Written by park ranger Don Pettijohn
With the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln changed the course of the America's Civil War between the United States (Union) and the Confederate States (Confederacy). The Proclamation added the abolition of slavery to the preservation of the Union as a goal for the successful Union effort. However, embedded in the Proclamation is a paragraph that also irrevocably changed the course of the war and America's military:
The Union was now committed to the use of African American soldiers and sailors to prosecute the remainder of the war.
African Americans from the north and the south came forward to enlist in the Union cause. Before the war ended approximately 180,000 African Americans enrolled in the United States military. Of this number approximately one third were freeman and the other two thirds were slaves when the war broke out in 1861. Ten percent of all Union forces at the war's end were African American. Although the regiments were recruited by state, the units were usually designated USCT, United States Colored Troops. However, a small number retained the state designation; most notably the 54th Massachusetts Infantry. Most regiments were infantry, but there were also cavalry, light artillery, heavy artillery, and a few other miscellaneous. The regiments with few exceptions had white officers who competed for these positions. At first it was not certain if these units would be used in combat. However, by mid 1863 Colored regiments had seen combat at Port Hudson, LA, Milliken's Bend (Vicksburg campaign), and Fort Wagner, SC. The 1989 movie, "Glory," told the story of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry from its formation until its unsuccessful storming of Fort Wagner in Charleston Harbor.
In 1862, Union and Confederate military representatives agreed on the Dix-Hill Cartel as the way to handle prisoners of war. The cartel agreement provided for parole first and exchange second. Under the cartel, a prisoner had to sign a parole agreement that he would not go back in ranks and return to fighting until he had been exchanged. A paroled prisoner might be given a pass that enabled him to return to his respective side. However, most prisoners were taken to check points and handed back to their respective side. Prisoners were usually back with their troops when the exchange took place. Both sides kept list of prisoners who had been paroled and then representatives would meet to go over the lists. The exchange was man for man and rank for rank. However, the cartel provided for a mathematical formula to handle all the odd numbers. For example one general was worth sixty privates.
In 1863, when the Union started using African American troops the parole and exchange process broke down. The Union insisted that all prisoners, Black and white, be treated the same for exchange purposes. The Confederacy insisted that the Blacks be treated as runaway slaves and returned to their owners. Generals Robert E. Lee and Ulysses Grant revisited this issue in October 1864 during the siege of Petersburg: Lee wrote to Grant, "negroes belonging to our citizens are not considered subjects of exchange," and Grant answered, "I have to state the government is bound to secure to all persons received into her armies the rights due soldiers. This being denied by you in the persons of such men as have escaped from Southern masters induces me to decline making the exchanges you ask." When the parole and exchange process broke down in 1863 the Confederacy was forced to move the multitude of Union prisoners it was holding in Richmond, VA, farther away from the battlefront. After examining several sites in South Georgia, the Confederate military located a suitable spot at Andersonville Station for Camp Sumter.
The stockade at Camp Sumter to hold Union prisoners was constructed during the winter of 1863-64 and opened February 25. Would Andersonville receive Black POWs and how would they be treated? The battle of Olustee, 50 miles west of Jacksonville, FL, on February 20, 1864, would quickly answer that question. When the gates of Camp Sumter at Andersonville Station opened on February 25, 1864, no one knew if African American Union soldiers would arrive as prisoners of war of the Confederacy.
The battle of Olustee fought on February 20, 1864, would soon answer that question. In 1864 the Union wanted to take control of Florida to halt the flow of foodstuffs to other parts of the Confederacy. The Union campaign led by General Truman Seymour with 5500 soldiers was to proceed from Jacksonville to Tallahassee. Seymour was opposed by Confederate General Joseph Finnegan and 5000 troops. Among the Union troops were three Black regiments; 8th USCT, 35th USCT, and the 54th Massachusetts Infantry. The 8th USCT was recruited in the Philadelphia, PA, area and was primarily freemen. The 35th USCT was established in the New Bern, NC, and almost all were slaves. The 54th Massachusetts was made up mostly freemen from Massachusetts and Pennsylvania and was the only unit of the three with combat experience. The two forces met about 50 miles west of Jacksonville on February 20 at Olustee or Ocean Pond. The Confederacy prevailed in the one day battle. Union losses were 1861 compared to just 961 for the Confederacy. Among the Union losses were a number of African Americans taken prisoner who would soon be headed to Andersonville.
The best source of information on African Americans at Andersonville is testimony given at the Wirz trial in the fall of 1865. While the subject of the African American prisoners is brought up repeatedly throughout the trial, five men provided key testimony relevant to African American prisoners of war held at Camp Sumter:
When the first Black prisoners arrived at Andersonville how would they be treated was an open question. Colonel Persons testified after the arrival of the first "negroes" he communicated with General Winder and Winder's reply as best he could remember was "until further orders treat them as prisoners of war." Two of the African American prisoners testified. Frank Maddox stated, "(The colored prisoners) were treated in no way differently from the white soldier." Lewis Dyer said, "I was treated just the same as any of the rest-just the same as all the prisoners were treated." However, equal treatment did not mean the absence of punishment. Both Maddox and Dyer reported that Isaac Hawkins of the 54th Mass. received 250 out of 500 lashes. Jennings stated that he received 30 lashes for "not going to work one morning." Jennings was also in the stocks for a day and a night.
The number of African Americans at Andersonville was probably around 100. Persons stated, "there were between sixty and 100 negroes…" Maddox testified, "When I left there were only fifty four." The Andersonville prisoner database yields at most 106 African Americans held prisoner. The number of deaths is no more than 33. The death rate for the 106 is 31% and very close to the overall death rate of 29%.
The African American prisoners were used on work details outside the stockade. Maddox reported "pulling stumps," "cutting wood," and helping to "enlarge the stockade." Dyer worked two months as a house servant for Dr. White and "digging the well in the fort." Jennings testified, "I was set to digging a ditch outside the stockade." Maddox reported Colored prisoners being used on burial detail beginning in September.
The "neighborhood" or location of the African Americans inside the stockade is given by only Maddox, "The colored prisoners were in a gang by themselves up towards the south gate."
The number of months the African Americans were held at Andersonville is quite long. The prisoners captured at Ouster were brought to Camp Sumter fairly quickly. Boggle states he arrived March 14. Jennings arrived in February or March. Maddox said he arrived April 1. Dyer and Maddox testified that their stays ended February 2, 1865. The earliest deaths for African Americans were in April 1864 and the latest were in February 1865. African American prisoners were probably not transferred out in September of 1864 when 18,000 others were moved to other prisons.
There were African American prisoners who were held and died at Andersonville. There were 12,920 Americans, Black and white, who died at Andersonville. However, there would have been no Andersonville if the Union had not insisted that all prisoners, Black and white, be treated the same for exchange purposes.
Last updated: September 4, 2021