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The Civil War Prison System

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The Civil War is a fruitful area for research of information on how the United States and the Confederate States identified, administered, incarcerated, adjudicated, governed, and supported the prisoners of that conflict. The administration of prisoners during the American Civil War was a complex evolutionary process. Its roots began before actual hostilities and continued evolving to the very end of the conflict. The execution of prison policies generated intense suffering and death. The resultant acrimony over the maladministration of the prison system lasted until well after the conflict had terminated. This paper deals specifically with the immensity of the problem, the evolution of the prison system to include a categorization of the types of prisons, and a short report on an interesting class of prisoners--prisoners of state. It will describe the inherent problems associated with creating a new bureaucracy, the administrative struggles which ensued, and the direction the two combatants followed. There were many similarities between the prison systems in the North and the South. Both systems caused much human suffering and death. Both sides of the conflict suspended the writ of habeas corpus early in the war and subsequently arrested their own citizens. In the North, the prison system developed more quickly because of the in-place government and the recognition of the need to centralize control of prisoners. In the South, the need to replicate the entire government infrastructure impeded the evolution of the prison system. The focus of this paper will be on the prison system, rather than on a detailed explanation of prison conditions and treatment of prisoners. However, some details of such conditions must be considered when explaining maladministrations of the prison system.

Subject Categories:

  • Sociology and Law
  • Humanities and History

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