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Prisoners of War

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Captain Samuel B. Whiteside

Cased ambrotype of Captain Samuel A. Whiteside, Company B, 48th Tennessee Infantry (Voorhies') Regiment, CSA
Whiteside was captured at Fort Donelson and sent to Johnson's Island, Ohio. He was paroled and returned to his regiment, only to be recaptured at Port Hudson, Louisiana, in 1863. He was re-interned at Johnson's Island where he spent the rest of the war.
Looking Back: The Civil War in Tennessee Collection

"The most incorrigible Rebel this side of Dixie"
Lieutenant Thomas D. Houston describing himself at Johnson's Island Prison, Sandusky Bay, Ohio

Conditions in Civil War prisons were appalling, and an estimated 56,000 people died there. More than 150 prisons were filled beyond capacity, with inmates crowded into camps and shelters with meager provisions. Disease was rampant in most prisons. Smallpox (the "speckled monster"), dysentery, pneumonia, measles, and diarrhea killed tens of thousands.

Confederate captives were held at places like Camp Chase (Columbus, Ohio), Johnson's Island (Sandusky Bay, Ohio), Camp Douglas (Chicago, Illinois), Fort Delaware (Pea Patch Island, Delaware), Elmira Prison (Elmira, New York), Rock Island Arsenal (Arsenal Island, Illinois), Camp Morton (Indianapolis, Indiana), and Irving Block Prison (Memphis, Tennessee).

Hanging Prisoners by the Thumbs

"Hanging Prisoners by the Thumbs," from Scraps from the Prison Table, at Camp Chase and Johnson's Island by Joseph Barbie, 1868
Library Collection

Some Southerners called Union prisons "Bastilles," a reference to the infamous prison of the French Revolution. Officers and enlisted men were frequently assigned to separate prisons. Fort Warren (Boston, Massachusetts) housed officers and Confederate diplomats. Most had a "comfortable" stay. Major Nathaniel F. Cheairs, Company F, 3rd Tennessee Infantry Regiment, enjoyed fine wine and cigars, hosted lavish dinners for Union officers and fellow prisoners, and was occasionally given free rein of the city.

Thomas H. Deavenport, 3rd Tennessee Infantry, captured at Fort Donelson, spent months at Camp Douglas (Chicago, Illinois). The regiment was "met by insults all along the way to prison . . . Around Alton [Illinois] there were some sympathizers—mostly ladies," but mostly there was swearing and name-calling. The men were marched through Chicago where the crowds saw them as "far better than a menagerie." Women laughed at them in the streets. Children were heard exclaiming, "Ma, they are white like us."

Deavenport recalled that the orderly of his company had a favorite chicken, Jake, which he carried to prison. Jake rode on the soldier's knapsack through the city, and every few minutes he would crow.

Johnson's Island Prison

Hand-drawn map of the military prison at Johnson's Island, Sandusky Bay, Ohio, 1862
Civil War Collection

Johnson's Island on Lake Erie held officers who enjoyed a lively cultural life. Organized prayer meetings and debating societies were open, and the camp's "Rebel Thespians" put on original plays. Despite harsh weather conditions, Johnson's Island had one of the lowest mortality rates of any Civil War prison. The Union's Fort Delaware, on the other hand, was dubbed "The Fort Delaware Death Pen," while Elmira Prison had close to a 25% mortality rate.

Union captives were kept at sites such as Libby Prison and Belle Isle (both in Richmond, Virginia), Cahaba Prison (Cahaba, Alabama), Confederate Prison No. 6 (Danville, Virginia), and Camp Sumter (Andersonville, Georgia). Old Capitol Prison (Washington, D.C.) was also used by the U. S. Government to imprison Union officers guilty of insubordination.


"Let Us Forgive, But Not Forget," lithograph of Andersonville Prison, Stockade, and Hospital, Chicago, Illinois, 1884
Tucker-Vaughn Papers

Camp Sumter was the most notorious prison of all. During its 14-month existence, Camp Sumter (better known as Andersonville) saw 45,000 Union soldiers pass through its gates, and nearly 13,000 of them died. In August 1864, some 32,000 prisoners (three times its capacity) were herded onto its 16.5 acres. Conditions were so wretched and cruel that prison commandant Henry Wirz was convicted and executed for war crimes by the U. S. government.

Wirz was hanged for disregarding the use of civilized warfare, employing torture, administering impure vaccines, and destroying the lives and health of thousands. The camp's wretched conditions — exposure to inclement weather, inadequate housing, spoiled food, filthy water, and withholding medical treatment — broke the bodies and spirits of those held prisoner there.

