When Surrender Was Worse Than Death: 8 Realities about Life at Andersonville Prison During the Civil War

When Surrender Was Worse Than Death: 8 Realities about Life at Andersonville Prison During the Civil War

Larry Holzwarth - October 6, 2017

In the early months of the Civil War, soldiers of both sides who were unfortunate enough to be taken prisoner could look forward to a short captivity. Both armies, officered by men who had largely shared training and military tradition, practiced the 18th-century procedures of parole and exchange.

Prisoners were exchanged between the armies on a rank for rank basis – private for private, sergeant for sergeant, fifteen privates for one colonel, and so on – while officers were freely granted the freedom of the enemy camp (within limits) in exchange for their parole – a promise that they would not try to escape or act against the enemy until they were properly exchanged. It was not unusual of an evening to see captured Union officers playing cards or sharing whiskey with their Confederate counterparts.

This civility – the dying gasps of chivalrous behavior – did not last once Northern generals grasped the hard facts of the situation between North and South. Compared to the South, the North had vast resources of manpower, while lost Johnny Rebs could not be replaced. It cost the enemy food, clothing, shelter, and manpower to restrain prisoners, something the North could afford and the South could not.

Prisoner exchanges helped the South by returning trained veteran soldiers to their ranks. By the same logic, forcing the South to care for Union prisoners in their custody drained resources and manpower.

When Surrender Was Worse Than Death: 8 Realities about Life at Andersonville Prison During the Civil War
A Chaplain conducts services. In the early days of the war it wasn’t unusual for officers of one army to attend religious services of the other. Library of Congress

When the South began to treat captured Union black soldiers – they were referred to as Colored Troops in the parlance of the time – as escaped slaves rather than prisoners of war, the North finally broke existing agreements regarding prisoners and the development of prisoner of war camps for extended custody began in the warring states. In the North camps opened in Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, New York, and elsewhere, often on the sites of former training camps for the steadily growing Union armies. Captured Confederate troops often found better rations and living conditions than they had experienced within the ranks of the dwindling Southern armies, at least until arriving at the prison camps.

In the South, Union troops held in Southern camps found somewhat different conditions. Many of the Southern camps were built near water which in the extended months of the Southern summer became mosquito-infested swamps, with attendant malaria spreading among the prisoners. Cholera and typhus were also rampant in some camps. The South had little food for its troops and less for its prisoners, a situation that worsened steadily as the war went on.

As has been the case in all wars throughout history, some officers and men chosen to serve as jailers over their vanquished enemies became tyrants without conscience, doing all they could to heighten the misery of their charges. Southern prisons became notorious for the suffering of the men held within, their names synonymous with misery. One such was Richmond’s Libby Prison. Another was Camp Sumter, known to history as Andersonville.

When Surrender Was Worse Than Death: 8 Realities about Life at Andersonville Prison During the Civil War
The open prison yard of Camp Sumter, also known as Andersonville Prison. Georgia Encyclopedia

Camp Sumter

Camp Sumter (known in the North as Andersonville Prison) was opened in south central Georgia during the winter of 1864, and during its just over one year of operation held up to 45,000 Union prisoners. Of these, almost 13,000 died. Some deaths were from complications of battlefield wounds poorly treated, but most were from malnutrition leading to scurvy, dysentery, typhus, and other deadly diseases which today are easily controlled through proper diet and hygiene. The prisoners subsided largely on parched corn, chicory weed, and rarely, dried salted fish.

The main source of freshwater was Stockade Creek, which ran through the camp inside the fence line, and was unfortunately used by many men as both a washing place and a sewer, ensuring that the water further downstream but still within the camp was polluted. Warmth was provided by open firepits and a few scattered stoves, and while the camp was surrounded by forest little wood was provided to the prisoners, nor were they permitted to forage.

During wet months or following heavy summer rains, Stockade Creek turned a large portion of the enclosed grounds into bogs and swamp, infested with the impressively aggressive mosquitos and blackflies of the Deep South. Despite these and the diseases they carried, the majority of the deaths in the camp were from other causes, chiefly scorbutic dysentery (known as the bloody flux) a severe form of diarrhea caused by a shortage of vitamin C.

The majority of prisoners lived in thrown together hovels covered with scraps of blankets or rags, or else in the open air, as the construction of the planned wooden huts to house the prisoners were never completed.

