What It Was Like to Be a Civil War Prisoner

What It Was Like to Be a Civil War Prisoner


Camp Sumter, more commonly
known as Andersonville, was a Confederate-run
prisoner-of-war camp built to house Union soldiers
during the Civil War. Oh, and it was also a hellhole. Thanks to rampant disease,
overcrowding, and exposure to the elements, 13,000 men
died within its brief 14 months of existence. At its worst, well over 130
Union prisoners died every day. Today we’re going
to find out what it was like to be one of those
Union prisoners at Camp Sumter. But before we get started,
take a second to subscribe to the Weird History Channel. And let us know what weird
historical phenomenon, person, or event you’d like
us to cover next. Now we go to Macon County,
Georgia, in the mid-1860s. You have to remember,
the Confederacy could barely take care
of their own soldiers. So it was no surprise that they
had little provisions or care for their Union prisoners. Many of these Union soldiers
wore rags or nothing at all. Sometimes due to
the elements, they were robbed by their own rogue
comrades for their clothes. Union Private Prescott Tracy,
an Andersonville prisoner, gave harrowing firsthand
testimony on August 16, 1864, of his time captured. “The clothing of the men was
miserable in the extreme. Very few had shoes of any kind. Not 2,000 had coats and pants,
and those were latecomers. More than one half were
indecently exposed, and many were naked. These prisoners had no
protection from the elements either,” as Private
Tracy continued. “Our only shelter from the
sun and rain and night dues was what we could
make by stretching over us our coats of scraps
of blankets, which a few had. But generally, there was
no attempt by day or night to protect ourselves.” Escaping from Andersonville
was a routine pastime among the prisoners,
but the men who tried were rarely successful. And if they did escape, the
elements usually killed them. But that didn’t stop a
large segment of inmates from forming small groups that
would constantly dig tunnels under the fort’s
walls to freedom. POWs dug at night and
carried away the fresh dirt in their pockets,
letting it fall as they walked the camp during
the day, a la Andy Dufresne in Shawshank, while sick
inmates lay over the holes during the daytime so
Confederate guards wouldn’t discover their schemes. The exits of these
tunnels would end up towards the nearby forests,
approximately 50 feet from the walls. Unfortunately for the POWs, even
if they escaped Andersonville through a tunnel, they
were too weak to make a legitimate run for it. When these prisoners
were caught, they were either denied
rations, chain-ganged, or shot. Some prisoners escaped
by playing dead. Because so many
men died every day, it was easy for an inmate to
lay down with a bunch of corpses and then get carried out to a
row of bodies outside the walls and await their mass burial. As soon as night fell, the
men would get up and run. Almost immediately after it
accepted their first prisoners, a dozen or so Union
prisoners tied their clothes together to scale
Andersonville’s 15-foot-tall stockade. Confederate soldiers
caught them, which then inspired the deadline. The deadline was a simple
stake-and-wire fence which lined the inner
walls of Andersonville, and its function was simple. It acted as a warning track,
and it kept Union prisoners away from the prison stockade. Prisoners knew that if
they touched the deadline fence, much less
attempt to cross it, the Confederate
soldiers, who were stationed atop the stockade,
were ordered to shoot to kill. Enlisted Union soldier John Levi
Maile described the deadline. “It consisted of a
narrow strip of board nailed to a row of stakes
about four feet high. Shoot any prisoner who touches
the deadline was the standing order to the guards. A sick prisoner inadvertently
placing his hands on the deadline for
support or anyone touching it with suicidal intent
would be instantly shot at, the scattering balls
usually striking other than the one aimed at.” Food was nearly non-existent
at Andersonville. And when the Union prisoners
did receive rations, it was usually rotten and barely
fit for human consumption. Most of the men ate cornbread
made from ground corncobs and 4 tablespoons
of rice per week. When they were lucky enough to
receive meat, it was usually condemned pork, offensive
in appearance and smell. Private Prescott Tracy
went on to describe the Confederates dumping
rations onto the ground at 4:00 PM, feeding time. “It was the custom to consume
the whole ration at once rather than save any
for the next day. The distribution
being often unequal, some would lose the
rations altogether.” But the lack of rations
began even before these POWs reached Andersonville. Tracy stated that on the
five-day march to the prison camp, Union troops barely ate. The sum of their rations for
the five days was 13 crackers. The only source of water the
Andersonville prisoners had was a man-made
channel that trickled through the middle of the camp. The water came from a
nearby creek, which also served as the camp’s latrine. And it was filled at all times
