camps in the North was Point Lookout Prison Camp, which was located in the southern part of Maryland.  The camp was originally built for approximately 10,000 prisoners, but usually housed an average of 12,000-20,000 Confederate men.  Over the two-year lifespan of the camp from 1863-1865, about 50,000 soldiers were held captive in Point Lookout.  Statistics suggest that as many as 14,000 of them perished while there.  Point Lookout was the only Union created camp where the prisoners’ quarters were made out of tents.  This camp was built very hastily, due to the overwhelming numbers of prisoners, thus explaining the use of tents.  Due to overcrowding within Point Lookout, eventually prisoners did not even have room in the tents and were forced to stay outdoors constantly.  This created very harsh conditions due to Maryland’s freezing winters.  Bad weather, in addition to severe lack of food and water that became polluted, led to high numbers of disease and starvation for the prisoners.

An equally harsh, well-known prison camp in the South was Camp Sumter, which was located in Andersonville, Georgia.  Similar to the Northern prison camps, this camp was also extremely overcrowded.  During its one-year lifespan, over 45,000 Union men were held captive here, and approximately 13,000 perished.  Contaminated water, lack of food, and harsh conditions once again led to disease and starvation of many of the prisoners.

These are only two examples of prison camps during the Civil War, but both the North and the South had several similar camps.  Most historians believe that the poor conditions within the camp walls were not a primary product of evil intent or maliciousness, but instead was due to human error and lack of resources.  Either way, it is definitely a fact that prison war camps, on both sides, were horrible places to exist throughout the Civil War.