During the Civil War the level of casualties for both sides reached a level that had never before been seen on American soil, and the death and casualty rates were not the only stat that was ridiculously high. The amount of prisoners of war taken by each side reached an incredible level, with the Confederate army taking nearly two-hundred thousand prisoners and the Union taking over two-hundred thousand Confederates as prisoner. Both the Union and Confederate army established prisoner-of-war camps for the men they took during battles. Certain prisoner-of-war camps, including an infamous Confederate camp located in North Carolina, had extremely high mortality rates among its prisoners and were rarely well-kept., and they were often old fortifications and other enclosures or just encampments of tents.
The prisoners-of-war were exposed to poor water conditions and, if army camps were of poor conditions, the camps used to hold enemy prisoners were several times worse. Disease was common because of the poor sanitary and water conditions the prisoners were exposed to. Confederate army camps were often exposed to shortages of food, and because of this the Northern prisoners taken by the Confederates were exposed to the same lack of food as the Confederates, only worse because what little food was brought to camps was generally rationed to the Confederate troops. Because of this, Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of War ordered Confederate prisoners to have smaller rations similar to those Union prisoners had. Around thirty-thousand prisoners died from both sides of the war due to the relative lack of food, disease and poor sanitation, and the poor medical care offered to the troops.
In 1862 each side agreed to exchange the same number of prisoners. Because of this there were fewer prisoners by the end of 1862 after enough each side captured enough prisoners to be able to exchange the same number of men. After Lincoln delivered the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, the Confederate government declared it would return captured blacks to slavery and their white officers would not be treated as prisoners of war able to be exchanged, and instead the officers of blacks would be executed, which angered Lincoln and his Secretary of War. Because of this, the exchange of prisoners broke down along with communications between the Union and Confederacy concerning these POWs. Because there was no longer an exchange, prison camps quickly filled up over the following two years. Grant, then the top General in the Union, did not want to exchange prisoners with the Confederacy because he believed the Confederate army needed men more, and the exchange would favor the Confederates more.
The Confederacy was blamed by the Union for the high death tolls at certain camps, including Andersonville in Georgia. There, over ten thousand men died over just a few years. On the other hand, the Confederacy attacked the Union’s policies concerning its prisoners. Grant was blamed for the breakdown of the prisoner exchange and for the high deaths of Confederates that could have been avoided. The Confederate troops, indeed, were harshly treated because of the lowering of the food rations, where as prisoners from the Union suffered because Confederate troops themselves were suffering. Despite the blames, neither side did a good job of treating its prisoners, whether it was the Confederacy’s inability to or the Union’s unwillingness to do so. In addition to the large amount of casualties, the amount of POWs sky rocketed and brought a large amount of suffering that ultimately amounted to Americans letting other Americans suffer.
“Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era” by James McPherson
College level lecture