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This article is from the Encyclopedia of North Carolina edited by William S. Powell. Copyright © 2006 by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher. For personal use and not for further distribution. Please submit permission requests for other use directly to the publisher.

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Confederate Prison (Salisbury)

by Louis A. Brown, 2006

See Also: Salisbury Arsenal

On 9 July 1861, six weeks after North Carolina seceded from the Union, the Confederate government asked Governor Henry T. Clark if the state could provide a place to hold prisoners of war (POWs). The 20-year-old Maxwell Chambers textile mill in Salisbury, then vacant, was hurriedly fitted for that purpose. On 9 December 120 prisoners transferred from the Raleigh State Fairgrounds were the first prisoners to enter the Salisbury Prison, the first and only Civil War prison in North Carolina.

The Confederate Prison at Salisbury as depicted in an 1886 lithograph. North Carolina Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Library.The prison population increased to about 1,400 by late May 1862, when the inmates were paroled and returned to the Union. These POWs lived in relative comfort, passing the time by making trinkets, playing baseball, and even engaging in theatrical productions. After their departure, POWs at Salisbury Prison were outnumbered by Yankee deserters and dissident Confederates. This period of "normalcy" suddenly ended in early October 1864, when 10,000 prisoners began arriving at a facility that was intended to hold only 2,500. This huge increase, which resulted from the fall of Atlanta and the ongoing siege of Richmond, made it easier for the Union army to rescue its POWs. Salisbury received some of the Richmond prisoners, and after October 1864, the majority of newly captured Union POWs.

The most painful period for the Salisbury prisoners was from October 1864 until their release in February 1865. Accounts from POW diaries indicate that the prisoners took in about 1,600 calories per day, whereas 2,000 calories was considered the minimum for survival under the adverse conditions that existed at Salisbury. It is not surprising that diarrhea was the most common disease as well as the most deadly, due in large part to the overcrowding and unsanitary conditions.

From December 1861, when it opened, through September 1864, Salisbury Prison experienced a 2 percent death rate (about 100 deaths). But between October 1864 and 15 February 1865, the rate soared to 28 percent. An estimated 4,000 prisoners died at the prison during its existence, for an overall death rate of 26 percent. Bodies were collected daily at the "dead house" and hauled in a one-horse wagon to trenches in a nearby "old cornfield." A visitor to the cemetery today finds these 18 trenches to be the most somber, painful, and shocking part of the Salisbury National Cemetery. The total death rate in Union and Confederate prisons is considered to have been about the same at 12 percent.

In the fall of 1864 escape from Salisbury Prison was considered almost necessary to save one's life. Many POWs escaped, but only about 300 reached Union lines. During an attempted mass escape on 25 Nov. 1864, none got away and about 200 prisoners lost their lives. Tunneling became popular with the POWs. The most famous tunnel escape took place in mid-January 1865, when an estimated 100 managed to flee the prison. According to one prisoner, the easiest way to get "out of this cursed place" was to defect to the Confederacy. Although about 2,100 POWs reportedly defected, these soldiers contributed little to the Confederate cause.

The morale of the prisoners was usually very low. Muggers plagued all Civil War prisons. Prisoners' diaries often mention their faith in God, and Christian services were held at the prison in the fall of 1864. Occasionally, Salisbury residents would hear the sound of a familiar hymn coming from the prison; as one citizen recalled, it was like "a thought of heaven from a field of graves." Fraternal organizations such as the Masons and Oddfellows provided some moral support for the prisoners.

All POWs were transferred from Salisbury in February 1865, about six weeks before Maj. Gen. George H. Stoneman, on 12-13 Apr. 1865, destroyed the prison and other Confederate installations collectively known as the Salisbury Arsenal. In May Federal troops occupied the town, but in early September 1865 the Union commander turned over civil control of Salisbury to duly elected town officials. At the end of the war all Confederate property fell into Union hands and in September 1866 was sold at auction by the Freedmen's Bureau to the Holmes brothers for $1,600.

In 1866 a U.S. military commission charged Maj. John H. Gee, commandant of the Salisbury Prison during late 1864, with murder and "violation of the laws and customs of war." After a lengthy trial, Gee was acquitted of both charges.

References:

Louis A. Brown, The Salisbury Prison: A Case Study of Confederate Military Prisons, 1861-1865 (1992).

Annette Gee Ford, The Captive: Major John H. Gee, Commandant of the Confederate Prison at Salisbury, North Carolina, 1864-1865 (2000).

 

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Comments

Comment: 

Dear Mr. Griffis,

Thank you for your comment and for visiting NCpedia! That is an excellent question! I am forwarding your inquiry over to our library's Reference Team at slnc.reference@ncdcr.gov so that they can look into this question further. A member of our staff will be reaching out to you via e-mail soon!

Taylor Thompson, Government & Heritage Library

Comment: 

My third great grandfather died in Salisbury on March 4, 1865, which was unusual do to the fact that the prisoners were shipped out before that I am only guessing that he might have been too sick for the trip his name was Isaac Pool he was in company K 10th regiment of West Virginia Vols.

Comment: 

My GGG Grandfather Charles Gabriel Washburn, was, I believe, a prison guard at the Salisbury Prison. Are you able to confirm this? If so, thank you in advance.

Comment: 

Hello, 

A few things you may want to check

You may also find information on a database site called Fold3.com - it's a subscription site, but may be able to help. 

Erin Bradford, Government and Heritage Library

Comment: 

My family has a handwritten letter from my great great grandfather Ezra T. Daniels who was a prisoner at Salisbury. In the letter he describes daily loading a wagon with bodies and taking them outside the prison to dump in a ditch. He says that he knew he would die if he stayed. So one day while hauling bodies to the ditch he escaped. After a few weeks he reached union lines at Greenville TN.

Comment: 

Looking for any information on "galvanized Irish," who were originally taken as Union POWs to Salisbury, but may have been impressed into Confederate service during the fighting that continued after Lee's surrender.

Comment: 

Hi Deborah!

Thank you for your comment! I am forwarding your inquiry to our library's Reference Team so they can assist you further. A member of our staff will be reaching out to you via e-mail soon.

Taylor Thompson, Government & Heritage Library

Comment: 

Good evening. I live in the UK and have been handed down a very old writing box with inlay saying presented to the ladies of Salisbury penitentiary and if I remember also dated around 1865 on it in mother of pearl. Could this be related to this article? I can supply images if you wish.

Kindest regards

Jonathan

Comment: 

Hi Jonathan!

Thank you for your comment and for visiting NCpedia! Wow - what a neat item it sounds like you have! Unfortunately, we cannot prove whether or not your item is indeed linked to Salisbury Confederate Prison as we are librarians. You might want to inquire about this with an antique dealer. I also wonder if North Carolina's State Office of Archaeology might be able to assist you as well, they can be reached at archaeology@ncdcr.gov.

I hope this helps, and please let us know if you have any additional questions!

Taylor Thompson, Government & Heritage Library

Comment: 

I am looking for information on John Bowermaster who was held prisoner here until the end of the war. He contracted tuberculosis of the lymph nodes aNd was sent out of the prison on March 22 after the well prisoners had left. I found that he went to the hospital amd was released to the Provost Marshall from there. According to his wife, he didnt return home and she was told he had died in a whole different prison but she was wrong. I cant find any record of his after the provost marshall was with him but his wife ends up very shortly after with a man named Milton Evan's who has no recorded past. What role did the provost Marshall's play in getting prisoners from the hospital and where can I find more info? Is Milton Evams really John Bowermaster?

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