Salisbury Prison (Civil War)

Written By Jonathan Martin

Several weeks after North Carolina joined the Confederacy, Governor Henry Clark was commissioned to construct a prison for incoming Union prisoners of war (POWs). An empty textile mill, Maxwell Chambers Mill, in Salisbury (Rowan County) was selected as North Carolina’s only prison during the War Between the States.  Prison operations began in December 1861, when over 100 Union prisoners were moved from the Raleigh State Fairgrounds to the Salisbury Confederate Prison.

In May of 1862 nearly 1,400 prisoners were imprisoned at the prison in Salisbury. Prisoners enjoyed a normal prison life, and Union soldiers spent their time tinkering and making knickknacks, writing, and playing baseball. However, this period lasted only for just a few short months because by October 1864 the population of Northern war inmates had increased to about 10,000.

The prison at Salisbury was originally intended to hold only 2,500 soldiers, but with the influx of captured soldiers after the Battle of Atlanta, the prison was severely overcrowded. From October 1864 until February 1865, prisoners experienced unsanitary living quarters and many were fed only 1,600 calories a day (2,000 calories were regarded as the bare minimum for prisoners who lived in this poor prison environment). Many Union soldiers died during this time. The poor sanitation and overcrowding of the prison led to a death rate of over 25%, with 4,000 prisoners dying during the prison’s operation.

Due to the prison’s condition, Union soldiers saw escape as the only means to survive. During the prison’s operation, approximately 300 Union POWs successfully escaped to the north, but many others were unsuccessful. On November 25, 1864, a large group of prisoners, for instance, tried to escape. Nearly 200, however, lost their lives during the prison break.  One of the successful raids occurred in January 1865, when almost 100 prisoners tunneled out of the war-time prison.

In April 1865, General Stoneman was ordered to lead a raid across western North Carolina, and one of his goals was to free Union prisoners at Salisbury. However, several weeks before General Stoneman’s raid of Salisbury, all of the Union prisoners were moved away from the encampment to another camp. Major John Gee, warden of the prison, was charged with war crimes and with murdering prisoners during an 1866 military trial. However, Gee was eventually acquitted of his crimes.

Today, the Salisbury National Cemetery exists to commemorate the nearly 11,000 Confederate and Union soldiers who lost their lives during the Civil War.