Dr. Angela Zombek, Assistant Professor of History at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, will join CWI Director Dr. Peter Carmichael and John Heckman (The Tattooed Historian) to discuss Civil War prison camp escapes. The livestream will take place on Monday, April 20th at 7pm EST. The livestream will happen concurrently on the Tattooed Historian’s Facebook page and the Civil War Institute’s Facebook page.
Dr. Zombek is the author of “Penitentiaries, Punishment, and Military Prisons: Familiar Responses to an Extraordinary Crisis during the American Civil War” (Kent State, 2018) and has provided a primary source that will be discussed during the livestream. This newspaper article comes from the December 5, 1863 edition of the Portsmouth Daily Times (Portsmouth, Ohio).
Over the course of this year, we’ll be interviewing some of the speakers from the upcoming 2018 CWI conference about their talks. Today we are speaking with Angie Zombek, Assistant Professor of History at St. Petersburg College. Dr. Zombek is the author of
numerous articles and essays, including “Paternalism and Imprisonment at Castle Thunder: Reinforcing Gender Norms in the Confederate Capital,” which appeared in the scholarly journal, Civil War History in September of 2017; “Citizenship – Compulsory or Convenient: Federal Officials, Confederate Prisoners, and the Oath of Allegiance,” in Paul J. Quigley’s edited volume, The American Civil War and the Transformation of Citizenship, (LSU Press, forthcoming, Summer 2018); and “Catholics in Captivity: Priests, Prisoners, and the Living Faith in Civil War Military Prisons,” in Michael P. Gray’s edited volume, Civil War Prisons II, (forthcoming from Kent State University Press). Her first book, Penitentiaries, Punishment, and Military Prisons: Familiar Responses to an Extraordinary Crisis during the American Civil War, is forthcoming from Kent State University Press in June, 2018. Dr. Zombek’s current research focuses on the Civil War’s impact on the Florida Gulf Coast and Key West. She has presented some of her research on Unionism in Civil War Era Tampa Bay, and is currently researching prisoners of war at Fort Taylor (Key West), and Key West under martial law.
We are also speaking with Michael P. Gray,Professor of History at East Stroudsburg University of Pennsylvania where he teaches courses on U.S. History to 1877, the Civil War, Interpreting Civil War Sites & Memory, U.S. Military History, and War and Society. He is
currently developing a “special topics” course on Civil War prisons and the Home Front. His first book, The Business of Captivity: Elmira and its Civil War Prison (Kent State University Press, 2001), was a finalist for the Seaborg Award, and a chapter of that work, first published in Civil War History, earned “Honorable Mention” for the Eastern National Award. In addition to penning the new introduction to Ovid L. Futch’s classic History of Andersonville Prison in 2011, Gray is the author of “Captivating Captives: An Excursion to Johnson’s Island Prison,” an essay published in Ginette Aley and Joseph Anderson’s edited collection, Union Heartland: The Midwestern Home Front During the Civil War (Southern Illinois University Press, 2013). He is currently finishing an edited volume entitled Crossing the Deadline: Civil War Prisons Reconsidered and is progressing on a full-length treatment on the Johnson’s Island Prison. Gray currently serves as the series editor for the University of Tennessee Press’s Voices of the Civil War, which has produced more than 50 primary source volumes related to the conflict. Publicly recognized as a noted historian of Civil War prisons, Gray has discussed his scholarship on CNN and was recently featured on an episode of The Learning Channel’s nationally acclaimed series, “Who Do You Think You Are” with actress Jessica Biel, in which he assisted in uncovering the history of Biel’s lost ancestor who was incarcerated at a Civil War prison. Gray is the recipient of several internal and external grants relating to Civil War prisons, including the 2011 “Civil War Prison Archeology: Team Teaching Public History on Johnson’s Island” grant, as well as the 2014 “National Prisoner of War Grant,” for Andersonville, Georgia. He has also received multiple awards from ESU faculty and students for excellence in teaching.
CWI: How are Civil War prisons usually perceived or represented in historical memory? What popular conceptions of Civil War prisons are accurate, and which conceptions are perhaps misleading?
