Death off the Battlefield: Civil War POW Camps

Andersonville Prison Camp
Andersonville Prison Camp

The deaths that resulted from prisoner of war encampment during the Civil War accounted for more than 10% of total war casualties. Created to hold captured soldiers until the war’s end, the POW camps would be more heavily utilized than they were ever intended to be. Both the North and the South constructed prisoner camps ill-suited to accommodate the incredible number of inmates that would come to inhabit them. Records from camps such as Elmira Prison in New York and Belle Isle in Virginia reveal that, as a result, prisoners were often left without proper shelter or supplies, braving both winter and summer exposed to the elements. Worse still, overcrowding in camp often meant that prisoners drank and lived in the very place they toileted, and disease ran rampant. Physical illness and exposure were the major killers in POW camps, but mental illness contributed as well. After meeting survivors of Belle Isle, poet Walt Whitman described his disgust at what the prisoners had endured: “…despair, hope utterly given out, and the more and more frequent imbecility.”

On some occasions, the conditions of the POW camps were a result of cruel camp commandants. Camp Douglas in Illinois carried a reputation for negligence. Union camp leadership purposefully cut ration sizes and quality for personal benefit, and upon its closing, the United States Sanity Commission reported that the filth of the camp (comprised of human waste as well as rotting bodies) could be cleansed with nothing but fire. Though some of the camps were run by sadistic commandants who operated only for selfish gain, the conditions of the majority of camps were more often than not outside of their control. A food and supply shortage struck the nation during the war years, and some camp commandants who were accused of cruelty genuinely did not have enough supplies to feed their overcrowded camps. Captain Henry Wirz, commandant of the POW camp at Andersonville, Georgia, was executed as a war criminal for not providing adequate supplies to prisoners. However, more recent interpretation of evidence indicates that it was likely he simply did not have the supplies to give.

George Washington Nelson, nephew of Hugh and Adelaide Nelson, found himself prisoner in Johnson’s Island, Ohio after being captured right outside of Long Branch in Millwood, Virginia in October of 1863. He was transferred to Point Lookout, Maryland shortly thereafter. Nelson’s early letters reveal a tolerable, if dull, life. He read, exercised, and took walks around the Point. This changed dramatically upon his transfer to South Carolina’s Morris Island. Upon his arrival, George became one of “The Immortal 600:” six hundred Confederate officer POW’s who were kept in an open stockade in front of Union batteries, in the line of fire of Confederate troops nearby. George and his fellow prisoners were exposed to 45 days of continual friendly fire before leaving Morris Island. George Nelson was again ordered to be transferred to another POW camp. Diseased, malnourished, and pining for his love at home, George was suddenly faced with the decision to pledge his allegiance to the United States. With a heavy conscious, George reluctantly pledged loyalty to the enemy nation, abruptly ending his two years of imprisonment in the Civil War POW camp system.


–Casey Marion, Long Branch Plantation Historic Site Interpreter


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