November 2, 2013


Over 660,000 Americans died in the Civil War between 1861 and 1865. Various sources cite the death count anywhere from 618,000 to 700,000. It was the bloodiest war in United States history and the fatalities exceed, to this day, those in all other wars and conflicts the country has fought, combined. The Union forces suffered 110,070 battle deaths; 250,152 deaths from disease (including infections from wounds that developed into gangrene), for a total of 360,222 dead. The Confederate figures are as follows: approximately 94,000 battle deaths, 164,000 from disease, for a total of 258,000 dead. The Union side also suffered 282,000 wounded during the conflict. I could not find a figure for the Confederate side. The point of mentioning these staggering numbers is to impress upon us the depth of hatred and ill-will that accompanied this war.
Then why, after the Civil War was over, was only one person from the Confederate side executed for acts committed during that war? Who was this person? And what did he do to deserve this punishment? Both General Robert E. Lee and President Jefferson Davis escaped this fate, and they were each considered high-profile traitors (by the Union, that is). Let the story begin.    

Jefferson Davis, President 
of the Confederacy. He escaped 
execution after the Civil War.

In early 1864 the Confederacy built a prisoner of war camp in southwestern Georgia to house Union prisoners of war who were being held in the Richmond, Virginia, area and other areas further north that were being threatened by Union forces. It was built by local black people, both slave and free, who constructed a 26 acre compound in the shape of a parallelogram, approximately 1,620 feet long and 780 feet wide. It was built to hold 10,000 prisoners but its population soon swelled to 26,000 prisoners and peaked at nearly 33,000 during the 14 months the prison was in operation. The stockade walls were made of 20' logs buried 5' in the ground creating a solid 15' fence surrounding the overcrowded prisoners. Guard towers were built on top of this 15' fence every 80-100' and were referred to as "pigeon roosts" by the prisoners. 

Restored section of the 15' Andersonville 
stockade wall. Note the "pigeon roost" 
platforms above the wall.

At first no one inside the camp was allowed to build a shelter of any kind. This rule was enforced for security purposes so that guards could have a clear view of all prisoners. But as time went on and so many men died from heat- and sun-stroke, and exposure to the elements (the brutal Georgia summer of 1864 took its toll), the rule was relaxed and prisoners were allowed to erect small tents or sun screens. This newly-built prisoner of war camp was officially known as Camp Sumter but was referred to very quickly as "Andersonville" because of its proximity to the town of Andersonville in Southwest Georgia. 

Prisoners were eventually allowed to 
erect shelters for protection from the 
sun, the heat and the elements.  Note the 
fence erected to keep prisoners
away from the stockade wall. This will be 
addressed later in the post. 

A stream ran through the camp that prisoners mockingly named the "Sweet Water Branch" for a number of reasons. The detachment of Confederate soldiers assigned to guard the prison camp established their own camp upstream of the stockade and used the stream to bathe and to dispose of human waste and garbage. So when the stream entered the camp, it was already polluted. 

The "Sweet Water Branch" flowing into 
Andersonville. This drawing was made 
by an ex-prisoner after the War.

When the stream entered the camp thousands of prisoners used this stream as a source of drinking water, and as a place to bathe and dispose of sewage and human waste. The scene was set for an outbreak of diseases such as typhoid and cholera. The Confederate government was unable to provide adequate food, clothing, shelter or medical care for the prisoners. Nearing the end of the War, all Confederate resources were diverted to the fighting forces of the South. Chaos, desperation and death resulted inside the camp. Prisoners who had some strength left dug wells and sold/bartered water they found to other prisoners in ghoulish transactions. 

An actual photo of the Andersonville prison 
in 1864 that illustrates the overcrowded 
and filthy conditions prisoners endured.

 Gangs of thieves (prisoners themselves) called "raiders" preyed upon the weak, malnourished and sick, stealing what they wanted and beating others at will. Murder was not uncommon amongst the doom and hopelessness in the camp. To protect themselves, other prisoners organized groups known as "regulators" to protect prisoners from the depredations of the "raiders." These "regulators" were set up with the approval of the camp's commander, Confederate Captain Henry Wirz. Wirz was Swiss-born and had been a physician in Louisiana when the Civil War began. With Wirz's approval, at least six prisoners were hanged for being "raiders" and engaging in violent crimes against their fellow prisoners. They were hung in a mass execution on July 11th, 1864. Wirz quickly became notorious as the commandant of a deadly prisoner facility.

