Civil War POW Camps

by Deanna Spingola

February 29, 2012


Mike Wright wrote, “On both sides of the war, men and women were locked away in dark prisons or held in outdoor camps under blistering sun and freezing snow. They were fed too little and lived and died under primitive conditions.” [1] There were approximately 193,743 Northerners and 214,865 Southerners held during the war. Over twelve percent of the prisoners died in Northern prisons while over fifteen percent died in the South. This is attributed to the superior hospitals, physicians, medicines, and foods available in the North. Consequently, there should have a notable difference in favor of the Union. [2] Roughly, 56,000 prisoners died during their captivity – 30,000 Union soldiers and 26,000 Confederates due to the failures of the incarcerators to maintain proper shelter, or provide adequate food and medical attention. Both sides of the conflict concealed the horrific conditions that existed in the camps. Author Reid Mitchell asserts that the topic of Civil War prisons is the “least studied subjects relating to the Civil War.” [3] Perhaps it is because it set an egregious precedent for the treatment of “enemies” in subsequent U.S. wars.


The Confederates were barely able to procure food for their military and thus it was not a high priority. The North had a better distribution and administrative system. Prison guards, in both the North and the South, were frequently poorly disciplined Home Guards who were unqualified for other more responsible positions. Captives were confronted with questionable personnel and arrived at conclusions about their captors based on the example of those patrolling the prison fences. [4] This may be the case in any prison environment, deliberate or incidental.




Though we typically only hear about the horrors of Camp Sumter, also known as Andersonville, both the North and the South had prison camps. Together there were more than 150 POW camps. Some of them may have been old forts, buildings or warehouses. Some camps provided tents; others provided no shelter. The camps were more deadly than the war. The skeletal survivors of the camps resembled survivors of the camps, both National Socialist and Eisenhower’s camps following World War II. [5]



After winning the Battle of Chattanooga, some of the federal troops wanted to continue to Andersonville and free the federal prisoners. They had heard the horrific rumors. However, their commanders wanted to raze Atlanta first rather than free their own soldiers. From February 1864 to April 17, 1865, The Confederates incarcerated 41,000 Union soldiers at Andersonville where they died at the rate of a hundred per day. More than 13,000 prisoners died at Andersonville, a twenty-six acre compound. Water came from a branch of the Sweetwater Creek. It served for washing and drinking. Unfortunately, the privies also drained into the creek. [6] Many prisoners in Andersonville probably contracted hookworm and other deadly diseases from which they died. [7] Prisoners at Andersonville froze in the winter and blistered in the summer, as there was no shelter except from tree branches, a few tent parts and bits of wood planks. Food consisted of cornmeal, including the ground-up cobs. Captain Henry Wirz, the only Confederate official executed for war crimes, commanded the camp’s inner stockade. [8] Thefollowing two pictures are prisoners at Andersonville:

Andersonville      Andersonville1


Camp Morton, a Precedent


Northerners are quick to point the moral finger of slavery and Andersonville which often silences any reasonable dialogue. Yankees compare Andersonville with the National Socialist camps. Any media presentation of POW camps during this fateful war focuses on Andersonville at the exclusion of the North’s hellish Camp Morton. The Union tried, convicted, and executed Henry Wirz, the commander of Andersonville, for alleged crimes that occurred before he took charge of the camp or while he was away from the camp due to illness. The Union called 160 witnesses to testify against him. Of those witnesses, 145 testified that they had no knowledge of Wirz killing or mistreating anyone. Only one witness could provide the name of a victim Wirz supposedly killed. The Union did not allow key defense witnesses to testify while the prosecution handpicked witnesses to solidify their case against Wirz. The Union gave its most convincing witness a written commendation and a first-rate government job. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton reported that a higher percentage of Southern POWs died while incarcerated than Northern POWs. [9] The Union hung Wirz on November 10, 1865 but later exonerated him. [10]


The Union appointed Colonel Ambrose A. Stevens as the new commandant of Camp Morton on October 22, 1863. John A. Wyeth, a Confederate prisoner of the Union, arrived at Camp Morton, near Indianapolis, Indiana in late October 1863. He survived the camp and went on to become a physician. Years later, he exposed the horrific conditions at the camp in the April 1891 issue of Century Monthly Magazine. Other victims of the camp then came forward and corroborated Wyeth’s disclosures. According to Wyeth, the Union had erected the camp on about twenty acres of ground that they formerly used as a fairground. They enclosed the camp by a twenty-foot high plank wall. There was a rivulet running through the middle of the camp with sheds on both sides. They initially assembled the sheds to house cattle. [11]

