Myth: You Starved Our Prisoners and We Took Care of Yours

Sumter-Republican-July-30-1864
The July 30, 1864 local newspaper listing the mandatory government prices for supplies at Andersonville.

Lake Blackshear Regional Library

Before the Civil War was even over, people from both sides began to justify their own treatment of prisoners and leveled accusations of intentional negligence at the opposing prison system. People on both sides sought to find simple answers as to why prisons on both sides were bad, and these basic arguments emerged: Southerners believed that they did the best they could under the circumstances and that northerners had been intentionally negligent in retaliation. Northerners believed they had held captives humanely and that Confederate prisons were being run as death camps. Both sides oversimplified what was happening in the Civil War prisons, and the causes of suffering were far more complicated than simple vengeance or short supplies. Although both sides managed prisons very differently, they each suffered from the same core deficiency: a reliance on non-governmental sources for supplies. This can be illustrated by examining the two prisons with the highest death rates: Elmira & Andersonville.

Many people look at the death rate at Elmira and conclude that Confederate prisoners "starved in a land of plenty." This line even appears in several post war memoirs. However, there are several issues with this understanding. First, relatively few Confederate prisoners died from diseases or complications related to starvation. Most deaths at Elmira occurred as a result of pneumonia, smallpox, typhoid, and dysentery. Flooding in the spring of 1865 resulted in several dozen deaths, and almost fifty more died in a train wreck en route to the prison. The second issue with this understanding of Federal prisons is that the north was a "land of plenty" and the role this played in prison management. It's certainly true that the north was in much better shape logistically than the south. However, the Federal military bureaucracy relied on private vendors for food, clothing, and other supplies in both the armies and in the prisons. Failures of contractors to fulfill their obligations in a timely manner had a direct effect on the well-being of prisoners. It meant that barracks were built too slowly, and a significant number of prisoners and guards at Elmira were housed in tents well into winter – leading to outbreaks of pneumonia. When the drinking supply became polluted, prison officials began efforts to dig a drainage channel, but outside contractors were slow in procuring supplies and the project stalled until it was too late and the ground was frozen, which led to outbreaks of typhoid and dysentery. The Federal military prison system was a slow bureaucracy that often responded to problems, but because of a reliance on outside contractors for materials and labor, did so too slowly. The problems at Elmira and all of the other Federal military prisons were far more complicated than simple callousness, revenge, or intentional negligence.

Like Elmira, Andersonville relied on outside sources for food and supplies. One of the reasons Andersonville was selected as a prison site was because of its proximity to agricultural production. The food shortages in Richmond and in the army in Virginia would be avoided by placing the prison in the middle of the breadbasket of the Confederacy. In theory, this would protect the prison from being cut off from the rest of the country if rail lines were destroyed. However, this failed in practice because the Confederate military relied on local farmers and companies that were less than willing to do business with the Confederacy. Simply put, area farmers did not want to sell their crops to the military at fixed government prices in Confederate currency. Further complicating this was that many of the large planters in Georgia refused to produce foodstuffs and insisted on continuing to grow cotton, which only drove prices for food higher. In an effort to alleviate this and to feed the prison, a "tithe" was placed on all food production, and area farmers were required to give 10% of their food crop to the Confederate military. This was seen by many as an overreach by a government that claimed to carry the mantle of states' rights, and further alienated area farmers. By mid-1864 it was virtually impossible for the Confederate army at Andersonville to acquire anything, even if it was readily available. The challenge of purchasing food for the prison was exacerbated by the Confederacy's decision to centralize prisoners into one location – nearly one million pounds of cornmeal were required at Andersonville in August 1864 alone. These issues extended beyond food. Efforts to purchase lumber to build barracks and a dam across the creek were stifled when the shipyards in Columbus, GA could pay higher rates than the army could, which was constrained by a fixed pricing system. There was enough food and lumber in the area around Andersonville to greatly improve conditions, but because none of it was nationalized, the Confederate government could not get access to it. Accounts from some civilians and soldiers in the area describe warehouses of food that the owners wouldn't sell for anything except gold or greenbacks, leaving prisoners hungry, and forcing guards to purchase necessary supplies on their own.

Both sides were wrong in arguing that they provided the best care that they could while criticizing the other for inadequate treatment. Both sides could have improved on their management techniques – Federal officials already nationalized some industries and could have further done so to eliminate some of the prison bureaucracy. The Confederate government could have allowed flexibility from its rigid pricing system, which would have greatly alleviated hunger in the prison and facilitated the construction of shelters for the prisoners and a dam across the creek. However, even today almost 150 years later, arguments continue as people defend some prisons and level charges of negligence at others. The truth is that prison management in the Civil War was incredibly complicated and subject to many outside forces. Any effort to distill it down to simple negligence or cruelty is simply inaccurate.

Last updated: April 14, 2015

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Andersonville National Cemetery
National Prisoner of War Museum
496 Cemetery Road

Andersonville, GA 31711

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