Andersonville commander 
Captain Henry Wirz.

Approximately 30% of all the prisoners who came to Andersonville died, with at least 100 men dying each day during the hot summer of 1864. To dispose of the dead each day prisoners were required to pick up the bodies and stack them in front of one of the two prison gates. When the gates were opened early in the morning a detail of prisoners carried the corpses to a barn-like structure called "The Dead House" where the bodies were stored before burial. The dead were covered with pine boughs to cover up the smell of decomposing flesh. Prisoners were dying faster than they could be buried.

The south gate, one of the gates in front of 
which the dead were piled before being 
taken outside to the "Dead Barn" for storage
before burial. 

The most notable characteristic of the prison was a small trench dug into the ground inside the stockade 17' (some sources say 19') from the log fence. If any prisoner wandered across this very shallow furrow/line the guards in the previously mentioned towers ("pigeon roosts") had standing orders to shoot to kill. Even if a prisoner accidentally stumbled across this barrier the guards shot him dead. This shallow line in the ground became known by the prisoners as the "deadline." Later, in parts of the prison camp, a simple fence was erected to mark the spot of this barrier. But, fence or not, the "deadline" was a very serious fact of life for those held in the camp.

This drawing of the "deadline" shows both the
shallow trench and a simple fence that marks
the barrier. A guard in a "pigeon roost" (guard
tower) has just shot a prisoner dead.

The population of the Andersonville camp swelled to such a huge number because of the stopping of prisoner exchanges as the war progressed. Earlier, it had been the regular practice for the North and the South to "parole" and exchange prisoners with each other along with the promise from the soldiers paroled that they would not return to the battlefield. After the exchanges, this promise was often ignored. But the exchanges did prevent each side from having to open large prisoner of war camps in which they had to feed, clothe, shelter and provide medical care for prisoners. General Ulysses Grant put an end to prisoner exchanges and turned the fight into a merciless war of attrition. 

General Grant put an end to prisoner 
exchanges. His decision would have 
tragic consequences.

The North had many more men to throw into the fight than did the South, so in Grant's calculations it made no sense to continue prisoner exchanges. It was to be a fight to the death, and no mercy was to be shown the South by "paroling" Southern prisoners. Northern prisoners, as a result, accumulated in Southern prison camps and Andersonville became the largest and most infamous. This cessation of prisoner exchanges was one of the primary motivations for John Wilkes Booth and a number of others to organize the kidnapping of President Lincoln. The plan,originally, was for Booth and his cohorts to kidnap Lincoln and smuggle him out of Washington and into Virginia, their final destination being Richmond, the Confederate capital. There, Lincoln would be used as a negotiating tool to force the release of all Confederate prisoners of war. In short, in exchange for Lincoln's life, the South would receive a huge return of men/soldiers that would allow them to fight on to victory over the North. 

Booth's kidnapping plan turned to 
murder after Lee's surrender to Grant 
at Appomattox.

With Lee's surrender to Grant on April 9, 1865, Booth's plan finally fell apart. A number of attempts to kidnap the President had been tried, but none had been successful. Booth's emotions turned to rage as he listened to Lincoln give a public address from a balcony of the President's Mansion on the evening of Tuesday, April11, 1865. The mention of "negro suffrage" by Lincoln unhinged Booth so much that he stormed out of the crowd, saying to a friend,"That is the last speech he will make." It was. Booth assassinated Lincoln 3 days later.       

Booth carried out his threat at approximately 
10:15 P.M. in Ford's Theatre on April 14, 
1865, Good Friday.


With the end of the war the Andersonville prison camp was liberated. What Union soldiers found when they captured it was horrifying. Piles of dead bodies, sick and starving prisoners...later calculations stated that during the 14 months the prison camp was in operation a total of 45,000 Union prisoners had been sent there. Between 13 and 14,000 of them died. Here are a few of the pictures that were taken of the camp's survivors:


The Union, as well, had prison camps that were operated under terrible conditions. The story here is about Andersonville, but it is not an attempt to cover up the fact that similar conditions existed in some Union prisoner of war camps. That is another story. The Union prisoner of war camp at Fort Douglas just north of Chicago, Illinois, had a death rate as high, if not higher, than that of Andersonville. But that is not mentioned in the textbooks. Here is a You Tube video I found that silently pans/shows the Chicago suburban area that today stands on and around the old Fort Douglas grounds. It is eerie but also a strong statement about the suffering that went on there during the Civil War.