GRAY: Civil War prisons are often associated with the dire suffering of captured soldiers that many times led to death. This was certainly true at some prisons, especially during the latter part of the war, but the general public assumes this was the case at every confine. In reality, a much wider array of prison experiences existed. Instead of immediately thinking of Andersonville, a deeper macro perspective into other Civil War prisons, or even a look at the inmate socio-economic variances within the stockade walls provides a much fuller and more accurate picture. Suffering is indeed a vital piece to the prison narrative, but historians must do their best in wading through biased testimony and corroborating previous claims with unpublished primary sources. There are far too many generalizations that all Civil War prisons were like the notorious Andersonville or even the Union prison at Elmira; in fact, there were more than 150 confines, each with a unique history and set of circumstances. There were also different “classifications” of prisons, including former training depots converted into prisons, open stockades, coastal fortifications prisons, warehouse prisons, and confines that were used as jails. Additionally, there were different classifications of captives, from enlisted men, to officers, to political prisoners (which included women), among others.
Since prisons were extremely diverse places, and even though there may have been suffering, one’s carceral experience depended on class standing, social networking and who a prisoner might befriend while in prison (including guards and fellow captives), and the opportunities available for improving one’s lifestyle with funds procured through paid work within the prison. Moreover, Civil War prisoner experiences also varied according to the aforementioned physical structures in which prisoners were incarcerated. For example, a political prisoner in Boston’s Fort Warren would have had a very different, and most likely more positive, experience compared to that of an enlisted captive on Belle Isle. Some prisons also had the distinction of being considered officers’ prisons, such as the Confederacy’s Libby Prison or the Union’s Johnson’s Island Prison, while others housed enlisted men. Although the general public might consider all prisons terrible places, it should come as no surprise that Johnson’s Island had a death rate of less than 2% while the enlisted men’s Elmira Prison in the North reached about 24.4%. Variances in the apportioning of food, shelter, medicine, and other amenities, as well as differences in punishment and the amount of individual liberties granted to inmates are just some of the reasons for the disparity in death rates.
CWI: How did the Union’s prison system differ from the Confederacy’s? Were there shared conceptions about “proper” treatment of prisoners in both the North and the South? How did each side perceive and represent the POW experience of its own men, as well as of enemy POWs?
GRAY: At first, the Union’s prison system was more centralized and included a plan for housing prisoners. The Union was committed to having one person (Prison Commissary General William Hoffman) in charge of overseeing a prison system, which was more efficient than the Confederacy’s POW plan. Eventually, the Confederacy caught up. Unfortunately for prisoners, both sides were still shortsighted from the onset, from their expectations of the war’s length, to the number of soldiers they captured, to their administration of the prisons themselves. Administrative woes only increased with the abrupt end to the prisoner exchange system and the big battles of 1863 that led to the proliferation of prisons and captives.
Both sides relied on incarceration standards from previous wars, especially the War of 1812. They parlayed with an exchange system that dated from that war, but when the system collapsed due to various reasons, including the controversy over the exchange of African-American prisoners, it did not bode well for Civil War captives. Standards of treatment versus actual practices were incongruent from the start. To better standardize prison conditions, the Union enlisted Francis Lieber to more clearly define the manner in which to treat its prisoners. Lieber’s Code, which was based off General Order 100, attempted to set standards for both sides to follow regarding treatment of captives. However, my latest research shows that much of Lieber’s hard work was ignored. For instance, I have found that more than a few Civil War prisons regressed into becoming “Dark Tourist destinations” for home-front civilians to frequent: Civilians literally paid an admission price to view the prisoners from high observation towers, or civilians took steamship excursions that anchored near stockade walls so prisoners might be viewed. Such practices directly violated the Lieber Code, which called for prisoners not to be “humiliated” or “disgraced” inhumanely. Finally, perceptions of captivity only made the situation worse, especially toward the end of the war. Charges of negligence and cruelty against Confederates and their purported improper treatment of Yankee prisoners set a quid pro quo that was instituted in the North, including a reduction in prisoners’ rations. Ultimately, each side did not trust the other. The dismal prison conditions were exacerbated by the prioritization of soldiers and resources for the battlefront over home-front POWs, and by the stripping of administrative prison personnel to other jobs and departments that were considered more important to the prosecution of the war.
