AUTHOR: Joel R. Stegall
The American Civil War has been called a lot of things, but two descriptions are rather inventive: The Late Unpleasantness; and, An Objective History of the War of Northern Aggression. Whatever label one may apply to that American tragedy of 1861-65, a largely unknown part was played by a Confederate POW camp in Salisbury, N. C. The Salisbury Prison was not as large or well-known as Georgia’s Andersonville, but it meted out misery and death on similar levels of horror and revulsion.
As the war began in the spring of 1861, Confederates did not have enough jail cells to handle all the Yankee soldiers they expected to capture. When the Confederate government in Richmond asked North Carolina to come up with a new prison facility, Salisbury, then the largest city in the central part of state, offered the most attractive option: a school campus with several buildings on 16 acres.
The Richmond government purchased the school early in November 1861 and, within a month, converted the property into a prison that would handle up to 2500 inmates. A 12-foot high wall was added with a catwalk for guards who would be on patrol 24 hours a day.
Two cannon were kept in the prison yard in case of a mass escape attempt. When the cannon were used as anti-personnel weapons, the shells were filled with metal balls called grapeshot. The shells would explode in mid-air, showering the target with the lethal projectiles.
The Salisbury Prison started out as a model of humane treatment; but, by the end of the war, it had turned into a ghastly hellhole of suffering and death. The thousands whose lives were shaped, or lost, there included Yankees and Rebels, saints and sadists, plantation owners and farm hands, sixteen-year-old boys and grandfathers. They were bound together by one thing: they all wanted to be someplace else.
EARLY HAPPY DAYS
North Carolina’s Governor Henry Toole Clark asked Braxton Craven, president of Trinity College in Randolph County, to provide guards for the new prison. Craven recruited a group of students from the Methodist school. Dr. Craven and his student guards arrived in Salisbury early December 1861, one week before the first Union captives arrived. Command authority was still being settled and Craven was apparently offered the chance to move up from captain of the guards to commandant of the prison. Craven turned down that opportunity, and the post went to an officer from Florida. For reasons not fully explained, Craven refused to serve under an out-of-state officer. He packed his bags and went back to Trinity College, taking his young guards with him.
The Trinity students missed out on a good time in those early months. In the spring of 1862, the Salisbury Prison was described as a bit like a college campus. Everybody had a bed and the food was edible. The captive young men published a newspaper, mounted dramatic productions, presented lectures, and played baseball.
Happy days did not last long. While the Salisbury captives played baseball and put on shows, Union and Confederate generals negotiated a prisoner exchange agreement and the Salisbury POWs were returned to the Union army. Prisoner exchange worked so well for both sides it continued from summer 1862 through summer 1864. During those two years, there were no Union soldiers at the Salisbury Prison. In their place, civilian prisoners were moved in. Along with common criminals were deserters and conscientious objectors, men who were often an unfortunate and unintended consequence of the first universal draft known on these shores.
VOLUNTEERS, CONSCRIPTS AND DESSERTERS
At the beginning of the war, the Confederate military filled its ranks with volunteers. Thousands of young men willingly, if not joyfully, went off in the summer of 1861 to fight for Confederate glory. Convinced they could whip the Yankees in no time at all, it was common for these men, most of them farmers from sixteen to twenty-five years of age, to promise their families they would be home in time to help bring in the fall crops.
As it became apparent the war could not be sustained by volunteers alone, Richmond declared that all white males from sixteen to thirty-five were subject to military service, with exemptions allowed for religious beliefs and extenuating family circumstances. Everybody hated the draft, at least in part because no previous American government had forced men to fight. The draft hit the Tar Heel state hard: North Carolina provided 25 percent of all Confederate draftees, and a total of more men than any other state.
The draft did not solve the South’s manpower problem. Following loses at Vicksburg and Gettysburg on consecutive days in July 1863, Confederates raised the upper age of the draft to fifty. In another six months, exemptions were eliminated. The combination of these factors forced many to military service unwillingly, which led to a high rate of desertion. While North Carolina had more draftees than any other state, it also had more deserters. Some deserters, like those in every war, were men who feared for their own safety. Others were among the many in central North Carolina who never wanted to secede in the first place.
JOHNNY REB’S CHOICE
However, many a brave North Carolina Confederate patriot was willing to fight for his country but also felt obliged to look after his family. These men found themselves confronted with an impossible moral decision: If joining the army meant leaving wife and children in dire circumstances, what was a loyal Confederate who was also a loving father to do? This dilemma might be called Johnny Reb’s Choice.
