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The Salisbury Confederate Prison Association, Inc.
P.O. Box 5093
Salisbury, NC 28147-0088

 

PRISON HISTORY

     On a knoll in the beautifully maintained Historic Salisbury National Cemetery lies an area marked by the absence of individual tombstones.  Under the grassy mantle and stately trees are the remains of some of the men who died at the Salisbury Confederate Prison. Eighteen trenches are marked with headstones and foot stones but there exists no record of the exact location where each soldier was placed.  In a publication of the U.S. Government in 1868 it is reported that there were about 5,000 Union soldiers buried in the area that became the National Cemetery.  In another Government Report published in 1871 the number of dead was estimated at 11,700.  However, Louis A. Brown, author of The Salisbury Confederate Prison, stated after years of research that there could be no more than 5,000 who died at the Salisbury Confederate Prison.
     Surrounding the trenches are the graves of Union soldiers who were moved to the Cemetery after the War Between the States ended.  These included fifty-seven who died at a nearby camp for “galvanized” Yankees and ninety-eight who died of communicable diseases and who were buried in a church cemetery.  In 1866 a resolution of Congress ordered more Union dead to be moved from Lexington, Charlotte, Morganton, and other North Carolina locations and re-interred in Salisbury.
     The United States Government assumed responsibility for the Cemetery in 1868 and the Salisbury National Cemetery was established in 1870 as a memorial to those who died at the Salisbury Confederate Prison.  The wooden fence that Union General George Stoneman ordered built around the trenches in 1865 was later replaced by a stone wall that surrounds the entire original National Cemetery property of 5.97 acres.  By 1876 headstones were erected to identify the graves of the known soldiers and to mark the mass graves of the men from Connecticut, Delaware, District of Columbia, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Vermont, Virginia, West Virginia, and Wisconsin. The United States Government erected a monument to the Union dead in 1873, Maine to their dead in 1908, and Pennsylvania to their dead in 1909.  In 1996 the North Carolina Division of the United Daughters of the Confederacy erected a bronze tablet on a granite base to help visitors see the location of the Prison in relation to the burial sites.
     On May 20, 1861 North Carolina seceded from the Union and within weeks a site for a Confederate Military Prison was sought in the state by the Confederate Government. An empty cotton factory, soundly constructed and located near the main line railroad, was found on property in southeast Salisbury for a price of $15,000.  The twenty year old building was made of brick and had three stories plus an attic.  It was surrounded by a number of smaller cottages.  These buildings were hastily converted for the prison compound and a wooden stockade eventually surrounded most of the sixteen acres of land.  By the summer of 1862 a First National Flag of the Confederate States of America flew in front of the Prison Headquarters.
     One hundred twenty prisoners of war were the first to occupy the Salisbury Prison on December 9, 1861.  By May of the next year there were 1,400 men held at the Prison.  Inside the wooden fence were large oak trees and wells of sweet water.  Men occupied their time by the usual means of whittling, bartering, and writing, but here they also played baseball games in the spacious compound area.  One prisoner wrote that the place was “more endurable than any other part of Rebeldom.”  Between June 1862 and October 1864 POW’s were outnumbered by disloyal Confederates, Union and Confederate deserters, Confederate criminals and civilians.  When the Union stopped the exchange of prisoners in August 1864 the population in the Prison began to rise.  Additional recently captured soldiers and transferred prisoners from other areas increased the number held at the Salisbury Prison to 5,000 by October 1864.  Ten thousand men were crowded into the stockade by November and conditions began to change dramatically.
     The real misery for the prisoners at the Salisbury Confederate Prison began in the fall of 1864.  The Prison compound designed for 2,500 men was forced to handle four times that many.  Due to the Union Naval blockade there was a shortage of medicine and medical supplies which resulted in terrible suffering of the prisoners and needless deaths.  Throughout the South there was a shortage of food and the Prison was no exception. Eventually, all the buildings were taken over for hospital use, and the men were forced to seek shelter that cold, wet winter under the buildings, in overcrowded tents, and in burrows dug into the hard red soil.  The death rate that had been only 2% before October 1864 skyrocketed to 28%. 
