The prison was opened in late 1861 and was one of the first Confederate prisons to be established. It was first established to house the Confederates who had committed crimes during the war. By today's terms it would be referred to as the brig. The location of the prison within the town of Salisbury served as a prime site due to the railroad access but the remoteness of the small city. Attitudes of the officers began to change though and this is evident in many of the commandants. Most notably Major John H. Gee. The leadership will include men like Major Gee and other commandants.Also, this section will cover the breakdown of the prisoner exchange system between the two warring nations.
The prison opened in late 1861 and was one of the first Confederate prisons to be established. It was first established to house the Confederates who had committed crimes during the war. By today's terms it would be referred to as the brig. In preparation for the first prisoners, a portion of the grounds was enclosed by a stockade fence. The location of the prison within the town of Slaisbury served as a prime site due to the railroad access and the remoteness of the city helped as well. Prisoners began to arrive in December of 1861 in an effort to relieve the building pressure of other prisons. Attitudes of the officers began to change when the conditions began to go sour. This is evident in many of the commandants. Most notable of these commanders was Major John H. Gee. The leadership will include Major Gee, and other prison personnel. Also, this section will cover the breakdown of the prisoner exchange system between the two warring nations.
Like much of the war, newly freed slaves and black soldiers created a problem for the nations. Also, their involvement in the exchange process complicated the many authorities that were put in place to assure that the exchanges went smoothly and without complication. Throughout the first year or so of the war, the exchange system took mounds of paperwork and logistics. A cartel was employed to handle the prisoner exchange and parole most of the prisoners that were captured. Paroling prisoners was when prisoners were disarmed and released on good faith that they would not engage in combat or be of any trouble to their captor until their exchange of a member of equal rank had been completed. The exchanged prisoners were usually held in their own parole prisons until the exchange had been completed. According to the Dix-Hill cartel that was established in 1862 to govern and set down guidelines as to who was exchanged and when, the prisoners were usually paroled within days of their capture especially after there was a major battle and the influx of prisoners caused the prisons to become overcrowded.(1) There were many varying opinions and attitudes upon being released from these prisons. Some prisoners saw being captured as a means to get out of a war they did not want to be in in the first place. Others saw being captured and given parole as an opportunity to take an easier less dangerous job in the military rather than fighting on the front lines and risking getting seriously wounded or killed.
The trouble for the prison system really began when the Emancipation Proclomation was passed in late 1862. The main problem that arose was the fact that the Union had begun using African American troops in battle and that posed a dilemma for the Confederate prisons. If they were to release the black prisoners then they would be going against their beliefs. If they were to not parole the black prisoners, then the breakdown of the exchange program would lead to overcrowded and detrimental prisons. That is exactly what happened as I will talk about later. Another reason that the hostilities and the exchange system broke down was the execution of a New Orleans man named William B Mumford by a Union Major General named Benjamin Butler. Apparently, Mumford had torn down a Union flag and shredded it to pieces. "For his crime, Mumford was arrested, sentenced to death without a trial, and hanged on 7 June 1862 at the place where the flag had been removed."(2) The Confederacy was tired of not having an explanation for the crime committed against Mumford. They threatened to not release any Union officers. "When no Union answer was forcoming, Davis issued the proclomation of 23 December 1862."(3) Another part of the proclamation was very harsh on the black soldiers and their commanding officers that were captured. It states, "That all negro slaves captured in arms be at once delivered over to the executive authorities of the respective States to which they belong to be dealt with according to the laws of said States."(4)
This put a damper on the exchange program and ultimately led to the deterioration of the quality of life inside the prison. The men responsible for ensuring that the prison remained in good condition were known as quartermasters and most of them were very honest and straight forward about the conditions of their prisons. Captain Henry McCoy was the second Quartermaster of Salisbury Prison and according to Brown his term "was marked by frustration... and he was at times charged with negligence, when in fact he could not get the needed supplies."(5) Other personel that were prominent were the guards of the prison. From the January 1949 edition of the North Carolina Historical Review, I found “The Correspondence of David Orlando McRaven and Amanda Nantz McRaven, 1864-1865.” This gives a first hand account of a guard inside Salisbury prison giving his view of the prisoners and how they treated each other, how he missed his wife, and the everyday duties and hardships of being a guard. He also writes to his wife about how the disgusting conditions did not really affect him until he returned from being gone for days. Major John H. Gee was the most infamous commandant of the prison. He took command of the prison on 24 August 1864, when the prison had been filled to nearly 5 times the capacity. He was constantly undermined his authority which led to a breakdown in command. Also, he was given command of the prison in the worst winter in years. He also requested to step down from the position due to his incompetency but was denied until December when Brigadier General Bradley Johnson to command the prison.(6)
After the war, Major John Henry Gee was arrested and tried in Raleigh, North Carolina for war crimes, the trial beginning on February 21, 1866. Trial proceedings were reported daily by a correspondent for the New York Tribune.(7) Through understanding that the Confederacy was completely broke, Union officials gave most of the Confederates the benefit of the doubt and accepted that the Confederate officials did everything in their power to accomodate the prisoners. The exception to this was Captain Henry Wirz, the commandant of Andersonville Prison, and Major John Gee of Salisbury Prison. Unlike Wirz, Gee was acquitted due to his efforts to make the lives better for the prisoners. Gee also had a huge following of supporters which helped as well. "The military commission found Gee guilty only of 'weakness in retaining a position when unable to carry out the dictates of humanity."(8)