Civil War Prisoners of War

Was your ancestor in a civil war prison

“As we entered the place, a spectacle met our eyes that almost froze our blood with horror…before us were forms that had once been active and erect—stalwart men, now nothing but mere walking skeletons, covered with filth and vermin…Many of our men exclaimed with earnestness, ‘Can this be hell?'” Robert H. Kellogg

According to records, about 56,000 soldiers died in prisons during the war, accounting for almost 10% of all Civil War fatalities. During a period of 14 months in Camp Sumter, located near Andersonville, Georgia, 13,000 (28%) of the 45,000 Union soldiers confined there died. Was your ancestor among them? One of mine was there and although he survived, he was ill the remainder of his life.

Some say that the high mortality rate was not deliberate, but the result of ignorance of nutrition and proper sanitation on both sides of the conflict. History professor, James Robinson, said “”Americans had never been faced with what to do with more than 100 men in captivity before.”  Per historic records, the sanitation was so lacking at Andersonville that visitors oftentimes retched when approaching the prison due to the smell of raw sewage.

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Andersonville Civil War Prison Camp

Civil War Prison Camps

Although Andersonville is probably among the best known, it’s estimated there were approximately 150 prison camps of varying sizes. Among the best known:

  • Belle Isle (Virginia)
  • Camp Douglas (Illinois)
  • Elmira Prison (New York)
  • Point Lookout (Maryland)
  • Alton Federal Prison (Illinois)

If an ancestor was imprisoned at Andersonville or Cahaba (Alabama) you can search for him in this free database: Civil War Prisons.

If you enjoyed this article, you may also like:
Civil War Divided Loyalties
Civil War Christmas
A Virginia Girl in the Civil War
Illinois Civil War Records

The site also has a database of the more than 1,500 Union soldiers who died on the steamboat Sultana in 1865. Sadly, the men had been released from Andersonville and Cahaba and were on their way home when the boilers exploded.

Civil War Steamboat Sultana

Recommended Reading

Civil War Prison Camps: A Brief History
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21 comments

  1. My great, great grandfather was imprisioned in Andersonville. My great Aunt told a story that was bone chilling and a life lesson for sure.

    1. Hi Betty, I’ve heard real horror stories about Andersonville. I’m wondering if you’d be interested in writing up a little something about what you great aunt told you?? Let me know.

      Nancy

  2. My Dad changed our last name from Blanc to Blank, My Grand Father changed it from Le Blanc, ( something about erasing the tie from German Immigrant I was told. Question is, how hard is it to trace with all the changes. LeBlanc is supposed to be German from Alsace Loraine. Also albert Le-blanc lived in Baltimore and was supposed to be Related to Mel Blanc (I doubt this but who knowes)

    1. David,
      A great question and one that’s fairly complex. Alsace Lorraine was French, then in 1871 German, then back to France after World War I. The name Le Blanc is definitely French. Based on the family changing the name upon immigration would tend to make me believe that he immigrated sometime between 1871 and the end of WWI, when it really was part of Germany. It can be a challenge to trace the name changes, but I would start looking in French records from the time period when it the region was in German hands. Nancy

  3. My Dad changed our last name from Blanc to Blank, My Grand Father changed it from Le Blanc, ( something about erasing the tie from German Immigrant I was told. Question is, how hard is it to trace with all the changes. LeBlanc is supposed to be German from Alsace Loraine. Also Albert Le-blanc lived in Baltimore and was supposed to be Related to Mel Blanc (I doubt this but who knows)?

  4. My ancestor was a Confederate and was at Camp Douglas briefly before being transferred to Fort Delaware. Less than 2 months later, he died of disease. His burial site is unknown

    1. Hi John,
      I fear that thousands were buried in unmarked graves. Fortunately, my ancestor who was in Andersonville did survive. So many – like your family member – did not.

      Nancy

  5. My 2nd great grandfather was a prisoner at Harts Island and died there. He is buried at Cypress Hills Cemetery in Brooklyn, NY.

    1. Karen,

      I had to go to Google to look that one up. It’s one I hadn’t heard of before. Thankfully you know where he is buried. Nancy

  6. My Great Great Grandfather died in a federal prison in Danville, VA. Do you know anything about a prison there?

    Thanks,
    Kemberely Hamm

    1. Hi Kemberely, If you Google civil war prison danville virginia you’ll find a lot of references. However, these were all Confederate prisons for Union soldiers. Are you saying “federal prison” meaning one run by the North? If so, I’m not sure one existed. Nancy

  7. My husbands great grandfather – a confederate soldier from SC – is buried at Camp Douglas. We have stopped by many times to pay our respects. Just the cemetery gives us chills and sadness. We have thought about having his remains moved to a family cemetery in SC but perhaps being there with those who went through this horrible existence together means something.

    1. Hi Debby, I totally appreciate how you feel about this. One the one hand you’d like him moved to be with family; on the other, maybe best to stay with those he died with. At least you can go there often to pay respects – I suspect that counts for a lot. Nancy

  8. My great great cousin and his brother-in-law were both in the Civil War. One was at Andersonville POW. His brother-in-law, James D. Foduray was also a POW prisoner at Florence, South Carolina. James died there of starvation. Both men were members of the 5th Regiment Indiana Cavalry (90th Regiment Indiana Voluntary) Company I.

    1. The numbers of men who died in those prison camps was truly awful. And, as my blog post said – neither side was prepared for the sheer numbers of men who were held prisoner. I suppose we’re fortunate that more didn’t die based on how truly horrible the conditions were. Nancy

  9. I have an ancestor who was Confederate soldier that died while a prisoner of war at Camp Douglas. I just read a book abt that prison.

    1. Hi Kam, It’s so sad knowing just how many of us lost family in the camps. Sorry about your ancestor. Nancy

  10. In mid July, 2015, my son and I stood before one grave among thousands in the cemetery at Andersonville A 2x great uncle, Nathaniel Fields, age 24 at death, was a prisoner for several months, dying there Sept. 30th, 1864. He was the youngest of 5 brothers Two ,more of them died in that War as well and a 4th brother, Sgt. Samuel Fields incurred permanent injuries that plagued him to his eventual death in Indiana years later. Their mother, Elizabeth Hagaman Fields died 39 days after her eldest son, John, died of a camp disease prominent among soldiers at that time. I suspect she suffered a broken heart….that seems possible in such times. Anyone going to the prison needs to research what happened to value this history.

    1. Hi Naomi, I couldn’t agree more. I think it’s *critical* that we understand the history – otherwise we really have no context for understanding our own family. Your Civil War family suffered horribly, so sad about the mother. Nancy

  11. Are efforts in place to be able to search the other large prisons for specific soldiers–Point Lookout specifically? My paternal 2nd great grandfather was held there. He was released at some point and appears to have been at Appomattox at the war’s end. Andersonville seems to be the best known prison for its horrors, but all of the prisons, North and South, were deathtraps. I feel it’s a miracle that any soldiers survived them.
    Thanks for your article.

    1. Hi Nancy, Sadly I don’t know of any efforts. For me, the best option is to track down a genealogy or historical society in the area where the prison was and ask them. These societies tend to have pretty specific information on hand. Nancy

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