James R. Neal, Ph.D.
Professor Emeritus - Morrison University
Independent Scholar

It is not because things are difficult that we do not dare;
it is because we do not dare that things are difficult ––– Seneca
The Prisoner-of-War Condition in the American Civil War


During the American Civil War, more than 409,000 Union and Confederate soldiers surrendered to the enemy and spent time in captivity as prisoners of war. Including soldiers who surrendered and were paroled in short order by their captors on the field of battle, the number rises to nearly 675,000. With just over three million combatants over the course of the war, that means more than one in seven Civil War soldiers served time in prison camps as prisoners of war, and almost one in five soldiers surrendered to the enemy at some point. For those captured on the battlefield, a degrading life in prison lay in store, with only the hope of being paroled on their honor not to engage in hostilities again until exchanged for an enemy soldier.

Given the number of soldiers who experienced captivity, scholars have done comparatively little historical analysis on this important aspect of the war. This fact is highlighted by the work of William B. Hesseltine, Civil War Prisons: A Study in War Psychology (1930) and Lonnie R. Speer, Portals to Hell: Military Prisons of the Civil War (1997). Separated by more than six decades, these two works formed the basis of analysis of Civil War prisoners until recently when scholars began to study particular prisons or diverse aspects of the prisoner-of-war system during the Civil War in detail. Sometimes lost in these analyses, however, is the prisoner himself. I seek to correct that loss of focus in this dissertation, where I argue that soldiers’ surrender to the enemy entailed a complete subjugation of self to the will of the captor, deprived them of their identity as soldiers, and embarked them on a harrowing journey of physical and emotional trauma, often lacking the most basic necessities for health and life. My focus on the prisoners and the prisoners’ experience brings renewed attention to the prisoner condition, to what it meant to Civil War soldiers to surrender to their enemy, and to the trials they faced as they endured captivity.

In the course of this study, I examine how prisoners reacted when captured and how they related their experiences traversing the enemy’s country to prison and what letters and diaries prisoners wrote while they awaited release can tell us about their prison experiences. I also explore prisoners’ principal hopes for release through a system of prisoner parole and exchange the belligerents estab-lished and the less well-known route to freedom that the vast majority of prisoners refused: taking the oath of allegiance to their enemy. In the closing chapters, I discuss the darkest aspects of the prisoner condition: death at the hands of their captors and the grueling conditions that existed in Civil War prisons, which too often deprived prisoners of adequate food, shelter, sanitation, and the most rudimentary necessities for health, which resulted in the deaths of at least 56,000 Union and Confederate prisoners through starvation and disease.

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