'Portals to Hell: Military Prisons of the Civil War' Excerpts Pg 1
Portals cover

By Lonnie R. Speer

© 1997 by Stackpole Books
5067 Ritter Road
Mechanicsburg, Pa. 17055

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Lonnie Speer
Author Lonnie R. Speer
INTRODUCTION

More than 674,000 soldiers [were] taken captive during the Civil War. It amounted to nearly 16 percent of the total enlistments; more than in any other war, before or since.. . .

In the beginning of the war, most of the captives were released on parole in the field but, later, nearly 410,000 were held in over 150 different compounds throughout the country for periods ranging anywhere from a few days to several years. These institutions were established all along the East Coast . . . They began as prisons or holding facilities but, with few exceptions, quickly became nothing more than American concentration camps. Prisoners were crammed into them with complete disregard of capacity limits, hygiene, nutrition, or sanitation needs. Within a short time neither government could cope with the problems created by such a high concentration of people in such small areas or the lack of coordination within the prison system. In the end, more than 56,000 prisoners of war died in confinement, and many more were in poor or failing health when released. . . . Both [the Civil War and the American Revolution] were fought for independence, both included cases of brother fighting against brother and father against son, and both created bitter controversy regarding the treatment of POWs held by each side.

In the Revolution, the British confined their POWs in the hulls of ships anchored offshore. One such prisoner, held on the prison ship Jersey, wrote in August 1781 that up to eleven prisoners died each day on the ship while two hundred more sick and dying remained confined. The Colonists held their prisoners in such places as the Newgate Prison in Connecticut, which was nothing more than an old abandoned copper mine with a perpendicular fifty foot-deep shaft as its main entrance. There, English prisoners were confined in dark, dripping, noxious underground galleries. Before long, Newgate became infamous to the British, but other holding facilities used by the Colonists were just as bad. The Continental government used whatever structures were available in addition to their jails during the war. Some of them included the Old Sugar House on Liberty Street in New York City, along with several of the city's churches. . . .In the end, many hundreds on both sides died of disease, starvation, and cold.

The Civil War, however, was unique in two aspects: All POWs held by both sides were Americans, and the number held at any one time was higher than in any other war. The overwhelming number held, in itself, would be responsible for much suffering and death. . . .

Another fate that POWs often suffer is a certain amount of individual or collective retaliation that is used against those captured. . . To their captors, confined troops were the embodiment of the opposing army-a group that frustrations and anger could be vented against on a personal level. The anger might result from the death of a friend or loved one from the war, a certain lost battle, or frustration over the war in general. These hostilities were acted out by a wide variety of groups, including prison commandants and guards-many of whom were unqualified for their task during the Civil War-as well as the press, the public and, sometimes, even the government holding them.

On several occasions during the Civil War, a combination of these groups became involved. The New York Times accused the Federal government of treating prisoners of war better than its own troops. The paper noted that prisoners were lounging around and getting fat while Union prisoners held in the South were starving. Before long, other newspapers carried the campaign, publishing articles and editorials that aroused and inflamed the public's anger. Soldiers' relatives and politicians quickly became involved, which resulted in retaliatory measures being instituted against Confederate prisoners. As the newspapers continued to complain about poor treatment of those held in Southern prisons, food rations to Confederate prisoners were cut in half and harsher treatment ensued.

It was also near this time in 1863 that the North stopped exchanging prisoners with the South . . .The whole purpose of taking prisoners of war is to allow them to live while depriving the opposing force of their service. For many in the Civil War's prisons, though, to have been killed on the battlefield might have been more humane. Those who were captured found that their most intense battle was simply to survive until the end of the war. For over one-eighth of the total fighting force, it became the cruelest struggle of the entire conflict.

OVERVIEW

On June 3, the small schooner Savannah was captured along with her crew of twenty men. The first privateers captured by the North, they were taken to New York City and incarcerated at the Tombs prison.

On July 11, Major General George B. McClellan took several hundred Confederate prisoners at Rich Mountain, Virginia. These were all paroled except for two who had previously served in the U.S. Army. Under orders from the War Department, those two were retained and sent to Fort Lafayette prison in New York City for confinement.

But even before uniformed soldiers or sailors were captured as POWs, people were taken into custody and incarcerated in provost prisons in many parts of the nation. These included deserters, stragglers, and citizens whose loyalty to the government had become questionable.

In an attempt to crush secession sentiment in the North, President Lincoln claimed the right to suspend the writ of habeas corpus as part of the war powers granted by the Constitution. A number of citizens were arrested on suspicion without warrants, imprisoned without charges, and incarcerated for months or years without trials . . . Government authorities of both sides appointed a provost marshal for each of their military districts to suppress insurrection, preserve order, and maintain discipline. Although highly controversial, searches, seizures, and arrests were made in many communities across the nation under their authority. . . .In fact, many citizens throughout the North found themselves incarcerated for various periods for making critical comments or offhanded remarks about the government. And still more people were accused of disloyalty for doing business with the wrong people, without any formal charges or investigation, and were later exonerated when the proper authorities finally looked into the matter.