with urine and fecal matter from the inmates. The Confederate
guards didn’t help, as it was reported that
they also contaminated the water on purpose. Private Tracy’s
testimony reported that the guards
frequently dumped a large amount of the vilest
material into the stream. The stream was the only source
of drinking and cooking water for the POWs at the camp. Unfortunately, it also kept
them sick for the entirety of their time there. Besides polluting the prisoners’
only source of clean water, Confederate guards inflicted
cruel and unusual punishment on their union prisoners. For example, when the
inmates got caught stealing– and there was a lot of
stealing amongst POWs– they’d be either
put in the stocks, or they were forced to
wear a ball and chain. And if a sick prisoner was
missing at the daily roll call, inmates might be
deprived of the ration. One Union prisoner,
John L. Ransom, a quartermaster of Company
A, Ninth Michigan Volunteer Cavalry, kept a diary during
his time at Andersonville. In one horrific scene,
he wrote about witnessing Confederate guards
shoot a sick POW. Ransom recalls watching the
feverish half-dressed POW deliberately walking
to the deadline, where the guard fired, sending
a ball through his brain. And the poor fellow
fell in the ditch. Ransom wrote, “Perhaps he is
better off and a much easier death than to die of
disease, as he undoubtedly would in a few days longer.” Basically a self-imposed
death by firing squad, and this method wasn’t uncommon. As bad as Andersonville’s
conditions were, its medical
facilities were worse. And attempting to
get first aid almost ensured ones excruciating death. Between February 25 and May 9,
1864, a total of 4,588 patients visited the prison hospital. 1,026 of those perished. Private Tracy worked as a clerk
in the Andersonville hospital. He reported, “I’ve seen
150 bodies waiting passage to the dead house to
be buried with those who died in hospital. The average of deaths
through the earlier months was 30 a day. At the time I left, the
average was over 130, and one day the
record showed 146.” Because over 100 Union
men were dying every day, the Confederacy was
having a difficult time dealing with the dead. Eventually, the
prisoners were forced to dig long, shallow pits
in order to bury their own. The POWs would then lay
their fallen comrades side by side, dozens
of men at a time, and cover them with fresh
dirt and planks of wood– no coffins, no
ceremony, nothing. Private Tracy touches on the
mass graves during his arrival to Andersonville. “On entering the
stockade prison, we found it crowded with
28,000 of our fellow soldiers. By crowded, I mean that
it was difficult to move in any direction without
jostling and being jostled.” Statistically
speaking, the longer you were within
Andersonville’s walls, the greater your
chances were of dying. But the Confederates did
offer their prisoners an out, with a catch. The Confederate Army
offered freedom and money for any Union soldier who
took an oath of allegiance to the Confederacy, a
tempting offer for sure. Picture it– living
in feces, no clothes no food, disease and
death everywhere. And to escape it all and walk
away with money in your pocket? It was a no-brainer,
but Union soldiers were a different breed. In one of Private Tracy’s
pieces of testimony, he reported that none
of his fellow Union men took the offer. It would have been so
easy for these soldiers to fake the Confederacy’s
allegiance oath, walk away free men, and
return back to the Union. But their honor and loyalty
to the United States knew no breaking point. As the Civil War came to an
end, news and photographs of the atrocities
at Andersonville started spreading, and
it horrified Northerners. After meeting with
recently released POWs, Walt Whitman wrote,
“There are deeds, crimes that may be forgiven. But this is not among them.” Much of the blame fell on Henry
Wirz, the Confederate captain at Andersonville and perhaps
the second-most hated person in America after
John Wilkes Booth. Two days before the Civil
War ended, Wirz was detained and soon after put on
trial for war crimes he committed during his
tenure as the man in charge of the Union’s prisoners. More than 100 witnesses
testified in the trial. Wirz was blamed for the loss
of over 13,000 Union men and received a sentence
of capital punishment. On November 10, 1865, at
the Old Capitol Prison in Washington DC, Wirz met his
end underneath the gallows. Just before his hanging,
Wirz told the officer overseeing the job, “I know
what orders are, Major. I am being hanged
for obeying them.” Decades later, some Southerners
felt that Wirz got a raw deal. After all, he said he was
just following orders. So in 1908, the United
Daughters of the Confederacy built a monument honoring
Wirz about a mile away from the prison
camp to rescue his name from the
stigma attached to it by embittered prejudice. It is one of the few
Confederate monuments that still stands today. We want to know what you think. Could history repeat
itself, and could America ever see another Camp Sumter? Let us know in the
comments below. And while you’re at it, check
out some of these other videos from our Weird History.

