Weird History

What Was It Like To Be A Prisoner At Camp Sumter, A Terrifying Civil War Prison?  

Genevieve Carlton
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Camp Sumter, also known as Andersonville prison, housed 45,000 captured Union soldiers during the Civil War. Conditions at Andersonville were so horrific that 13,000 soldiers perished, many from overcrowding, starvation, and exposure. After the conflict, the Andersonville commander was put on trial for war crimes. 

Andersonville was originally built in 1864 after the Civil War prisoner exchange system broke down. When Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, the Confederacy responded by declaring they would no longer return captured black soldiers to the North. Lincoln ordered a halt to all prisoner exchanges until the Confederacy treated black captives equal to white POWs. The Confederacy hastily built the Andersonville facility using black slave labor to house 10,000 POWs. Instead, more than three times that number were shoved onto just 16 acres of land, with no fresh water, no housing, and barely any food. Described as "hell-upon-earth," Andersonville claimed the lives of thousands of Union soldiers.

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Barefoot And Naked Prisoners Struggled To Survive

Thousands perished at Andersonville. At the prison's peak, 100 men passed each day from diseases, malnutrition, and exposure. 

Union Private Prescott Tracy, an Andersonville prisoner, described the terrible conditions: "The clothing of the men was miserable in the extreme. Very few had shoes of any kind, not two thousand had coats and pants, and those were latecomers. More than one-half were indecently exposed, and many were naked."

POWs often had no protection from the elements: "Our only shelter from the sun and rain and night dews was what we could make by stretching over us our coats of scraps of blankets, which a few had, but generally there was no attempt by day or night to protect ourselves."

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Photo: Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
The 'Dead Line' Kept POWs From Escaping

Union POWs at Andersonville rarely escaped. The Confederate forces guarding the prison set up a "dead line" to keep POWs in the camp.

Enlisted soldier John Levi Maile described the barrier: "It consisted of a narrow strip of board nailed to a row of stakes, about four feet high." The dead line completely encircled Andersonville.

"'Shoot any prisoner who touches the dead line' was the standing order to the guards," Maile explained. "A sick prisoner inadvertently placing his hand on the dead line for support... or anyone touching it with suicidal intent, would be instantly shot at, the scattering balls usually striking other than the one aimed at."

POWs Were Fed Starvation Rations

POWs at Andersonville ate cornbread made from ground corn cobs and four tablespoons of rice per week. When they received meat, it was "condemned pork, offensive in appearance and smell." 

Private Prescott Tracy described the Confederates dumping rations onto the ground at 4 pm: "It was the custom to consume the whole ration at once, rather than save any for the next day. The distribution being often unequal, some would lose the rations altogether."

Starvation rations began even before POWs reached Andersonville. Tracy related that on a five-day march to Andersonville, Union troops received barely any food: "The sum of our rations for the five days was thirteen crackers."

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The Only Water Was Contaminated With Sewage

The 45,000 inmates at Andersonville shared a single water source: a manmade channel that trickled through the camp. "The water is of a dark color, and an ordinary glass would collect a thick sediment," reported Private Prescott Tracy

"The cookhouse was situated on the stream just outside the stockade," Tracy wrote, "and its refuse of decaying offal was thrown into the water, a greasy coating covering much of the surface."

Upstream, the Confederate guards also contaminated the water. Tracy described guards dumping "a large amount of the vilest material" into the stream, "or more properly sewer." The stream was the only source of drinking and cooking water for the POWs at the camp.