During the Civil War, more than 674,000 soldiers from both sides were captured and held prisoner. Nearly 25,796 Southerners died while being held by the Union, while 30,218 Union men perished in Southern camps. Combined, the death rate among prisoners of war was 13 percent. On the battlefield, only 5 percent of men died, which meant that soldiers faced a better chance against cannon and rifle fire than they did in the camps, where men mainly died of disease, exposure and malnutrition.
Tradition Of Poor Housing
To some extent, the death rates among POWs could have been avoided if there had been better housing, but the Civil War continued a tradition of bad housing for POWs in American history. During the American Revolution, the British held American prisoners in the rotting hulls of ships, while the Colonials put captured British prisoners in the dreadful Newgate Prison in Connecticut -- essentially a mine shaft. The problem during the Civil War was made worse by the fact that both sides expected a much shorter war. As a result, there was little preparation for building POW camps in a nation with no experience in creating them to begin with.
The result was infamous prisons like Rock Island, a Union camp situated in the midst of the vast Mississippi River. At Rock Island, Federal Quartermaster General M.C.Meigs ordered that the prisoners' barracks “should be put up in the roughest and cheapest manner -- mere shanties, with no fine work about them.” As a result, 1,964 Confederate soldiers -- out of 12,400 -- would die in the poor conditions.
When Confederate POWs began to arrive on Rock Island in November 1863, it was in the middle of a bad winter, and they began to die by the hundreds in the leaky housing. The poorly dug and located latrines were so bad one Union doctor called them “a seething mass of filth.” Furthermore, there were no hospitals for the men, and those with smallpox were housed in barracks with healthier men, causing contagion to spread.
Tents For Housing
The Confederates also had their share of noxious POW camps. At the infamous Andersonville Prison in Georgia, the Confederates ultimately housed 45,000 Union soldiers in a stockade meant for 10,000 men. Equally abysmal was the Confederate-run camp on Belle Isle, located west of Richmond, Virginia, on the James River. Only a few shacks were provided for housing and no barracks were ever built for the Union POWs. Flimsy tents were eventually put up, but not enough to go around. All told, about 1,000 men would die of exposure and disease by the time Belle Isle closed.
- Portals to Hell: Military Prisons of the Civil War; Lonnie R. Spear
- The War of Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union Army; United States War Department, Henry Martyn Lazelle, Leslie J. Perry
- National Park Service: Civil War Era National Cemeteries: Rock Island Confederate Cemetery
- Civil War Academy: Belle Isle Prison
- Photos.com/Photos.com/Getty Images