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War Years

The Prison’s Destruction

Salisbury prison had a short lifetime and did not survive the war. The horrors which began in October 1864 were largely ended in February 1865 when the remaining prisoners were moved to smaller prisons in Greensboro, Wilmington and Richmond. They left behind thousands of dead prisoners. Deceased inmates were buried in eighteen slit trenches. These trenches were filled with the unnamed dead.[1] The unknown challenged attempts to document the fatality rate at Salisbury.

In April 1865 a raid led by General George Stoneman’s reached central North Carolina and Salisbury. By that time the former prison was a supply depot for General Joseph Johnston’s Army of Tennessee, and Stoneman ordered his soldiers to burn it down. Stoneman was horrified by stories from townsfolk about the massed trenches, and furious at the treatment of blue-coated prisoners.[2] Destroying the depot also annihilated the prison infrastructure—including cells, fences, towers and the guard house. Destruction separated Salisbury from other Confederate prisons; Andersonville and Libby Prison both survived the war intact. Without any of the original structures, the only valuable artifacts remaining in Salisbury were the dead. Yet these thousands of decaying corpses were more valuable than any real estate in the economics of memory and retribution. These deceased US prisoners would be used for political purposes against the defeated Confederacy throughout Reconstruction.

[1] Steve Meyer, Benjamin Booth, Dark Days of the Rebellion: Life in Military Prisons [New York: Meyer Publishing, 1996], 115.

[2] Frances Casstevens, “Out of the Mouth of Hell:” Civil War Prisons and Escapes [Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2005], 310.