The American Civil War remains the bloodiest war the United States has ever fought. More than 600,000 Americans died in the war. It remains one of the most important time periods in American history and is something that even today is often debated and discussed with much importance (the recent protests and discussions surrounding Civil War memorials just to name one instance of the Civil War still playing a role in today’s society).
Like all wars, prisoners play an important role in the interaction between the two sides. How those prisoners are treated are a hot-button issue. For the majority of human history, POWs have not been treated well. In fact, it has only been recently that there have been international agreements on the treatment of prisoners that the majority of the World has agreed to follow.
The Civil War is not unusual when it comes to the treatment of POWs. For the first two or so years of the fighting, the North and the South had an unofficial cartel parole program that allowed for the almost immediate exchange of prisoners between the two sides.
This all changed in 1863 when the exchange system fell apart, and both sides started to collect captured soldiers from the opposing side.
The reason for the collapse is a bit complicated, as the source material is inconsistent. The reason that is seen the most is that the program shut down because the North was upset that the South failed to return the majority of Black prisoners, as the Confederates considered them slaves, and not members of any Army. The freemen from the North were treated badly, and in a lot of cases executed outright.
The other reason that you’ll see in historical sources is more mundane. Those sources state that while the above is true, the real reason for the breakdown of the exchange program was that Ulysses S. Grant saw an opportunity to use the North’s manpower advantage, by capturing and holding as many Confederate soldiers as possible.
Whether or not the breakdown happened for humane or military strategy reasons, it did break down. What followed demonstrated the treatment of prisoners of war at its absolute worst.
No matter what you read on the Internet, the Confederacy was not alone in its dismal treatment of captured soldiers. By the end of the war, the death rate percentage-wise was almost equal between the North and the South. For example, Camp Douglas, the North’s largest prison camp, saw a mortality rate of between 17 and 23 percent between 1863 and 1865, most of those dying from overcrowding, lack of supplies, and the brutal Chicago winters.
Despite all that, there is one prison that has garnered a very bad reputation, and for very good reasons. Andersonville, or Camp Sumter as it was officially known, has garnered a lot of attention by historians as the worst of the worst when it comes to Civil war POW camps.