A man in his late forties would likely have a wife, eight or ten children, and perhaps elderly parents, all under the same roof. Faced with Johnny Reb’s Choice of country or family, numerous good men chose family. Teaming up with others in the same situation, they hid from draft enforcement posses in nearby woods and slipped home when they could.
Other men faced with Johnny Reb’s Choice accepted a military assignment, hoping their families could somehow manage. Such patriotic self-sacrifice was often short-lived. If a wife wrote of unbearable hardships, her husband might walk off from his army post and join those living in the woods close to their families.
Whether they initially refused to join the army or later slipped away from their military posts, those who went into hiding became known as outliers. Living in the heavily-forested areas common in central North Carolina at the time, they took shelter in caves or spider holes and fed themselves by hunting and fishing. When they got back to the family farm to help with the chores the outliers sometimes wore skirts and bonnets in the fields to escape the attention of passersby and draft enforcement officers.
Whatever the motivation, the outliers were renegades. When military posses were sent to round them up and escort them to the Salisbury Prison, it was not unusual for the hunters to become the hunted. Outliers often ambushed and robbed the posses. In retaliation, the militia squads were known to pillage the outliers’ farms, burn the crops, steal the horses, beat the old people and children, and rape the wives and teenage daughters.
The first draft law did not require combat duty of conscientious objectors if they hired a surrogate or paid a tax. But later, when exemptions were eliminated, conscientious objectors who refused to take up arms were arrested and jailed.
WHEN ALL HELL BROKE LOOSE
While Confederate leaders were raising the draft age to fifty and eliminating exemptions, Union generals were raising questions about the prisoner exchange program; they did not like fighting the same Rebels over and over. Grant cut back on prisoner exchange in April 1864 and abolished it altogether in August.
A massive influx of new prisoners at POW camps was inevitable. Early in October 1864, five thousand Union prisoners were added to the civilians already confined in the Salisbury Prison. By the end of the month, another 5,000 arrived. With more than 10,000 men confined in a facility designed for 2,500, thousands had to sleep outside on the ground. What little food they had was not fit to eat. Sewage was worse than inadequate. Pervasive filth brought rampant disease. All available indoor space was quickly taken by the sick and wounded. The only anesthetic available for surgery was whiskey. To ensure a stable and ample supply of this medication, the Medical Department of the Confederacy took over a distillery just outside Salisbury. It is not certain that every drop of spirits was used for purely medicinal purposes.
Something like 7500 prisoners, with only thin, lice-infested rags for clothes, were forced to live outside on the ground as late-fall overnight temperatures dropped near freezing. The hell described in Dante’s Inferno seems to have been better organized, but the horrors of the Salisbury Prison late in 1864 may have been more severe.
Dozens died daily. Five thousand bodies were tossed onto wagons, hauled outside the compound, and dumped into 18 mass burial trenches.
SECURITY AND COMMAND
Prison security was of urgent concern. More guards were needed at the very time the South needed every male who walk and fire a musket in a combat unit. The Fourth Regiment of the North Carolina Senior Reserves, composed entirely of men on the north side of forty-five, was assigned to guard duty at the Salisbury Prison. These geezer guards, many of them grandfathers, arrived in August 1864.
When the prison was flooded with new captives in October, the guards were expected to control thousands of wretched men living unrestrained in the open prison yard. Surely some of the guards must have been compassionate human beings who, like the prisoners, did the best they could in circumstances beyond their control. But some seem to have taken sadistic delight in the violent power they held. For example, they marked a “dead line” six feet inside the wall and dared prisoners to cross it. Any inmate who even got close was shot. A few prisoners deliberately walked up to the line seeking relief from their miserable lives.
A new commandant, Major John Gee, was assigned to the Salisbury Prison late in the summer of 1864, about the same time the senior reserve guards arrived. Prisoners judged Gee to be “cold-blooded” and “brutal and avaricious, void of all sense of honor.” The kindest comment was by one well-read young man who quoted Shakespeare: “God made him, and therefore let him pass for a man.”
MASS ESCAPE ATTEMPT
The cold, hungry captives, living in the open, asked permission to build make-shift shelters. Major Gee denied their request. In desperation, prisoners plotted what the guards feared most: a mass escape. The guards were quartered outside the prison which meant that when the shift changed, the gate had to be opened. POW leaders planned to attack at that time. They expected other prisoners to rush in immediately and charge en masse through the open gate.
