Hell Behind Bars: 7 of History’s Most Brutal Prisons Since Ancient Times

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2 – Camp Sumter Military Prison at Andersonville

This military prison facility at Camp Sumter is better known as Andersonville, and it was the largest Confederate prison during the Civil War. It was built in February 1864 specifically for the purpose of housing Union soldiers. Out of the 45,000 people imprisoned there during the war, up to 13,000 died. The prison was built to house the growing number of POWs around Richmond. However, almost 1,000 people died per month due to malnutrition, poor sanitation, disease, and overcrowding.

The prison pen was surrounded by hewed pine logs up to 17 feet high and was enlarged a couple of months after the facility opened. There were sentry posts around 90 feet apart and a special ‘deadline’ approximately 19 feet from the walls. This line consisted of a post and fence; guards were instructed to shoot any prisoner that reached over the fence. The majority of the prison had only one source of water; Stockade Branch.

Once the first POWs arrived in February 1864, approximately 400 arrived every day afterward. The problem of overcrowding became apparent by the end of June when there were 26,000 prisoners; Andersonville originally had a maximum capacity of 10,000. By August 1864, there were around 31,700 inmates; more than at any other time. A combination of the South’s declining economic conditions and the need to supply Confederate troops meant that the prisoners were unable to receive adequate food, water, and other supplies. According to Joseph Jones, one of the most prominent experts on infectious diseases at the time, one of the main causes of death was ‘scorbutic dysentery’; also known as bloody diarrhea caused by lack of vitamin C.

The decline of prisoner exchanges also contributed to the high mortality rate. In July 1864, the commandant of the prison, Captain Henry Wirz, paroled five Union prisoners and sent them back to friendly lines with a petition. It was signed by the inmates of Andersonville and was a request to bring back the prisoner exchange system to alleviate the overcrowding. Sadly, the request was denied, and the five men returned to tell their comrades about the decision.

From September 2 onwards, the Confederates began moving prisoners from Andersonville to other camps. This was because Sherman’s forces had occupied Georgia and was in striking range of the prison. Andersonville was closed at the end of the Civil War, and Wirz was tried and convicted of ‘murder in violation of the laws of war’ and other crimes. He was executed on November 10, 1865.

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