When Surrender Was Worse Than Death: 8 Realities about Life at Andersonville Prison During the Civil War
With the newly finished Capitol Dome looming in the background, the gallows for Henry Wirz, Commandant of Andersonville, is prepared to execute him for war crimes. Library of Congress

Henry Wirz

Camp Sumter was commanded by Captain Heinrich Wirz – known as Henry Wirz – a Swiss-born former physician’s assistant who had worked as a plantation overseer and physician, caring for the health of his employer’s slaves, in Louisiana just before the war. He gained combat experience and a wound at the Battle of Seven Pines and later served as an emissary to Europe while an aide to General John Winder, who was in charge of prisoners of war. When the camp at Andersonville was established Wirz was assigned to command.

In fairness to Wirz, he immediately recognized the dire nature of the situation within Camp Sumter and petitioned his own government for aid in the form of food, medicines and other basic supplies. When the Confederate government denied his requests, Wirz, on his own initiative, selected five Union officers from the Camp rolls and sent them under a flag of truce to Union authorities, bearing with them a petition for aid written by the incarcerated prisoners.

The petition, received by the Union in July 1864, described the conditions of the camp and implored a resumption of the exchange program, which would set the prisoners free. Given the large number of Confederates held by the Union following the Gettysburg and Vicksburg campaigns, such an exchange, or any other aid, was deemed to be aiding the enemy. Grant denied the petition (at Lincoln’s direct request), rightly judging that the South needed the returned prisoners more than the North, although he deplored the conditions as described.

Wirz became to history a villain along the lines of the commandants of Japanese or Nazi prisoner of war camps, a symbol of monstrous cruelty to the victorious North, despite 145 witnesses (out of 160) testifying that they had never seen any act of cruelty performed by the camp commander. Others testified to his outright humanity, and the point was made at his trial for war crimes that the Union Naval blockade had been equally responsible, if not more so, for denying medical supplies and other materials to the prisoners in the camp. Nonetheless, Wirz was convicted of war crimes and executed for the same, one of the earlier examples of such a fate being imposed upon a vanquished enemy.

When Surrender Was Worse Than Death: 8 Realities about Life at Andersonville Prison During the Civil War
Escapees were often hunted down with dogs and men experienced in hunting escaped slaves. Library of Congress

Escapes and Resistance

Prisoners of war have immense amounts of time on their hands, a situation which all armies strive to avoid the creation of “busy work.” In the case of Camp Sumter, the prisoners were often too weak from the effects of near-starvation or the ravages of diarrhea to do anything but bask in their misery in the oppressive Georgia heat and humidity. Yet some intrepid souls, despite the threat of death, sought to escape the bounds of the camp and return to their units.

Escape was especially promising due to the fact that the enemy, and the grounds to be traversed on the way home, were populated with people who spoke the same language. In the growing confusion surrounding the nearing end of the war, it was possible for a soldier to escape and simply make it back home, rather than return to duty, and many tried. Success was fleeting.

Of the 351 escape attempts recorded by Confederates, 32 soldiers made it back to Union lines and rejoined their units. While this number does not take into account any escapees that simply returned home it does give an idea of the difficulties involved in not only clearing the camp but making it to the Union lines while suffering the effects of malnutrition. Many escapees undoubtedly died on the run, making up the discrepancy between Confederate records of those who slipped away and Union records of those who made it home.

The US Army retains the record of the 32 successful escapes from the camp, and occasional pertinent facts. For example, one such escape occurred when Nicholas Williams slipped away from the camp on the 1st of May, 1865 – three weeks after the surrender of Robert E. Lee and as the war, and the South, was dwindling down. By that time it was possible for a prisoner with the strength and inclination to simply walk away, as Williams did.

When Surrender Was Worse Than Death: 8 Realities about Life at Andersonville Prison During the Civil War
The Union’s Anaconda Plan blockaded the South into starvation – and Union prisoners along with it. Library of Congress

The Union Blockade

One of the primary strategies of the Civil War on the part of the Union was known as the Anaconda Plan. Proposed in the opening days of the war and strongly backed by Abraham Lincoln, the plan called for the powerful US Navy to blockade all Southern ports, seize New Orleans and the major cities on the Ohio and Mississippi, (Memphis, Vicksburg, Louisville and Cincinnati), and gradually starve the south.

As the war went on Cavalry raids by the ever more efficient Union horsemen destroyed the critical farmlands which were the only source of food to the Confederate troops, medicines were interdicted by Naval resources, and new clothing and blankets became scarce since the South lacked sufficient factories to produce the minimum needed.

Southern civilians suffered enormous privations. Southern troops in the field suffered even greater. Forced to live off of the land in war-ravaged Virginia and Tennessee, the Confederate armies found few crops and little livestock on which to subsist. By 1864, the Southern railway system, essential to moving what little supplies were available, was largely in the control of their enemies from the North. Into this cauldron of want, the North thrust the responsibility of caring for prisoners of war when the South could barely care for itself. The cancellation of any exchange program burdening the South with more mouths to feed ensured the suffering of the mouths placed in their care, a seemingly callous but militarily justifiable decision.

