Subsistence of Federal Prisoners

     When one mentions the term "Confederate Prison" everyone seems to think of Camp Sumter, Georgia and the brutality dished out to the Federal Prisoners incarcerated there. In November of 1865, Major Henry Wirz having been convicted by military court martial symbolized the last casualty to a vicious war when he was hanged for his war crimes. The memory of the Confederate Prison system abruptly stops there, however, one may ask, What was the Confederate Commissary, Colonel Lucius B. Northrop doing about the lack of subsistence for unexchanged prisoners? As early as December of 1863 this became a growing concern to the government in Richmond, months before Ulysses S. Grant would put on his third star and adamantly stop all prisoner exchange.

     In the Confederate House of Representatives, Walter Preston chaired a committee to investigate this very thing. The honorable James A. Seddon, Secretary of War, testified that an understanding between the Quartermaster-General and the Commissary-General in August of 1863 was that Colonel Northrop held the responsibilities of feeding the prisoners. As long as supplies could be obtained, these prisoners were to be fed with the same rations provided the soldiers in the field. If it ever came to the unfortunate circumstance that even reduced rations could no longer be provided to both soldier and prisoner, the soldier was to be preferred.

     An apparent conflict of interest arose between the Quartermaster and Commissary in that the schedules provided by the former had no ceiling attached to the purchases of subsistence while buying for the latter which certainly did. According to the report provided, the Confederate House of Representatives in February of 1864, had reported that Captain J. Warner acting as the purchasing agent for the Quartermaster exceeded the cost schedule of the Commissary General.

     In requisitioning fresh beef rations in Richmond during several days in November 1863, the required demand exceeded the supply, the butcher first following a directive from the Commissary General that wounded soldiers in the hospitals get supplied first. In this event, the Commissary General made provisions for the requisitioning officer, Captain Warner to purchase stores of bacon, bulk pork or salt beef as an alternative.

     In the spring of 1864 when Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant halted all prisoner exchanges, Confederate Prisons such as Camp Sumter in Southern Georgia grew in numbers two thirds the proportions they were designed to handle. A method no doubt to increase the measure of breaking the Southern ability to wage war, these policies greatly enhanced the suffering prisoners of war experienced at the hands of their Confederate counterparts.
     The method of total warfare imposed during the years of 1864-65 did grossly hinder the Confederate States from waging war against their antagonists. Likewise, with prison camps in the north and south growing beyond their capacity, the matter of feeding prisoners fell into the hands of those who possessed the unlimited resources to do so. In the meantime, while the Confederacy grew beyond a point to feed its own armies, the federal prisoners endured the punishment of what life without exchange honestly meant.

Daniel Moran
© 2001

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