At two o’clock Friday afternoon, November 25, 1864, a group of prisoners, armed with sticks and stones, ambushed the new shift of guards. Grabbing weapons from the guards, they bayonetted two guards to death and wounded several others, one fatally. To paraphrase the Captain in the 1967 movie Cool Hand Luke, what they had there was failure to communicate. A lot of prisoners either didn’t know the plan or misunderstood it. Whatever the reason, they hesitated. When they did make a move, they didn’t charge the gate; they bunched together, making themselves a defenseless target.
Sentries who had just been relieved ran back in, joined the other guards, and turned their muskets on the defenseless prisoners. Then they brought out the cannon loaded with grapeshot. The escape attempt turned into a massacre. Two hundred fifty prisoners were killed or died of injuries within a few days. Sixty more were wounded but survived.
Three months later, in February 1865, General Grant authorized a final prisoner exchange, and the Salisbury Prison was evacuated.
In what became known as Stoneman’s Raid, Union General George Stoneman captured Salisbury and torched the prison April 12, 1865. Three days earlier, Confederate General Robert E. Lee had surrendered at Appomattox. Two days afterward, Abraham Lincoln was assassinated.
Five men caught up by the Salisbury Prison demand special attention.
BRAXTON CRAVEN, Founding President of Duke University
After taking his student guards back to Trinity College, Braxton Craven remained president of the school until his death in 1882. Trinity College later moved to Durham, N. C., where, in 1924, it became the heart of newly-established Duke University.
JOHN GEE, Commandant and Physician
Before the war, Dr. John Gee had been a Florida physician. Whatever good he may have done in his life, he is remembered as the man in charge of the Salisbury Prison when all hell broke loose.
After the war, Andersonville’s commandant, Captain Henry Wirz, was tried in Washington for war crimes and hanged in November 1865. Only weeks later, Salisbury’s commandant, Major John Gee, was tried on similar charges in Federal court in Raleigh. Gee was acquitted February 1866 when the court ruled he had had an impossible assignment. Dr. Gee returned to Florida and resumed his medical practice.
SOLOMON FRAZIER, Conscientious Objector
Solomon Frazier, a Quaker farmer from central North Carolina, was drafted when the first draft was put in place. Frazier declared his religion did not allow him to fight, paid the exemption tax and went on with his life. After the revised draft law abolished the religious exemption, Frazier was drafted a second time. He pointed out that he had already paid the exemption tax. That no longer mattered. He was taken to the Salisbury Prison where he was tortured to force him to take up arms.
Frazier steadfastly refused to renounce his faith. Infuriated guards raised their muskets and told him to get ready to die. Frazier said, “It is the Sabbath and as good a day to die as any.” The guards backed off. This was one month after the massacre and, ironically, over Christmas Day 1864. Finally, a sympathetic officer and a prominent Quaker minister intervened. At the end of the war, Frazier returned to his farm.
RUPERT VINCENT, Union Prisoner
Rupert Vincent, a bored Scottish teenager looking for adventure, dropped out of high school, hopped a boat to America in the fall of 1863 and signed on as a surrogate in the Union army. Captured in the Battle of New Market Road, he was among the thousands that overwhelmed the Salisbury Prison in October 1864. Rupert Vincent was wounded in the November escape attempt. With no medical attention for three days, he died the following week. His unidentified body was one of the 5000 dumped in the burial trenches.
This young Scotsman turned out not to be Rupert Vincent but Robert Livingstone, son of the renowned medical missionary and explorer to Africa, Dr. David Livingstone. The younger Livingstone had taken a pseudonym to avoid the publicity, and likely harassment, had it been known that his father was one of the most famous men of the time.
The war was over before Dr. David Livingstone found out what had happened to Robert. After grieving the loss of his son, Dr. Livingstone disappeared in Africa. Six years later, when Henry Morton Stanley found him on the shores of Lake Tanganyika, he created a cultural meme with his famous greeting: “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”
THOMAS BOTTOM, Confederate Prison Guard
Thomas Bottom owned a one-horse farm in Union County, N. C., about 30 miles east of Charlotte. Tom and his wife Adeline managed the farm with the help of their eleven children. When war broke out in 1861, forty-five-year-old Tom was too old for military duty. For three years, life went on pretty much as usual. They even had another baby in 1863.
