Civil War POW (Prisoner of War) Camps

  • Definition of POW - Any persons in arms or attached to the hostile army who falls into the hands of the enemy regardless of his social or military standing, his mental state, is a prisoner of war.
  • Around 56,000 men died in civil war prisons, more than any single battle during the Civil War
  • Over 150 prisons were created during the civil war

Number of Prisoners Taken

  • The practice of taking prisoners was carried on to a great extent. The number of prisoners taken reached a huge number so large that during the closing months neither the south nor the north had ample time to make the preparations necessary to receive them
  • The most accurate researchers of how many prisoners was taken by both sides is done by committee of five of the House or Representatives of the United States in the session of the Fortieth Congress during the years 1868-1869. Reveals no less than 476,169 Confederates were captured. Number of federal men taken by Confederates 188,145. Not all seized were taking into custody some were paroled after the battle thus according to the committee report 22,297 of the 35,782 confederate officers 225,472 of the 426,852 enlisted men and 830 out of 13,535 private citizens were released. This number of parolers as well as the original enormous total of captures is explained in part by the fact that in it are included armies of Lee, Johnston, Taylor, and Kirby Smith that surrendered to the union forces during April and May of 1865
  • Number placed in total confinement totaled 227,570. This must be discounted somewhat as much as 10,000 citizens were released on oath before having spent any appreciable time as prisoners, while 2098 have been recorded as escaped and 5452 gained their freedom by enlisting in the service for the United States. At the same time 3084 recorded as captured but not accounted for

The Confederates

  • Took 188,145 captives included as nearly as can be determined 7092 officers, 179,091 enlisted men and 1962 union citizens. Total paroled estimated about 94,000 which would leave the numbered placed in confinement at approximately the same figure. 2696 escapes 3170 enlistments in the Confederate armies besides the number unaccounted for
  • It can be seen that the Federal Government held nearly two and one-half times as many captives as the Confederacy during the four years of the war

Limited Capacity

"Tent City"

Civil War Prisons immediately provoked controversy. The first authoritative study of both Southern and Northern wartime prison systems, the book exposed several myths, including the widely held assumption that Confederate leaders conspired to kill their prisoners through deliberate neglect. William Best Hesseltine demonstrated that the North shared responsibility with the South for the poor treatment of prisoners, and that it had little to brag about in its own camps. Furthermore, Hesseltine argued that some in the North had conducted a propaganda campaign aimed at impugning the "southern character," thus creating what he called a wartime "psychosis" that made it easier for the Union to believe the worst of the Confederacy. The major problem in every Civil War prison camp was overpopulation and ignorance of either side to do more to improve conditions in the camps. Each of the over 150 prison camps contained a number of prisoners that exceeded capacity astronomically. The numbers of men captured during the war was simply too much for either side to manage.
POWs must be supported at the expense of the captor and must receive the same care in respect to food and clothing as that according to the soldiers of the capturing army. That being said, too many numbers brought on a shortage in supplies, including food. With these crowded and cramped conditions, disease broke out and conditions arose that were described as even worse than battle. Among the diseases that spread throughout the camps was cholera, malaria, and small pox. Gangrene also was prevalent in the camps, a disease that could only be stopped with amputations. The overpopulation of these camps led to the creation of "tent cities." Even with this attempt at order in prison camps, the death tolls continued to climb. Starvation was another problem. Prisoners would even resort to trying to catch and eat rats that would run around the camp.

