History 269 The Civil War and Reconstruction
Prisoners of War

      Terrible conditions existed in Union prison camps such as Elmira, New York, Johnson’s Island, Lake Erie, and Camp Douglas, Illinois; but generally prisoners suffered more in Confederate prisons due to the collapse of the Southern economy.  The two largest Confederate camps were Belle Island in Virginia and Andersonville in Georgia. 

Belle Island
Approximately 30,000 Union prisoners passed through a six-acre open air prison located on Belle Island in Richmond, Virginia.  Surrounded by the rapids of the James River, few prisoners dared attempt an escape.  Artillery placements were in place to prevent prisoner uprisings, but few had the strength.  Without adequate shelter, food or sanitation, they lived in squalor and misery.  At least 1,000 died.  At its peak in 1864 Belle Island held 10,000 prisoners with dozens dying each day.  (Today the island is a scenic historical park frequented by dog-walkers, bikers and joggers.  During the Civil War it was a place of unimaginable human suffering.)

The most infamous Civil War prison was Andersonville in Sumter County, Georgia.  The construction of the prison, officially named Camp Sumter, began in December of 1863.  A rail of pine logs running 25 feet inside and parallel to the walls, called the deadline, was created to discourage escapes.  The standing order was that prisoners crossing the deadline were to be shot by guards.  There were also earthen batteries outside the walls with artillery trained on the prison to quell uprisings as well as quash any escape attempts.


A total of 410,000 men were held as prisoners during the war: 195,000 Union soldiers and 215,000 Confederates.  Over 30,000 Union soldiers died in Confederate camps (15%), and 26,000 Confederates died in Union prisons (12%). 

The Exchange Cartel
In the early years of the war it was common for large numbers of soldiers who surrendered to be immediately paroled.  Prisoners were released on the promise not to take up arms again until restored to active duty though an exchange.  Many paroled prisoners returned home, but some found their way back into action prematurely.  (For example, Grant paroled over 30,000 Confederates after the surrender of Vicksburg; many of the same men were captured again in Chattanooga, having been put back into service in violation of their paroles.)  A formal exchange cartel was created in July 1862 but the exchange broke down in 1863.  The Confederacy refused to regard captured black Union soldiers as POWs.  "Slaves captured in arms" were threatened with execution (the absurd presumption being that black Union soldiers were escaped slaves engaged in "criminal insurrection").  This threat—and the fact that the exchanges were mitigating the South's manpower shortage—led Grant to suspend the cartel.

© 2004 David C. Hanson, Virginia Western Community College