CWI: How much did prisons and POW camps vary with regard to size, condition, prisoner treatment, etc. within each region? In what ways did prison life and the treatment of POWs evolve over the course of the war, and why? How does the story of Civil War prisons and POWs tie into other aspects of the Civil War, such as military policy, the politics of waging war, and moral debates about “just warfare?”
ZOMBEK: Union and Confederate officials had to figure out how to handle the wartime prisoner crisis as the war progressed and the number of captives increased, since the United States was largely immune from military crises throughout the 19th century, with the exceptions of the War of 1812 and the Mexican War. In each instance, military officials improvised and used existing structures, such as hulks, existing jails, and penitentiaries, to address the POW crisis. Union and Confederate officials behaved similarly during the Civil War, and also constructed open-air stockades/barracks or commandeered existing structures, like warehouses and factories, to house prisoners. The size and capacity of the military prisons varied, and the total number of prisoners held ranged. Lonnie Speer recorded 117 total Confederate and 106 Union military prisons. Of the known population totals, Speer listed one Confederate and eight Union prisons holding under 100 inmates; twenty-two Confederate and twenty-five Union prisons holding from 100 to 999 prisoners; six Confederate and five Union prisons holding 1,000-1,999 inmates; one Confederate and three Union prisons holding from 2,000-2,999 captives; three Confederate and three Union prisons holding from 3,000-3,999 prisoners; and three Confederate and one Union prison(s) holding from 4,000-4,999 inmates. The number of military prisons holding over 5,000 prisoners was nominal, and extremely large prisons that held over 10,000 were few. They include Camp Douglas (Chicago) at 12,082, Fort Delaware (Delaware) at 12,600, Point Lookout (Maryland) at 22,000, Belle Isle (Richmond) at 10,000, Salisbury (North Carolina) at 10,321 and Andersonville (Georgia) at 32,899.
Given the establishment of long-term imprisonment as punishment with the penitentiary program in the antebellum period, which emphasized just punishment and Christian treatment of inmates, and in light of the Lieber Code’s dictate (Article 76) that prisoners of war be treated with humanity, both Northern and Southern civilians expected that prisoners of war be afforded decent treatment and suffer no intentional maltreatment, cruelty, mutilation, or death (Art. 56). But the Lieber code also stated that all POWs were liable to the infliction of retaliatory measures (Art. 59) and could be made to work for the benefit of the captor’s government (Art. 76). Instances of prisoners of war working for their captors either in prison or on the public works, both as punishment and in order to cut costs, occurred at Camp Chase, Johnson’s Island, Salisbury, Andersonville, Old Capitol Prison, and Castle Thunder, among other prisons.
The breakdown of prisoner exchanges under the Dix-Hill Cartel in the summer of 1863 is often attributed to General Ulysses S. Grant and his alleged desire to capitalize on the North’s numerical superiority, but this interpretation is inaccurate. The Cartel, authorized in July 1862, called for equal exchanges of captured soldiers, with the remaining men to be paroled under pledge not to take up arms against the enemy until formally exchanged. Once the Lieber Code was issued in April 1863, the US government demanded that black soldiers be treated equally. This demand was in response to the Confederate government’s formal statement in May 1863 that neither black soldiers nor their white officers would be exchanged. President Lincoln consequently suspended the Dix-Hill Cartel on July 30, 1863 (General Order 252), only to be resumed if the Confederates agreed to afford white and black soldiers equal treatment, which they refused. Exchanges were effectively ended in August 1863, prior to Lincoln’s appointment of Grant to overall command. From that point forward, prisoner populations climbed and exchanges were never resumed despite the Confederacy’s conceding to demands regarding the treatment of black prisoners over a year after the Cartel was stopped.
CWI: How was the POW experience of African-American soldiers different from that of white soldiers? In what ways were prisons for spies, traitors, deserters, and dissidents similar to or different from traditional soldiers’ prisons?