And this is a photograph of Camp Douglas 
taken in 1864:

To highlight the desperation of prisoners in northern prison camps, such as Camp Douglas, there were plans discussed by Southern sympathizers in the North during the Civil War to attack Union prison camps, free and arm the Southern soldiers being held, and have them fight their way back to the South so they could rejoin their fighting units. These plans never materialized, but with the end of prisoner exchanges/paroles, the South was desperate for manpower.       


Captain Henry Wirz was captured and put on trial for "war crimes" and "crimes against humanity," found guilty and sentenced to death. He was the man officially held responsible for the deaths and atrocities at Andersonville. He was hanged in the courtyard of the Old Capitol Prison on November 10, 1865. He was the only individual executed for war crimes committed during the Civil War. Following is a short You Tube video about Andersonville prison camp and Captain Henry Wirz. There is no narration and the short film tells most of its story through dramatic photographs. I have been unable to locate any photographs to equal the clarity and resolution of those shown in the video (still pictures) of Wirz's execution. They speak for themselves. Also, the title of the piece, with its reference to Auschwitz and WW II, makes a point that becomes more and more evident as the video progresses.

Many southerners came to see Henry Wirz as a martyr. A monument to him was erected in the town of Andersonville by the "United Daughters of the Confederacy," and each year on the anniversary of his execution local residents and visitors hold a ceremony paying tribute to him. Additionally, the birthday of Jefferson Davis is an observed holiday in a number of southern states as is the birthday of Robert E. Lee.

Captain Henry Wirz monument in 
Andersonville, Georgia. The message at 
the bottom of the stone says, "To rescue
 his name from the stigma attached
to it by bitter prejudice, this shaft is 

erected by the Georgia Division, United
 Daughters of the Confederacy."  

The story of the Andersonville prison camp spread at the end of the war. Newspaper and magazine accounts gave the details of the conditions endured by prisoners. Photographs such as those above circulated and horrified the public (Again, they conveniently overlooked the fact that their own side in the conflict had run camps with similar conditions). Newspaper reporters interviewed survivors of the camp and became familiar with stories of the "deadline" and the shoot to kill orders issued to anyone who crossed it. The word "deadline" was adopted by the newspaper profession, then, because of the requirement that reporters get stories they had written to their editors by a certain time, or else they would not appear in the next issue of the newspaper. In other words, the story was "dead." 

Thus, by the 20th century the word "deadline"was firmly entrenched in the field of journalism and publishing. Then the term made a leap into the world of education. Schools and teachers started using the term in place of the more neutral term "due date," or to replace the words "expected" or "required" when referring to assignments, homework, projects, tests and exams. It was a natural flow from journalism to education because, just like reporters, students had to hand in assignments on time or suffer a consequence.

As an educator I always wonder how a student/child feels when he or she first hears a teacher use the word "deadline." What does death have to do with not getting your homework in on time? Is something bad going to happen to them? The word is a regular part of the educational vocabulary and, as such, has been made fun of in a number of ways, as in the cartoons and illustrations I am showing here.

"Deadline." We use the word so calmly and regularly that we have lost all connection to the gripping and absorbing journey that word has taken through the history of our country. The next time you hear the word spoken, take a moment to think of where that word came from, and the lives (and deaths) of the people who sent it on to us from the past. 


This cartoon strip spills outside the boundaries, but I let it go, otherwise it would be more difficult to read. 
A deliberate decision on my part.





And that, my reader, is the end of this journey. 


Anonymous said...

This article was just great. I feel like I know so little about American history, and I love to learn....especially about words and their origins, you combined them beautifully. Thank you!

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for digging out the straight dope on Andersonville. I wonder which genius decided to put the Confederate latrines upstream from the Union water supply.

Also wonder if the death rate went up after Sherman's siege of Atlanta.

-Minnesota Yankee

Anonymous said...

Please consider creating a similar piece for Camp Douglas, by accounts was worse than Andersonville. There was a cover up, so today people don't know as much about the horror. The prisoners called it 80 acres of hell.

Que'de Bien Gudstuf said...

nice blog, cheers.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your article. I, too would like to hear more about the Union's camps. Our history books are so one sided. I did hear about Andersonville in school, but not the horrible things that happened in the North. Just as you never hear about the Black slave owners in the south.y