Shelter and Sanitation

Crude Shelters

  • The North and South both had huge problems with providing protection for their prisoners of war against the element of rain, cold, and sun. The Federal Government failure to cope properly with the questions of housing the men confined to there care. The stockades were the worst conditions for both the south and the north. Men who failed to make some kind of shelter out of whatever materials they could find were left to live out in the elements. Many men would use branches from the trees around to make huts after those materials were used the soldiers would use their blankets and make them into tents. Men would team up by pinning two blankets together over a bar stretched between boards or sticks so they would have refuge from the sun and morning dew. Some were made by pinning three blankets together and tying ends to poles to form a semi circular tent. Under this a hole two to three feet was dug, but this found little advantage, since every time a sudden downpour of rain occurred the holes filled with water and the soldiers forced to flee their hut. Those who had no blankets tried to make tents out of their clothes, but that was worthless. Many people burrowed in the ground like animals rather than expose themselves to the elements
  • No shelters were provided by the Confederate Government in its stockade prisons. Except for Camp Oglethorpe at Macon Georgia, were the majority of the inmates were federal officers who were generally supposed to be shown a little more consideration than the private solider, but who as a matter of fact fared little better. The government furnished a small supply of lumber with which the men were able to build a number of sheds about 75 feet to one hundred feet long and about 20 feet wide. They were open all sides, a fact which rendered them of no great values but which, one of the inmates reveals was necessitated for two reasons first the shortage of lumber and secondly because the large number of men crowded into them made it necessary to admit just as much fresh air as was possible. Those who did not find room in the sheds made tents, in burrows or in the open. No bedding given the most comfortable place was the hard damp ground.
  • The exact opposite from the huts and blankets tents in the Southern prison grounds there were to be found in the North the orderly rows of barracks characteristic of federal prisons. An example of this was to be found at Elmira Prison Camp. The building was rectangular in shape measuring about one hundred feet in length by twenty feet in width were made of wood and were fairly well sealed to keep rain out and wind. The floors were wood but had no foundation under them so that it was difficult to keep the interior from being cold and damp during the fall and winter months. Two stoves were placed in each building which would help raise the temperature during the winter. Bunks were constructed made of straw and some blankets
  • North - all these camps cleanliness the arrangements for the disposal of waste the rules governing the prison. President H.W. Bellows of the Federal Sanitary Commission recommended on that account but this together with the other features is traceable largely to the commandant in charge his fellow officers the guards and the general character of the men confined. No preventative measures were taken to deal with dirt and filth of the prison camps. The presence of refuse of all kinds in the open fields was common. At Elmira the stagnant body of water within the enclosure called Foster’s Pond served as a depository for all the refuse from the sinks and cookhouses and soon the pond became a veritable cesspool, emitting a most offensive and unhealtful odor. Arrangements were made for the construction of a ditch to make possible both outlet and inlet connections with the river, but work on the project was delayed so long that the benefits derived were only felt during the latter part of the camp history
  • South - the stockades had similar conditions at Andersonville, where neglect was carried to extremes. Swamp situated at eh northern end of the field, together with the stream bisecting the grounds was used as a sewer where soon a putrefying mass off refuse and excrement accumulated giving off a most horrible smell. Due to not being able to get away from the filth the sick and healthy men forgot all hygiene and personal cleanliness. A confederate physician inspecting the camp reports that men were brought from the stockade to the hospital building begrimed from head to foot with every kind of filth and dirt and sometimes so black from their shabby tattered clothing was infested with lice and other insects while flies in great numbers swarmed about their foul smelling bodies
  • Another thing that made the camps so filthy was the way in which the prisoners disposed sewage. The rule was to use open ditches a method which is not sanitary but which seems to have been a result of ignorance rather than neglect


With the lack of sanitation and proper nourishment sickness prevailed to an alarming degree the number of sick was at all times high. There was also a shortage of physicians, medical supplies, and of proper care, and as a consequence a great deal more suffering prevailed and a high mortality rate resulted. The problems in the north were not as server as in the south. Many camps were supplied with medical officers and hospital accommodations and the difficulty seems to have been rather in putting them to use. Doctors Hun and Cogswell of Albany, NY after inspecting Camp Douglass reported under date of April 5, 1863 to Doctor William H. VanBuren of the Sanitary Commission that in the hospital the men were obliged to lie in cots without mattresses or with mattresses furnished by private charity, without sheets or bedding except blankets in wards reeking with filth and foul air . from January 27,1863 to February 18,1863 one hundred thirty prisoners died in the barracks unable to gain admission to the hospital. shelter.png
Later in the war the hospital conditions improved, accommodations for the sick increased in quality and quantity and there were more surgeons and medical supplies at hand. In April1864 there were five hundred and sixty beds in the hospital and 17 surgeons. At Elmira the entire camp was divided into wards to which the physicians were assigned. Minor cases in barracks, serious were transferred to the hospital of which there were ten or twelve each accommodating 80 patients.


