Uncovering the Reality of American History

Union and Confederate POW Camps 2319

Some Morgan Cavalry POWs at Camp Douglas - Probably 1863

During the American Civil War from 1861 to 1865, 270,000 Union soldiers were held in Confederate POW camps. Of these, 22,576 died, about 8.4 percent of the total. More than half of these, 12,919 died in just one of three major Confederate POW camps, Andersonville, about 59 miles east of Columbus, Georgia. This was portrayed as a war crime by the Northern press and many Northern politicians, but the causes of these deaths were neither mistreatment nor deliberate negligence. However, its commandant, Swiss immigrant, Captain Henry Wirz, was hanged after the war on November 10, 1865.  According to a University of Missouri Law School study, he was convicted on the basis of bribed false testimony and rules of evidence, testimony, and fairness that were blatantly and shamefully biased and distorted.  His trial was probably one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in American history.

About 220,000 Confederate POWs were held in nine major Union POW camps during the War. Of these, at least 26,246, about 11.9 percent died. This is a death rate nearly 42 percent higher than that of Union soldiers in Confederate camps. The highest absolute number of Confederate deaths occurred at Camp Douglas, near Chicago, Illinois, where deaths totaled at least, 4,454. This number is incomplete. There are about 6,000 graves at Camp Douglas, and at least 5,600 are believed to be the graves of Confederate POWs. The camp was built for just 6,000 prisoners, but eventually over 12,000 were crowded into its confines. Camp Douglas was the largest Union POW camp, and over 26,000 Confederate POWs passed through Camp Douglas from 1861 to 1865.

Typical causes of death at both Union and Confederate POW camps were diarrhea, pneumonia, influenza, extreme upper respiratory infections, typhoid, smallpox, tuberculosis, measles, scurvy, mumps, malaria, cholera, yellow fever, and hospital gangrene. Poor nutrition, exposure to wet, cold, and heat, and lack of medical supplies and treatment were frequent aggravating factors. Mental despair was according to many prisoner accounts a major factor. However, deliberate cruelty and starvation were a factor in several Union camps, among them Camp Douglas, and even more notorious, Elmira, New York, where 2,933 POWs died. In addition, Northern policies against prisoner exchange and supplying badly needed medical supplies to Union soldiers in Confederate prison camps were a major factor in Andersonville deaths. In general, Confederate guards were as starved for food and medical supplies as their Union prisoners, who got the same rations and died at the same rate. Toward the end of the war especially, Confederate forces, Southern civilians, and Confederate POW camps were experiencing severe shortages of everything.

I know the most about Camp Douglas because my great grandfather, John Berry Scruggs, and his brother, James, who served in John Hunt Morgan’s Second Confederate Kentucky Cavalry regiment. were captured by Union forces on a raid into Indiana and Ohio in July 1963. They had been trapped on the Ohio side of the Ohio River at Buffington Isle between Union gunboats in the river and advancing Union infantry and cavalry, while trying to cross back over the Ohio into Kentucky. A Union gunboat shell landed near my great grandfather, and his horse reared up and threw him and then fell on him, breaking his leg. He and his brother were taken prisoner by advancing Union infantry and taken to Camp Morton in Indiana for wounded POWs. They were then taken to Camp Douglas, where they managed to survive until released at the end of the war.

My grandfather, Greene B. Scruggs often spoke to me about what his father and uncle had endured at Camp Douglas. The thing that most impressed me as a boy was that they had to supplement their diet by catching, cooking, and eating the numerous rats attracted to the camp. Two other brothers survived many battles and hardships in two Alabama infantry regiments. All were born near Fountain Inn, South Carolina, but volunteered near Blountsville, Alabama, where the family had moved in the 1850s.  

Confederate Prisons with one thousand or more Union deaths were:

Andersonville, GA     12,919

Salisbury NC              3,700

Danville VA                1,297

Union Prisons with one thousand or more Confederate deaths were:

Camp Douglas IL       4,454+

Point Lookout MD      3,587

Elmira NY                  2,933

Fort Delaware DE       2,460

Camp Chase, OH        2,260

Rock Island IL                        1,960

Camp Morton, IN       1,763

Auton, PA                   1,508

Gratiot St.                    1,140

St. Louis, MO

Historian, Thomas Cartwright, has described Camp Douglas as “a testimony to cruelty and barbarism.” Because of its miserable living conditions and increasing degrees of deliberate cruelty toward Confederate prisoners of war, the camp gained the title, “Eighty Acres of Hell.” Prisoners were intentionally deprived of adequate rations, clothing, and heating as punitive measures. From September 1863 to the end of the war, many were subjected to brutal tortures that often resulted in permanent maiming and death. 

Unfortunately, Camp Douglas was situated on low ground, and it flooded with every rain. During the winter months, whenever temperatures were above freezing for long, the compound became a sea of mud. Less than a handful of 60 barracks had stoves. Overcrowding and inadequate sanitation measures soon made the camp a stinking morass of human and animal sewage. Henry Morton Stanley, of the 6th Arkansas, who later in his illustrious career as an African explorer and journalist uttered the famous words, “Doctor Livingstone, I presume,” had this to say of Camp Douglas: “Our prison pen was like a cattle-yard. We were soon in a fair state of rotting while yet alive.” He later remarked that some of his comrades “looked worse than exhumed corpses.” 

