Civil War Prisoner of War Camps

As the nation commemorates the 150th anniversary of the Civil War (2011-2015), historians continue to study the conflict; enthusiasts participate in reenactments; genealogists search for relatives; and musicians perform the songs of the period.

The Civil War was the nation’s bloodiest conflict. Out of the estimated 2.75 million (Union and Confederate) soldiers who fought in the Civil War, at least 646,392 men died or were wounded. New scholarship has increased those mortality figures substantially.

More than 400,000 Union and Confederate soldiers were captured and imprisoned in prisoner-of-war camps during the Civil War. The whole prisoner-of-war camp issue remains a controversial one.

Although exact numbers may never be known, an estimated 211,000 Union soldiers spent at least a time in Confederate prisoner-of-war camps and 214,000 Confederate soldiers were imprisoned in Union camps.

During the Civil War, the Union and Confederacy established 150 prisons to handle the captured soldiers.

Of those prisoners, an estimated 56,000 soldiers – 26,000 from the Confederacy and 30,000 from the Union army – perished in prisoner-of-war camps during the Civil War.

The best known – or the most infamous – of the Confederate prisons was Andersonville. Andersonville was only in operation for 15 months; but during that time, almost 13,000 of the approximately 45,000 Union soldiers imprisoned there (29 percent) died from malnutrition, exposure and disease. Andersonville Commandant Henry Wirz was found guilty of conspiracy and 11 counts of murder. He was executed at Old Capital Prison in Washington, D.C. after the war.

The Union was not immune to inhumane conditions in its prisoner-of-war camps. Perhaps the best known of the Union camps was Camp Chemung, Elmira, NY. Known as “Helmira” by the Confederate prisoners, the camp was only open 369 days but quickly became overcrowded. Of the 12,123 Confederates imprisoned there, 3000 (25 percent) died.

Compared to “Helmira,” Camp Chase (Columbus, Ohio), Camp Douglas (Chicago, Illinois), and other Union prisons in the North, Johnson’s Island had better conditions, a lower mortality rate and a more exclusive prison body.

“Rebels on Lake Erie,” a one-hour documentary, deals with Johnson’s Island and the abortive attempt to liberate the Confederate prisoners there.