ZOMBEK: African-Americans appear in prison records in a few instances. I’ve found that Confederate soldiers held at Camp Chase, for a time, were allowed to keep their slaves in prison. Columbus’s civilians got word of this and complained to the federal government, and eventually the practice stopped. At Andersonville, Confederate authorities often demanded that black inmates participate in work details outside of the stockade, which incensed some white POWs since the laborers got reprieve from the prison’s horrid conditions. They perhaps, however, failed to realize that this labor relegated black inmates to a position that was akin to slavery.
Despite Union and Confederate officials’ attempts to classify inmates, spies, traitors, and deserters often wound up incarcerated with prisoners of war. One distinction was that, prior to incarceration, deserters faced court martials which, given the stigma of imprisonment, often stripped soldiers of their title and/or rank prior to incarcerating them, a punishment most commonly reserved for criminals. Many Union deserters found themselves sentenced to the D.C. Penitentiary prior to its closure in September 1862. Some prisons, like those in St. Louis, primarily held Union deserters, Southern sympathizers, and political prisoners but, according to the Lieber Code, prisoners of war were defined broadly and included public enemies, soldiers, and citizens ranging from sutlers, to editors, to journalists, and contractors (Art. 49 & 50). Union and Confederate authorities often tried to segregate prisoners according to their offenses within each individual prison and, if they could, recorded prisoners’ offenses upon intake, but the classification scheme was difficult to uphold given the magnitude of the wartime crisis of incarceration and given the Lieber Code’s broad definition of prisoners of war.
CWI: We often tend to focus on the horrors surrounding soldiers who died in Civil War prisons. But, how did so many soldiers, North and South, survive Civil War prison life, physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually? What new sources—and resources—are being used to uncover, document, and interpret the experiences of Civil War POWs and prison workers?
ZOMBEK: The first survival method that POWs used was to hope against hope. Examples of this are common in prisoners’ diaries, which reveal that many men maintained hope up until their death. While their time on earth may have ended in prison, prisoners’ clinging to hope prepared them for freedom in heaven, which can be considered a form of survival. On the other hand, prisoners who fell into despair often, in a way, predicted and sometimes seemed to even hasten their own death.
Prisoners also clung to relationships with their loved ones at home to survive. Through written correspondence, prisoners either were satisfied with hearing from home and the normal daily routines, or urged family members to use social or political connections to attempt to hasten their release from captivity. Some succeeded, but others, by continuously directing family members regarding who to contact and how to plea for release, kept their minds and their idle time occupied, which aided survival regardless of the outcome.
The most common way that POWs withstood captivity was to place their hope in God and seek out religious instruction. Prisoners clung to and read (and re-read) their Bibles. They also often shared scriptural passages that were filled with hope with their family members in letters. Other prisoners held their own religious services in the absence of chaplains, took time to observe the Sabbath and meditated on how the day was playing out at home, or sought religious instruction, penance, Sunday services, and religious consul from visiting clergymen and women. Many prisoners believed that imprisonment was a temporary trial that God had willed for them, but believed that with His help, they could eventually make it back to their families.
GRAY: Prisoners’ survival depended on the background and the creativity of the individual inmate. Some found jobs with prison administrators and served as hospital stewards, clerks, or public works employees. The more entrepreneurial inmates worked inside their respective camps, becoming a part of the prison marketplace and selling their services or wares to comrades. Writing home was also a survival mechanism, as having a network of family and friends who could mail extra provisions to the prisoners certainly improved the inmates’ living situation. Emotionally, having contact with home, as well as friendships created inside prison walls boosted prisoners’ spirits and could facilitate the sharing of resources. Various primary sources, including letters, diaries, prison rolls, and quartermaster payrolls indicate such social networks.
Moreover, contracts and prison sutlers’ records indicate that prison work resulted in payment, and in turn the opportunity to supplement an inmate’s lifestyle. The archaeological record has also helped to enrich our working knowledge of prisoner life, with recent discoveries highlighting the diverse living conditions within various prison communities. Excavations at sites such as Johnson’s Island, Camp Lawton, Camp Douglas, and Elmira have produced a rich record of material culture, especially from features such as prison latrines, that has been critical to better understanding how Union and Confederate POWs lived, worked, and died in Civil War prisons.
