Out of some 3.8 million combatants in the Civil War, over 400,000 were at some point taken prisoner. That figure represents more than the total number of troops who died, and roughly as many as the number wounded. Some were paroled during prisoner exchanges and, despite the required oath of non-combat, went back to their regiments to fight again; others languished for months or years under increasingly crowded conditions in over two hundred prison sites from Massachusetts to Texas and as far west as California. A few escaped. Many-- between 45,00 and 50,000--died in prison from wounds, from infectious diseases such as smallpox, or, most commonly and tragically, from illnesses related to substandard sanitary conditions, contaminated food and water, abysmal nutrition, and from lack of proper clothing and shelter. Medical care, already woefully strained in each army's own hospitals, was even more scarce for enemy prisoners. Some soldiers killed each other, or themselves, under the duress of prison life.
The rules of war dictated that enemy prisoners should be treated humanely, and both sides attempted to comply even though the transportation, care, and guarding of prisoners provided tremendous logistical challenges from the outset to armies that had enough trouble keeping their own troops fed and clothed. Some of the large prisons were hastily built for this purpose; smaller, makeshift quarters were also improvised out of local jails or former forts and hospitals. The magnitude of the prisoner-of-war problem, which the U.S. has never again faced on any serious scale, is indicated by the Confederate camp at Andersonville at one point held 30,000 soldiers in a space designed for 10,000; the large Federal prisons at Alton, Illinois and Elmira, New York were also notorious for dangerous overcrowding.
As in other aspects of the War, rank and social class mattered: officers were sent to separate prisons, where they received at least marginally better rations than their enlisted counterparts. Those with money in either kind of camp might be able to purchase vegetables to supplement their slender daily rations, new clothing or tents as long as money lasted and guards were willing. Daily life for the average prisoner, however, was dismal.
On the home front, civilians at first responded with relief when they discovered a loved one was held captive rather than dead in battle. Patriotic souls residing near the location of a prison often had their first interactions with a Northerner or Southerner through their limited contact with captured soldiers as they paraded into town to hoots and jeers--or sometimes through humanitarian or commercial visits. During the early years of the war, the two sides frequently arranged prisoner exchanges, marching paroled captives to a central spot and then calculating their "value" to the enemy (a general could be redeemed for 32 privates, for instance). But the exchanges were halted in 1864 in a still-controversial decision by U.S. General Grant and Secretary of War Stanton, who sensed that the Confederacy desperately needed the manpower that the exchanges were providing. To many common folk, this seemed an example of the government's insensitivity to individual lives. (For one Northerner's view of Stanton, see Thomas Jefferson Whitman's letters to his brother Walt.)
By 1865, Northern newspapers were publishing graphic and shocking accounts and engravings of the camps, brought back by escaped or paroled prisoners. Sometimes these accounts were exaggerated in order to inflame patriotic passions, but later narratives of survivors suggest that particularly toward the end of the war conditions were indeed inhuman: they tell tales of brutality from guards and fellow prisoners alike, of being robbed of money and clothing, of hellish piles of excrement and dead men buried in heaps, their clothes and rings torn off. Existing photographs of conditions in prison camps rival, in their horror, documentary evidence that would later emerge from the Holocaust.
Of all issues that have generated angry fallout and lingering suspicion after the Civil War, the treatment and suffering of prisoners of war remains one of the most delicate. Unionists long suspected Confederate officers of conspiring deliberately to abuse their captives, and Capt. Henry Wirz, the commander of Andersonville prison, was tried and sentenced to death by a military commission that blamed him deliberately causing the sufferings there. Confederates, on the other hand, called Wirz' trial a sham, and some made him into a Confederate hero; they blamed Grant's "inhumane" decision to halt prisoner exchanges for the tragic overcrowding of prisons. Just as the methods of reporting about the Civil War anticipated modern warfare as it would go on to develop in the 20th century, so did the horror of the prison camps.
Although conditions in the camps could hardly be called "poetic" in the Victorian sense of the word, there are existing examples of prison poems written by Union and Confederate sympathizers. There does exist, however, a long tradition of writing from prison; some authors have taken advantage of the forced narrowing of their world and the concentration that this can bring. More broadly, many writers have been fascinated with the idea of such concentration and focus: both Whitman and Dickinson explore imprisonment as an intense state of consciousness. To imagine oneself a prisoner of war must have been particularly compelling: a captive soldier is in a liminal state, vanquished in battle but not yet defeated by death; away from home and in all likelihood away from his comrades as well; unable to fight or (generally) to flee. Neither poet shied away from imaginatively trying on even such an extreme state of suffering and deprivation.