The Worst Part of the Civil War? Prison Camps.

    Warfare History Network

    Security, Americas

    A forgotten part of our nation’s most tragic tale.

    The June 19, 1861, editorial in the Charleston Mercury newspaper warned: “War is bloody reality, not butterfly sporting. The sooner men understand this the better.” During the four-year course of the Civil War, the entire country—North and South—would come to the same grim realization. There were seemingly endless lists of thousands of soldiers killed or wounded in battle or dead of disease. Thousands more, both Union and Confederate, languished in prisoner of war camps, enduring hardships that previously it had been inconceivable for civilized people to inflict upon one another.

    From 1861 to 1865, more than 150 prison camps were established by the Union and Confederate governments. Estimates of the total numbers of prisoners taken and deaths that occurred in captivity vary widely, and Confederate records are incomplete. However, the Official Records of the war cites a total of 347,000 men—220,000 Confederate and 127,000 Union—who endured the privations of being prisoners of war. These privations ranged from inadequate shelter and clothing, poor hygiene, and the monotonous passage of time to outright starvation, intentional cruelty, harsh summary justice, swarming vermin, and rampaging disease. More than 49,000 prisoners died in captivity, at least 26,440 Confederate and 22,580 Union, an overall mortality rate of 14 percent. Twelve percent of Confederate prisoners and 18 percent of Union captives never returned from incarceration.

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