Steadily, sickness and disease began to increase. By early 1863, the mortality rate at Camp Douglas had climbed to over 10 percent per month, more than would be reached in any other prison, Union or Confederate. The U.S. Sanitary Commission (now the Red Cross) pointed out that at that rate, the prison would be emptied within 320 days. One official called it an “extermination camp.” The fall and winter of 1862-63 were very wet, cold, and windy. The majority of deaths were from typhoid fever and pneumonia as a result of filth, bad weather, poor diet, lack of heat, and inadequate clothing. Other diseases included measles, mumps, catarrh (severe sinus and throat infection), and chronic diarrhea.

Somewhere in excess of 317 Confederate soldiers escaped from Camp Douglas, over 100 of them being men of Morgan’s 2nd Kentucky Cavalry. Hundreds of Morgan’s men had been sent to Camp Douglas after being captured on their famous raid through Indiana and Ohio in July 1863. However, the daring escape of these Morgan cavalrymen in September 1863 resulted in retaliatory action. A reduction of rations and removal of the few barracks’ stoves were ordered from Washington. Eventually all vegetables were cut off. This resulted in an epidemic of scurvy described by R. T. Bean of the 8th Kentucky Cavalry. “Lips were eaten away, jaws became diseased, and teeth fell out.” Before authorities could correct the situation, many succumbed to the disease. In addition, an epidemic of smallpox raged through the camp. Lice were everywhere. Many prisoners had to supplement their diet by catching, cooking, and eating the all too abundant rats.

Being commandant of a prisoner of war camp was not considered a desirable position by most Union officers. During its four year history. the camp had eight commanders. Most of these were honorable men, who later proved their worth in battle and in peace. The punitive policies and directives to reduce prisoner rations and impose other deprivations had come from the War Department. Early in the war, President Lincoln and Secretary of War Edmund Stanton termed all captured Confederates as “traitors” and refused to recognize them as prisoners of war.

The first commander of Camp Douglas as a POW camp was Col. James Mulligan of the 23rd (Irish) Illinois Infantry. The prisoners respected Mulligan, even though an enemy, because of his heroic war record and honesty.  He was a strict disciplinarian but always fair. With more prisoners pouring into Camp Douglas than could possibly be handled with efficiency and mounting administrative and sanitary problems, he was glad to take his regiment back to the field in June 1862. His valor and leadership soon won him a promotion to Brigadier General. Sadly, he was killed in action at Winchester, Virginia, in July 1864. 

On August 18, 1863, Col. Charles DeLand was made commander at Camp Douglas, bringing with him the 1st Michigan Sharpshooters.  In reprisal for escape attempts and other infractions and as a method of interrogation, he introduced several forms of torture, including hanging men by their thumbs for hours. Several died from this ordeal. He also introduced a torture called “riding the horse” or “riding Morgan’s mule.” Prisoners were forced to sit for many hours on the narrow and sharpened edge of a horizontal two by four and suspended by supports four to twelve feet high. Guards often hung weighty buckets of dirt and rock on their feet to increase the pain. This often caused permanent disabilities.

In March 1864, after a tour of duty at Camp Douglas distinguished by corruption and mismanagement as well as cruelty, DeLand and his regiment returned to the field. In May, during the Wilderness Campaign in Virginia, he was badly wounded and captured.  Ironically, he was given every courtesy as a prisoner of war by his Confederate captors.

In May 64, Colonel Benjamin Sweet took command, but the cruelties continued unabated, and rations were reduced even more. However,  the appearance of the camp improved. During the 1864 election campaign, Sweet also managed to persuade Lincoln and the War Department to put Chicago, then a town of 110,000, under martial law to prevent a prison uprising supported by Southern sympathizers in Chicago. More than 100 civilians were arrested and jailed for criticizing Lincoln policies or on the mere suspicion of Southern sympathies without the benefit of hearing or trial. Twelve died in prison before the end of the war. The uprising threat was vastly exaggerated and largely fabricated, but Sweet was promoted to Brigadier General in December for saving Chicago. At the end of the war. he received a commendation for a job well done.

Many people of Chicago and many Christian churches in the area offered relief to the prisoners at Camp Douglas.  Until the Union government put a stop to the practice, many prominent people and local churches gave time, financial aid, and medicines to assist the post surgeon in the care of sick and destitute prisoners. The famous evangelist D. L. Moody was brought in to preach on several occasions. Some Confederate prisoners, however, complained of the high propaganda content of sermons by other preachers.

At the end of the war, the Confederate prisoners were offered transportation home by train, if they signed the Union loyalty oath. Otherwise, they would have to walk home. Most of the prisoners at Camp Douglas elected to walk home. By July 1865, the last POW had left Camp Douglas. The disgraceful history of Camp Douglas has been largely forgotten. Nothing remains of the camp but a monument and 6,000 graves at nearby Oak Woods Cemetery.