The number of citizens arrested and imprisoned in this manner during the course of the war has never been determined because accurate records never kept. According to one report, 13,535 citizens were arrested and confined on various charges between February 1862 and April 1865 in the North alone. According to that same source, a comparable number of arrests would have occurred in the South, and many more were probably made by military commanders or provost marshals that went unreported.

Each major city, North and South, had its own holding facility for such prisoners of state" or political prisoners. Local jails were often used, such as in Baltimore, but other facilities-such as Fort McHenry in Baltimore, Lynch's Slave Pen in St. Louis, Castle Thunder in Richmond, Fort Lafayette in New York, Fort Warren in Boston, and Old Capitol Prison in Washington City began as provost prisons and later evolved into POW facilities.

Eventually more than 150 military prisons came into existence. Of that number, only two --Fort Warren in the North and Raleigh Barracks in the South -- were considered tolerable. All others varied only in the degree of filth, disease, illness, and death.

Those 150 prisons can be grouped into seven classes:

Existing Jails and Prisons. The first to come into use, these ranged in size from small city j ails-such as those at Selma, Alabama; Savannah, Georgia; the Tombs prison in New York; and Castle Godwin in Richmond -- to medium-sized county jails such as the Parish Prison in New Orleans and the Henrico County jail in Richmond to large state prisons such as those used in Virginia; Huntsville, Texas; Columbus, Ohio; and Western Penitentiary in Allegheny City, Pennsylvania.

Coastal Fortifications. Second to be pressed into use, mostly in the North, were forts along the Atlantic. Prime examples of these included Fort McHenry at Baltimore, Fort Warren in Boston, Fort Lafayette, Columbus and Castle Williams in New York, and Fort Delaware below Philadelphia. The South did, however, have one facility of this type-Castle Pinckney in Charleston Harbor.

Old Buildings Converted into Prisons. This type, used primarily in the South. . .The North used a few of this type also . . .

Barracks Enclosed by High Fences. These were groups of wooden buildings on a large plot of land previously used as basic-training camps or rendezvous points for recruits. High fences were later built around the camps to enclose and confine POWs. This type of prison existed mostly in the North: Camp Chase in Columbus, Ohio; Camp Douglas at Chicago, Illinois; Camp Morton in Indianapolis, Indiana; and Elmira in New York. A number of these were originally fairgrounds before becoming troop rendezvous points.

Clusters of Tents Enclosed by High Fences. This was one of the cheapest methods to confine prisoners, and it existed in both the North and the South.

Barren Stockades. By far the cheapest and worst of the seven types constructed, this was used exclusively in the South. These stockades were constructed around a number of acres that included no shelter except what individual prisoners could construct for themselves.

Barren Ground. This last type was nothing more than the gathering of prisoners on barren land, surrounded with a guardline. The outer limits of the camp were often marked by crossed sticks, branches, or several batteries of cannon directed at the gathering. Outside these markers, a line of sentries stood or patrolled back and forth. Mostly used by the South late in the war, this method was utilized by the North on some occasions after a major battle.

The North and the South both began with a hodgepodge of facilities for holding their prisoners of war because the already established jails and prisons were quickly filled beyond capacity. It wasn't at all uncommon for some of the first POWs to be incarcerated along with the local thieves and murderers. The provost prisons were utilized next. These, too, quickly filled. Pressed for both time and space, the North began converting forts into POW facilities. . . .

The scattered system of prisons that evolved in the North soon became unsatisfactory from a military standpoint. . . . The North finally established some order in its chaotic prison system in October 1861. Lieutenant Colonel William H. Hoffman, who had been part of the 8th U.S. Infantry-the regiment that had surrendered in Texas and was released after taking the oath not to take up arms against the Confederacy was appointed commissary general of prisoners. He was soon promoted to colonel and he set to work on the structure of the prison system. Hoffman was a methodical, budget-conscious administrator, and insisted that money be spent only on absolute necessities. "So long as a prisoner has clothing upon him, however much torn," he maintained, "issue nothing to him."

Hoffman centralized the system so that all correspondence regarding prisoners of war passed through his hands. He also established rules to guide the prison commandants and developed an elaborate system of inspections and reports. . . .



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NYCHS presents
these excerpts
with the author
and publisher's
permission.
Their rights
are retained.
Portals cover © 1997 by Stackpole Books
5067 Ritter Road
Mechanicsburg, Pa. 17055

To access more information on this and
other Stackpole Books, go to
http://www.stackpolebooks.com