“We Were Surrendered.” Civil War Prisoners and the Trauma

civil war prisoners

The American Civil War occurred from April 12, 1861, to April 26, 1865. During this period, prisoners were captured after battles and taken to prison camps that were cramped and full of disease. 

Civil War Prisons in the North and South

There were numerous prisons located nationwide with notable prisons including the Andersonville Civil War prison in Georgia, Florence Stockade in South Carolina, Belle Isle in Virginia, and Elmira Prison in New York. Many were located in the south of the U.S., as this is where most battles of the war took place. 

Conditions were so awful in these prisons of the Civil War that many prisoners described them as being worse than the actual battles themselves. Men were left with skeletal figures and covered head to toe in dirt and grime. Due to confined living spaces, diseases also spread like wildfire. Many prisoners of war (Civil War) suffered from diarrhea, gangrene, scurvy, and smallpox. A lot of academic writers and students give particular attention to the conditions in these prisons in their academic work. Every other professional essay writer or scholar makes sure to bring more details of the topic to the surface at online forums and websites.

Along with these living conditions, prisoners were also treated horrifically by the guards. They were regularly beaten and had personal belongings stolen from them. 

Prisoners of the Civil War

Over 400,000 Union and Confederate soldiers were held prisoner across the 150-plus prisons in the Civil War. It’s been estimated that 56,000 men died while being held in these prisons. Among this number, 33,000 were sent to the most famous Civil War prison, Andersonville. 

After a battle, prisoners would be sent by train to the nearest prison; however, it could still take days for these men to arrive at the prison they had been sent to. Once the prisoners arrived at one of these Civil War prisons, they would be met by guards who would then take anything they wanted from the prisoners, including money, clothes, and food. 

With such awful conditions, it was common for locals living the near the camps to sneak food, water, and clothing to the prisoners, which meant even risking being arrested themselves. 

Prisons During the Civil War

There were eight main prisons during the war. This ‘Civil War prisons’ list includes: 

  • Salisbury Prison, North Carolina 
  • Alton Federal Prison, Illinois
  • Point Lookout, Maryland
  • Elmira Prison, New York 
  • Camp Douglas, Illinois 
  • Belle Isle, Virginia 
  • Florence Stockade, South Carolina 
  • Andersonville, Georgia 

Salisbury prison was converted from an old cotton mill in 1861. Conditions started off relatively good at the start of the war, where there were fewer prisoners, so living quarters were not so cramped, and they were fed rationed meals each day. However, as the war progressed, conditions became worse, and by 1864 there was a huge 10,000 inmates. This resulted in a shortage of food and disease and starvation ripping through the prison. 

Before the war, Alton Federal Prison was a civilian prison and then took in prisoners from the war. This resulted in overcrowding and the spread of many diseases, including smallpox which, in the winter of 1862, claimed the lives of 300 men.

Point Lookout was originally built for political prisoners, however, in 1863, it also decided to hold Confederate soldiers. From September 1863, the number of Confederate soldiers kept growing until the prison reached its peak of 20,000 Confederate soldiers which was double the number of inmates the prison had been built for.  

Elmira Prison was commonly known as ‘Hellmira’ and opened in July 1864 and became infamous for its high death rate and sanitary conditions. The prison became so crowded that some prisoners even had to sleep outside, creating their own shelter out of sticks and whatever else they could find. As this was one of the northern Civil War prisons, it meant nights could become extremely cold, making conditions completely unhabitable for prisoners. 

Camp Douglas was often referred to as the “Andersonville of the North” due to its high death rates. Originally a training facility for Illinois Regiments, it was later converted into a prison and kept 18,000 Confederates captive. 

Belle Isle was a prison camp (Civil War from 1862 to 1865). During this time, 30,000 men were taken to the small island, where many died of starvation or exposure due to living in cramped tents or manmade shelters of sticks. 

Florence Stockade only operated for a few short months between September 1864 and February 1865. Confederates created a new Civil War prison for Union prisoners after Atlanta fell to Union forces, so they needed a new prison for Andersonville inmates. 

Civil War Andersonville prison is the most famous and worst civil war prison. Civil War prisoners of War photos reveal that conditions were extremely cramped, with barely any room to move. 13,000 prisoners died due to lack of food, disease, and exposure. 

Andersonville Prison Civil War: Prison Camp

Construction for this camp began in 1864, and it was created so that there was a secure location to keep Union prisoners. It’s considered one of the worst Civil War prisons due to it only being active for 14 months, but still, 13,000 men died due to the state of the prison. 

It’s thought that 400 Andersonville prisoners arrived during the Civil War each day, with the highest number of prisoners reaching 33,000. Once the war ended and Andersonville was closed, many Civil War prisoners went back to their normal civilian life. 

Due to unhealthy living conditions, prison camps of the Civil War were truly traumatic experiences. Many Civil War prisoners’ (of war) records show that tens of thousands of men died in such a short space of time. As surrendered men, the last thing they would expect would be to be transported to a prison where they have personal possessions stolen and then thrown into a camp raging with disease and fearing for their lives, with no way to escape.


 Andersonville Prison. (2021, May 11). American Battlefield Trust. https://www.battlefields.org/learn/articles/andersonville-prison 

Civil War Prison Camps. (2021, March 25). American Battlefield Trust. https://www.battlefields.org/learn/articles/civil-war-prison-camps 

History of the Andersonville Prison – Andersonville National Historic Site (U.S. National Park Service). (n.d). https://nps.gov/ande/learn/historyculture/camp_sumter_history.htm 

Learn how prisoners of the war were treated during the American Civil War. (n.d). [Video]. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/video/195089/lot-military-prisoners-American-Civil-War-Andersonville 

Preserving Places of Captivity: Civil War Prisons in the National Parks – Andersonville National Historic Site (U.S. National Park Service). (n.d). https://www.nps.gov/ande/learn/historyculture/civil-war-prisons-in-the-national-parks.htm 

Warfare History Network. (2022, September 19). Prisons of the Civil War: An Enduring Controversy – Warfare History Network. https://warfarehistorynetwork.com/article/prisons-of-the-civil-war-an-enduring-controversy 

Weber, J.L.,&Hassler W. W. (2023, May 11). American Civil War | History, Summary, Dates, Causes, Map, Timeline, Battles, Significance & Facts. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/event/American-Civil-War 

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Nicholas works in the ESL Department of CustomWritings.com. He’s much adored by students in a private middle school, where he teaches English literature. Amateur actor and great guitar player, Nicholas knows how to enjoy the arts.