Confederate prisoners at Camp Douglas

Nathan B. Nesbitt (back row, 2nd from left), Company H, 55th Tennessee Infantry Regiment, CSA, and other Confederate prisoners at Camp Douglas, Chicago, Illinois, ca. 1862
Looking Back: The Civil War in Tennessee Collection

Among the Union prisoner of war camps, Camp Douglas was sometimes called the "Andersonville of the North." Poorly situated in low-lying, wet ground, Camp Douglas opened in 1861 as a U. S. Army training camp. It was converted from a training camp to a prisoner of war camp after the Battle of Fort Donelson in February 1862. About 8,000 of the 12-15,000 Confederate prisoners captured at the Battle of Fort Donelson (February 11-16, 1862) were Camp Douglas' first arrivals. Between 1862-1865, approximately 4-6,000 Confederate prisoners died from starvation, disease, and cold at Camp Douglas. Despite the filth, freezing temperatures, inadequate clothing, and disease, however, some Confederates told of being treated humanely.


Johnson's Island Prison, Sandusky Bay, Ohio
Johnson's Island autograph book

Autograph book compiled at Johnson's Island Prison, Sandusky Bay, Ohio, 1862
Samuel Dold Morgan Papers

Confederate prisoners compiled this small volume for Sammie Morgan, young son of fellow prisoner Captain St. Clair Morgan. Captain Morgan, Company D, 10th Tennessee Infantry Regiment, was captured at Fort Donelson (1862) and paroled from Johnson's Island; he fought again at Chickamauga in 1863, where he was killed.

The book is filled with humorous and thoughtful comments. In a poem, Lieutenant John B. Corn scorns two prisoners who "took the oath." He calls them cowards, traitors, false friends, and "recreant knights." Officers entertained themselves by writing and performing original plays and musicals.

J. W. Youngblood

Captain J. W. Youngblood's autograph, Sandusky Bay, Ohio, ca. 1863
A. S. Kierolf Autograph Book, Civil War Collection

Other accounts of conditions differ sharply. Harsh Ohio winters, fuel shortages, and disease took their toll, but Johnson's Island still had one of the lowest death rates among all Federal prisoner of war camps.

The map shows the hospital, barracks, promenade grounds, sentry stations, and sutler's department.

Captain J. W. Youngblood, from Memphis, was a Confederate Signal Corps officer and was captured at Port Hudson, Louisiana, on March 18, 1863. He was held at Johnson's Island and evidently kept his sense of humor during his stay. The captain writes of being an actor in the "Rebel Thespians" and "Bottle holder in the great snow-fight between the Esquimeaux [Eskimos] and the Arctic Region Imperialists." He notes in the book that he was "Gobbled [captured] near Port Hudson, La., March 16th 1863, by a Dutchman with the 'sweet German accent.'" Dutchman was a term used to describe native German soldiers.

Rock Island Arsenal, Arsenal Island, Illinois
Rock Island Prison

Hand-drawn ink & watercolor of Rock Island Arsenal by J. M. Breeding, Arsenal Island, Illinois, November 1863
Looking Back: The Civil War in Tennessee Collection

Barracks, horses, guards, wagons, a wooden-horse punishment device, and a burial detail are depicted in this pen and watercolor painting. Located in the Mississippi River, the Rock Island was first used as a prisoner of war camp in 1863 to house Confederates captured around Chattanooga. Many of those men were already infected with smallpox, pneumonia, and dysentery. Brutal weather contributed to unhealthy conditions, and nearly 2,000 Confederates died at Rock Island. In Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell wrote of rumors that Ashley Wilkes had been sent to Rock Island.

Camp Chase, Columbus, Ohio
Brownlow at Camp Chase

"Brownlow at Camp Chase," from Scraps from the Prison Table, at Camp Chase and Johnson's Island by Joseph Barbiere, 1868
Library Collection

Camp Chase opened in May 1861 as a training camp for Ohio army volunteers and as a camp for Confederate prisoners of war. Overcrowding in the prisoner of war camp at Camp Chase led to shortages of food, medicine, blankets, and clothing. Close quarters sped outbreaks of disease — nearly 500 prisoners died in February 1863 during a smallpox epidemic. The "speckled monster," carried by Confederate captives, began infecting several Northern cities. By 1865, the camp population was just under 9,500 men on 6 acres.

More than 2,000 Confederates are buried in the cemetery at Camp Chase. In 1902, a monument was erected to honor the Southern soldiers and citizens who died at the camp, and yearly memorial services have been held since 1896. The first ceremony was organized by a former Union colonel. The grounds are said to be haunted by a melancholy ghost known as the "Lady in Grey." The tale is that she weeps over the grave of Private Benjamin Allen, Company D, 50th Tennessee Infantry Regiment.

