Book Review: Military Prisons of the Civil War: A Comparative Study

Military Prisons of the Civil War: A Comparative Study
By David L. Keller
Westholme Publishing, 2021, $32 hardcover

Reviewed by Meg Groeling

David L. Keller’s Military Prisons of the Civil War: A Comparative Study is the latest attempt to answer the eternal question: which side had the worst prisons–Union or Confederate? The author meticulously analyzes the makeshift prisons that sprang up of necessity on both sides of the war. In addition, he clearly identifies why Union prisons gave the incarcerated a better chance of living after being released. Military Prisons of the Civil War is an easy book to understand, even for those with little knowledge of the war itself. He divides his well-resourced information into five parts: 

  • Lack of a Strategic Plan for Handling Prisoners
  • Inadequate Plans for Long-Term Incarceration
  • Poor Selection and Training of Camp Command
  • Prison Guard Selection and Lack of Training
  • Failure to Provide Soldiers with Information on How to Behave as Prisoners

As Keller works his way through each of these parts, readers become aware of how complicated running a prison system during wartime was.

Just as few war planners on either side thought about first-aid hospitals, few realized that a battle might entail the gathering up of opposing combat forces at the end. Instead, the prevailing idea was that a winner would be declared, and troops exchanged within a few days, if not hours. Sometimes the number of prisoners was larger than the number of men who had captured them. It was easier for the U. S. army to feed captives because they had more food available in general and more efficient supply lines for more. The army also had bases and barracks already available close to the battle scene because the military had housing wherever it went. None of this was true for the Confederate army unless storage warehouses in Richmond could be counted as adequate prison housing. There was no strategic plan for handling prisoners, especially after race became a factor.

When Confederate President Jefferson Davis declared that all black men would be shot rather than taken prisoner, Lincoln retaliated with a general prisoner exchange stoppage. Until the Confederates treated black soldiers the same as white soldiers, there would no longer be any prisoner exchanges between the U.S. and the Confederacy. If things had been bad for short periods of incarceration, they were much worse for more extended periods. 

Andersonville was by far the worst prison during the time after 1863, for many reasons. Author Keller, managing director of the Camp Douglas Restoration Foundation, has many well-researched charts and graphs which allow readers to make comparisons, but it is clear that, just as the Confederate Army had supply problems, so did the southern prison system.

The focus of interest in Civil War prisons is usually the horrendous photographs of recently released inmates, but this book goes into the human reasons for such atrocities. The nineteenth-century has been identified as one in which human rights were legally nonexistent until the latter quarter of the period. This was especially true in orphanages, mental hospitals, jails, and prisons. There was nothing comparable to our current concern with human dignity and safety. Instead, a camp commander was usually the next officer in line for the job. No training or philosophy was in place other than correctly filling out mountains of government forms and keeping everything together. For the Confederates, it was even worse. Their solution was to do as the Union did to the best of their ability most of the time. Men in the camp suffered from cold, heat, exposure, and poor rations, but they were nowhere near so badly off as the prisoners. With no overarching philosophy for humane treatment in place, prison commanders were often chosen because they were available, not because they were qualified.

One point made by Keller is that there was no attempt to inform soldiers–Union or Confederate–with information concerning the expected behavior of prisoners. This was a strange idea because it is no longer an issue. Nevertheless, until President Eisenhower adopted the United States Code of Military Conduct on August 17, 1955, prisoners were apt to make their periods of incarceration much more complicated than they needed to be. Officer death rates for both sides were proportionately less than those for enlisted men, but a humane direction did not always inform even officers. Enlisted men were unused to keeping their quarters clean and healthy, and they often stole rations and possessions from each other. An example of mutual support is given by highlighting Morgan’s Raiders. They attempted to escape when possible and protected their fellow troopers by sharing rations and making prison life “normal.” Morgan’s men were mainly held at Camps Douglas and Chase, where bands, theater companies, and newspapers were organized. These efforts had good results: the death rate at Camp Douglas was between 5-7 percent. This is compared to the 15 percent death rates of the general population. 

The Civil War created terrible conditions on the battlefield, in camp, on marches, and in prison camps. Neglect, sometimes intent, ignorance, and politics were equally to blame. Yet, for all the examples of cruelty, there was an equal number of instances of kindness and compassion. The war must always be seen in its historical context, and there is blame on both sides. David Keller’s excellent book—his fourth—asks his readers to do better. He pleads for us to understand the underlying conditions that made nineteenth-century wartime prisons so terrible on both sides.

1 Response to Book Review: Military Prisons of the Civil War: A Comparative Study

  1. I have met Mr. Keller and was impressed by his knowledge of Prisoner of War camps. I am glad that he wrote a book comparing these camps. It is a shame that prisoners were treated badly on both sides. According to William Marvel’s biography of Stanton on page 308, “Lincoln told a New York delegation that he did not wish to disrupt exchanges, even to protect his black soldiers, because of the misery it would cause all prisoners.” If this is correct, the policy came from Stanton and Grant to prevent Confederate prisoners from returning to their army. Too bad that the North didn’t send food and supplies to their soldiers that were in Southern prisoner of war camps.

Please leave a comment and join the discussion!