Copyright notice

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.

Printer-friendly page

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).

 

Authors: 
Origin - location: 

Comments

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?

Comment: 

Good afternoon,

Thank you for contacting us and leaving a comment. I recommend contacting our reference team at slnc.reference@ncdcr.gov

I recommend that you include the following information about John Bowermaster in your email: Wife name (first & maiden name); date of marriage; Union or Confederate solider; and infantry & regiment of the solider.

Francesca Evans, Government & Heritage Library

Comment: 

I'm looking for information on Private Michael Furnace. He escaped from this prison on 5/8/1865. He may also go by Michael Furness. He was a member of the 94th New York Infantry. Any information would be much appreciated! Thanks so much!

Comment: 

My GGG uncle or grandfather (jr or sr) Ephraim Alexander died at the prison in January 1865. My grandmother's family fought for the union, my grandfather's for the confederacy. My GG grandfather Sgt. William Alexander was wounded 2x in the battle of Fredericksburg Va.

Comment: 

My GGG grandfather David Coon, died as a prisoner of war on October 2, 1864. That is all the information our family has. If thee is additional information that you may have or additional resources we should check please let me know.
Thank you
David G. Cohen

Comment: 

There are two David Coon at Andersonville. One from Ohio who was buried there and another from Wisconsin who survived. The info is on the NPS SITE. The one that died there was in the 57th Ohio infantry captured in the Atlanta campaign 22nd July 1864 he was a private in company c. The one from Wisconsin who survived was in the 36th Wisconsin infantry Company A captured at Reams Station 29th June 1864 he was also a private.

Comment: 

Dear Mr. Cohen,

Thank you for visiting NCpedia. Your reference request has been forwarded to the Government & Hertiage Library.

Francesca Evans, Community Engagement Libririan

Comment: 

Looking for records of a Jefferson S. Snyder who was listed as dying in a Rebel prison camp Feb 8 1864. Anything you can tell me would be appreciated. Thanks

Comment: 

Thank you for contacting us and leaving a comment. I am going to forward you question to our reference staff. Someone should reach out to you. You can also contact them directly at slnc.reference@ncdcr.gov or through this site: https://statelibrary.ncdcr.gov/contact

Best, 

Kelly Eubank

Government and Heritage Library

Comment: 

My great-great grandfather was in Salisbury prison. His name was Sgt. Thomas O'Connor. He was in the 191st PA (formerly the 2nd PA Reserves). His service records (from NARA) list him as escaped. The listed date is Mar 10, 1865 at Fayetteville. I believe he must have entered Sherman's lines at this place and date. Wondering if there is any info on his actual escape. Based on when they vacated the prison and started marching the prisoners for exchange; it is possible he escaped from the march or the train. The exchanged prisoners actually beat him back to the union lines.

Add a comment

PLEASE NOTE: NCpedia provides the comments feature as a way for viewers to engage with the resources. Comments are not published until reviewed by NCpedia editors at the State Library of NC, and the editors reserve the right to not publish any comment submitted that is considered inappropriate for this resource. NCpedia will not publish personal contact information in comments, questions, or responses. If you would like a reply by email, note that some email servers, such as public school accounts, are blocked from accepting messages from outside email servers or domains. If you prefer not to leave an email address, check back at your NCpedia comment for a reply. Please allow one business day for replies from NCpedia. Complete guidelines are available at https://ncpedia.org/about.