IN MEMORIAM: MY CIVIL WAR SOLDIERS, PART 2: PRISONERS OF WAR

We’ll never know exactly how many soldiers were captured and imprisoned during the Civil War, but sources estimate that number to be around 674,000 between 1861 and 1865. Both the Federals and the Confederates operated prison camps, some notoriously inhumane but all with deplorable conditions for those unlucky enough to be captured. Starvation, exposure and disease were common; an estimated 56,000 men died in prison camps over the course of the war — about 10% of the war’s total death toll and more than American combat losses in World War I, Korea, and Vietnam combined.

In the first year of the Civil War, prisoner exchanges were common, but were informally conducted between field generals. As the war escalated, in 1862 Union General John Dix and Confederate General Daniel H. Hill reached an agreement which would govern the terms of prisoner exchanges: each soldier was assigned a value according to rank so that the exchanges could be of equal value. For example, one private was worth another private; corporals and sergeants were worth two privates; lieutenants were worth three privates; and a commanding general was worth 60 privates.

Many captured soldiers were paroled, or freed, if they vowed not to take up arms against their captors until they could be formally exchanged. Parole was generally granted within a few days of capture, especially after a major battle where thousands of troops were involved. Sometimes parolees went home until they got notice that an exchange had been made and they could return to their troops; other times they returned to their unit and just waited for the paperwork to be processed.

Based on the honor system, this process was inefficient and actually encouraged some to allow themselves to be captured so that they might get to go home. Some parolees were used as guards in the camps run by their own side, which was permitted because it was non-combat duty. But this often subjected them to the same conditions as their own prisoners, so it angered the parolees. Other inequities also developed, and finally it was decided that the system of parole and exchange was actually prolonging the war.

From 1862 to 1865, prisoner exchanges were rare, resulting in swelling POW camps on both sides.  Exchanges resumed in January 1865, but it was so near the end of the war that it didn’t make much difference.

My family tree contains many men who fought in the Civil War. Some fought and lived to tell the tale, attending reunions with others of their unit who survived the experience. Some returned home, only to succumb to diseases they contracted during their service.  Some died on the battlefield, or soon after, of their wounds. And some were taken prisoner. Of those, only one that I am aware of survived the prison experience — that being Marcellus Franklin Broyles, written about in Part 1.

It may be that the men I will tell you about here and in the following posts prayed for death; if so, their prayers were answered, because not one of them made it out alive.

LIFE AND DEATH AT POINT LOOKOUT

William Henry Carpenter enlisted on May 13, 1861, serving in Co. K, 7th Virginia. He died in the Union prison at Point Lookout in St. Mary’s County, Maryland, on December 10, 1864; he was 27. Thomas Jefferson Aylor enlisted in Co. C of the 4th Virginia Cavalry on April 24, 1861. He was captured in October 1864 and died at Point Lookout on February 22, 1865. Their names are included on bronze markers at the Confederate Cemetery at Point Lookout. They were two of the 3,384 prisoners who died in this prison camp.

w h carpenter grave

thomas j aylor grave

After the Battle of Gettysburg, the Union established Point Lookout prisoner camp near Scotland, Maryland, and between August 1863 and June 1865 it became one of the largest of the camps for captured Confederate soldiers. It was exceptionally secure, being surrounded on three sides by the Chesapeake Bay and the Potomac River; cannons and guns were pointed toward the prisoners from Ft. Lincoln and Union ships anchored in nearby waters.

point lookout

Conditions at Point Lookout were deplorable. This is how it has been described:

Prison conditions were deplorable. Rations were below minimal, causing scurvy and malnutrition. Prisoners ate rats and raw fish. It’s recorded that one hungry Rebel devoured a raw seagull that had been washed ashore. Soap skim and trash peelings were often eaten when found. Lice, disease and chronic diarrhea often resulted in an infectious death. Prisoners were deprived of adequate clothing and often had no shoes in winter or only one blanket among sixteen or more housed in old, worn, torn, discarded Union sibley tents. In the winter of 1863, 9,000 prisoners were crowded into 980 tents.  . . . High water often flooded the tents in the camp area, resulting in knee-deep mud. The undrained marshes bred mosquitoes. Malaria, typhoid fever and smallpox was common. The brackish water supply was contaminated by unsanitary camp conditions. . . . Although it is estimated that over 14,000 prisoners died at Pt. Lookout, at present only a near 3,384 are accounted for as buried in the Point Lookout cemetery.

By the end of the Civil War, more 52,000 prisoners had passed through Point Lookout, with thousands dying of illnesses brought on by overcrowding, bad sanitation, exposure, and foul water, including malaria typhoid, scurvy, smallpox and TB.

According to one source, “The man responsible for these atrocities was Provost Marshall (Major) A. G. Brady, who, as it turned out, personally made in excess of $1 million during his time as camp commander. The mortality rate at Point Lookout was greater than that of the Confederate prison at Andersonville, Georgia. Even more damning is that the fatalities at Point Lookout were due to unnecessary neglect, while those at Andersonville were due to a real want in the Confederacy as a whole.”

Originally, the soldiers who died were buried in two cemeteries near the prison camp. But over the years, the cemetery land started to erode into the Chesapeake, so in 1870 the state of Maryland removed the remains. In 1910 they were again moved and re-interred in a burial trench one mile inland.

“When the prisoners’ remains were moved from Tanner’s Creek to the present cemetery,” wrote Edwin Beitzell in Pt. Lookout Prison Camp for Confederates, “they were moved by two black men, William Shorter and Yaret Hewlett. The skulls were put in one box, the arm bones in another and the leg bones in a third box. However, they were paid in accordance with the number of skull bones. Frequently, after having had too much to drink, they would gamble with the skull bones as stakes . . . .”

 

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