They built the walls of wooden planks which had shrunk and separated. There were four tiers of bunks on each side of the “barracks” which extended seven feet out towards the center. They housed 320 men in each shed. The lowest tier was one foot off the ground; the second was three feet above the first and so on. The Union allowed prisoners about two feet each with their heads next to the wide cracks of the wall with their feet towards the building’s center. The snowy winter weather in 1863-64 decreased to twenty below zero. Each man had one blanket. During a storm, snow would usually cover this meager blanket by morning. The men suffered tremendously as they were unaccustomed to cold weather which lasted until April. [12]

Prisoners, walking skeletons, regularly died of starvation on a daily ration that was not enough for a single meal. The prisoners augmented the meat rations by harvesting the camp’s rat population. Gangrene resulting in death from untreated frostbite was an issue. In the crowded squalid sheds, vermin and parasites were an aggravating challenge. Close personal contact, inadequate scanty clothes, and no bathing or sanitary facilities contributed to the failing health and starving conditions of the prisoners, many of which were under eighteen years of age. The guards physically abused the prisoners who also suffered constant mental abuse. The sadistic guards immediately shot many of them or bludgeoned them to death for minor infractions. The guards, possibly for sport or retribution, repeatedly shot through the flimsy-walled sheds during the night. Wyeth left this hellhole in February 1865. Two thousand young Confederate soldiers died at Camp Morton. [13]


Some of the sheds did not have bunks, so the prisoners had to sleep on the damp, cold ground in the sheds. Prisoners, dirty, cold, lousy and emaciated, slept in their clothes to “keep from freezing.” A Sergeant Pfeifer would walk through the sheds with a heavy stick thrashing left and right into the heads of the starving prisoners yelling – “this is the way you whip your Negroes.” Pfeifer was just one of many brutes who delighted in abusing the POWs. [14] There is sufficient data to document the cruelties of camp life at the hands of the Union, during the War for Southern Independence combined with the ethnic cleansing of America’s indigenous population. Those simultaneous wars served as a perverse prototype for future camps and untold millions of victims, all concealed by government policy and obedient officials.


The Department Encampment of the Grand Army of the Republic refuted Wyeth’s claims. The department said it could not imagine why Wyeth and others would fabricate such stories. Century Monthly Magazine then allowed Wyeth another opportunity to expose Camp Morton’s horrors. His first exposure brought a flood of articles and letters published in newspapers nationwide. There were claims that the government paid contractors to supply adequate food but the prisoners never received it due to internal theft. Like the Indians, the Confederates were also at the mercy of corrupt politicians and their crooked cronies. [15]


[1] What They Didn't Teach You about the Civil War by Mike Wright, Presidio Press, Novato, California, 1996, p. 153-170

[2] Civil War Prisons edited by William B. Hesseltine, Kent State University Press, Kent, Ohio, 1972, Heseltine’s original work was published in 1930. p. 6

[3] On the Road to Total War, The American Civil War and the German Wars of Unification, 1861-1871 edited by Stig Förster and Jörg Nagler, German Historical Institute, Washington, D.C. and Cambridge University Press, New York, 1997, pp. 565-566

[4] Civil War Prisons edited by William B. Hesseltine, Kent State University Press, Kent, Ohio, 1972, Heseltine’s original work was published in 1930. p. 7

[5] What They Didn't Teach You about the Civil War by Mike Wright, Presidio Press, Novato, California, 1996, p. 153-170

[6] Ibid, p. 153-170

[7] Civil War Prisons edited by William B. Hesseltine, Kent State University Press, Kent, Ohio, 1972, Heseltine’s original work was published in 1930. p. 6

[8] What They Didn't Teach You about the Civil War by Mike Wright, Presidio Press, Novato, California, 1996, p. 153-170

[9] The South Was Right by James Ronald Kennedy and Walter Donald Kennedy, Pelican Publishing Company, Gretna, Louisiana, 1991, pp. 45-47

[10] What They Didn't Teach You about the Civil War by Mike Wright, Presidio Press, Novato, California, 1996, p. 153-170

[11] Den of Misery, Indiana’s Civil War Prison by James R. Hall, Pelican Publishing, Gretna, Louisiana, 2006, pp. 57-59

[12] Ibid, pp. 57-59

[13] Ibid, pp. 60-63

[14] Ibid, pp. 79-83

[15] Ibid, pp. 74-77