Reading 1: The Florence Stockade
When the Civil War began, both the North and the South believed it would be short. Early on in the war, both sides quickly realized that it was going to take a while. Shortly after the fighting began, an important issue emerged: what to do with prisoners taken on the battlefield. Although the North and South often exchanged prisoners at first, more and more soldiers came to the camps as the war dragged on.
The Confederacy considered the prison built in Andersonville, Georgia, in 1864, to be a safe place to keep captured Union soldiers. It seemed far enough from the front lines that the prisoners would be less likely to consider escaping. After General Sherman’s army captured Atlanta in September 1864, this changed. With the Union Army close, the Confederate government feared that Sherman’s troops would attack the prison and free its 33,000 prisoners. To prevent this, the South sent prisoners who were able to travel on trains to temporary prison camps in Savannah, Georgia, and Charleston, South Carolina. When the prison at Charleston quickly became overcrowded, it was clear that another large prison was needed.
The site for the new prison was about one mile southeast of Florence, South Carolina. It consisted of a large field surrounded by pine forests and swamps. Florence was a small town, but three separate train lines connected there, making it easy to ship prisoners and supplies. It also sat relocated prisoners farther from the battlefront. Construction of the prison began in early September 1864 and ended in November. Neighboring plantations provided 1,000 enslaved workers to help build the stockade. The first prisoners arrived on September 15, just after construction began. These first 6,000 prisoners lived in an open field near the prison, guarded by just over 100 soldiers and armed locals. Many of the early arrivals managed to escape, but the surrounding land was harsh and all were recaptured.
The prison at Florence was a stockade, which is a large, open area surrounded by high walls. The word “stockade” also refers to the wall enclosing the area. The stockade wall was rectangular and measured 1,400 feet long and 725 feet wide, enclosing approximately 23 acres. The walls were constructed of whole logs placed vertically in a trench about 4 feet deep. A 5 foot deep dry moat surrounded the outside of the walls to prevent prisoners from tunneling out. The soil from the moat piled against the outside walls, providing a walkway for the guards around the top of the walls. Artillery posts sat at each corner and at the main gate. A shallow ditch 10 to 15 feet inside the walls marked the “dead-line.” Any prisoner crossing that line would be shot without warning.
Sherman’s army continued to march across Georgia until December when it captured the city of Savannah. After taking Savannah, it turned north to invade South Carolina. By February of 1865, Sherman’s forces neared Columbia, only 100 miles west of Florence. The prisoners had to be moved again. This time, there was no isolated location for them, so the Confederate government decided to send them home. The first group left on February 15. The sick went to Wilmington, North Carolina. The healthy traveled to Greensboro, North Carolina where they were transferred back in to Union hands. By March 1865, the Florence Stockade was empty.
Questions for Reading 1
1) Define the terms stockade and dead-line.
2) List two reasons that the stockade was built near the town of Florence.
3) Who actually built the stockade? Why do you think they were used to build it? If you were in charge of construction, would you have used slaves or prisoners? From the Confederate point of view, what would be the advantages and disadvantages of each?
4) If you were in charge of moving large numbers of prisoners, would you continue to build larger prisons or split them up into smaller ones? Which do you think would be easier to build, staff, and supply? Which would be more secure?
Reading 1 was compiled from Official Records of the War of the Rebellion (U. S. War Department 1891, 1895, 1899, 1902); G. Wayne King, Death Camp at Florence (Civil War Times Illustrated 1974); Tracy Power, The Confederate Prison Stockade at Florence, South Carolina (Columbia, SC, manuscript on file at the South Carolina Department of Archives and History, 1991); Robert H. Kellogg, Life and Death in Rebel Prisons (Hartford, CT, L. Stebbins 1868); and Mark A. Snell, editor, Dancing Along the Deadline (Novato, CA, Presidio Press 1996).