The Salisbury NC Confederate Civil War Prison
Although the buildings are gone and hardly one stone to be found the site of the notorious Civil War Salisbury Prison is alive and well. During the early days of the Civil War, the “War of northern aggression”, the “war to liberate the negro slave”, however you refer to it was one of the darkest times for the American nation. In the late 1850s and early 1860s the South was experiencing a large economic growth. Their export trading with other parts of the world was vast. Southern living for many was laid back and elegant. For others it was slavery. In the eyes of most Southerners slavery was a way of life. For the outsider looking in it was a tragedy. Some say the origins of the war effort of the Union came from envy of the “good” life in the South rather than an effort to stop slavery. When and why the motives changed I don’t know and it appears the main thrust of the Union became the freedom of the negro slave. The Southerner looked at this as an invasion of their homeland and attack on their statehood rights.
Salisbury had been established in 1755 and was the 5th largest city in North Carolina by 1860. Gov. John W. Ellis was a Salisburian. Much can be said for the prosperity and high standing of this area. It was a major railroad hub and a farming center. It was also far from the front lines of a coming civil war. Salisbury and North Carolina responded to this war with much fervor; supplying many goods and many men, probably many more men than most states. Salisbury proved itself to be a very patriotic town.
Very early in the war the Confederacy realized the need to house POWs. A call went out to several states by Confederate Secretary of War, L.P. Walker, asking for property to house POWs. After a short time a location was selected in Salisbury. The first surgeon at the Post and prison, a Salisburian was Dr. Joseph W. Hall. He was appointed in January 1861 and remained there until the end of the war. The first prison commandant was Dr. Braxton Craven, president of Trinity College, which is located near High Point, NC. Trinity College is now know as Duke University. With POWsp from the battle of Bull Run on hand, and the Maxwell Chambers Factory location being secured the POWs began to flow in. The new prison designed to hold 2,000 would eventually overflow with 10,000 or more. The purchase was final on November 2, 1861. The first prisoners arrived in December 1861, one hundred nineteen union soldiers occupied the prison. 46 Bull Run POWs and 73 sailors. By November 1864, 10,000 prisoners were crammed into space adequate for several thousand. On sixteen acres, this brick building was four stories tall and 120 feet by 45 feet with a roof of tin. The only structures left standing is the Garrison house located on the north end of the original site. Early on, the prison was not such a bad place to be. Prisons made it know that being there was like being on a college campus. Drawing on right was of inside barracks in August of 1862. Water and shade from large oak trees were plentiful even into early 1864. The entire prison was surrounded by a high wall in which guards walked regularly. As the war progressed and Salisbury became more established in supplying the war effort with munitions, weapons and whiskey. The larger the demand of the war the less the prison had to offer it's POWs. Food and medicine were scarce as were shelter and clothing to protect against an unusually cold and wet season. The death count mounted quickly. The trench burials grew.
In April of 1864 Salisbury arsenal provided 10,000 shells and 4,000 horseshoes to Atlanta. 1,000 muskets were on order. The more Salisbury provided the war effort the more the Union saw it well worth Stoneman's raid into the area. By fall of 1864, 8,000 to 10,000 were crowded inside the prison walls. As sickness increased, all the buildings were converted into hospitals.
In August 1864 Major John H. Gee was appointed to the post as commandant and was the best know of all the commandants to serve at the Salisbury Prison. Although Gee's stay at the prison was a short stay, he was the only commandant indicted and tried for alleged mistreatment of the prisoners. He was found not guilty because he was given a job that was impossible to perform. A great reference book written about Major Gee can be found to right.... A historical novel based upon the life story of: James E. Reed; a union soldier, a warrior, a captive, a survivor, a hero, and in the end, a human marred by inhumanity. A story of the American Civil War, of a man, a place and a chapter, seldom told and long-forgotten – James E. Reed and the death camp at the Confederate Prison in Salisbury, North Carolina.
11,700 unknown Union soldiers are thought to be buried in 18 trenches, each 240 feet long, dug in an abandoned corn field outside the Confederate Prison stockades. Government records indicate about half that many. Salisbury National Cemetery encompassed this mass grave site, now a grassy expanse marked by a head and foot stone for each trench.
In the upper end of the stockade was a spring that supplied the water for the Fresh water stream prison. The lower end of the stream was the latrine area. There were also trips made outside the prison to a nearby stream for fresh water. Unaware that bacteria could travel upstream, the rest is history.General George Stoneman
General George Stoneman burned the prison buildings April 12-13, 1865.
The National Cemetery was established in 1865 as a memorial to Union soldiers who died in the prison. Monuments honoring those dead were dedicated by the Federal Government (1873), the State of Maine (1908), the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania (1909). AMVETS presented a carillon (1984) as a living memorial to all who served our country. About 56,000 soldiers died in prisons during the Civil War — a greater percentage of those held captive than free soldiers who died in combat.