Fighting For Freedom: African Americans During the Civil War

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Gate of Andersonville This is an artist's rendition of the gates at the Confederate Military Prison in Andersonville, Georgia. Item Link

While in the hands of the enemy, Prisoners of War often found a fate worse than death. Both Union and Confederate Prisoners of War faced starvation due to limited supplies. Shelter, clothing, and sanitation were often inadequate and resulted in illness and death. In February 1865 Sgt. Payne of the 27th USCI, his own brother-in-law captured by Confederates only six months prior, writes of the horrendous condition of Union POWs freed from the Confederate prison in Wilmington, North Carolina:

While I am writing this letter, I am surrounded by nearly a thousand of our Union prisoners who have been brought in under the flag of truce. Of all the wretchedness ever my eyes beheld, I never saw any thing equal to the appearance of these suffering, famished, and half-starved men. Some of them were without shoes to cover their torn and bleeding feet, while others were without even a hat. Most of them wore the old clothes the rebels had thrown away. They truly presented a picture of distress and despair, which would cause the hardest heart to ache and feel for them.

But the worst of all which has disgraced the Southern Confederates, and will continue to be a stain on their character forever--is their barbarism. The rebels, just before our men entered town, tied the sick prisoners up by their heels in the barracks, set fire to the barracks, and burnt them alive. This, I am assured by good authority, is a positive fact. I recollect of but one case which surpasses this in wickedness, which we have in Josephus. He informs us of a woman who was in such a pitiable condition from starvation, in the time of the destruction of Jerusalem, that she slew and ate her own child.

There is another wicked act of the rebels here which they practice toward the Union prisoners, especially the colored ones. They give them nothing but corn-meal and rice, and allow them no tobacco. When any of the citizens would bring them something to eat, the guards would take it from them, and trample it under foot. I am almost ready to believe that any punishment that may be inflicted hereafter upon such base men is hardly sufficient for their wicked crimes. But yet I should content myself to know by the authority of God's word that every man will be punished according to his crimes. Though the wicked may go on hand in hand for a while, yet they shall not escape punishment. (1)

1. Redkey, Edwin S. A Grand Army of Black Men. Cambridge University Press, 1992, pp. 164-165