By Jessie Faller-Parrett, Army Heritage and Education Center.May 7, 2009
Memorial Day honors American veterans who gave their lives while fighting in the line of duty. For some, this ultimate sacrifice for the United States came on a battlefield, while others met their fate held as prisoners of war. Two of the NationAca,!a,,cs earliest wars, the Revolutionary War and the Civil War, saw prisoners held in atrocious conditions within their own country. Though at the hands of different enemies, the controversial treatment of these early prisoners of war foreshadowed the problems and challenges facing future prisoners of war.
American prisoners of war first became an issue for the United States during the Revolutionary War, as newly minted American Soldiers fought the British for their freedom. Unwilling to acknowledge the fledging American government, the British initially refused to recognize their detainees as formal prisoners of war, which left the American Soldiers unprotected by the official regulations and codes of war. American Soldiers feared potential capture as stories of horrendous prison conditions and malevolent treatment drifted back to those fighting. They had every right to be afraid Aca,!"during the Revolutionary War virtually over 4400 Soldiers died in battle, while anywhere from 4500 to 7000 perished in the prisons of New York City, held captive by the British. Some of the men died from purposeful mistreatment and abuse by their captors, as many British Soldiers thought the American Aca,!A"rebelsAca,!A? deserved nothing, not even a grave. Other American prisoners of war, however, died due to the lack of resources.
Though experienced with prisoners of war from years of fighting in Europe, the British initially lacked space to incarcerate the thousands of Americans they captured, and resorted to housing them in the holds of ships. These crowded, wretched conditions allowed the spread of disease and led to the deaths of many Americans, as did the lack of food, a problem that increased as the war continued. Often, the British Army had trouble feeding its own men, and as they depended on Aca,!A"shortAca,!A? rations, the American prisoners of war received next to nothing. Problems with housing captives and food shortages plagued American prisoners of war for years to come.
The American Civil War divided a nation and its people, and caused bitter resentment in both the Union and Confederate States. Prisoners of war suffered greatly because of these attitudes, as well as the lack of resources on the Confederate side. The Confederate prison Camp Sumter, more commonly known as Andersonville, gained a reputation for its horrific living situation, as Union Soldiers had no formal shelter, no clean water, and little food. The Union government blamed these conditions on Confederate contempt, as stories of the deplorable conditions, the lack of food and guards killing prisoners made their way out of Andersonville. The conditions, however, largely existed because of a lack of organization and an inability to move supplies.
The prison itself was unfinished upon the arrival of the first Union prisoners in February of 1864, and difficult and sporadic communication with the Confederate government in Richmond led to the deteriorating conditions of the prison. Miniscule food rations, contaminated water supply, lack of clothing and growing numbers of vermin allowed the spread of disease throughout the prison, while exposure to the elements weakened all the prisoners. The biggest challenge lay in the fact that the Confederate government could barely move the supplies to feed its own men, let alone enemy prisoners. These challenges led nearly 13,000 of the prisoners held during AndersonvilleAca,!a,,cs fourteen-month existence to perish.
In both the Revolutionary War and the Civil War, prisoners of war died because of malnourishment, illness, and mistreatment. Intentional or not, the poor conditions in the prisons of both wars led to the death of thousands of American military personnel. These earliest prisoners of war and all of the Soldiers, Sailors, Marines, Airmen, and Coast Guardsmen throughout history that sacrificed their lives for the United States deserve remembrance, especially on Memorial Day.
ABOUT THIS STORY: Many of the sources presented in this article are among 400,000 books, 1.7 million photos and 12.5 million manuscripts available for study through the U.S. Army Military History Institute (MHI). The artifacts shown are among nearly 50,000 items of the Army Heritage Museum (AHM) collections. MHI and AHM are part of the: Army Heritage and Education Center (AHEC),950 Soldiers Drive, Carlisle, PA, 17013-5021.