The Dark Hole: Civil War Prison Camps

  • By Philip Gerard
  • Illustration by Joseph Edwards

At first, soldiers from both North and South return to their regiments in prisoner-of-war exchanges. But when officials end the old system in hopes of diminishing the slaughter, captured soldiers face death in the prison camps. (Volume 1, Part 6)

civil-war-prison-camps

The war, begun with noble pronouncements, sentimental loyalties, rash heroism, and codes of gentlemanly honor, soon takes a turn. For two years, prisoners are captured on the battlefield and repatriated according to conventions as old as wars between nations, formalized in the summer of 1862 in an agreement called the Dix-Hill Cartel.

But the process has one glaring flaw.

After he captures Vicksburg, Mississippi, on July 4, 1863, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant is appalled to learn that his 37,000 rebel prisoners — all exchanged according to the Cartel — have returned to their regiments. He expresses his frustration succinctly: “If we commence a system of exchange which liberates all prisoners taken, we will have to fight on until the whole South is exterminated.” He refuses to fight the same men over and over till they are all wounded or killed.

Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton heeds Grant’s wisdom: There will be no more prisoner-of-war exchanges. Grant has effectively condemned many captured soldiers to suffering and death — ironically for the most humane of reasons, to end a greater suffering and death as quickly as possible.

Early in the war, General Lee also recognizes that the exchange program is untenable in the long term and argues for a system of prisons to hold Union captives. Richmond appeals to state governments, and North Carolina proposes locating a prison at Salisbury, 50 miles southwest of Greensboro — one of the first of 30 that will be established throughout the Southern states.

Salisbury is a railroad hub in bountiful farm country. For $15,000, the Confederate government buys the Old Cotton Factory, a vacant, three-story, brick structure on 16 acres, with six brick tenant cabins, a blacksmith’s shop, a small hospital, and assorted outbuildings. Workers erect a wooden stockade encompassing six acres of lawn shaded by oak trees.

In 1861, 46 Yankees captured at Manassas, Virginia, are the first tenants. Soon, 73 sailors from the U.S.S. Union, which grounded off the coast, join them. For these first prisoners, Salisbury is a pleasant, almost restful place. They spend their time playing baseball in the yard, reading under the trees, gambling at poker, staging amateur theatricals, trading buttons and pocket goods with the locals for such delicacies as fresh vegetables and tobacco. They print and distribute their own newspaper, The Stars and Stripes in Rebeldom.

And in due time, they are exchanged for their counterparts in gray.

For a long year, the prison remains largely vacant — housing only some escaped slaves, Confederate deserters, and civilian felons. The first commandant is Dr. Braxton Craven, president of Trinity College in Durham, and his congenial Trinity Guards are mostly students from the college.

Inhuman village

All that changes in 1864, as fighting intensifies on all fronts. As the year opens, the prison swells to 2,500 occupants — more than the total population of Salisbury at the outbreak of war. By October 1864, the number of POW’s approaches 9,000.

The large, brick building has been taken over by the wounded and ill — except the top story, occupied by the worst of the worst, the so-called “muggers.” All the other prisoners live outdoors in burrows dug into the glutinous clay of the main yard. A Confederate preacher, Dr. A.W. Mangum, records the strange and inhuman village that honeycombs the prison grounds: “They were queer-looking holes, dug some three feet deep, with mud-thatched roofs, a hole being punched through the surface at one end and a little chimney built out of baked earth.” A man has to sit or lie down inside.

The prisoners petition the new commandant, Maj. John H. Gee, for permission to use pine logs to build dry cabins, but he refuses, giving no reason.

The prisoners include not only those taken on the battlefield, but also deserters from both armies, captured runaway slaves, and so-called “political prisoners” — a catch-all term that includes Unionists, Quakers and other pacifists, civilians with suspect loyalties, at least two war correspondents from the New York Tribune — J.H. Browne and A.D. Richardson — and saboteurs of the Confederate war effort who call themselves the Heroes of America.

