On Friday, April 8, President Barack Obama issued a proclamation in which he designated April 9 as National Former Prisoner of War Recognition Day. “We salute the selfless service members throughout our history who gave their own liberty to ensure ours,” the president declared, “and we renew our commitment to remaining a Nation worthy of their extraordinary sacrifices.”
For the American Civil War, the prisoner of war story is often summed up in one word: Andersonville. The mythos surrounding this infamous prison site has, for many, become the determining factor to understanding the Civil War prisoner-of-war story, but the story is far more complex than one place. At the beginning of the war, a prisoner exchange system had to be set up in order to exchange prisoners. This happened on July 22, 1862 in what would become known as the Dix-Hill Cartel, and set up the system of equal exchange. Any soldiers not exchanged would be issued parole, meaning the soldier would remain in a parole camp and not take up arms until properly exchanged.
With the passage of the Emancipation Proclamation, the Union expected all prisoners to be treated equally, regardless of race. That same year, the Confederacy would issue a proclamation that declared black troops taken prisoner would not be exchanged. On July 30, 1863, President Lincoln issued an order that suspended the Dix-Hill Cartel until the Confederacy agreed to treat all Union prisoners equally regardless of race. This suspension of the prisoner exchange would lead to the increase in prisons and prison populations for both sides. From that point on, both Union and Confederacy were forced to accommodate for more prisoners than either side was fully prepared for. This led to the infamous stories of places such as Andersonville and Elmira.
With the breakdown of the prisoner exchange, many soldiers feared capture more than they feared death. With the rumors that came out of places like Andersonville, it is not hard to feel the same fear that those men felt. Robert H. Kellogg of the 16th Connecticut was captured with a large portion of his unit near Plymouth, North Carolina in August of 1864. Upon arriving at Andersonville during the worst time to be in the prison camp, Kellogg remarked that the sight before them “almost froze our blood with horror, and made our hearts fail within us.”
Before us were forms that had once been active and erect;–stalwart men, now nothing but mere walking skeletons, covered with filth and vermin. Many of our men, in the heat and intensity of their feeling, exclaimed with earnestness, “Can this be hell?” “God protect us!” and all thought that He alone could bring them out alive from so terrible a place.
Though Andersonville remains the most infamous of the prison camps, there were many in both the North and South that fit with Kellogg’s description and were horrible beyond imagination. It is no wonder that many soldiers, both Union and Confederate, preferred death on the battlefield over life in a prison camp.
Today, Andersonville is a National Historic Site and the home of the National Prisoner of War Museum. In honor of the President’s designation of April 9 as National Former Prisoner of War Recognition Day, Andersonville had several events occurring. Around the roads in the National Cemetery located on the site, hundreds of flags fly to create an Avenue of Flags which will remain up until April 18. Along with the Avenue of Flags, the site also had special programs running that highlighted the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War and Vietnam’s Prisoners of War. Through these events and others that the site hosts throughout the year, the NPS is following President Obama’s call to “honor our former prisoners of war by paying them the gratitude and respect they deserve.”
“Andersonville.” National Park Service. Accessed April 9, 2016.
“Andersonville National Historic Site.” Facebook page. Last modified April 9, 2016.
“Myth: General Ulysses S. Grant stopped the prisoner exchange, and is thus responsible for all the suffering Civil War prisons on both sides.” National Park Service. Accessed April 9, 2016.
“Presidential Proclamation—National Former Prisoner of War Recognition Day, 2016.” Last modified April 8, 2016. Whitehouse.gov.
Robert H. Kellogg. Life and Death in Rebel Prisons. Bedford, Massachusetts: Applewood Books, 1865.