Echoes of Reconstruction: Stories of Atrocities at Civil War Prison Camps Increased Post-War Antagonisms 

“Adjusting the rope for the execution of Wirz” by Scottish immigrant Alexander Gardner

ECW is pleased to welcome back Patrick Young, author of The Reconstruction Era blog

Civil War prisoner of war camps occupied a big part of the consciousness of the warriors and civilians on both sides during the final two years of the conflict. 

Prior to 1863, a captured soldier could expect to be quickly exchanged for a prisoner held by his own side. This “prisoner exchange cartel” gave each exchanged prisoner a value by rank, and exchanges were generally businesslike. The breakdown of the prisoner exchange cartel in 1863, following  the decision by the Confederate government not to respect the inclusion of Black captives in exchanges, coupled with the threat by the Davis government to execute or consign to slavery captured Black former slaves serving in the United States army, doomed those taken prisoner after the middle of 1863 to many months of captivity under deteriorating conditions. 

While the public expressed a high degree of interest in prisoners during this whole period, by the beginning of 1865 stories of atrocities convinced adherents of both sides that their opponents were inhuman beasts. News that Confederates planned to blow up Libby Prison if a Union raid threatened to free the prisoners, photos of skeletal prisoners released to the Union Army, and the decision by Union authorities to reduce rations at Elmira prison and elsewhere to match what was given to Union soldiers at Andersonville, all fueled resentment and calls for retribution on both sides. 

Conversely, partisan reports in each region portrayed prisoners held by one’s own side as being well-treated. When illustrations of Northern prisons appeared in Northern publications, the Confederate prisoners were typically depicted as well-fed and adequately clothed. According to historian Benjamin G. Cloyd:

The much cozier image fit the popular opinion in the North, fed by the press, that Confederate prisoners lived in luxury while their counterparts starved and died. It also showed a stubborn refusal in the North…to confront the reality of the evil done in the name of its cause. [Source: Cloyd, Benjamin G. Haunted by Atrocity (Making the Modern South) LSU Press, p. 24.] 

Both the Union and Confederate governments manipulated public opinion through the use of prisoner atrocity stories during the last two years of the war. Both governments behaved cynically. Rather than improve the conditions for the prisoners each side held, the respective governments hurled charges of inhumanity against the other side. Men in the prisons came to worry that their respective presidents had stopped caring about the welfare of the men, and saw them more useful as suffering objects of pity. Martyrs had a propaganda value to both sides.

After the war, for all the outcry over prison camp atrocities, only one many, North or South, faced capital punishment for his alleged deeds.

Henry Wirz, the Andersonville commandant, may or may not have been guilty as charged at his war crimes trial, but he was also a scapegoat in the ancient sense of that term. A guilty nation extirpated its sins by assigning them to an outsider, a Swiss immigrant with a heavy German accent. His alleged malevolence could stand in for the responsibility of hundreds of men (most born in the U.S.) for the death of tens of thousands of prisoners held by both sides.

In the post-war press Wirz was not a man, he was a “devil,” “tiger,” and “fiend.” He was anything but an American. Wirz was a most useful figure, says historian Benjamin Cloyd. Wirz provided the Unionist “public a demonic figure on which to focus their outrage.” Placing the sins of the country on a foreigner allowed Americans to get past the issue of why native-born men on both sides allowed 56,000 prisoners to die from often preventable causes. 

Almost as soon as Wirz was hanged, Union prison memoirs began regularly appearing in print. In the years right after the war, former prisoners accused the Confederacy of trying to murder them. One author wrote that; “It is past question that the Confederate authorities did deliberately, and with thoughts of murder in their hearts, perpetuate the awful enormity of torturing to death sixty or seventy thousand helpless but brave men; slain by a refined process of cruelty.”

The Republican Party found the prison narratives useful campaign tools in the elections of 1868. Nothing outraged Northern voters more than reading of the death by starvation of their brave sons. Connecting the Democratic Party to Andersonville completed the advantageous circle.

Confederate veterans launched a counteroffensive, claiming the Union prisons were “Andersonvilles of the North.” They rewrote the history of the cartel breakdown by writing out of it the impact of the refusal by Jeff Davis to treat Black soldiers as prisoners of war. Instead, they claimed that the “Butcher” Grant ordered the end of the cartel out of brutal hatred, ignoring the fact that the cartel fell apart nearly a year before Grant assumed command of the Union armies. (Grant did argue against restarting the cartel in mid-1864, but by then it had been largely suspended for more than a year.) Assigning all blame to the Union rallied Southern whites to the conservative campaign to redeem the former Confederate states through the Democratic Party. 

African Americans in the South developed their own post-war traditions and memories of the prisoners. Soon after the war they began traditions of assembling at the old grounds of the prisons, first in solemn commemoration of men who had died to help free the slaves, and later as a civic celebration. White Southerners resented these commemorations and the white media ignored them typically, only mentioning them to mock the black assemblies. Union veterans came to see Black communities living near prison cemeteries as the special caretakers of the graves, and memory, of the sacred dead. 

With the consolidation of Jim Crow segregation in the 1890s and a push for national reconciliation by many white Americans, Black memory of the prisoners was marginalized, and Blacks were isolated from racially segregated commemorations at the prison cemeteries. Meanwhile, in the early 1900s the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) erected a monument to Wirz near Andersonville. In four decades, the man executed as a war criminal had been transformed into a hero of the white South.

5 Responses to Echoes of Reconstruction: Stories of Atrocities at Civil War Prison Camps Increased Post-War Antagonisms 

  1. Thank you for this educational piece. The practice of prison treatment was, I suspect, a culmination of a growing frustration over an increasingly deadly war. Time of horrible combat erased any pretext of chivalry.

  2. My recently published book Changing Sides: Union Prisoners of War Who Joined the Confederate Army (University of Tennessee Press) addresses the myth that Union prisoners were given the same rations as their guards through archaeological evidence from Florence Prison. The book tracks several units raised by the Confederates and addresses what happened to at least some of the recruits after the war.

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