Unpleasant Arithmetic: Civil War POW Camp Death Rates

Joshism

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#1
Most Civil War POW camps, North and South, were pretty awful places and I don't wish to deny that. However, something occurred to me while visiting Andersonville: POW death rates seem high, but how high were they really comparatively speaking?

As I recall the the oft-cited statistic is that about 2/3's of Civil War deaths came from disease. Even if POW camps had been operated in much better conditions than they were, especially at places like Andersonville or some of the especially overburdened Northern camps, those conditions would not I think have been better than those experienced by soldiers in the field. Less marching sure, but still lots of humans in not lots of space with dubious sanitary conditions without antibiotics will breed lots of sickness.

On the other hand, POW deaths would be counted among the overall casualties for the war. Since nearly all those deaths were by disease is that making the danger of death by disease while actively serving (i.e. not a POW) higher than it actually was?
 

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AndyHall

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Numbers on prison camp mortality over the entire war are pretty well useless when trying to get a picture was what was actually happening. In the case of Andersonville, the monthly mortality rate at Andersonville was not especially high until the late summer/fall of 1864, when it spiked way off the charts. This is a comparison of the monthly mortality rates at Andersonville and Rock Island, the infamous camp in Illinois that nominally built to house about the same number of prisoners, and was officially in operation for about the same length of time.

Andersonville Rock Island Date Rates.png


Now having said that, I have read the claim that mortality in most prison camps was actually lower than that for soldiers on active service in the field. I'll have to see if I can find the source for that, because it's an intriguing and provocative claim.
 

AndyHall

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Sherman occupied Atlanta at the beginning of September 1864, and didn't start off again for Savannah until November 15. Although Atlanta was an important rail hub, and its loss complicated Confederate rail logistics (iffy to begin with), I believe that Andersonville still had access by rail from points farther south, like Macon and Columbus.

I haven't entered the monthly data for Elmira, yet, but I expect it to have a much lower mortality rate. Just under 25% of the total number of men imprisoned at Elmira (not simultaneously) died over the course of it year-long existence, while during the worst period at Andersonville (September - November 1864) one-third of its prisoners were dying every month.
 
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Bruce Vail

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#5



Monument at Finn's Point National Cemetery marking the mass grave of 2,000 Confederate POWs who died while incarcerated at the nearby Fort Delaware prison camp.

The rather grisly story is that this site was chosen to bury the Confederate dead because Pea Pod Island, the actual site of the POW camp, was so low lying that any bodies buried on the island would float out at of their graves during periods of unusual high tides.
 

cash

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My friend, Jim Epperson, who is a professional mathematician [formerly a math professor, now edits a mathematics journal], came up with some numbers he posted on USENET some time back:

[begin quote]
Numbers like this can be disputed, of course, but these are all
taken from a serious, reputable source (E.B. Long's CIVIL WAR DAY BY
DAY).

Estimated US army size (total): 2,000,000
Estimated CS army size (total): 750,000

The estimates for CS army size are very elastic. Figures run as
high as 1.5 million, and as low as 600,000.

Now, let's look at non-battlefield deaths, those from disease,
accidents, etc.

Federal non-battlefield deaths: 219,930
CSA non-battlefield deaths: 164,000 (estimate)

Non-battle death rate for Federal troops = 11.0%
Non-battle death rate for Confederates = 21.9%
[end quote]

Here are some figures I came up with:

At Chimborazo, a confederate hospital, there were 23,849 cases of illness. Of these, 2,717 died. That's a death rate of 11.39% of those who were ill. 88.61% of the ill patients recovered.

[Source: Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion, Vol I, Part 3, pages 30 and 46]

The death rates for the major Northern prison camps are:
Alton 11.8%
Camp Chase 8.7%
Camp Douglas 12.4%
Camp Morton 10%
Fort Delaware 7.6%
Johnson's Island 2.7%
Point Lookout 5.6%
Rock Island 15.8%
Elmira 24.3%

The average death rate in Union prisons was 11.7% while the average in confederate prisons was about 15.3%
[Averages calculated by Michael Horigan in his book, Elmira: Death Camp of the North, pages 180 and 222]

So a confederate soldier was only marginally safer under the care of his own physicians than he was in a Federal prison camp, and a confederate soldier was safer as a prisoner of the Federals than he was as a soldier in the field.
 

cash

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#7



Monument at Finn's Point National Cemetery marking the mass grave of 2,000 Confederate POWs who died while incarcerated at the nearby Fort Delaware prison camp.

