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Reading 2: Life as a Prisoner of War at Florence
The exact number of prisoners held at the Florence Stockade is unknown but the population never exceeded 15,000 at one time.1 Much of what we know about the conditions inside the prison comes from diaries kept by prisoners and memoirs published after the war. Prisoners had little to do, when they could get the supplies, they often wrote letters or kept diaries to pass the time. Supplies were hard to come by, however, so prisoners treasured stubs of pencils and small scraps of paper.
Ezra Ripple of the 52nd Pennsylvania Infantry recorded his experience in the stockade. He lived in a shebang, the most common form of shelters used by prisoners. He described the living conditions in his memoirs:
There was nothing left to do but dig a hole in the ground. As it would have to be roofed over with our gum blankets, we could only dig it as long and as wide as they would permit, and in that hole the four of us had to harbor for the winter. We dug it about three feet deep, but could not make it long enough to allow us straighten out our legs, or wide enough to permit us to lie in any other way than spoon fashion. Our shoulders and hip bones made holes in the ground into which they accurately fitted, and so closely were we packed together that when one turned we all had to turn. Lying all night in our cramped position with no covering, keeping life in each other by our joint contribution of animal heat only, we would come out of the hole in the morning unable to straighten up until the sun would come out to thaw us and limber our poor sore, stiff joints.2Lack of good food and water was a serious concern in the prison. Rations varied by what was available but generally included small amounts of corn meal, flour, rice, and beans. Prisoners sometimes received sweet potatoes, but never green vegetables. Beef, the only available meat, rarely made it to prisoners. Prisoners could earn higher rations by working in and around the stockade at tasks such as gathering wood. Pye Branch, a stream that flowed through the stockade, supplied the only water for the prison. The water was fairly clean at first, but as more guards and prisoners used it to relieve themselves or to bathe, it became polluted with human waste. Pollution led to sickness and death for many of the prisoners.
Exposure to the weather, poor nutrition, and polluted water all contributed to widespread disease among prisoners. Most prisoners who died succumbed from scurvy and dysentery. Both conditions resulted from poor diets. Insufficient Vitamin C caused scurvy. Dirty drinking water led to dysentery. Prisoners received very little medical care. Although a sheltered hospital existed within the stockade, doctors stationed at the prison did not have the proper medical equipment to help everyone who needed it.
Life inside the prison was very boring. There was nothing for prisoners to do unless they had a specific job. Many spent their time cooking what little food was available or trying to improve their shelter. One interesting event occurred in November of 1864, when the Confederate guards allowed the prisoners to vote in a staged election for President of the United States. In 1864, General George B. McClellan, a former and popular Union general, ran for president against Abraham Lincoln. Those who wanted to vote were given one black pea and one white pea. Those who voted dropped a white pea in the bag for McLellan or a black pea for Lincoln. Prisoners even made speeches for each candidate. In the end, Lincoln won, both in the prison and in the North.
There was little hope of escape from the Florence Stockade. Most attempts failed. Ezra Ripple was a member of a small orchestra of prisoners allowed to go outside the stockade to play for the guards. He and the rest of the orchestra tried to escape, but the blood hounds kept by the guards quickly tracked them down. The only other way out was to swear allegiance to the Confederacy and join a unit of others who had done so. Neither guards nor prisoners trusted these men, called “galvanized Yankees.”
The horrible conditions at the stockade led to nearly 2,800 Union deaths.3 In the six months that Florence Stockade was open, almost one-fifth of the prisoners died. Those that survived were released in February of 1865. Ezra Ripple wrote that when he was released,
...our hearts were so full of joy that we could not act like sane persons, but would cry and laugh and hug each other, and do the most foolish things in our unutterable joy.4Each day, a group of assigned prisoners gathered the bodies of the prisoners who died in the stockade. The first 400 or so were buried on a small rise just north of the stockade. Bodies soon filled this space so additional burials took place in a larger plot farther to the north on a neighboring plantation. Prisoners dug long trenches to hold the bodies and placed a board marked with a number at the head of each man. A book called a death register recorded each man’s number along with his name and home state if known. The death register disappeared after the war and no complete record of those buried in the trenches exists. These burial trenches served as the starting point for the Florence National Cemetery.
Questions for Reading 2
3) Imagine that you are a Union soldier who was captured by the Confederates and sent to the Florence Stockade. What would you do first when you reached the inside of the prison and why? What would you do first when you were released and why?
4) How would go about gaining your freedom if you were a Union prisoner? Would you take your chances and try and escape or would you pledge allegiance to the Confederacy? What are the advantages and disadvantages to both methods?
1 Official Records of the War of the Rebellion (U.S. War Department 1902) and Florence Military Records (South Carolina Department of Archives and History, Columbia, 1864-1865).
2 Mark A. Snell, editor, Dancing Along the Deadline: The Andersonville Memoir of a Prisoner of the Confederacy (Presidio Press, Novato, CA 1996), page 66.