Torture Techniques from Anderson Prison, The Scariest Place in the Civil War

The Anderson Prison, also known as the Andersonville Prison or Camp Sumter, was home to some of the unluckiest soldiers of the Civil War. It was a Confederate prison during the last year of the war and, while many Civil War prisons were horrific, the scale of neglect and horrific treatment at Anderson Prison - and the almost 13,000 deaths that occurred there - makes it the most remembered. The conditions and treatment were so deplorable that it was often compared to concentration camps. 

The Union prisoners held at Andersonville were subject to starvation, filth, and vermin. It was systematic neglect that left the prisoners as shells of their former selves, if they made it out alive at all. Prisoners in the Civil War - especially those at Anderson Prison - faced unspeakable horrors. 

Photo: flickr / CC0

  • Starvation

    After their capture, Union soldiers were often undernourished or not fed at all. The withholding of food lead some to develop scurvy, while others just starved to death. An account from Sergeant Clark N. Thorp gives a horrific insider's look at the conditions: 

    I have seen men, by the hundred, standing huddled together for mutual warmth and support (you could not fall very well with men on every side standing tight to you) but these men were weakened by disease and starvation, and during the night many would have to lie down and, in the morning, if it had rained hard you would approach a man who looked like a pile of sand, the heavy rain having thrown sand over his prostrate body. Many of them would be dead in the morning and would be carried out to the deadhouse by their comrades...

    Many were reduced to killing vermin to eat, while some taunted the guards in order to be shot. 

  • The Sweat Box

    The Sweat Box
    Photo: Master Sgt. Michel Sauret / US Army / Public Domain

    What's a sweat box? Well, it's a lot worse than a sauna. The Institute for Historical Review describes this punishment for unruly prisoners: 

    Some were confined to the "sweat box" in which the occupant stood immobile and received no ventilation, food or water for the duration of the punishment period...

    Being put in the box has been described as being suffocated by hot steam. During the war, President Abraham Lincoln reportedly went in a sweat box to see how it felt. He could only sit in the box for three minutes before becoming overcome by the hot steam. He outlawed the practice at all Union prisons and ships. 

  • Hanging By Thumbs

    Hanging By Thumbs
    Photo: Judson McCranie / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

    Just the name "hanging by thumbs" should be enough to get your mind whirring and your stomach churning. It is, unfortunately, just what you imagine it to be - being suspended from just your thumbs.

    It was used to deal with difficult prisoners, including those who tried to escape. Presumably, they would then be unable to fulfill their labor duties, making them subject to more punishment. 

  • Being Inundated with Feces, Dirt, And Garbage

    Being Inundated with Feces, Dirt, And Garbage
    Photo: Keystone Publishing / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Normally, a bit of dirt wouldn't make a torture list, but considering that 13,000 of the 45,000 Union soldiers confined there died of disease, poor sanitation, overcrowding, the elements, and malnutrition, it sounds as if the poor conditions were torturous. This wasn't just a little bit of dirt - it was dirt that killed. Not only was the place literally filthy, prisoners were forced to drink unclean water. Those who tried to get fresh water upstream were shot and killed. 

    “There is so much filth about the camp that it is terrible trying to live here,” one prisoner wrote in his diary. “With sunken eyes, blackened countenances from pitch pine smoke, rags, and disease, the men look sickening. The air reeks with nastiness.” 

    It led to the disease and eventual death of many soldiers. 

  • Whipping

    According to Michael F. Shaughnessy in an interview with Professor Donald Elder, whipping was used as a punishment at Andersonville. Some accounts say that Confederate generals used powerful whips on the prisoners.

    In one case, a man was whipped so badly he was unable to stand. 

  • The 'Deadline'

    The 'Deadline'
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    A good way to keep inmates in line? By literally keeping them in line. Prison guards had a line around the prison called Andersonville's "deadline." If prisoners crossed it, they were killed immediately. Sentries sat in pigeon roosts up on the wall of the stockades in order to have a clear view of the prisoners.

    The deadline was around 19 feet from the wall. The idea was to deter prisoners from trying to escape.