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About the Author: Sam Caldwell

100 Comments

  1. I say crap on Wirz as to following orders. I mean, some Nazis stated they were "just following orders".

  2. Just a one sided hit job. It wasn't like the Rebs had the ability to take care of the POWs any better and just chose not to. It wasn't like life was much better in a union camp and with most of their major cities undamaged by war what is their excuse because they shouldn't have any? Not to mention if power hungry lincon didn't send those yanks to invade the south they wouldn't have been in the camp in the first place. He is responsible for the death of more Americans then any other person or event in history of this Nation.

  3. Rebel bastards. Go cry in your ugly flag, losers. Your grandaddies were without honor. Southern Pride my arse.

  4. I have no doubt about the atrocities at Andersonville, and I’m sure the Union soldiers lived in squalid condition. In this video, there was much said about the clothing of the prisoners….some wearing rags, some with no pants or shoes, and some entirely naked. However, the many photos shown in this video don’t seem to support that. I’m sure that was true, but where are those pictures. I saw mostly soldiers completely clothed or wearing blankets to keep warm. Most had on shoes, shirts, pants, and many had hats, as well. I’m curious if some or many of these pictures were from other prison camps or other Civil War locations. I did see a scene that was taken on the Gettysburg battlefield that should not have been in this video about
    Andersonville. Did anyone else notice the difference between the pictures and the narration? I’m not trying to criticize or question the video. It’s just my attention to detail that makes me ask questions. The
    gallant soldiers on both sides deserve truth and honesty when describing what they went through.
    I would have liked to see the narration better match the pictures.
    Just my humble opinion.

  5. Say what you will about me but if there was dead people everyday I would have to steal a leg of a body and cook it up .

  6. I suppose it’s possible that things could degrade to the point that another Andersonville atrocity could happen but I don’t think it will.

  7. You should do a video on Andersonville’s northern equivalent. Elmira was a prison camp that held southern prisoners. It is said to be worse or equal to Andersonville.

  8. The union POW camp was as bad if not worse, especially considering a big factor in Andersonville's conditions were lack of Confederate resources which was an issue the union didn't have meaning the terrible conditions were deliberate or the very least could've been mitigated far easier than those in Aville.

  9. Yankee camps were just as worse so don’t give me the BS excuse that every CSA camps were bad a couple were liked by union soldiers such as here in Texas we have about 3 were loved an example of union cruelty to CSA prisoners such as If you stole you would be hung with the tip of your thumbs resulting in many of the prisoners dying and on purpose shooting such as one time when a union private fired at an CSA soldier who was escaping but the Minnie ball did not hit his target instead killing a 17 year old Mississippi private in his sleep and when the union soldier was on trial he said it was on purpose that he missed his shot

  10. No Confederate deserves any recognition. T
    It was a rogue state of traitors that we brought to heel 🖕😘

  11. So called “black peoples” aka the indigenous Americans were ALL prisoners of war. Slavery was a farce, blacks were already here, only a small fraction came from Africa.

  12. Today's soldiers are so fat, they are lowering the standards so they don't all get kicked out of boot camp.

  13. I'm from the south and have to admit that was very wrong. If the captain was following orders he shouldn't have been hung. That being said. General Lee was responsible. So much for southern hospitality

  14. No excuse given here, the way my southern neighbors treated their brothers and fellow citizens can never be explained or forgiven. It is of interest to note that Rebs did not fare so well in Northern camps either. It seems in every war, we condition our soldiers, same for other countries of course, but we train our soldiers to hate the enemy and consider the enemy soldiers as less than human and having no value. We then, on reflection, feel it was terrible that our soldiers could shoot innocent civilians or enemy soldiers in cold blood. Following orders is a necessary evil in any military organization; but, a soldier also has a duty to not follow an illegal order.

  15. Yeah.
    The Confederacy still does it.
    Look at any southern prison or jail.
    Classed as unconstitutional cruel and unusual punishment.

  16. No if we go socialist we get gulags (ГУЛАГ). Yes I fucking speak russian and am an American.

  17. Wow, this really makes the part of The Good, The Bad, and the ugly make a lot more sense. Wish High School would have been more gruesome in detail of World History and our nations history as well.

  18. From all accounts, being a Civil War prisoner was incredibly grim. The South especially lacked resources as the war proceeded, so all POW's were malnourished. In the North, the elements were most telling; few prisons had adequate, if any, heating. One can only imagine winters there. The worst prison, of course, was Andersonville, a point of shame in any case. Southerners retort that the Northern prisons were almost as bad, and this was in the North where food shortages were not rampant. Altogether, the record for both sides was poor. Thank goodness for the Geneva Convention which later brought a modicum of security and succor to the POW…

  19. With the supplies they had, the only real options they had when they took prisoners was this, or execution

  20. If we get rid of the statues that commemorate it yes history is doomed to repeat indoor to burn all history not just your own

  21. It's bad enough that southerners build memorials to traitors but to also build them to inhuman monsters is beyond comprehension. But then again,we currently have a president who pardons convicted war criminals. Some things never change.