And a hard core of common criminals.

No chivalry

Into this prison marches Union Pvt. Benjamin F. Booth on the cold, drizzly afternoon of November 4, 1864. It is his and his comrades’ special misfortune to be captured at the Battle of Cedar Creek in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. Booth is 26 years old, a large, robust man of 181 pounds, a two-year combat veteran who can handle himself in a brawl. His outfit, the 22nd Iowa Volunteer Infantry, is part of Gen. Phil Sheridan’s army of barn burners — who are systematically destroying farms in the Shenandoah Valley to starve out Lee’s troops and end the war.

The Confederates spend all night on October 18 stealthily moving into position, then attack out of the predawn fog.

Booth and his detail of sharpshooters are caught in the open by an overwhelming force of the enemy. Rather than surrender, they shoot off a single volley to sound the alarm, and the enemy returns a devastating fire. More than 50 Yankees fall dead. Their commander, Col. Harvey Graham, reports, “In this stand, the enemy was so close to our ranks that their fire burnt the clothes of our men, and while falling back many were captured.”

Because of Sheridan’s tactic of total war — soon to be repeated by Sherman across a swath of Georgia and the Carolinas — Booth and his 22 companions are among the most reviled of the Yankee prisoners. Despite the rules of engagement agreed upon by both sides, their captors strip them of their clothes, their blankets, their hats, their shoes, even their canteens. One is bayoneted along the march. First, they are taken to Libby Prison in Richmond, Virginia, where the guards shoot them for sport if they come too close to a window.

Booth writes in his diary, “With these facts before us, who will dare say that the Union soldiers were engaged in fighting chivalrous and brave men?”

Then the prisoners are removed to Salisbury, what one prisoner calls the “dark hole,” and their trials truly begin.

At Salisbury, the prisoners die in droves.

They are stricken by dysentery from poor sanitation and pneumonia from living outdoors in mud warrens during the long, wet winters. Smallpox passes quickly among men so closely confined, and dengue, or break-bone fever, is carried by the ubiquitous lice. Wounded men, men whose limbs have become frostbitten, succumb to gangrene; their limbs rot off their bodies. Starved of protein and fresh fruit, they ulcerate with scurvy.

Gangs of muggers — many of them from the crowd of deserters that has taken over the top story of the main building, now known as Devil’s Den — attack the new prisoners at night. The prisoners retaliate, hunting down the worst and killing them in reprisal.

Seventy-three men are shot to death by guards.

Desperate times

In his diary, which he keeps faithfully from the day of his enlistment forward, Booth records that one poor fellow has nothing at all wrong with him physically but dies anyway “from sheer despondency.” And it is true: The most virulent epidemic sweeping the prison is despair.

The blacksmith shop has been turned into the dead-house, where bodies are collected for burial. Their clothes are stripped off by their comrades, so they go to their graves naked. The dead are hauled out each day, eight to a wagonload, to be thrown into open pits.

The prisoners are so starved that they climb the oak trees in search of acorns and fish for scraps of food or bone in the open sewers running through the camp. They trade scarce uniform buttons, hand-carved trinkets, homemade rings, anything at all for food.

Booth keeps a death log in his diary, tabulating the cost of incarceration in bare numbers carefully inked beside dates: November 29, 46 dead. December 1, 58 dead. January 12, 40 dead.

Beyond hunger and disease, beyond physical pain and bone-chilling cold, the worst torture is confinement itself. The men constantly plot their escape, plan elaborate ruses, forge complicated alliances. At any given time, some cadre of men is digging an escape tunnel. They hold their secrets close, knowing other men will betray them for rations or money or simple favor with the guards.