There is little doubt that the success of the Union strategy caused great suffering in the South, and by extension to those prisoners held by the South. This has often been cited as an example of Grant’s inhumanity and for his callous regard of casualties. Both arguments are unfair. The end of the prisoner exchange was decided well above Grant’s rank – today it would be said to be “above his paygrade” and occurred well before he was in charge of all Union armies. He did recognize the need for it, despite the hardship it caused, and like the good soldier he was he supported it publicly while lamenting it in the privacy of his personal diary.

When Surrender Was Worse Than Death: 8 Realities about Life at Andersonville Prison During the Civil War
The true death count in the Sultana explosion will never be known, due to the greed of speculators who grossly overloaded the steamboat. Harper’s Weekly

The Sultana

After the surrender of Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia, the Confederate government fled its capital of Richmond, Virginia and for the most part the Civil War was over, despite General Joseph Johnston’s army remaining defiantly in the field. Enterprising businessmen on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line began looking for ways to profit in the confusion, before military governments and martial law came to hamper private enterprise. Transporting former prisoners of war home was one such possibility. Parole camps were established near river ports, including Vicksburg, and prisoners were transferred from Southern camps such as Camp Sumter to the parole camps. Officially there was no government to which they could give their parole, but that was a minor difficulty when immediate profits were to be made.

From the parole camp many of the survivors of Camp Sumter, emaciated, sick and officially still members of the US Army, were readied for transportation north, via the steamboat Sultana on the Ohio River. Arrangements were made for the US government, through the Army’s quartermaster corps, to pay $5 per enlisted man transported and $10 per officer. Sultana was accordingly overloaded to the point of near swamping. Sultana had experienced problems with its boilers while en route to Vicksburg, but that did not stop its captain from loading his vessel with more than 1,900 “paroled” prisoners of war, along with crew members and at least 70 paying passengers who were no doubt displeased at the severely crowded conditions they found aboard.

For the next two days, Sultana struggled upriver against the spring floods, crippled by its failing boiler, vastly overloaded, and its crew hampered in their movements by the overcrowded conditions. When only a few miles north of Memphis during the early morning of April 27th the weakened boiler exploded, and the concussion caused the explosion of two others in short order. Sultana became a drifting, flaming, wreck overloaded with men weakened by their lengthy and debilitating captivity.

Although rescue operations on the busy river began almost immediately the combination of fire, the frigid water of the Mississippi in spring, and the weakness of many passengers made for a heavy death toll. About 760 survived. The official death count has never been confirmed, based in part on the number of additional passengers packed aboard beyond the official manifest in anticipation of collecting the princely sum of $5 per head.

When Surrender Was Worse Than Death: 8 Realities about Life at Andersonville Prison During the Civil War
The Raiders preyed upon the guards and fellow prisoners alike. There existence helped prompt the creation of a Code of Conduct for American servicemen following the war. New York Public Library

The Andersonville Raiders

There was no Code of Conduct for US Troops during the Civil War, a fact which vexed Abraham Lincoln, who pushed for the Army to adopt one. Since the idea of prisoner of war camps was a new one, the means by which existing military discipline could be carried through within the confines of a camp was unknown to American military science.

It became contingent upon the men themselves, through force of personality and physical prowess, to enforce some semblance of discipline. For most of the prisoners, life in Camp Sumter, as in other Southern prisons, soon disintegrated into Darwin’s as yet undefined method of natural selection.

Prisoners developed extensive social networks within the confines of the camp, often including the Confederate guards, who were essentially not much better off than their charges in terms of food and health. Food and tobacco became currency, as did clothing, blankets and most importantly of all, information regarding military and camp activities. The proximity of Sherman’s army and the range of his cavalry units was not lost on prisoners or guards, and attempts to reach them were frequent.

In this atmosphere, a group of prisoners emerged as the Andersonville Raiders, who used clubs, cooking knives and any weapons they could fabricate to rob and kill fellow prisoners, and if necessary intervening guards. A group soon formed in opposition which called themselves the Regulators, and which tried captured Raiders in Kangaroo courts before administering sentences which included death by hanging. The Confederate administrators were too weak to intervene with the breakdown of discipline, and Wirz’s recognition that the prisoners were, in fact, running the prison was one factor in his decision to send a deputation to the North to ask for assistance.

