Usually in discussions of the Civil War and prisoners of that
war, the first images to surface are those of the infamous Camp
Sumter, Ga., better known as Andersonville. Historians also might
recall Confederate prisons at Florence, S.C., or Salisbury. It
must be hard for students to understand that Andersonville was
not the only prison camp and that the Union Army maintained several
prisoner-of-war camps, as well.
Until recent years, history has not been open
to the brutal deprivation suffered by Confederate prisoners in
Yankee camps. It's a story
begging to be told about the 11 Civil War POW camps spread across
the far reaches of the North. Places like Point Lookout, Md.; Johnson's
Island, northern Ohio; Camp Douglas, Chicago; and Elmira, N.Y.,
whose nightmarish conditions earned it the name "Hellmira."
In "So Far From Dixie: Confederates in Yankee Prisons," Phillip
Burnham paints a macabre scene of a mixture of events from the
Civil War, or more accurately, The War Between the States. He stirs
together a mess of humanity in the boiling cauldrons of Southern
battlefields and Northern prison camps. His sources of eyewitness
information remain alive through documents left by five men who
experienced firsthand the horrors of being Northern POWs.
Oddly enough, one of those five prisoners was a Union soldier,
Frank Wilkeson. A Union Army volunteer, only 16 years old at the
time, Wilkeson saw the worst kinds of criminals released from Northern
jails and transported south under guard for conscription into the
Berry Benson focused all his energy on escaping from the New York
hellhole, sometimes called Andersonville on ice. Constantly digging
tunnels with other prisoners, Benson felt a dire urgency to gain
his freedom, after having been transferred from other camps to
Anthony Keiley of Petersburg, Va., the better educated of the
prisoners, was a glib-tongue lawyer-politician who talked prison
officials into giving him a job that he enjoyed, logging prisoners
into Elmira. Then he had to start logging them out, up to 20 or
30 dead in a day. After the war, and always the politician, Keiley
became mayor of Richmond.
In one of his prison observations, Keiley wrote: "The Northern
people, and I speak from long acquaintance with them, care much
less for Negroes than we. ... It is the free states that have made
the most odiously discriminating laws against the Negroes as have
characterized Chicago and New York." He referred to the New
York City draft riots, a reminder that many of the white men who
stood guard over him had serious doubts themselves about the fighting
ability and intelligence of the black men who had joined the Union
army by the thousands.
Then there was John King, a skilled craftsman who refused to build
coffins for his fellow prisoners. And Marcus Toney refused to take
the Union oath of loyalty to gain his freedom, nor would he take
it until many years after the war's end.
Shocking images of gaunt figures with hollow eyes and protruding
bones that were released from the Georgia prison at Andersonville
have filled our history books. But little thought has been given
to the fate of Southern prisoners held in the north. If lessons
in morality are to be taught, it's that the South was starving
due to the pillaging and destruction wrought by the marauding hordes
of William T. Sherman in Georgia and Phillip Sheridan in the Shenandoah
Valley. With scarcely any food to feed Southern armies and civilians,
almost nothing was available for prisoners.
In locales such as Elmira, food and medicine was plentiful to
the Union Army. Still, Confederate prisoners were subjected to
starvation and death by diseases for which medicine was purposely
withheld. A unique method of thinning out the prison population
was to place inmates with smallpox in barracks or tents with "well" prisoners.
Malnourishment, exposure to extreme heat in the summer, extreme
cold in the winter, and water contaminated with sewage helped take
At Camp Douglas, in particular, prisoners wore lightweight clothes,
even during the biting Chicago winters, to reduce escape attempts.
Many Confederate prisoners froze to death.
Some of the Union prisons also became sources of entertainment.
Enterprising businessmen built tall wooden towers near the prison
fences. They charged civilians up to 10 cents a head to climb up
and watch the prisoners in the stockades, on display like animals
in a zoo.
The bathroom facilities often were no more than latrines -- trenches
out in the open. Everything was sport for the spectators. This
kind of unseemly entertainment was available for Northerners at
Camp Douglas and Elmira.
But perhaps one of the most villainous individuals at the prison
was a Union Army doctor, Major Eugene Francis Sanger, the hospital
chief and a "brute" in Keiley's estimation. By some accounts,
Sanger failed to provide even minimum attention to those under
his care, and some of his activities rivaled those of Josef Mengele
during a later war.
As Keiley wrote, Sanger's "systematic inhumanity to the sick" was
apparently a response to the rumors of alleged Andersonville atrocities. "I
do not doubt that many of those who died at Elmira perished from
actual starvation," reflected Keiley with bitter irony, who
believed himself to be "in a country where food was cheap
and abundant." Union Army medical officers at Elmira and at
Camp Douglas would likely have been brought up on war crimes charges
had the South won the war.
On July 19, 1866, Edwin M. Stanton, Secretary of War for the Federal
government, published a report about prisoners held during the
war. Figures in Stanton's report belie the cruelty often associated
with Confederate prison camps. From the first to the last, Confederate
armies captured and held in prisons 270,000 men. The Federal armies
held 220,000 men. Of the Federal prisoners in Confederate hands,
22,576 died. Conversely 26,576 Rebels died in "Yankee captivity" --
six times the number of Confederate dead at the battle of Gettysburg,
and twice that for the Southern dead of Antietam, Chickamauga,
Chancellorsville, Seven Days, Shiloh and Second Manassas combined.
The Confederates, with 50,000 more prisoners, had 4,000 fewer
Bill Ward is a writer, historical researcher, and public speaker
living in Salisbury. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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