Prisoners of war have long been an emotional subject. From 17th Century conflicts with Native Americans to the war in Afghanistan, the fate of POWs has aroused deep concern. Tales of mistreatment and brutality, from the notorious British prison hulks of the American Revolution to Vietnam’s “Hanoi Hilton” and beyond, have spurred contemporaries to protest and moved later generations to ponder man’s inhumanity to man.
America’s Civil War produced the problem of how to accommodate thousands of captured troops from both sides. The Union established a series of prison facilities and camps, from Boston Harbor to upstate New York, to accommodate the endless stream of captured Confederate troops. For the Confederacy the problem was even greater, particularly after the cessation of prisoner exchanges in mid-1863 prompted by their refusal to treat black POWs the same as whites. Up to that point prisoners were being exchanged one-for-one and relatively quickly. When faced with the sudden increase in Union prisoners, hastily built POW camps were constructed in Georgia, South Carolina and elsewhere. The effectiveness of the Union naval blockade, combined with the loss of foodstuffs and cropland due to military operations, meant that Confederate forces were frequently undersupplied, leaving little in the way of food, clothing, medicine and other supplies for POWs.
In February 1864 a new site, Camp Sumter, was opened in Andersonville, Georgia. Poorly situated and with inadequate facilities and water supplies, the prison, though expanded to nearly 27 acres, soon became grossly overcrowded. While some desperate POWs died trying to escape the tall wood stockade, thousands more succumbed to malnutrition and disease, much of it triggered by dismal sanitary conditions. New men arriving at the camp included many Connecticut troops, like Sergeant-Major Robert H. Kellogg of the Sixteenth Connecticut Volunteer Infantry, who described the prisoners he encountered as “mere walking skeletons, covered with filth and vermin.” By war’s end some 13,000 of the 45,000 “walking skeletons” at Andersonville had perished, including scores from Connecticut.
In the uproar following the war, camp commandant Major Henry Wirz was tried and executed for murder, though he had tried to encourage resumption of prisoner exchanges to reduce the number of prisoners confined there. Some Union camps also had their problems, like one near Elmira, New York (called “Hellmira” by some) which did not provide adequate food, sanitation and shelter against frigid weather. Some 25 percent of its 12,000 prisoners perished in the years 1864 and 1865.
As for the Andersonville site, it reverted back to farmland after the war, was purchased by the GAR in 1890 and was ultimately donated to the federal government. It is now a National Historic Site and hosts a museum dedicated to all American prisoners of war.
The Connecticut Historical Society has a large collection of Civil War manuscripts, photographs and objects which may be viewed by visiting the Waterman Research Center at One Elizabeth Street, Hartford, Connecticut. The Research Center is open Thursday from 12-5 and Friday and Saturday from 9-5. For more information, go to chs.org. Selected photographs of Civil War subjects may be viewed in Connecticut History Online at cthistoryonline.org.