 All statistics from this and the preceding paragraph from Speer, Portals to Hell, 323-340.
This post is part of a series featuring behind-the-scenes dispatches from our Pohanka Interns on the front lines of history this summer as interpreters, archivists, and preservationists. See here for the introduction to the series.
Unlike many other historic sites, Andersonville does not fit neatly into any one box. It is not a battlefield, although we still interpret the experience of soldiers and the ideas they fought for. It is not a historic home or building; the only original parts of the site left are earthworks. Andersonville is a Civil War site but tells a story common to every war. Andersonville National Cemetery contains the remains of American soldiers from every American war except for 1812. Unlike any other National Cemetery entrusted to the National Park Service (except for Andrew Johnson National Historic Site) Andersonville is an active cemetery. Andersonville does not have just one story to tell but rather many different narratives throughout different time periods. It quickly becomes difficult to cover this wide range of topics in a relatively short public program.
Over the course of this year, we’ll be interviewing some of the speakers from the upcoming 2017 CWI conference about their talks. Today we are speaking with Dr. Lorien Foote. Dr. Foote is a Professor of History at Texas A&M University, where she teaches classes in the Civil War and Reconstruction, war and society, and 19th-century American reform movements. She is the author of The Gentlemen and the Roughs: Manhood, Honor, and Violence in the Union Army (NYU Press, 2010), which received honorable mention as finalist for the 2011 Lincoln Prize. She is also the author of Seeking the One Great Remedy: Francis George Shaw and Nineteenth-Century Reform (Ohio University Press, 2003). Dr. Foote is the creator and principal investigator of a project with the Center for Virtual History at the University of Georgia that is currently mapping the movement of 3000 Federal prisoners of war who escaped from the Confederacy during the American Civil War. Her most recent book, The Yankee Plague: Escaped Prisoners and the Collapse of the Confederacy is forthcoming this October from UNC Press.
CWI: Which instances of Union prisoner-of-war escapes will you be discussing in your talk? Who was involved in these escape efforts, and what roles did they play? What impact did these escapes have on southerners and the Confederate war effort? What does a study of these escapes tell us about the soldier experience and/or the broader military, political, and cultural history of the war?
FOOTE: My talk will describe the mass escape of 2800 POWs from Confederate prisons in South Carolina between September 1864 and February 1865. When Confederate officials tried to move prisoners to keep them out of the path of Sherman’s army, bureaucratic problems and chaos created conditions that allowed hundreds of prisoners to escape from trains and from the open fields where they were being held. Once prisoners escaped, they sought the safety of Union lines on the South Carolina coast or in Knoxville, TN. Some tried to find Sherman’s army. These fugitives were aided by slaves and deserters, who provided them with food, guides, information, and shelter. Slaves created organizations and military companies to help the escaped Yankees which accelerated the collapse of slavery in the state. Confederate deserters often traveled to Knoxville with the escaped prisoners, and thousands of men traveled through the mountains in the winter. Loyal Confederates faced the threat of these vagrants on their own and refused to help defend their state against Sherman’s forces because they were trying to secure order in their farms and neighborhoods. Before Sherman’s army invaded, South Carolina’s war effort had collapsed. Continue reading “The Yankee Plague: Lorien Foote Discusses Escaped Prisoners and the Collapse of the Confederacy”
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. Continue reading “Pay Them Gratitude and Respect: Remembering the Civil War’s Prisoners of War”
When alternative band Quiet Hounds released Megaphona in 2012, they presented an album peppered with an impressive range of styles, from folksy ballads to pseudo-manic hipster club tunes. The album’s most unexpected choice, though, came in the form of its closing song, “Beacon Sun.” In it, the band’s lead singer carries a mournful melody. A hypnotizing rhythm runs through the track, underscored by the tattoo of a lethargic tambourine. Indeed, the track is more akin to a jazzed-up hymn than anything else, an impression that is not surprising to listeners once they heave themselves out of the indie haze long enough to catch the song’s lyrics.
