The Life of a Prisoner at Camp Sumter During the Civil War
The Life of a Prisoner at Camp Sumter During the Civil War

The Life of a Prisoner at Camp Sumter During the Civil War

Larry Holzwarth - July 23, 2021

The Life of a Prisoner at Camp Sumter During the Civil War
General Howell Cobb and other senior Confederate officials were well aware of the conditions at Camp Sumter, yet continued to send prisoners there. Wikimedia

10. Confederate officials knew of the conditions of Camp Sumter in the summer of 1864

Apologists for the Confederacy later claimed the government in Richmond remained unaware of conditions in Camp Sumter. Official documents and personal records captured after the war proved otherwise. Officials responsible for the care of prisoners of war were informed of the dire situation at the camp and failed to respond. General Howell Cobb, one of the founders of the Confederacy in 1861, knew of conditions there. He received reports from Fathers Hamilton and Whelan, Bishop Verot, Confederate Army officers, and Protestant ministers who visited the camp. Yet efforts to ease conditions there were virtually non-existent. Cobb had been instrumental in locating Camp Sumter at Andersonville. During the summer of 1864 he continued to advocate relocating prisoners from other facilities to the camp. The population of the overcrowded prison expanded throughout the summer.

During the summer Dr. Joseph Jones arrived at Camp Sumter to inspect the facilities and report to the Surgeon General of the Confederate States of America. Reportedly, during his somewhat hasty visit, he vomited twice at what he saw in the camp. His official report included a description of a “defective system of police”, as well as “bad air, bad food, and neglect of personal cleanliness”. In his conclusions, Dr. Jones wrote, “Finally, this gigantic mass of human misery calls loudly for relief…for the sake of suffering humanity…”. Yet Confederate authorities continued to increase the overcrowding of Camp Sumter throughout the summer. Dr. Jones also decried the lack of medical supplies and professionals, indicating in his report that most of the attendants and nurses were paroled Union troops, better fed and clothed than the rest of the prisoners.

The Life of a Prisoner at Camp Sumter During the Civil War
Confederate Captain Henry Wirz, Commandant of the prisoners at Camp Sumter. Wikimedia

11. Daily existence among the prisoners focused on survival

Without a secure police procedure from the guards, and with the breakdown of military discipline among the prisoners, life in Camp Sumter was dangerous. In his report, Dr. Jones wrote, “…the stronger preyed upon the weaker” of the prisoners. He also reported, “…even the sick who were unable to defend themselves were robbed of their scanty supplies of food and clothing”. Social groups arose in the prison. Men collected into groups based on shared experiences, their home states and towns, and other things held in common. These groups housed together, ate together, and moved about the camp together. Some formed for mutual protection. Others formed for mutual predation. Wirz did not punish theft among the prisoners, though he punished harshly for theft of Confederate property and supplies.

Wirz failure to exercise control over the prisoners led to the formation of an organized gang which became known as the Andersonville Raiders. The Raiders, which numbered around 100 at their peak, used several tactics to better supply themselves in the prison. They targeted new prisoners as victims for theft. They used strong-armed tactics, theft by deception, sneak-thievery, and even murder during their brief reign of dominating the camp. In late June, 1864, a victim of the Raider’s thefts requested an audience with Wirz. Wirz responded by announcing to the camp all rations were to be withheld until the prisoners turned in all of the Raiders. Wirz effectively made the prisoners responsible for their own security by denying them their food. Another group of prisoners organized as what they called the Regulators.

The Life of a Prisoner at Camp Sumter During the Civil War
This lithograph was prepared and marketed in the 1880s by a former prisoner in Camp Sumter. Wikimedia

12. The Regulators arrested and tried several of their fellow prisoners

The group known as the Regulators had existed before Wirz issued his demand for the detention of the Raiders. But his statement granted them greater power, as well as the authority to both detain and try men suspected of crimes. Most of the Raiders were seized by the vigilante force between June 29, and July 10, 1864. The prisoners who formerly lived in fear of them established a court, including a jury, a judge, and a prosecuting attorney, to try the men. For those found guilty, as most were, the prisoners had at their disposal all of the disciplinary measures available to the camp. Among these were the stocks, thumbscrews, stringing up by the thumbs, whipping, and even execution by hanging. Most of the convicted Raiders were forced to run the gauntlet, beaten by two rows of men armed with clubs and whips.

Some of the men sentenced to the gauntlet were met their end by beating, or passed away shortly afterwards from the injuries sustained. The six most hated of the Raiders, accused of founding the criminal enterprise, were sentenced to hang. On July 11, 1864, the prisoners erected a gallows in the camp. One of their prisoners attempted to flee, but Confederate guards caught him and returned him to their executioners. All six were hanged that day, with the approval of Henry Wirz, in view of the rest of the Camp. Their bodies were taken down and carried outside of the stockade, to be buried at a site separate from those of the Union dead from the prison. Despite the end of the Raiders, thefts and violence continued among the prisoners, though Wirz allowed them to continue to police themselves rather than establish enforced order in Camp Sumter.