When Surrender Was Worse Than Death: 8 Realities about Life at Andersonville Prison During the Civil War
Part of Dorence Atwaters Death List of Prisoners. Atwater retained the original list until his death in 1910. National Park Service

Notable Prisoners

On July 1, 1863, Newell Burch, serving with the 154th New York Volunteers, was captured near the town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. For the next few days, he was held behind the lines as Lee’s army and that of General George Meade flung themselves at each other in the greatest battle ever fought in North America. When the defeated Confederate Army decided to withdraw to Virginia Burch, with other prisoners, was offered in exchange. When the offer was rebuffed, he withdrew southward with the battered Confederate Army, reaching Richmond Virginia long before his comrades in the Union Army of the Potomac.

He was temporarily held in Richmond’s Belle Isle prison before being transferred to Camp Sumter, arriving in late winter of 1864. Burch survived the war and left a detailed diary of his experiences, including his experience in treating gangrene in other prisoners. By the time the war ended he had spent 21 months as a prisoner of war, the longest-tenured POW of the Civil War. Burch’s diary provides a great deal of information on the workings of both Belle Isle and Andersonville prisons, as well as the morale of the Army of Northern Virginia in the days following the Battle of Gettysburg.

Dorence Atwater was one of the first arrivals at Andersonville and was tasked by his captors with recording a list of all prisoners who died at the camp. Diligent in his work, Atwater kept a second copy for himself, which he kept hidden from his captors, having rightly concluded from the prevailing conditions in the camp that the original would never be seen by official Union eyes. Eventually, he recorded the names of over 13,000 Union prisoners and upon his departure from the camp he carried the list with him in his laundry bag.

After the war, Atwater’s list was instrumental in identifying many of the grave markers in the National Cemetery which grew out of the Camp Sumter graveyard. Eventually, the death list was presented to Horace Greeley, who ensured its publication in the New York Times, which prompted the until then lax federal government to publish an official copy.

Atwater eventually became United States Consul to Tahiti, and after marrying a Royal Princess of the Island he alternated his time between residences in Tahiti and San Francisco. He lived through the San Francisco Earthquake and Fire of 1906, although his home was destroyed, and eventually died in 1910, still in possession of the original list.

When Surrender Was Worse Than Death: 8 Realities about Life at Andersonville Prison During the Civil War
Camp Elmira – called Hellmira by its Confederate inmates – had a death rate which rivaled Andersonville – despite plentiful supplies. New York Public Library

Andersonville was no worse than other camps

In Richmond, the Capital of the Confederacy, captured Union officers were confined within the walls of a former tobacco warehouse, three stories in height, and like most tobacco warehouses light and airy. In its early days as a prison, it was used to hold officers who were awaiting exchange, and courtesy visits from Confederate officers who were often former classmates of the imprisoned were commonplace.

As the war dragged on the number of prisoners increased, and insufficient sanitary facilities made themselves felt. Prison windows were barred rather than glazed, and exposure to Richmond’s chill and damp winters encouraged disease. The greatest problem, as at Andersonville and other camps in the South, was insufficient food, clothing and medicines, problems which also beset the Confederate Armies and population.

Northern Prisoners of War Camps did not face the problems of blockade and military defeat limiting their resources, but Southern prisoners of war often faced the same grim odds of survival as their counterparts in Southern camps. Camp Elmira, in New York, was on the site of a former Union Army training camp, with immediate access to two major northern railways. It was used as a prisoner of war camp from July 1864 until one year later, in 1865.

During that year of operation, 12,000 prisoners would be assigned to the camp which they dubbed “Hellmira” and almost 3,000 of them would perish to disease, malnutrition, exposure, and poor sanitation. A goodly amount of these deaths were retaliatory; Northern commanders, having heard of the harsh conditions faced by Union prisoners in camps such as Andersonville, were determined to match those conditions for Confederate prisoners of war.

The media of the day, mostly the New York newspapers, downplayed the conditions of the northern prisons, some of which were worse than Elmira, while exaggerating the suffering in Southern prisons (if such were possible). The fact is that conditions on either side were virtually the same, but the South shared its privations with the general population and the army. On the other hand, the prosperous North fielded a well-fed and equipped army and supported a booming wartime economy as the prisoners in its care suffered from appalling conditions. The mortality rate for Camp Elmira was 24.5%, for Camp Sumter 28.7%. The death rates for other camps on both sides were similar. In short, the life expectancy of a prisoner of war during the Civil War was often worse than that of a front-line soldier.


Sources For Further Reading:

Civil War Academy – Anaconda Plan: How it Helped the Union Win the Civil War

The Great Courses Daily – The Anaconda Plan of the American Civil War

National Park Radio – The Shipwreck That Led Confederate Veterans to Risk All for Union Lives