In 1862, William G. "Parson" Brownlow (1805-1877) visited Camp Chase. Brownlow was the editor of a Knoxville newspaper, Governor of Tennessee (1865-1869), and U. S. Senator (1869-1875). He was adamantly opposed to secession and he published numerous articles in the Knoxville Whig harshly critical of the Confederacy. Because of his outspoken support of the Union, he was arrested, jailed on treason charges in December 1861, and exiled to Union-controlled Nashville in March 1862. Beginning in April 1862, he took up a 6-month speaking tour through several Nothern states, and he appeared at Camp Chase, Ohio, where many Tennesseans were held. One eyewitness of Brownlow's visit wrote that "the prisoners . . . will remember his looks, cadaverous and sinister," but the crowd gave him a patient hearing.


Elliott McKinnie
Elliott McKinnie

Elliot McKinnie, Cincinnati, Ohio, ca. 1860
Archives Photograph Collection

Elliott McKinnie was a sergeant in Company G, 89th Ohio Infantry Regiment, USA; he was captured at the Battle of Chickamauga on September 19, 1863, and died of fever at Andersonville on August 20/21, 1864 (sources vary). His father, Richard Bard McKinnie, believed Elliott died of starvation. Elliott's father kept a diary in which he recorded news of Elliott's capture in the "great Battle at Chattanooga" [Chickamauga], word of the boy's imprisonment at Richmond's Libby Prison, his escape from a Danville, Virginia, prison, and his recapture. He did not learn of his son's death until four months after it occurred. In late December, word came that Elliott had "died in the Stockade prison on the 20th day of August last of a camp fever" at Andersonville. Every August 20 until 1878, Richard made an entry remembering Elliott's death in the custody of "the most unnatural brutes that ever disgraced humanity."

William H. Merriman
William H. Merriman

Ambrotype of William H. Merriman
Looking Back: The Civil War in Tennessee Collection

William H. Merriman was from Hawkins County, Tennessee, and served in Company B, 60th Tennessee Infantry Regiment, CSA. He was captured at the Battle of Big Black River Bridge in Mississippi on May 17, 1863. After his capture, he was sent to Fort Delaware, then to City Point, Virginia, and then to Point Lookout, Maryland. At its peak, the 40-acre stockade at Point Lookout held 20,000 prisoners — twice its capacity. Polluted water, food shortages, and exposure to the region's harsh winters contributed to the deaths of nearly 4,000 men.

Merriman became a "galvanized Yankee" (a Confederate prisoner who took the Oath of Allegiance) and enlisted in the U. S. Army on January 25, 1864. He was detailed as a hospital steward in Company C, 1st United States Volunteer Infantry Regiment, and died of scurvy at Fort Rice, Dakota Territory (now North Dakota), on March 5, 1865. In June 1896, his remains were moved from Fort Rice to the Custer National Cemetery in Montana.

Washington Barrow
Washington Barrow letter

Letter from Washington Barrow to Mrs. Bass, Fort Mackinac, Michigan, July 30, 1862
Civil War Collection
PDF of entire letter

George Washington Barrow (1807-1866) was born in Davidson County. He served a single term in the Tennessee House of Representatives in 1837 and served as the U. S. Minister to Portugal from 1841-1844. From 1847-1849, he served as a member of the Whig Party in the U. S. House of Representatives.

Barrow was one of three wealthy Nashvillians arrested for being Confederate sympathizers. They were the only Southern prisoners ever held at Fort Macinack. Barrow writes of constant surveillance and the restrictions and monotony of prison life. He claims that authorities forget "that we have not been convicted of any crime" and that they are "prisoners of State." He was the only one of the three to refuse the oath of allegiance. William G. Harding and Josephus C. Guild agreed to it and were released. Barrow was transferred to Johnson's Island and exchanged in 1863.

Thomas M. Durham
Thomas M. Durham letter

Letter from Thomas M. Durham to his wife, Camp Morton, Indianapolis, Indiana, August 11, 1863
Tennessee Historical Society Civil War Collection

Thomas M. Durham was a private in Company D, 9th Tennessee Cavalry Regiment (Ward's), CSA, and was captured at the Batttle of Buffington Island on July 19, 1863. In this letter, Durham tells his wife that he has "enjoyed verry good health ever since I left home . . . how long we will be cept hear I can't tell som days we hear it talked that we will be Paroled . . . I suppose you are anxious to now our treatment by the Federals, they have treated us like Gentlemen since we have bin Prisners I doan't think we have any thing to complain of." Durham's letter was optimistic even though conditions at Camp Morton varied between humane and horrible. For example, in the winter of 1863-64, below-zero temperatures contributed to many deaths. Still, death rates were considered low.