The Life of a Prisoner at Camp Sumter During the Civil War
Another photograph taken during a Confederate inspection into conditions at the Camp. August, 1864. Wikimedia

13. The Confederates established a Military Prison Hospital outside of the stockade

According to Dr. Jones, from the opening of Camp Sumter until late May, 1864, the sick and prisoners arriving at the camp wounded were confined together within the stockade. By July, a separate stockade, outside the camp on a small rise, held the Military Hospital. At its peak, fifteen physicians worked there, though usually there were fewer. Men were admitted based on available space, according to one physician they could only admit new patients when a vacancy occurred. Most vacancies occurred via prisoners passing away, few men entered the hospital and returned to health. By July, 1864, more than 2,000 patients crowded the hospital. Men lay upon the ground, or on planks, there were no mattresses or even straw to cushion them. They were attended by the doctors and nurses, most of the latter paroled prisoners.

Dr. Jones observed that most of the parolees were better fed and clothed than the other prisoners, and in overall better health than even some of the Confederate guards. He did not speculate as to the cause of such a discrepancy. Other parolees were allowed exit from the stockade as well. They worked as clerks, loaded and unloaded trains, and other such duties. They too, appeared to Dr. Jones to be in better health, indicating supplies meant for the prison, which the doctor claimed to be in abundance in the area, were accessed by the Confederates and parolees before they ever reached Camp Sumter itself. On August 5, 1864, the Inspector General wrote to the authorities recommending Brigadier General John Winder, commander of all Confederate prisons, be relieved of his post. In the letter, the Inspector General referred to the prison as a “disgrace to civilization”.

The Life of a Prisoner at Camp Sumter During the Civil War
A view of the inside of the stockade which includes the location of Providence Spring. Wikimedia

14. A providential storm swept the camp in August, 1864

Throughout the early summer of 1864 the weather around Andersonville remained hot and dry. The Stockade Branch slowed to a trickle, and the water holes, dug as cisterns to collect rain water, dried up. By the first week of August the lack of water became critical, both within Camp Sumter and in the surrounding area. On August 9, in the early evening, a storm arose which released its fury throughout the night. Heavy rains raised the creeks outside the stockade, and finally entered the stockade in a torrent. The rushing water knocked down the stockade where it entered and again where it exited the camp. The water scoured the creek bed and the surrounding marsh. Prisoners leapt into the flood to recover wood being washed away. The Confederate guards were forced to endure the storm in battle lines to prevent prisoners from fleeing the stockade.

Uprooting some of the stockade revealed an underground spring, previously undiscovered. Before the storm had ended the water from the spring was diverted into the compound. When the storm ended, Stockade Branch and its feeders had been cleaned of the filth with which they had been polluted. The stream soon returned to its fetid condition, but the diverted spring provided a source of water other than that of the creeks. The prisoners name it Providence Spring. Following the storm, the stockade walls were repaired. Winder ordered a second stockade, some distance away and surrounding the first, erected later that month. He also received orders to begin reducing the population of Camp Sumter by transferring prisoners to other camps. Sherman’s approaching army and the possibility of cavalry raids inspired the Confederates to move their prisoners.

The Life of a Prisoner at Camp Sumter During the Civil War
Fears of cavalry attacks led by the Union’s George Stoneman led the Confederates to moving their prisoners. Wikimedia

15. The Confederates offered to release their prisoners in the late summer of 1864

Faced with the impossible task of feeding their prisoners, and the approaching armies of Grant in the East and Sherman in Georgia, the Confederates offered to free the prisoners they held. The offer included the release of all prisoners, without any exchange. A contingency of the offer was the Union picking up the prisoners with ships, at ports to be designated. Camp Sumter was located far from any port then in Confederate hands, accessible only by road or rail. Moving the prisoners presented logistical difficulties which delayed the move. When Sherman approached Atlanta, the possibility of cavalry raids led General Winder to address the response of the guards should the facility come under attack. Winder ordered the artillery pits to fire upon the stockade. Fortunately for the prisoners, the attack never came.

After Sherman outflanked Hood to take Atlanta, the Confederates began moving prisoners out of Andersonville. In the fall, 1864, prisoners from Camp Sumter, at least those well enough to be moved, were transferred to Florence, South Carolina and Millen, Georgia. From Millen, some prisoners were sent by rail to Savannah, Georgia. When Sherman’s troops threatened Millen, the remaining prisoners there were returned to Camp Sumter. General Winder moved his headquarters to Florence, South Carolina, and conditions in Camp Sumter improved dramatically. The camp remained overcrowded and disease remained rampant. There was still insufficient food, and a total lack of fresh food. In January, 1865, rules of the camp were officially promulgated for the first time. By then, Sherman’s armies threatened the Carolinas.