     Burials before the overcrowding had been in coffins and in separate graves.  Records exist that indicate military burial services were even given.  However, due to the large number of men dying daily after October 1864 a mass burial system was initiated.  The bodies were collected daily and taken to the “dead house” to be counted and loaded onto a one-horse wagon.  At 2:00 PM each day  this wagon of the dead would be taken about ¼ mile to an abandoned cornfield where the men were buried. Eighteen trenches of approximately 240 feet each were eventually needed. 
     Escaping was a constant thought for the prisoners.  Many tried in various ways but only about 300 succeeded.  In November 1864 Robert Livingstone, alias Rupert Vincent and son of Dr. David Livingstone, lost his life in an ill-planned mass escape.  Tunneling worked for some, but as many as 2,000 defected to the Confederacy to escape prison life.  Two civilian prisoners who did escape were correspondents for the New York “Tribune”, A.D. Richardson and Junius H. Browne.  After their return to New York they wrote many newspaper columns about their stay in the Salisbury Prison, and their articles helped reverse the no exchange policy.
     The 2,000 citizens of the fourth largest town in North Carolina were outnumbered by the prisoners by the fall of 1864 which caused them some concern about their own safety.  They were, however, not insensitive to the plight of the men in the Prison and were often seen taking food and clothing for their use.  In November 1864 citizens requested CSA Secretary of War Seddon to remove at least half of those held at the Prison due to the shortage of space, food, and water.  North Carolina Governor Zebulon B. Vance and the State of North Carolina after several attempts successfully got some clothing for the prisoners from the Union Government. 
     One citizen’s humanitarianism was recorded by a number of soldiers keeping diaries while at the Prison.  Mrs. Sarah Johnston, who lived just outside the main gates of the Prison, performed many acts of kindness.  With the permission of the Prison Commandant and the help of the Prison Surgeon, Dr. Josephus Hall, she opened her doors to men of both armies who needed additional convalescent care.  One young Union soldier, Hugh Berry, who died while in her care was buried in her garden because she, as a mother, did not want to see him buried in an unmarked grave. Mrs. Johnston’s loyalty was never questioned since her own son served in the Confederate States Navy.  Today Hugh Berry’s grave can be found in the Historic Salisbury National Cemetery where he was re-interred.  His tombstone stands on the northwest side of the trenches.
     Guard duty at the Prison was not popular. In 1861 the pay for a volunteer was $10 a month with a bounty of $11.  By June 1862 the bounty had increased to $100 and guards were taken as young as 16 years of age.  In July 1863 guard duty at the Prison was organized into a service known as the Home Guard with men between the ages of 18-50.  The Senior Reserves took over the guarding of the Prison by the summer of 1864 and they were composed of men above 45 years old.  These guards who came from various regiments including Gibbs Prison Guards, Howard’s Guards, Captain Henry Allen’s Company and Freeman’s Battalion oversaw approximately 15,000 prisoners from December 9, 1862 to February 22, 1865.
     There were nine commandants during the Prison’s existence.  Perhaps the most noted was Major John Henry Gee of Florida.  In 1866 Major Gee was tried for war crimes in Raleigh, North Carolina and found innocent.  Gee was the only commandant brought to trial other than Wirz of Andersonville who was found guilty and hanged.  The entire transcript of Gee’s trial can be read in Annette G. Ford’s book, The Captive.
     In February 1865 a new exchange program was finally approved.  Men at the Salisbury Prison were divided into two groups in order to be liberated.  The largest group consisted of 3,729 of the more able-bodied prisoners who were marched to Greensboro, North Carolina and then taken by train to Wilmington, North Carolina to be received by Confederate Major General Robert F. Hoke.  The second group, containing 1,420 of the sickest prisoners was sent to Richmond.  The Prison then became a supply depot, but it held no prisoners when on April 12, 1865 (3 days after Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox) Union General George Stoneman arrived in Salisbury to free the Federals. The Prison was burned, the only one recorded as having been destroyed in this manner.  The bricks from the buildings were later sold and are said to have been used in constructing some of the buildings on South Main Street in downtown Salisbury.  A small house reportedly used by the Guards outside the main entrance still stands on Bank Street, and a Confederate Government flag that once flew over the gates is now housed at the North Carolina Museum of History in Raleigh.  The trenches, headstones, and monuments at the Historic National Cemetery are additional  reminders that Salisbury was once the home of a Confederate Military Prison. 

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