Martha H. Durham letter

Letter from Martha H. Durham to her husband, Convenient, Smith County, Tennessee, December 6, 1863
Tennessee Historical Society Civil War Collection
PDF of entire letter

Durham's wife, Martha, wrote back to him:

The children are both fat and saucy. Cinda has not forgot her pa yet little Mat can walk and talk [a] few words she can call pa She hears cinda call pa and she calls too. Mr. Durham I would give any thing on this earth to see you. I am all most tempted to aske you to take the oath and com home for I think this little confedresy is all most wound up . . . pray for peace and hapiness in our land [once] more our land that was one so happy Oh that we could enjoy that hapiness again . . . [I] do not forget to pray for you both day and night for you are last when I close my eyes at night and first when I wake at morn.

Sometime before the end of February 1864, Durham was sent from Camp Morton to Camp Douglas, where he died from smallpox on November 26, 1864.

William B. Bell
William B. Bell letter

Letter from William B. Bell to his wife, Camp Morton, Indianapolis, Indiana, December 11, 1863
Bell Family Papers
PDF of entire letter

William B. Bell was a private in Company B, 10th Tennessee Cavalry Regiment, CSA, and was captured in Dickson County, Tennessee, on September 16, 1863. Writing in December from Camp Morton, Bell reassured his wife that he was doing well and that his friends said that he was "as bright & cheerful as usual." He also wrote that they must trust a "just & most mercifull God for a continuation of his blessings upon us." Bell did complain that there was too much gambling in camp and that a large number of prisoners had petitioned to take the oath of allegiance. If it were not for his "anxiety to see you, I would enjoy myself very well for a prisoner." Bell was paroled at Camp Morton on February 14, 1865.


Group of Confederate Prisoners Captured at Fort Donelson

"Group of Confederate Prisoners Captured at Fort Donelson, on the Morning After the Surrender, Clothed in Bed Blankets, Pieces of Carpeting, Etc.," from Frank Leslie's Illustrated History of the Civil War, 1895
Library Photograph Collection

Robert Milton Byrn

Tintype of Robert Milton Byrn, ca. 1860
Byrn was a school teacher near McEwen, Humphreys County, Tennessee. He was mistaken for a spy and was sent to Camp Douglas where he died of measles.
Looking Back: The Civil War in Tennessee Collection

Grand Concert by Morgan's Men

"Grand Concert by Morgan's Men," Camp Douglas, Chicago, Illinois, October 5, 1863
The jolly drawing is deceptive. Although prisoners were allowed to participate in prayer groups and plays, filthy conditions and disease were common. During February 1863, when temperatures reportedly plunged to -20 degrees, the mortality rate at Douglas was one of the highest among any prison camp, North or South.
Civil War Collection

The Prisoners Lament

Music and lyrics to "The Prisoners Lament," Sandusky Bay, Ohio
The song was copied into an autograph book by a prisoner at Johnson's Island.
Samuel Dold Morgan Papers

Oath of Allegiance

Oath of Allegiance for George T. Thompson and wife, Nashville, Tennessee, April 29, 1863
Trabue-Thompson Family Papers

Prisoner's parole

Prisoner's parole for Cyrus N. Simmons, Company B, 1st Tennessee Infantry Regiment, CSA, Gallatin, Sumner County, Tennessee, November 21, 1863
A parole was made after a soldier or citizen took the Oath of Allegiance to the United States.
Looking Back: The Civil War in Tennessee Collection

Execution by Prisoners

"Execution by Prisoners," from The Southern Side; or, Andersonville Prison by R. Randolph Stevenson, 1876
Library Collection

Crowded Hospital at Andersonville

"Crowded Hospital at Andersonville," from The Southern Side; or, Andersonville Prison by R. Randolph Stevenson, 1876
Union soldiers at Andersonville faced contagious diseases, starvation, exposure, infection from wounds, gangrene, dysentery, and diarrhea, but medical attention was woefully inadequate. The mortality rate was close to 30%.
Library Collection

Private John Washington Christopher

Andersonville survivor Private John Washington Christopher, Company A, 7th Tennessee Cavalry Regiment, USA, ca. 1863-1865
Looking Back: The Civil War in Tennessee Collection

Charles Dickason letter

Letter from Charles Dickason to Shadrick Lee, Dunellen, Pennsylvania, January 3, 1897
Dickason writes to his old friend and fellow veteran of Andersonville Prison about remembrances of conditions there. During the war, Lee was a private in Company E, 3rd Tennessee Volunteer Infantry Regiment, USA, and was captured near Knoxville on January 24, 1864.
Looking Back: The Civil War in Tennessee Collection
PDF of entire letter

Copy of letter from M. E. Scott

Copy of a letter from M. E. Scott to her husband, a Confederate soldier on his way to a Northern prison, Decaturville, Decatur County, Tennessee, May 31, 1863
Lt. Col. William K. M. Breckenridge Civil War Daybook
PDF of entire letter