The Life of a Prisoner at Camp Sumter During the Civil War
Even as most of the prisoners left for other camps, life in Camp Sumter continued. The man kneeling is gathering rations. Library of Congress

16. Rules of the camp divided the prisoners into controlled units

New Year’s Day, 1865, saw the first official rules for the prisoners within Camp Sumter. The prisoners were assigned to divisions, with each consisting of five detachments of 100 men. Each detachment elected a sergeant. One of the sergeants was elected to draw rations for the entire division each day. Officially those rations included bacon or another preserved meat. Most days meat was unobtainable. Each division was assigned its own area of the camp, and the sergeants were responsible for the condition of the area. They were also responsible for carrying the sick to the hospital, and for the those not admitted, returning them to the assigned area. Two roll calls were scheduled each day, and all men assigned needed to be present or otherwise accounted for at each. Prisoners were not allowed to speak with the guards.

If a sergeant failed to report the whereabouts of any man absent during roll call, or reported it falsely, the entire division was denied rations for the day. Additionally, if it became evident the missing prisoner had escaped, or attempted to escape, the sergeant was placed in irons, under close confinement. He was to remain in that condition until the missing man was recaptured or killed. The prisoners were granted the privilege of writing two letters each week, though the letters were closely censored by the Confederates. Descriptions of conditions within the camp were not allowed. The prisoners were also granted the privilege of requesting a private interview with the commanding officer, between the hours of 10 and 11 AM, by addressing themselves to the Sergeant of the Guard. The majority of the day at Camp Sumter was spent in hunger and crushing boredom.

The Life of a Prisoner at Camp Sumter During the Civil War
A painting titled The Homes of Andersonville, from 1890. Library of Congress

17. Escape attempts continued as the war wound down in 1865

Escapes from Camp Sumter continued, and even increased, following the fall of Atlanta. At first the prisoners were unaware of Sherman’s departure from the area on his March to Savannah. The prisoners believed the relative proximity of Union forces meant the possibility of being picked up by pickets and cavalry patrols. Though many tried, according to Confederate records, few succeeded. Yet a disparity exists between the Confederate records of the number of escapees recaptured and returned, and the Union records of successful escapes. It’s possible some escaping prisoners chose to simply return to their homes rather than report to Union authorities. Far more likely is the prisoners died after getting out of the prison. The ruggedness of the terrain, the hostility of the local population, and the fervor with which they were sought all worked against them.

The Confederates had long experience chasing down runaway slaves, and they used the same techniques to recapture escaping prisoners of war. Among the techniques were the use of hounds, to both track prisoners and take them down. Some were mauled by dogs, and in their weakened condition, died of their injuries. By that stage of the war armed groups of deserters and bandits roamed the South, pillaging, looting, and killing. An escaping Yankee encountering such a group was unlikely to be received sympathetically. The same held for the local population, which had to protect itself from runaway slaves, roaming bandits, and foragers from both armies. Those who escaped and were caught were often shot by their captors, others returned to the camp died as a result of their harsh punishments.

The Life of a Prisoner at Camp Sumter During the Civil War
A Civil War hospital ward. Pintrest

18. Eventually, some wooden sheds were built as shelters for the prisoners

In late summer, 1865, thousands of prisoners were transferred from Camp Sumter, significantly easing the overcrowding in the camp. Five sheds, each about 135′ by 20′, open in the front, were built on the north side of the camp. Each shed was intended to provide a “barracks” for 270 men. An additional five sheds were built on the south end the camp in the fall. These sheds were smaller, about 120′ by 20′. Eventually, the medical department took over the sheds on the north end of the camp for use as a medical dispensary and receiving hospital. All remaining prisoners were then confined to the south end of the camp, no longer permitted to cross Stockade Branch unless they were paroled to do so. The south side of the camp again became overcrowded, more so when prisoners returned from Millen.

By late 1864, peddlers were permitted to enter the camp, and they maintained stalls or lean-tos along one of the two streets laid out in the camp. Prisoners who had money purchased items from the peddlers, including fresh vegetables at times. Others traded watches, or any other items of value in their possession. The presence of the peddlers contributed to the thievery in the camp by prisoners and tradesmen alike. Food shortages continued, largely because Henry Wirz had insufficient funds with which to purchase food and medical supplies, or so he claimed. Nonetheless, when a new Chief Surgeon arrived at the Camp in early 1865, he found over $100,000 missing from his supposed funds. Suspicion arose surrounding his predecessor. Henry Wirz wrote letters defending the former surgeon. The war ended before a formal investigation could be conducted, and the funds were never found.

