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Prisoners of War (Civil War)

Arkansas was the site of more than 700 military engagements during the Civil War. Soldiers from both sides were often captured by the enemy to become prisoners of war. Additionally, many Arkansas troops serving in other states were captured during the war.

The first troops captured in Arkansas were members of Battery F, Second United States Artillery, in addition to other men stationed at the Little Rock Arsenal. Captain James Totten, opposed by volunteer militia companies from across the state and without orders from his superiors in Washington DC, surrendered the arsenal on February 8, 1861, to prevent bloodshed in the streets of Little Rock (Pulaski County). The troops at the arsenal were escorted by the Little Rock Capital Guards to Fletcher’s Landing, where they remained for four days until a steamboat arrived to transport them to St. Louis, Missouri. These troops were not captured by Confederates, as Arkansas had not yet left the Union, but rather by pro-secession volunteers, many of whom later did join the Confederate army.

Troops were captured in the earliest battles of the war, including at the Battle of Wilson’s Creek in Missouri, where Arkansas units first saw action. Confusion reigned, as the U.S. government did not recognize the Confederate government and an exchange system between the two could be seen as a tacit recognition of southern independence. A system of exchange and parole was created in the field to handle some prisoners, but the issue was complicated when the Confederate government allowed ships to operate in its name as privateers. The Federals responded by declaring these sailors pirates when captured, leading to a stand-off over the classification of all prisoners. Eventually, an exchange system was put into place but collapsed in 1863 when the Confederate government refused to exchange captured African-American troops. The system worked only sporadically from that time until the end of the war.

The Fifteenth Arkansas Infantry was captured at the Battle of Fort Donelson in Tennessee in February 1862, and the Eleventh and Twelfth Arkansas Infantry regiments and the Fourth Arkansas Battalion were captured at Island No. 10 in April. Enlisted men and officers were typically held in separate prisons. The enlisted men captured at Fort Donelson were sent to Camp Butler, Illinois, while the officers were held in Boston Harbor at Fort Warren. The enlisted men captured at Island 10 were sent to both Camp Butler and Camp Chase in Ohio, while the officers captured at Island 10 were held at Johnson’s Island, Ohio. The enlisted men were exchanged in September 1862 at Vicksburg, Mississippi. The officers were eventually exchanged as well, but the regiments were reorganized, often with new officers.

The next major capture of Arkansas troops occurred in January 1863 when Fort Hindman fell to Union forces. The Confederate forces captured included the Nineteenth and Twenty-Fourth Arkansas Infantry regiments and a battery of Arkansas artillery. Other forces captured included units from Texas and Louisiana. A total of 4,800 troops were captured in the battle, and the enlisted men were sent to Camp Douglas, Illinois, while the officers were sent Camp Chase and Fort Delaware, Delaware. All of the men were eventually exchanged in Virginia, and most served with the Army of Tennessee for the remainder of the war.  

The Battle of Helena marked another large capture of Confederate troops in the state, with 1,100 men taken prisoner after the battle. These troops were sent to Alton, Illinois, where they were held in a former prison. Federal commanders tasked with providing for these prisoners struggled to offer adequate medical care, and many died from smallpox. This problem continued to plague Union prison officers in the state after the fall of Little Rock to the Union in September 1863, when around 650 sick and wounded Confederates were abandoned to the enemy when the city was evacuated.

The capture of Vicksburg and Port Hudson by the Federals in July 1863 also resulted in the capture of many Arkansans. Four regiments, two battalions, and an artillery battery from the state were captured at Vicksburg, and all or part of nine regiments and one battalion were captured at Vicksburg. Some of the units captured at Port Hudson had been previously captured at Island No. 10 or Fort Donelson and returned to service. The vast majority of these troops were soon paroled, as the strain that they would place on the logistical structure of the Federal army would keep those forces from operating in the field. Many of the Arkansan prisoners of war were returned to the state, where they eventually reorganized into new units in the southern part of the state. Some of these units saw action in the Camden Expedition. Many men did not return to duty and instead returned home after receiving their parole.

Small-scale engagements broke out across the state throughout the war, often leading to the capture of a handful of troops at a time. These prisoners were typically taken to the nearest military outpost by their captors and informally exchanged or paroled when possible. Officers were typically held longer than enlisted men but were often eventually released. Those who were held for the remainder of the war were sent to prison camps far from the front lines.

Large numbers of Federal troops were captured during the Camden Expedition, especially during the fighting at Poison Spring and Marks’ Mills. About 125 were captured at Poison Spring, and around 1,200 were captured at Marks’ Mills. Many of the African-American troops at Poison Spring were not treated as prisoners of war by the Confederates but were executed after the battle. African-American troops were not present at Marks’ Mills, but a large group of freedmen accompanying the Union force was likewise attacked after the battle, and many were killed. At Jenkins’ Ferry, a number of Confederate soldiers were reportedly mutilated by Federal forces after being captured.  

The Union navy also sometimes lost men as prisoners of war after its boats were attacked on Arkansas waterways. The best-known example was in June 1864 when the USS Queen City was attacked and destroyed by a Confederate cavalry unit at Clarendon (Monroe County). Several sailors, including the commander of the vessel, were taken prisoner by the Confederates. 

Prisoners often attempted to escape once captured. Two officers of the Eighteenth Arkansas Infantry jumped into the Mississippi River as they were being transported north after being captured at Port Hudson in the summer of 1863. Another member of the regiment escaped from the prison at Rock Island, Illinois.

Prisoners captured by Union forces in the state often found themselves at the Arkansas State Prison in Little Rock. Before Federal troops took Little Rock in 1863, prisoners were held in Helena or with units in the field before they could be transported to more-secure facilities in the north or in other captured southern cities such as Memphis, Tennessee. Both civilian and military prisoners were held in the facility. Federal troops captured at Marks’ Mills and other battles in Arkansas after the fall of Little Rock were often taken to Camp Ford in Tyler, Texas. Some prisoners held by Union authorities were allowed to take an oath of allegiance to gain their freedom. Others enlisted in the Federal army to escape life in the prison camps. Entire regiments were formed from these prisoners and saw action on the western frontier against Native Americans. Henry Morton Stanley, a member of the Sixth Arkansas, was captured at the Battle of Shiloh and enlisted in the Union army while imprisoned at Camp Douglas. He later also served in the Union navy.

With the conclusion of the war, Federal prisoners in the Trans-Mississippi were released from Camp Ford in Texas after it closed in May 1965. Prisoners held in Little Rock were allowed to take the oath and released. The end of the war saw the largest loss of life of prisoners of war in the state. The Sultana carried around 2,400 former Union prisoners of war up the Mississippi River in April 1865. The ship exploded near Marion (Crittenden County), killing around 1,800 men.

For additional information:
Bearss, Edwin. Steele’s Retreat to Little Rock and the Battle of Jenkins’ Ferry. Little Rock: Pioneer Press, 1967.

Berry, Chester D., ed. Loss of the Sultana and Reminiscences of Survivors. Voices of the Civil War. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2005.

Brown, Dee. The Galvanized Yankees. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1963.

Hesseltine, William. Civil War Prisons: A Study in War Psychology. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing, 1964.

McAdams, Benton. Rebels at Rock Island: The Story of a Civil War Prison. DeKalb: Northern Illinois Press, 2000.

Williams, Charles. “A List of Confederate Citizen Prisoners Held at the United States Military Prison at Little Rock, Arkansas.” Pulaski County Historical Review 36 (Winter 1988): 82–92.

David Sesser
Henderson State University

Last Updated 7/20/2017

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