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The Solution: A Prison Crisis in 1863

Andersonville National Historic Site

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Richmond was a city at war. By 1863 it’s prewar population of 38,000 had more than doubled as the city was inundated with soldiers, government officials, bureaucrats, businessmen, and speculators all engaged in the Confederate war effort. All of this strained the city’s infrastructure and shortages of food and other materials became commonplace.

In the summer of 1863 the prisoner exchange system broke down. Confederate offi-cials were forced to find permanent facilities in which to house thousands of prisoners captured in the campaigns throughout the second half of the year. More than 20 loca-tions around Richmond held more than 16,000 prisoners of war by the end of the year. One out of five people living in Richmond was a Federal prisoner being held in camps like Belle Isle, Libby Prison, Castle Thunder, or one of the many warehouses around the city.

The large numbers of prisoners in Richmond alarmed the military leadership of the Confederacy.

[Robert E. Lee]: “I would respectfully suggest that the city of Richmond is not a suitable place for the accomodation and safe keeping of these prisoners. I think the presence of a large number there is, for many reasons, very injurious. It increases largely the amount of supplies to be transported to the city, and thus employs transportation which might be used for the benefit of the citizens. This has a tendency to increase high prices and cause distress among the poorer classes... Robert E. Lee, October 28, 1863

The city was pushing to the breaking point as the inhabitants of Richmond could no longer support themselves, the nearby armies, and the prisoners. A humanitarian crisis began to emerge, especially on Belle Isle in the James River. Shortages of food began to have a disastrous effect on prisoners in the city, and supplies sent from the north were in some cases distributed to needy citizens and Confederate soldiers.

[Dorence Atwater]:“Enough clothing was received to have furnished every prisoner with a complete suit and change of under-clothing, blankets, and over-coat, but no prisoner received these articles; if he were furnished with a blouse he must go without a shirt; if with pants he had to go without drawers...” Prisoner Dorence Atwater; Belle Isle, VA.

The disaster occuring in the prisons coupled with the struggles of the city finally prompted action. On November 24, 1863, Confederate Secretary of War James Seddon gave instructions to Captain W.S. Winder to travel to rural southwest Georgia in order to secure a new prison location near Americus. He settled on an area near the rail depot at Andersonville to serve as the new prison site.

The pending re-location of more than 16,000 prisoners brought optimism to the city. On December 30, 1863 the Richmond Sentinel reported that:

"It will not be long ere many of the Yankee prisoners, now in confinement on Belle Isle, will have an opportunity of breathing the salubrious air farther South, the Government having made selection of a spot in Georgia, near Andersonville, Sumtar county, for their reception and safe-keeping, their present place of confinement being rather over-crowded. The location is on the Southwestern railroad, between Oglethorpe and Americus, where no difficulty will be encountered in supplying their wants."

A prison crisis gripped the city of Richmond for the last half of 1863. The number of captives overwhelmed the city’s ability to care for not only the prisoners, but civilians as well. In order to meet these challenges in 1864, Andersonville would be the solution.

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A prison crisis in Richmond in the fall of 1863 prompted Confederate officials begin construction on a new prison that would solve the problems plaguing the city.