The Life of a Prisoner at Camp Sumter During the Civil War
Henry Wirz was hanged for murder and other charges after a military tribunal convicted him in late 1865. Wikimedia

19. General Winder shifted his command to South Carolina

As the population of prisoners in Camp Sumter decreased, General Winder shifted most of his men to the new prison camps in Florence, South Carolina. He returned to Andersonville in the fall of 1864 and again in early 1865. Both trips were to ensure all prisoners healthy enough to be exchanged had been transferred from the camp. On February 7, 1865, Winder suffered a fatal heart attack while at Florence. His end led to Major General Gideon J. Pillow assuming Winder’s former position. Later that same month, Henry Wirz requested either a shipment of shoes or leather with which to make shoe be sent to the camp. Wirz reported many of the parolees in the camp were without shoes, though several of them possessed cobbler skills. Neither shoes nor leather was sent to the camp.

After the war Henry Wirz, who predicted his own fate, was tried for what would today be called war crimes, by a military tribunal in Washington. He argued that the general parole granted By General Sherman when he accepted the surrender of the last Confederate army covered him. But too much evidence from former prisoners and Confederate guards convicted him. Apologists for the Confederacy claimed Wirz was scapegoated, and the man who ensured the suffering of the prisoners at Camp Sumter was really General John Winder. Wirz, convicted, was hanged in the Old Capitol Prison, one of only two Confederate’s to be executed following the war. In May, 1865, townspeople and former guards looted the storehouses at Camp Sumter, coming away with supplies which had never been issued to the prisoners.

The Life of a Prisoner at Camp Sumter During the Civil War
Massively overcrowded with exchanged prisoners of war, the river steamer Sultana exploded and sank during the night of April 27, 1865. WIkimedia

20. Many of the Camp Sumter prisoners died on their way home

In late April, 1865, with the war over, the riverboat Sultana prepared to depart Vicksburg, Mississippi, to travel north. Outside Vicksburg was a Union parole camp, which held prisoners exchanged from Confederate camps, most of them from Camp Sumter. Though Sultana’s design allowed a capacity of 376, including crew, an estimated 1,960 survivors of the Confederate camps crowded aboard the vessel. Over 2,100 people left Vicksburg in the steamboat, which also carried cargo bound upriver. Sultana departed Vicksburg on April 24, 1865. As the vessel steamed north it made stops at Helena, Arkansas, and Memphis, Tennessee, discharging and taking on cargo and passengers. About 200 men remained behind in Memphis, the rest continued upriver approximately 7 miles, when the steamboat suffered an explosion. The vessel’s wooden superstructure was severely damaged and set ablaze.

At least three separate explosions were reported by survivors, leading some to suspect sabotage by Confederate agents. Over 1,000 men who had survived the horrors of Camp Sumter died in the explosion, fire, or by drowning when they tried to escape by swimming. The Mississippi River that spring was near flood, with a strong current. Even the strongest swimmer would have experienced difficulty reaching the banks. In their weakened condition, few of the former prisoners of war could make it without help. The official cause of the explosions found that three of Sultana’s four boilers exploded, due to mismanagement of their water levels. At least three individuals claimed to have sabotaged the steamboat, by varying means. All have been discredited. Boiler explosions on steamboats were not uncommon, and Sultana’s had been problematic. The tragedy is remembered with historical markers in several locations along the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers.

Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“History of the Andersonville Prison”. Article, National Park Service (NPS). Online

“Anderson Prison”. Article, American Battlefield Trust. Online

“Victory from Within: Exploring the Stories of Prisoners of War”. Article, Andersonville National Historical Site. Online

“Punishment and Tragedy at Andersonville Prison. Virtual Exploration of Camp Sumter in Andersonville, Georgia”. Google Arts and Culture. Online

“Daily Life at Andersonville Prison”. Virtual Exploration, Google Arts and Culture. Online

“Prison Camps of the Civil War”. Bruce Catton, American Heritage Magazine. August, 1959

“How the Trial and Demise of Henry Wirz Shaped Post-Civil War America”. Kat Eschner, Smithsonian Magazine. November 10, 2017

“Andersonville: The Story of a Civil War Prison Camp”. Raymond F. Baker, National Park Service Handbook. Pdf, Online

“Andersonville Prison of the Civil War”. Kathy Weiser-Alexander, Legends of America. January, 2018. Online

“The Last Confederate Prison”. Editors, American Heritage Magazine. Fall, 2010

“Fugitive Federals”. Article, arcgis.com. Online

“The Legacy of Andersonville Prison; Who is to blame?” Article, The History Engine. Online

“General John H. Winder, CSA”. Arch Frederic Blakey. 1990

“The Sultana Disaster”. Article, American Battlefield Trust. Online

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