Some men make a break over the palisade while the guards are sleeping or derelict. Others bribe the guards to let them out. The two newspaper correspondents escape in this manner, taking a cohort of loyal friends with them all the way to Tennessee. A prisoner named Sheehan, who makes it out with them, writes later, “After 34 days of travel through the wilds of western North Carolina and east Tennessee, on the morning of February 27 we beheld the bright folds of our starry banner as it floated on the breeze. Oh, Comrade, I cannot describe to you our feelings at that moment. I fell on my knees and thanked God for my deliverance, as it was out of the House of Bondage and the land of Egypt.”

But most of the escapes are foiled, and even when a man breaks free of the stockade, he is likely to be rounded up before he can make it to the fastness of Unionist country in the western Piedmont or the mountains.

Fatal uprisings

The hellish plight of the prisoners leads them to a bloody uprising just weeks after Booth enters Salisbury. On November 25, 1864, a mob of prisoners storms the gate. They overpower a handful of guards and take their muskets, and push out of the stockade. But the other guards turn artillery on them — three cannons loaded with grapeshot, canisters full of metal slugs the size of rivets — at point-blank range. A troop train at the nearby depot unleashes a wave of reinforcements, who add their massed fire.

Booth’s diary tells the awful tale: “The desperate men acted solely on the impulse of the moment. It was an ill-advised, futile attempt. It lasted but a few moments, nevertheless, in that short time eighty-one were killed and as many wounded. The enemy were so enraged that they kept up the firing long after the prisoners surrendered.”

It is a horrible slaughter. In the aftermath, two surgeons enter the prison to carry out the grim task of amputation. Though Salisbury is home to a large whiskey distillery commissioned by the Confederate government for the express purpose of making strong spirits to be used as anesthetic in field hospitals, the commandant claims there is no anesthetic available for use on prisoners. The amputees have nothing to dull their pain.

The dead are hauled directly to the burying ground and heaved into a pit. Later, affidavits from prominent citizens of Salisbury will affirm that two of the men are still alive when dirt is shoveled over their faces. They try feebly to climb out of the pit but are covered up with the rest.

Most of the dead are buried anonymously in unmarked graves. But inquiries from the State Department in Washington, D.C., turn up the name of one casualty of the uprising, perhaps the most famous prisoner to be held at Salisbury: an imposter who enlisted under the alias Rupert Vincent. He turns out to be Robert Livingstone, son of the famous African missionary Dr. David Livingstone. Before capture, he writes to his father, “I am convinced that to bear your name here would lead to further dishonoring it.” He goes on, “I have never hurt anyone knowingly in battle, having always fired high.”

Salisbury earns a notorious reputation in the North as a death camp.

Final liberation

On April 12, 1865, Gen. George Stoneman assaults Salisbury with 5,000 cavalry troopers with the aim of liberating the Union prisoners. In short order, Stoneman’s troopers overwhelm the few hundred invalid troops who stand in their way and enter the town. But only a handful of prisoners too ill to travel remain. The rest have already been evacuated to Wilmington. Stoneman’s troopers burn the infamous prison, the original hospital, the outbuildings, the railroad depot, the distillery, and other buildings containing stores for the Confederacy.

Salisbury burns all night, the flames visible for 15 miles.
Although he leaves Salisbury four months before the end of hostilities, Maj. John H. Gee is arrested and put on trial for war crimes. He is acquitted.

All told, the Confederacy has held more than 200,000 Union prisoners. Some 15,000 of those have passed through Salisbury. More than a third of them, some 5,000 men, have died there — a fatality rate higher than that of battlefield troops. They are buried in 18 trenches, each 80 yards long, in a nearby cornfield that now becomes a national cemetery.

Only about 300 prisoners managed to escape and remain free.

When the POWs are released on February 22, 1865, Booth smuggles his diary out of the prison wrapped in a scrap of tent canvas. He has lost more than 90 pounds in captivity — half his body weight. He and his cohort are marched to Greensboro, then loaded onto trains to Raleigh and Goldsboro by stages. On March 2, at the Northeast Cape Fear River, their train halts, for the railroad trestle has been destroyed by Confederate sappers fleeing the Yankee invasion of Wilmington. They are ferried across the river.

