Salisbury Confederate Prison Association, Inc.
P.O. Box 393
Salisbury, NC 28145-0393
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 ten 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