The rather grisly story is that this site was chosen to bury the Confederate dead because Pea Pod Island, the actual site of the POW camp, was so low lying that any bodies buried on the island would float out at of their graves during periods of unusual high tides.
Uh, Pea Patch Island. :smile:
 

Bruce Vail

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#8



Pretty nice aerial of Pea Patch Island (thanks, Cash!) showing Fort Delaware.

Confederate officers and political prisoners were held in the fort itself, while wooden barracks were constructed to house the enlisted men. The original barracks are gone, of course, but when I visited a couple of years back there was replica barracks for tourists to view.
 
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Now having said that, I have read the claim that mortality in most prison camps was actually lower than that for soldiers on active service in the field. I'll have to see if I can find the source for that, because it's an intriguing and provocative claim.
Interesting. Not something I would have expected offhand given how notorious the prison system was for POWs.
 

Borderruffian

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#12
So it was bad to be a PW during the ACW? When both sides made little effort to give either medical care or proper rations to the internees?. Yes Andersonvilles death rate was higher, given a severe lack of rations no shelter a bad climate and a very petty and mean CO.But pie charts and graphs showing lower mortality at a Union camp does not absolve the union eithier.

I know this will astonish many put being a EPW at that time (or any other time) was and is'nt a skip thru the daisies
 
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#13
One wonders what impact weather played in losses at prisons----The winter at Elmira was brutal and many died from pneumonia including my relative---inadequate housing, blankets played a part also I am sure---but I read the US was going thru a mini ice age at the time. Summers in Georgia can be brutal also---Andersonville was located only on about 14 acres if I remember correctly and very humid. Prisoners per acre could also have played a role. Just some random thoughts as Andersonville and Elmira seemed high in the counts. Land being abundant one wonders why so small an area at Andersonville? Not sure how big an area for Elmira.
 

DaveBrt

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#15
One wonders what impact weather played in losses at prisons----The winter at Elmira was brutal and many died from pneumonia including my relative---inadequate housing, blankets played a part also I am sure---but I read the US was going thru a mini ice age at the time. Summers in Georgia can be brutal also---Andersonville was located only on about 14 acres if I remember correctly and very humid. Prisoners per acre could also have played a role. Just some random thoughts as Andersonville and Elmira seemed high in the counts. Land being abundant one wonders why so small an area at Andersonville? Not sure how big an area for Elmira.
Andersonville had the size it did because it was created to hold a much smaller population that it eventually did. Also limiting the size was the amount of labor available to build the prison fence and the very small number of troops, of any type, available for guard duty. The South's number one shortage throughout the war was manpower, and Andersonville shows that shortage in every aspect -- food, medical, buildings, size of compound, quality of guards, etc.
 
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#16
I have read that when things really did go downhill that the surrounding citizens brought food to the prisoners---And they had little themselves. Maybe they should have just turned them loose---Could have slowed Sherman down and I do not believe these prisoners would have been able to serve for a good while. At Elmira a platform was built and the good citizens paid a fee to view the Confederates. Who got the money I wonder? Did not know the mini ice age ended in 1850---I have read that the northern lights were seen at Fredericksburg---But I may be thinking of the American revolution.
 

DixieRifles

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#17
I will have to look it up, but Ward's book on Firt Pillow stated the average death rate at Andersonville was ~34%.
Maybe he was looking at the months of the Summer & early Fall of 1864.
 
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#19
Just think how many of these deaths could have been avoided if the exchange system hadn't broken down, primarily over the Confederacy's unwillingness to treat USCT enlisted men as POWs...
Grant did not want to exchange along with Lincoln---They let those men suffer to try to end the war---They knew Confederates exchanged would be right back in the front lines---It was simply wearing down the South's manpower.
 

jackt62

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#20
From the photos I've seen of emaciated Andersonville POWs, I would have to conclude that the suffering of a POW was still immeasurably worse for soldiers of either side compared to those who were stricken by disease or illness within their own lines.
 

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