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Andersonville Prison

The original name was Camp Sumpter. Andersonville was constructed in early 1864 in Andersonville, Georgia. Andersonville was one of the largest and most notorious camps in the Civil War. At one point during the war, around 33,000 prisoners called this 27 acre piece of land home. The camp was originally meant to hold about 10,000 prisoners. Andersonville also would see the end of the war with a death rate of 29% of its total prisoners, the highest of any other camp during the war. One of the key problems with Andersonville was Stockade Creek. The prison camp didn't have any sort of restroom besides a large creek near the camp that was named Stockade Creek. The prisoners basically turned this creek into a huge bathroom that was full of diseases. Of course, nobody went in this creek but whenever a rain storm would come and this creek would overflow, the camp would be consumed in a disease infested filth with no possible escape from it. Those who weren't associated with Andersonville would sometimes gag and vomit at the very smell of the camp. The daily death toll surpassed 100. Many of the prisoners were left without any sort of shelter and were completely exposed. Food was another issue. The South was having trouble feeding its own soldiers much less its POWs. As a result, starvation was prevalent and resulted in thousands of deaths. However, disease and starvation weren't all the prisoners had to worry about. Due to the lack of guards to keep order WITHIN the camp, a group of prisoners arose who called themselves "the raiders." The raiders would arm themselves with whatever was handy and would attack the other prisoners and steal jewelry, food, clothing, etc. They would even kill those who resisted. In order to stop this, another group was created and called themselves "the regulators." They basically rounded up all of "the raiders" and put them on a trial consisting of inmates. Punishments were handed down and some of the "the raiders" were even hanged. Others would have to run a gauntlet of prisoners lines up with clubs and other various weapons. Andersonville was home to over 45,000 prisoners during the war and about 13,000 of those died. Upon hearing about the terrible conditions, many Northerners were outraged and wanted revenge. However, the North had plenty of camps that demonstrated the same treatment of their prisoners. However, despite this, Henry Wirz, the commander of the camp, was tried and hanged for war crimes during his time at Andersonville.
Prisoner at Andersonville

Escape Attempts and Pastimes

The mentality of the inmates was, of course, at an all time low. The prisoners had to find ways to keep their spirits up in order to stay alive. In order to cope with the conditions, prisoners would create thespian clubs along with debate teams. They would also arrange snowball fights whenever snow would fall. One of the things many prisoners did besides coming up with newspapers and games was try and escape. Some escape attempts were elaborate and others were simple but clever. The attempts ranged from tunneling out of the prison camps to things like covering themselves in charcoal and escaping with the black servants. Prisoners would sometimes pretend like they were sick or dead in hopes of being taken outside of the walls and dumped or left for dead. As mentioned, one huge way of escape was to use charcoal to make themselves appear to be African American in hopes of walking out of the prison with the servants. Though it seems like a terrible idea, it was so widely used that in many prisons the use of black servants was prohibited. Tunneling was the most widespread method of escape. One of the most famous escapes by way of a tunnel was from a Confederate prison by the name of Libby Prison and it was located near Richmond, Virginia. The tunnel was approximately 60 feet long and was dug with clam shells and case knives. It was called the "Great Yankee Wonder" or the "Great Yankee Tunnel." Around 109 Union prisoners escaped through this tunnel and later on about half were recaptured and returned to Libby Prison. Regardless of the low success rate, escape attempts were prevalent at all prison camps in the Civil War.

After the War
Civilians in both the North and the South had issues with the treatment of prisoners. However, even after hearing their complaints, both armies didn't do anything to improve the conditions. As with Andersonville, the North wanted the South to pay for the treatment of prisoners but they seemed to turn their back on their own treatment of Southern prisoners. This was a hotly disputed topic for years to come. The atrocities of Civil War prisons are now known to America. Every generations helps out with this "healing process." The terrible conditions of the camps along with the horrible treatment continues to shape how Americans handle POWs in modern wars of recent and any wars we will have in out future.

Number of People
Yes (%)
No (%)
Was the North justified in their quest for revenge for the South’s treatment of POWs?
Could both sides have done more to improve conditions in prison camps?
Should POWs be treated with full quarter even if the opposing army doesn’t demonstrate the same treatment towards their POWs in return?


Hemmerlein, Richard F. Prisons and Prisoners of the Civil War. Boston, MA: The Christopher Publishing House, 1934
A Perfect Picture of Hell: Eyewitness Accounts by Civil War Prisoners from the 12th Iowa. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2001
Hesseltine, William. Civil War Prisons. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1930
Marvel, William, Andersonville: The Last Depot, University of North Carolina Press, 1994
Chipman, N.P. The Horrors of Andersonville Rebel Prison. San Francisco: Bancroft, 1891