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Civil War Prisons: Andersonville and More, Research Paper Example

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Research Paper

Introduction

The Civil War was not civil. It devastated the country through losses of property and life. One of the overlooked parts of the war is its prisons, institutions that caused more deaths, collectively, than any single battle during the conflict.

How Prisoners of War Were Handled By North and South

Initially, the North did not want to exchange prisoners with the South, because to do so would have been an acknowledgement of the Confederacy as a government. At first, Southern soldiers received treatment as pirates or insurgents. Agreements, hammered out by representatives of both sides, sought to determine the various rules of capture that they would practice as the internal conflict raged.

Parole and Exchange Systems & Why They Ended

Parole systems never worked well for either side. At times, there were good faith agreements that captured soldiers, promising not to bear arms against the other side, experienced release, and pending notification that their exchanges gained approval. This system broke down quickly in the midst of poor communication and delays.

Early prisoner exchanges operated according to a formula, agreed upon by both sides. The higher the officer, the more soldiers it took to trade him back. Toward the end of the conflict, General Grant ordered that exchanges cease until the South paroled a number equal to that of those Tennesseans paroled at the Vicksburg siege. The entire shift in exchange policy lay in the fact that most every parolee took up arms and resumed fighting. Without exchanges, people like Captain Wirz faced overpopulation, since he and others had no authorization to release anyone.

North and South Prisons

More than 150 prison camps sprang up at some time during the war; however, only a few survived long enough to have recorded histories. Of these, the Northern prisons were Alton, Chase, Douglas, Randall, Elmira, Delaware, Jefferson, McHenry, Old Capitol, Point Lookout, and Rock Island. Of these, the Southern prisons were Andersonville, Belle Isle, Cahaba, Ford, Pinckney, Castle thunder, Danville, Libby, and Salisbury.

Prisons & Prisoners

There were 11 Northern prisons. There were nine Southern prisons. There were more than 400,000 prisoners of war during the Civil War. It is interesting to note that Andersonville was mostly a prison for enlisted soldiers. Union officers took guarding at the nearby city of Macon.

Prison Similarities and Differences

It is possible that Confederate prisoners faired slightly better than did Northern ones, since the North had more resources at its disposal. Neither side expected the war to be as protracted as it was, so many of the safeguards that might have led to fewer diseases and deaths had no predetermined course for action.

Prisoner Treatment

Unfortunately, neither side established a Commissary Department to oversee supplies for the prisons. Mostly, prisoners who crossed certain lines of confinement received a bullet from the guards. Multiple deaths occurred each day, and many from exposure to cold and heat.

Mortality Rates

About 56,000 men perished in Civil War prisons, mostly as the result of improper nutrition and unsanitary conditions. Elmira of the North saw one in four of its prisoners die while incarcerated. Andersonville, of the South, witnessed a 29% death rate.

Andersonville

At its peak of activity, Andersonville had 33,000 inmates, making it one of the largest “cities” in the Confederacy. The site lent itself as a camp, because a stream ran through it and because there was a railway nearby for transportation. Today, Andersonville is home to a National Park that commemorates prisoners of war from all U. S. conflicts.

Henry Wirz

Captain Heinrich “Henry” Wirz, the Commandant of Andersonville. He was the only person tired, convicted, and executed for war crimes during the aftermath of the Civil War. His trial remains a source of controversy. His hanging represented Northern outrage against all who confined prisoners during the war.

Historic Accuracies & Inaccuracies in the Film

The film portrays the men as consumers of vermin, and this is true, given eyewitness stories of the tribulation. Also, the film shows the factual importance of the basic commodity of water, and how only the men who knew how to harvest rainwater were the ones who ultimately survived. The most horrific truth that men can turn into savages, wild animals when they are isolated from reality. Desperate people do desperate things.

Is Andersonville, the Movie, a Reliable Source?

The movie, Andersonville, is reasonably close to the account given to circumstances in the camp, as recorded by diarist, John Ransom. His account of his capture and subsequent incarceration (Ransom, 2009) relies heavily on his time as a prisoner of the South, beginning in Rogersville, Tennessee, moving to his first prison near Richmond, and then, four months later, his transport all the way to Georgia. Ransom’s most vivid retelling is of a mass hanging that Union troops enforced upon six of their own, as blessed by Captain Wirz himself in July, some eight months after his capture.

Reaction to “Diary” Article

Ransom’s diary impresses the reader of the facts of war. He and his compatriots had little food, little shelter, little clothing, and little in the way of hope. His reflections found joy in any thing that could sustain him. Most of his words spoke of hardship and maltreatment. His story ends while he is in such a weakened condition that he can no longer walk.

Reaction to “Escape” Article

The thought of escape was on the minds of every person in Civil War prisons. Davis (2003) shatters the myth that scores of prisoners fled Andersonville to safety. He reports only about two dozen confirmed escapes from Fort Sumter (Andersonville) to the Union lines. Davis makes the point that Andersonville was so isolated that prisoners had no place to go if they, by chance, made it outside of the wooden walls that surrounded them.

Conclusion

Prisoners of War experience war from a terrible vantage point. The soldiers of the Civil War, who following capture, joined prison yards full of their comrades, saw and knew unspeakable horror, pain, and torture. They represent an unfortunate time in American history when, from a stance of human rights, we were at our worst.

Works Cited   

Davis, Robert. “Escape from Andersonville: A Study in Isolation and Imprisonment.” The Journal of Military History 67, 4 (2003): 1065-1081.

Ransom, John. “Andersonville Diary.” Andersonville Diary 1,1 (1997).

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