  22. Do a video on the Texas disaster when the fertilizer blew up on those ships. (The “SS High Flyer” and cant think of the othe4 ships name or th3 port where the not-so-famous disaster happened. ) The explosion was so large that the ships anchor was found like 2 miles away. Or do a video on the Simi Valley, California nuclear disaster.

  23. That shit the rebels did to the water ultimately lead to the execution of there superior officer the assholes.

  24. Nowadays, under international law, all of this would constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity.

    No one, ever, deserves this kind of treatment.

  25. You best get this shit straight if your gonna tell it. Thought this said wierd history not slander the confederacy. Name me a nice union pow camp? Hell the one in Chicago had only 1000 less men die there so what's your point?

  26. While I feel horrible for these men and its heartbreaking to know what hell they went through, all that needed to be done was to allow the Southern states to have succeeded. We are a Republic and states individually or as mass, in our bylaws it is allowed. If you do ACTUAL research on Lincoln, you'll see his tyranny. He's not the great man people have thought for the last 150yrs. Even if you just look up the Emancipation Proclamation. It was only meant to free the slaves in the south in hope's to cause a rebellion across it so the Confederacy would have to fight on two fronts, weakening the line number of troops that could fight against the Union. The war was all over money and the need of the Northern states to thrive off the production of the Southern.

  27. Should have title it "how the confederates were mean to pows" one sided biased video. What about how the union treated Confederate soldiers? How about point lookout in maryland?

  28. If the Demoratic Socialists take over the Democrat party then yes we will see it again. Same people will be put in those camps, Republicans.

  29. I would love to know more about the Unseen heroes and underground movement of The resistance of World War II and their countless Heroism of helping the jewish people and prisoners of war escape to freedom.

  30. Following orders isn’t an excuse, if it’s an unlawful order or wrong, you don’t follow it, it’s always easy to blame your actions on those above you

  31. Question would we put up a statue to himmler for just following hitlers orders. Hell no!!! Why is this any different???

  32. They could have had a prisoner exchange or even said to hell with it and just released them. The South was losing the war, and the conditions in this camp was their way of getting even. No reason to make excuses for having so many men shoved into this disgusting quagmire of filth and disease…

  33. The incredible personal integrity, grit, and character these men possessed to be able to turn their backs on the opportunity to gain freedom by taking an oath. That sense of loyalty to their country is something we could use in our politicians today… These men had a sense of honor and courage that seems missing in so many today. Sad.

  34. The northern camps were no Sunday picnic either. Our guys recieved equal or worse treatment as the southern camps. And how would you treat someone who just came to your home and burned everything in sight. Fuck em.

  35. Henry Wirz had pleaded with union officers to resume prisoner exchanges to no avail. He then tried to just give them back and the union refused. They knew having to take care of prisoners was one more thing dragging the south down. Wirz was arrested and tried at the time the north was still enraged over the Lincoln assassination. The government offered to spare his life if he would have implicated Jefferson Davis in Lincoln’s assassination but Wirz refused. He was a total scapegoat.

  36. (Un)fun fact: Some Confederate guards would sometimes inadvertently (or purposely) shoot prisoners who were outside the deadline, before coming down to drag the dead body to the deadline, making it look like the prisoner had tried to cross it prior to being shot, so that they wouldn't get in trouble by their superiors

  37. I had 9 ancestors die in Andersonville. I never knew what they went through. Thank you for covering this

  38. Without a doubt life at Andersonville was pure Hell. You did fail to mention that the Union halted their prisoner exchange "program" which kept prisoner of war camps for both side, above their capacities. Also the atrocities committed by savage Union prisoners at Andersonville against other Union soilders. Gangs of dozens sometimes hundreds of these animals were guilty taking what few provisions and clothes the newly arriving soilders had. Brutal attacks on many of the soilders resulted in a huge number of the injuries and deaths at the prison.

  39. I woulda took the money and went home..I would have been smart enough to know that regardless of the outcome the states were going to change forever after that war..and i woulda wanted to live to see it..i also would never have charged head on into people shooting at me, regardless of what my 22 yr old general wants!, I guess the civil war was no place for a thinking man.

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