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Setting the Stage

Civil War historians estimate that from 1861-1865 close to 700,000 Americans died as a result of the American Civil War. Statistically that was 2% of the population of the United States at the time. In 2003, 2% of the population would translate to roughly 6-7 million people.

Most Americans are familiar with names like Gettysburg, Antietam, Vicksburg, and Shiloh - sites of horrific battle carnage. It’s these places, whose names are often in bold in secondary school textbooks that reflect what we know or think about the Civil War. Yet out of the total number of deaths in the Civil War, 56,000 Americans perished in Civil War prisons north and south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Untold numbers of others had their lives permanently altered bearing the physical, psychological, and emotional trauma of enduring time in these camps.

While many may recognize the name Andersonville as the most notorious of the Civil War prison camps there were fifteen other places in the Union and Confederate Camps where prisoners were incarcerated.

When the war began both sides figured that it would be a brief encounter. Neither side was prepared for the catastrophic loss of life and hundreds of thousands of maimed soldiers. After the first battle of Bull Run/Manassas in July 1861, each side had to contend with something that they also had not figured in to the pre-war calculation, prisoners of war.

In the early stages of the Civil War prisoner exchanges were fairly common. A cartel was established by both sides to oversee the POW issue. This was difficult terrain for the Union in particular which did not want to recognize the legitimacy of the Confederate states. Soldiers were exchanged often to a pledge of parole agreeing that they would not take up arms again against their foe. Paroles were often ignored.

As the war continued and casualties skyrocketed it became evident to Union war planners that former southern prisoners were returning to the fight. Additionally, with the Union’s inclusion of African American soldiers as part of their army, southerners waged a war of retribution against black troops and committed atrocities, most notably the execution of black prisoners captured at Fort Pillow, Tennessee and those taken after the battle of the Crater during the Petersburg Campaign. In response to this, the Lincoln administration refused to continue to exchange prisoners. There was also a cynical side of this policy-if the Confederacy was forced to deal with large numbers of Union prisoners, it would further strain their limited resources. No doubt that thousands of Union men suffered in these camps as a result of this policy. According to Ed Bearss, Chief Historian Emeritus of the National Park Service, “There are no winners in the history of Civil War prisons.”1

1 Bearss, Edwin C.,personal conversation with James Percoco, June 14, 1993.

 

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