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
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