When the Confederate draft law was changed to require service of all men up to age fifty, Tom, by this time forty-eight, was drafted and assigned to the Fourth Regiment of the North Carolina Senior Reserves, the unit sent in August 1864 to guard prisoners in Salisbury. Tom never went home again; he was one of the three guards killed in the November escape attempt.
Among the children Tom left behind was a four-year-old boy who became my grandfather. Thomas Bottom was the Confederate guard’s real name, but not his full name. He was Thomas Bottom Stegall, great-grandfather of the writer.
| Grave Markers Today
The Salisbury National Cemetery is today located on the site of the Salisbury Prison. Maintained by the US Veteran’s Administration, it is available as a burial site for members of the US armed forces. There are currently about 6500 individual gravesites in addition to the mass graves from the Civil War.
Trotter, William R. Silk Flags and Cold Steel: The Civil War in North Carolina: The Piedmont. Winston-Salem, NC: John F. Blair, 1988.
Brown, Louis A. The Salisbury Prison: A Case Study of Confederate Military Prisons, 1861-1865, Revised and Enlarged. Wilmington, NC: Broadfoot Publishing Company; Copyright 1992 by Louis A. Brown.
“Salisbury Prison,” The American Civil War. Accessed at http://www.americancivilwar101.com/pow/nc-salisbury.html
Sheehan-Dean, Aaron. “Desertion (Confederate) During the Civil War,” Encyclopedia Virginia. Accessed at http://www.encyclopediavirginia.org/Desertion_Confederate_During_the_Civil_War#start_entry
Thompson, Holland. “Soldier Life and Secret Service, Prisons and Hospitals,” The Photographic History of The Civil War, Volume 4: Exchange of Prisoners. Accessed at http://civilwarhome.com/prisonerexchange.htm
Salisbury Confederate Prison Association: “Prison History.” Accessed at http://www.salisburyprison.org/PrisonHistory.htm
“The Salisbury NC Confederate Civil War Prison” Accessed at http://www.rowancounty.info/salisburyprison/
 Thornton, Richard Hopwood. An American glossary: being an attempt to illustrate certain Americanisms upon historical principles, Volume 1, p. 527. American Dialect Society: Lippincott, 1912). Accessed at https://books.google.com/books?id=yY0VAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA527#v=onepage&q&f=false
 Two authoritative sources:
William R. Trotter, Silk Flags and Cold Steel: The Civil War in North Carolina: The Piedmont (Winston-Salem, NC: John F. Blair, 1988), p. 165 ff.
Louis A. Brown, The Salisbury Prison: A Case Study of Confederate Military Prisons, 1861-1865, Revised and Enlarged (Wilmington, NC: Broadfoot Publishing Company); Copyright 1992 by Louis A. Brown), p. 17 ff.
 Gary Flavion, “Civil War Prison Camps: Suffering and Survival.” Civil War Trust website, accessed at https://www.civilwar.org/learn/articles/civil-war-prison-camps.
 Brown, 20; 46-47; Trotter, 164.
Holland Thompson, “The Photographic History of The Civil War; In Ten Volumes”, Volume 4, Soldier Life and Secret Service, Prisons and Hospitals. New York, The Review of Reviews Co., 1911. Shotgun’s Home of the American Civil War website, accessed at http://civilwarhom e.com/prisonerexchange.htm.
 Trotter, 103.
 “Civil War,” The North Carolina History Project website, accessed at http://northcarolinahistory.org/encyclopedia/civil-war/.
 Aaron Sheehan-Dean, “Desertion (Confederate) during the Civil War.” Encyclopedia Virginia website, accessed at http://www.encyclopediavirginia.org/Desertion_Confederate_During_the_Civil_War#start_entry.
 Trotter, 151-152.
 Ibid., 102-3
 Ibid., 148
 Springer, Paul J., and Robins, Glenn. Transforming Civil War Prisons: Lincoln, Lieber, and the Politics of Captivity, p. 112. London: Routledge, 2014. Accessed at https://books.google.com/books?id=7kdsBAAAQBAJ&pg=PA112&dq=Salisbury+prison:+Major+John+Gee&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiG3ICF8tPTAhUGeSYKHYvcATgQ6AEIKjAB#v=snippet&q=cold-blooded&f=false
 The Merchant of Venice, Act 1, Scene 2: Portia: The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1994.
 Brown, 21.
Chris J. Hartley, “Stoneman’s 1865 Raid.” Essential Civil War Curriculum website, a ccessed at http://essentialcivilwarcurriculum.com/stonemans-1865-raid.html.