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"Truly Horrible" Danville Civil War Prisons

By Patricia B. Mitchell

During the Civil War, six Danville, Virginia tobacco warehouses were converted to use as prisons for captured Union soldiers. The brick or wooden structures were stripped of all furnishings, including chairs and lamps. Before long inspecting officer Lieutenant Colonel A. S. Cunningham, C. S. A., wrote,

“The prisons at this post are in a very bad condition, dirty, filled with vermin, little or no ventilation and there is an insufficiency of fireplaces …. It is a matter of surprise that the prisoners can exist in the close and crowded rooms, the gas from the coal rendering the air fetid and impure. [A single pot-bellied stove was installed on each floor of the building.] The prisoners have almost no clothing, no blankets, and a very small supply of fuel …. The mortality…about five per day, is caused, no doubt, by the insufficiency of food…and for the reasons…stated above. This state of things is truly horrible….”

During the fifteen months, between December 1863 and February 1865, that Danville housed Federal prisoners, brutally cold weather and sweltering heat exacerbated the suffering of the men. “Like starving dogs” the Northern men fought for pitiful food dumped on the dirt- and excrement-encrusted floors. They whittled down wooden warehouse rafters to the breaking point to obtain slivers of wood which they boiled to make “coffee.” They attempted to stomach “rat dung in the rice, pea bugs in the peas and worms in the cabbage soup.” They fought a smallpox epidemic, the scourge of scurvy, and the disgusting battle of diarrhea, worsened by the humiliation of restricted latrine privileges.

During the last year of the war, 3000 Union prisoners were marched the 70 miles from Lynchburg to Danville. One large procession of these prisoners was halted for the night in a broad field across the road from the Carter mansion known as Oakland (now the Grisales home on U. S. 29 just south of Tightsqueeze.) Widow Lucy Neale Carter took pity on the famished Northerners and directed her slaves to work far into the night, baking cornbread in an open fireplace in the large brick kitchen to the rear of the house. Other local people also brought things to eat, despite the scarcity of food among the Southern populace. Dr. Rawley Martin drove out from Chatham, bringing provisions, saying that, having been a prisoner of war, he knew what it was to be hungry.

While Federal soldiers were held in Danville prisons of war, citizens often continued to feel compassion toward them, and some kind hearts visited and brought foodstuffs. Despite such charitable actions, the chief hope among the imprisoned men was to “put distance between [them]selves and Danville.” In the meantime, of all the complaints concerning their situation, the Yankees railed out most against the quantity and quality of food. The basic diet consisted of corn and corn cob ground together, and made into “half-baked” bread. Once in a while a skimpy potato was offered. In a four-month period Colonel Henry Sprague of Connecticut reported receiving, in addition to the corn-cob meal and potatoes, minuscule portions of “nameless portions of the animal economy,” thin soup, salted fish, and sorghum syrup.

The wormy prison gruel was diluted with “eighty pailfuls” of Dan River water. Prisoner Alfred S. Roe reported on rats, saying that “those initiated claim that [they] made excellent soup.” Alfred Roe also wrote that some cellmates enjoyed boiled and stewed rats, in addition to the rat soup. One of the prisoners, a Frenchman, was observed eating the vermin which he collected from his blanket and body.

Major Abner Small of Maine wrote about Danville, “… We had so little to eat that our brain cells were denuded of blood, caus[ing] dizziness, and occasionall fainting fits.” Hallucinations and hopes of freedom motivated soldiers to dream and scheme about escaping. Several breaks were attempted. Harlan Smith Howard of Cottage Grove, Wisconsin, reported on his short stay in Danville,

“[Nov. 13th 1863] … At 9 p. m. arrive at said place & are put in Tobacco manufactory … . [Nov. 14th] Like our building very well. No rations up to 7 p. m. at which time I make my escape from the building & town …. [Nov. 15th] [T]ravelled all night along bank of Dan river on south side. Rain'd a little. At day break are 6 miles from said town, fall in with friend who secrets us in barn & brings us sweet potatoes for breakfast & dinner, chicken soup — potatoes & corn bread & apples for supper … .” [Howard trekked over 300 miles and made it home safely.]

One escape strategy indirectly involved food. Second Lieutenant Joseph Ferguson recorded in his journal that men volunteered to go to the river for water. En route a few would dawdle and then dart over to the site of an old bakery where they would hide in the large empty ovens. It is not known exactly how many escaped this way, but many “oven-men” did, waiting for the cover of night to leave the soon-to-be “Last Capital of the Confederacy.”


This webpage is sponsored by Mitchells Publications.