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
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 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 helds 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. Pinterest

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 of 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 in 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 shoes 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 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, Online

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

“Union Private Describes Raiders at Andersonville Prison” Article, The History Engine. Online

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

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