Survival during the Civil War was not an easy task, especially given that the risk of being killed, wounded or a victim of disease was constantly present. For many soldiers, an even less-desirable fate was incarceration as a prisoner of war.
The appalling conditions of prisons in general were well publicized, and the death rate was high. “Civil War Prisons” author William B. Hesseltine estimated that 56,000 Union and Confederate soldiers died while in captivity.
Many who survived their time in these vermin-infested camps tenaciously held onto life by a thread. In “Portals to Hell: Military Prisons of the Civil War,” speaking of prisoners who had survived until late in the war, Lonnie R. Speer wrote, “Those who were not too weak, crippled, or ill were escorted out … on foot … Thin, tattered, and haggard, the former soldiers slowly plodded along the road...”
Combatants made every effort to avoid capture. On July 2, 1863, at Gettysburg, however, as reported in John E. Pickett’s history of the 2nd Delaware Regiment, members of the regiment fell into the hands of the enemy after an intense confrontation in the wheat field and woods of the Rose family farm.
Sgt. Charles C. Frazer of Company G was among those captured. Fortunately for him, his time as a POW was short-lived. Within a few weeks, he was among a number of prisoners exchanged for captive Confederates and released into Union custody.
In an interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer dated Aug. 15, 1863, upon arrival back in Delaware, Frazer related his experience upon being captured on the battlefield and marched to the Potomac River, south through the Shenandoah Valley to Staunton, Va., then east by rail to Richmond.
Rain poured from the skies as the prisoners trekked some 50 miles from Gettysburg to the Potomac at Williamsport, Md., via Hagerstown. Food was a scarce commodity, but the ladies in the towns along the way, “as far as they were permitted [by the Rebel guards], supplied the Union prisoners with everything at their command.” At the same time, these women “heaped the most insulting epithet[s] upon the ragged minions [of the Confederate army].”
The prisoners further endured a dangerous nighttime crossing of the rain-swollen river on flat-boats secured only by ropes and pulleys while being poled across to the opposite bank. By the time they reached Martinsburg, W.Va., the suffering of the prisoners was so great, “many would have died … had it not been for the kindness of the residents of that place.”
Once across the river, custody of the prisoners passed from Confederate infantry to irregular cavalry under command of Brig. Gen. John Imboden. In order to survive the long hike through the Shenandoah Valley to Staunton, “Every little trifle the prisoners [owned] had been exchanged with their captors for anything [resembling food] to sustain life.”
Upon arrival in Richmond by train, the prisoners crowded into a warehouse for processing. The officers were destined for Libby Prison, itself a former food warehouse, while the enlisted men, including Frazer, shuttled off to Belle Isle in the James River.
Speer described the 6-acre Belle Isle site as treeless, and “exposed to the intense heat of summer and the bitter-cold of winter.” Only tents were provided, but never enough to house all the prisoners — 5,000 jam-packed into an area intended for 3,000. According to Frazer, “Lice and fleas are beyond any description. The men actually tear pieces of their hair out in endeavoring to rid themselves of these [parasites].”
The Inquirer reporter asked “about the ‘greenback’ business of which we have lately heard so much.” Frazer explained that Confederate money changers came into the prison camp offering to swap quarter-dollars and gold pieces for “greenbacks” (U.S. dollars) in possession of the prisoners. Rampant inflation in the South had so deflated Confederate dollars that, “Not a loaf of bread or the most trifling thing could be purchased without payment being demanded in ‘greenback’ currency.”
Although the Richmond newspapers had referred to the “greenbacks” controversy, Frazer believed this “does not begin to describe the reality.” As an example, he quoted one of the money changers, “Jeff’s [Confederate President Jefferson Davis] going up, you know, pretty soon” — implying that Davis’ control over affairs in the Confederacy was steadily deteriorating.
Although Frazer witnessed the hardships of prison life, he survived in good health because his captivity ended a month after capture. Other Union and Confederate soldiers would not be as fortunate.
Hesseltine’s figures show that those captured and confined during the Civil War totaled more than 400,000 men. Many would not come home alive from these “Portals to Hell,” and those that did often bore the permanent mental and physical effects from the harsh conditions that existed in these makeshift internments.
Bethany Beach resident Thomas J. Ryan is the author of “Essays on Delaware during the Civil War: A Political, Military and Social Perspective” (available at Bethany Beach Books or from his website, at www.tomryan-civilwar.com). Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.