He writes, “Those who were able to stand marched to the city, where, within a mile of headquarters, the old flag was proudly to welcome us home. … The climax was reached when we drew near to headquarters and saw that poles had been erected on each side of the road which were wreathed in evergreens and a banner drawn across the road from pole to pole, on which was inscribed, in large gilt letters, WE WELCOME YOU HOME OUR BROTHERS.”

The first troops to receive the prisoners are U.S. Colored Infantry, who give them shirts, pants, blankets, shoes, food, and water in a gesture of fraternal generosity that Booth will remember for a lifetime.

A band strikes up the familiar strains of “Home, Sweet Home.” Booth records: “This was more than we could bear.”

Union headquarters is housed in the spacious confiscated mansion of Dr. John D. Bellamy.

Salisbury Confederate Prison Garrison House
200 East Bank Street
Salisbury, N.C. 28144

The garrison house, which sat just outside the gates of the Salisbury Confederate Prison, is privately owned and is on the North Carolina Civil War Trail. To arrange a tour, call (704) 639-1890.

Selected Sources

The author is especially indebted to the following sources: Dr. Chris Fonvielle, UNCW Dept. of History; Dark Days of the Rebellion, or Life in Southern Military Prisons by Benjamin F. Booth (originally published in1897; reprint by Meyer Publishers, Garrison, La.); The Salisbury Prison by Louis A. Brown (Wendell, N.C.: Avera Press, 1980); Civil War Prisons by William Best Hesseltine (New York: Frederick Ungar, 1964); Immortal Captives by Mauriel P. Joslyn (Shippensburg, Pa.: The White Mane Publishing Co., 1996); Voices From Cemetery Hill, The Civil War Diary, Reports, and Letters of Colonel William Henry Asbury Speer 1861-1864 by Allen Paul Speer (Johnson City. Tenn.: The Overmountain Press, 1997; “Prisoner of War Parole: Ancient Concept, Modern Utility” by Maj. Gary. D. Brown, Military Law Review, Vol. 156; “The Dix-Hill Cartel” (Maj. General John A. Dix, USA, and Maj. General D.H. Hill, CSA, July 22, 1862).

Philip Gerard is the author of two historical novels set in North Carolina: Hatteras Light and Cape Fear Rising. He is chairman of the department of creative writing at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, and his book, Creative Nonfiction: Researching and Crafting Stories of Real Life, is standard in college classrooms across the country.

To view all stories from Our State‘s Civil War Series, visit http://www.ourstate.com/topics/history/civil-war-series

This entry was posted in Civil War Series, Military, October 2011, Piedmont, Travel and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The Dark Hole: Civil War Prison Camps

  1. Annette Gee Ford says:

    I am the great great niece of Major John H. Gee who is reference in this article. As mentioned Maj. Gee was tried for war crimes by a military commission as a result of his command at Salisbury. He was unanamously acquitted His trial was recorded verbatim and is contain in five volumes located at the National Archives in Washington. It should be noted that many of the witnesses at the trial were exprisoners. Many of them who knew Maj. Gee actually were better witnesses for the defense than the prosecution. Major Gee was a gentle man who was caught up in a terrible situation beyond his control. I spent two years typing up a transcript of his trial and published it in an effort to clear his name. Copies are available if anybody wants the true story of Salisbury Prison from eyewitness testimony. Contact me at ageeford@yahoo.com.

    • Phillip Burleson says:

      Annette,
      I have read your book and used it for a research paper. It’s a great book. I want to read it from cover to cover soon. I unfortunatly was able to just skim through it.
      Thanks.

  2. Wheaton Hudson says:

    I’m looking for info relating to the death of Charles Mason who was a prisoner in NC in1863. He was a member of a cavalry unit on the side of the North.
    Thanks for your help, he was my grandmothers father.

Leave a Comment:

Comments are moderated and once approved will appear in the space above. Your name will appear as you provide it in the block below. Your email address will not appear or be shared. Required fields are marked *.

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>