Gettysburg Prisoners of War

In late June 1863 Robert E. Lee once again looked to capitalize on recent Confederate victories by moving his Army of Northern Virginia across the Potomac River and invading the northern states. Maryland once again was thrown into a frenzy as Lee’s army moved across the state. In Baltimore volunteers and soldiers were supplied shovels and pickaxes to build up the defenses of the city. Fort Federal Hill was supplied with rockets to alert Fort McHenry of approaching enemy forces and the majority of Confederate POWs held in Fort McHenry were placed on boats and shipped to other prisons.

Once newly appointed commander of the United States Army of the Potomac, George Meade, caught up to Lee at the small Pennsylvania town of Gettysburg, sounds of the largest battle to ever take place in North America would be heard in the distance at Fort McHenry. Nervous citizens and soldiers alike listened to distant cannon for three days as the two armies clashed on July 1-3. When word reached Baltimore on July 4, Independence Day, that the United States forces had been successful in defeating the Confederate invaders, patriotic celebrations erupted in the city, but just a short time later the grim reality of war would set in.

 
A sketch showing a line of Confederate POWs being marched under guard over a mountain.
“Marching prisoners over the mountains to Frederick, M.D.” By Alfred R. Waud.

Library of Congress

POWs Arrive

Once again Baltimore became a hospital town in the days following the Battle of Gettysburg as prisoners of war captured from the battle also began streaming into the city. Prisoners were primarily brought in by the railroad, and upon arriving in the city were marched to Fort McHenry for holding and eventual transfers to more permanent prisons or exchanges. By the end of July, the number of prisoners being held at the fort had swelled to 6,957. This included Confederate generals James Kemper and Isaac Trimble, both of whom had been seriously wounded as a result of the ill-fated Pickett’s charge on July 3rd.

In order to handle the massive influx of prisoners being held at Fort McHenry, soldiers converted stables into holding cells for the POWs. Reverend T.D. Witherspoon described the cells:

The floor, which separated us from our neighing neighbors beneath us, was full of broad seams from the shrinkage of boards of which it was composed, so that the hot, steamy air from below had full access to us, and during the oppressive days and sultry nights of July and August, with the thin roof of shingles between us and the sun, and the steam arising from the stalls beneath, our situation was anything but comfortable…

By the end of August, most POWs had been transferred elsewhere with only about 54 prisoners remaining on site. Many ended up in the now swelling prison of Point Lookout, MD which was becoming more and more crowded and growing as one of the most notorious prison camps in the North.

 
A historic black and white photograph of Lewis Armistead in uniform.
Brigadier General Lewis Armistead, CSA.

American Battlefield Trust

A Somber Homecoming

Lewis Armistead was the nephew of Major George Armistead, who, in 1814, had famously led the defense of Fort McHenry during the Battle of Baltimore helping to inspire the Star-Spangled Banner. Lewis’s father had moved to North Carolina by the time he was born. His family’s illustrious military history helped him enter the United States Military Academy at West Point, though he never graduated having resigned after an incident in which he had broken a plate over the head of fellow cadet, and later Confederate general, Jubal Early.

Lewis was still able to have a successful military career serving in the Mexican American War, becoming a breveted major and even being wounded at Chapultepec. After the war he was able to reach the rank of captain, but at the outbreak of the Civil War he resigned from his post to join the Confederate Army. Eventually making it to the rank of Brigadier General, Lewis Armistead led a brigade of George Pickett’s Division at Gettysburg. He was one of the few Confederates able to breach the lines of the Army of the Potomac at Cemetery Hill marking the High Watermark of the Confederacy. Lewis was captured after being mortally wounded in this action. Upon his death his body was then brought to Baltimore to be laid to rest next to his uncle.

Last updated: August 13, 2020

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