State Cemetery - Header Banner

Civil War Military Prisons Pt. 2

 

**Brief warning, some of the period images linked to are graphic in nature**

Last post I wrote about Civil War military prisons and something on their conditions. Today I’d like to talk about their connection to the Texas State Cemetery and the aftermath of the War. More men buried out here at the Cemetery were at Fort Delaware than Elmira or Point Lookout. While Fort Delaware was no Andersonville, neither was it the Hilton. Built on barren Pea Patch Island, Fort Delaware was built for coastal defense and is located at the mouth of Delaware Bay and converted to a prison during the Civil War. Winters were harsh and overcrowding was a problem, like it was at every camp. Overcrowding was not a problem for Francis Richard Lubbock, former governor of Texas and aide to Jefferson Davis. Lubbock was with Davis when he was arrested fleeing Richmond and was placed in solitary confinement for eight months. Seven men buried at the State Cemetery were prisoners at Fort Delaware including two men who were there for two years; Robert Kirkley who was taken prisoner after Gettysburg and Joel Aldridge who was taken prisoner after Chickamauga. The large monument pictured is at Finns Point National Cemetery where the Confederate Fort Delaware dead were buried. Most of the 2,000 Confederates who died there had no marked grave. Below is an image taken from Andersonville of a mass grave being dug, mass graves were used to dispose of the dead on both sides.

Point Lookout in Maryland was the largest Union prison used in the War. Designed to hold 10,000 men, at its height the prison held 20,000 men. Naturally, there was a supply shortage. Back to Lonnie R. Speer, the author of Portals to Hell: Military Prisons of the Civil War, where he quotes a primary source; a doctor visiting the camp said “more than half of 9,000 and more there confined have not even a single blanket for covering or for bedding.” Lack of blankets would have been a big problem, winter on the coast of the Chesapeake Bay can be harsh and high tides occasionally flooded the camp. During the winter, the flooding was compounded when the rising tides froze and the ground turned to an icy, muddy sludge. Four of our Confederates were inmates at Point Lookout; William Alsobrook, William Pribble, C.C. Hagler and James Norfleet.

Why was there such overcrowding in seemingly every prison no matter which side? There’s a variety of reasons, poor planning early on by both sides, lack of material and money to build new facilities, lack of man power to build them and finally, public reports in the North of prisoner mistreatment led to the halt of prisoner exchanges. The old European tradition was to let soldiers out on parole to be exchanged when a prisoner on the other side of equal rank could be traded. This happened more or less early on in the Civil War but was stopped in 1864 for many reasons.

One theory is that the North knew they were in a war of attrition. They followed the Anaconda Plan which was to cut the South off from trading with any other country and starving them of materials with which to fight. The South already faced food shortage, material shortages of all kinds (from guns to clothing) and manpower shortages. Why give the South any of their limited manpower back? By War’s end the South was exhausted and Lee’s surrender at Appomattox was just as much about a lack of manpower as it was about tactics. The Army of Northern Virginia was down to 30,000 men, Grant had an army of 100,000. The Anaconda (pictured below) Plan worked, but that and Sherman’s locust-like march to the sea sowed Southern discontent that still lingers today.

The sting of defeat in the South was followed by outrage in the North as men were let out of prison. When Andersonville opened its gates, living skeletons blinked in the harsh sunlight. This picture was not taken at Auschwitz or Buchenwald, it was taken in Georgia. It's worth noting that Henry Wirz, commandant of Andersonville, was hanged for murder. That picture along with many others and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and other factors including the mass killing of slaves made soft Reconstruction impossible. Many in the North demanded punishment and “soft” Reconstruction under President Andrew Johnson turned to Radical Reconstruction under Congress. The results of that brand of Reconstruction can still be seen today. The biannual meeting of the Texas Legislature stemmed from Reconstruction as well as the myriad constitutional amendments needed to pass certain types of laws in Texas.

The Civil War and its aftermath sit like a huge crater in American history. It is still a lightning rod 150 years after it began. The scars in both the North and the South ran deep for many reasons, but what one man could do to another man at Elmira and Andersonville played no small part.

 

- Will Erwin