Elmira’s history is very similar to that of Camp Chase. Before it was a prison camp, Elmira had been a military depot for training. The Elmira Depot in Elmira, New York, was a great place for a military training camp because of the railroad junctions running in and out of the town. These railroads would be necessary for transporting prisoners to Elmira later in the war. Like Camp Chase, Elmira became an overflow prison camp after the cartel failed in 1863. Many of the prisoners came from Point Lookout along the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland. Elmira was made up of barracks with the Chemung River running behind the prison. There was a pool of water in the middle of the camp three to six feet deep and forty feet wide. At one point there were approximately 10,000 prisoners at Elmira. There was only one successful escape made by ten prisoners, including Berry Benson, on October 6, 1864. There are fewer memoirs and diaries from Elmira than from Southern prisons, but many Confederate ex-prisoners published their experiences in the Confederate Veteran and other newspapers and journals.
Rations at Elmira were similar to those at Camp Chase. There was a regular routine with two meals a day; “so many days we had pork, so many days we had beef, so many days bean soup for dinner, so many days vegetable soup.” Sometimes there was even extra soup in the kitchen and the officers would tell the men to fall in line for extras. They also received bread in the morning and at dinner. While these rations were initially good, they soon decreased in quality. Bread was replaced with crackers in the winter, and King said the crackers caused diarrhea. While the rations were not ideal, compared with prisons in the South, the men at Elmira were well-off and had two meals cooked for them each day.
Even compared to Libby Prison and Andersonville, one can recognize that conditions in Northern prisons like Camp Chase and Elmira Prison Camp were not ideal. Indeed, disease, death, and starvation were abundant in both Camp Chase and Elmira. However, they contrast greatly to the even more appalling conditions later in Libby and Andersonville.
While Camp Chase, with an average of 8,000 Confederate prisoners, was not the largest prison camp in the North during the war, it represents the typical conditions in Northern prisons. Initially a training camp for Union soldiers, Camp Chase was built four miles outside Columbus, Ohio, and by 1861 it was already holding many Confederate “political prisoners.” It was meant to be a temporary prison, as the North was unprepared for the amount of prisoners that flooded their makeshift prisons. With the end of the cartel, Camp Chase was forced to become a permanent prison. The prison was divided into three prisons, though they all shared one wall separated by partitions. Prison 1 was the smallest, prison 2 was larger, but prison 3 was larger than 1 and 2 combined, measuring, as Private James Anderson described, about four acres. The prison consisted of barracks with bunks three tiers high and one stove each. Three memoirs of Confederate prisoners in Camp Chase give historians a good understanding of the general conditions and life they experienced while captive.
“When our country called for me we came from forge and store and mill.
From workshop, farm and factory the broken ranks to fill;
We left our quite happy home, and ones we loved so well;
To vanquish all the Union foes, or fall where others fell;
Now in a prison dear we languish and it is our constant cry;
Oh! Ye who yet can save us, will you leave us here to die?”
Libby Prison in Richmond became known for its horrible conditions; however, no prison during the war can compare to the cruelty at Andersonville Prison. It was built in February 1864, fourteen months before the end of the war, and in that short time devastating atrocities occurred which made Andersonville the most infamous of the Civil War prisons.
Camp Sumter, more commonly referred to as Andersonville, was a stockade prison near Andersonville, Georgia. Hemmerlein describes the fence as twenty feet high “made of trunks of pine trees set vertically into the ground” which surrounded the stockade. It was originally seventeen acres, enough for 10,000 prisoners; however, in June 1864 the Confederates were forced to expand it another ten acres. This was still not enough space for the 45,000 prisoners that were captive here throughout the war. The largest number of prisoners at Andersonville at one time was 33,000 in August of 1864. Nineteen feet from the fence was the “deadline” which became famous for the deaths of many prisoners who went near or touched the line. There was no shade or vegetation, and only a small stream ran through the middle of camp; it soon became contaminated with the soldiers’ waste. The only shelter prisoners had were tents that they erected if they had the means. While diaries from Libby Prison give historians a good understanding of the conditions of that prison, they cannot compare to the death and atrocities at Andersonville.
Episode Two of Special Collections Roadshow at Gettysburg College explores Colonel William B. McCreery’s Prisoner of War memoir and uses the text as a segway to discuss Libby Prison and POW experience. Filmed and edited by Val Merlina ’14