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Starvation at Andersonville Prison

Updated on April 4, 2015
Virginia Allain profile image

In researching my Civil War ancestor, I became fascinated by all aspects of that war. If you're a Civil War buff, check out my topics.

Union Soldiers, Prisoners of War, Starved at Andersonville

Many of the deaths at Andersonville Prison during the Civil War can be blamed on inadequate food and contaminated water supply. The prisoners of war, union enlisted men, suffered greatly from diseases such as dysentery and scurvy, which contributed to over 12,000 dying at the prison.

The overcrowding resulted in concentration camp conditions where men barely had room to lie down. There were no barracks so prisoners lacked shelter from the hot Georgia sun in summer and the chills of winter. The lack of proper nutrition made the prisoners more likely to die from other causes like minor wounds or pneumonia that they might otherwise have survived.

Sacrifice by impression_eye_get (available from Zazzle)

After his wife died, Abraham moved in with his daughter and her family.
After his wife died, Abraham moved in with his daughter and her family. | Source

My Great-Great Grandfather's Experience in Andersonville

In June 1864, Abraham Bates Tower was captured at the Battle of Brice's Crossroad with about 1,500 other Union soldiers. They were sent to Andersonville Prison and he was there until December 6, 1864. In that six months he became quite ill with a severe cough, a pain in his side and was suffering from scorbutus (according to his Civil War pension application). When he left Andersonville, he was only 73 pounds, merely skin and bones.

(The picture from the family album shows him many years later. Sorry it isn't very clear.)

First-Hand Account of Inadequate Food - in Civil War Prison Camps

Yanks, Rebels, Rats, and Rations,: Scratching for Food in Civil War Prison Camps
Yanks, Rebels, Rats, and Rations,: Scratching for Food in Civil War Prison Camps
This is a slim booklet of almost 40 pages, but it gets into the details of what prisoners in the Civil War ate to survive in the prison camps. It's what you might discover on your own if you track down and read lots of diaries and accounts by survivors. This will save you the trouble of doing that.

Other Problems with the Food at Andersonville

Besides the limited amounts of food, the prisoners lacked resources to cook the raw rations issued to them. Many of the prisoners had their possessions taken from them when they were captured or they were stolen by other desperate prisoners after they arrived at Andersonville. The lucky ones had a tin cup which they could use to receive their ration of cornmeal for the day. They were usually issued a small amount of meat, either bacon or beef, but it was sometimes rancid or moldy. The camp was dependent on shipments of food coming through by train, but that was sometimes disrupted by torn-up tracks or troop movements.

The cornmeal was ground up corn and corncob together. It needed to be sifted before cooking and eating it, but the prisoners had no way to sift it. The corncobs, although partially ground-up, were rough on the prisoner's stomachs and digestive system. Most of the prisoners had no cooking pots, but a few made plates from half a canteen. Some prisoners without tin cups, used a torn-off uniform sleeve, tied at the bottom to receive their rations.

Prisoners who banded together and cooked their rations over a shared campfire probably had a better survival rate. There wasn't always wood for the fires, and small groups of prisoners with a guard were sent to the woods to bring back pine branches for the smokey campfires. On days when there was no wood, the men would mix water with the cornmeal and form a patty or bread which they would put in the sun to "bake."

(The information above is distilled from Andersonville prisoner journals that I read)

YouTube Videos Take You to Andersonville Civil War Prison

Although there are few photos of Andersonville available, these videos give you some background and views of those and of the current museum there.

Other Ways to Get Food in Andersonville Prison

  1. Prisoners with cash could buy fresh vegetables and food from local farmers who came around to sell to the prison. Unfortunately many captured Yankees reported that at the time of their capture, all their valuables and even sometimes their shoes were taken by their captors. Others said that some of the ruffians among the prisoners robbed the new arrivals.
  2. Early on at Andersonville, the prisoners were allowed to send letters home. Sometimes the family sent cash which the prisoner could use to buy additional food. Some said their letters arrived minus the money that was supposed to be enclosed. During a war, with things being rather chaotic, I'm amazed they were getting the letters at all. Eventually the privilege of sending mail was suspended.

    In the case of my great-great grandfather, his wife did not know he was a prisoner of war and thought he had been killed at the Battle of Brice's Crossroad. Consequently he would not have received any funds from home.

  3. On some days, a detail of Union soldiers with a guard were dispatched to the woods to bring back wood. In the summer, it's possible that those prisoners might have had the opportunity to pick wild berries or mushrooms during that excursion.
  4. Prisoners could trade for food with a guard if they possessed anything of value. The guards liked the brass buttons from the uniforms so prisoners traded those for a little food. Once they ran out of anything of value, they had to subsist on the meager rations distributed once a day.

What the Regular Troops Ate

in the Civil War

Rations for the Union and Confederate Troops - during the Civil War

This may seem a bit skimpy for an active soldier in the field, but sometimes the men would add to their meals with food foraged (stolen) from farms they passed as they marched along.

Photo Shows a Typical Meal for a Civil War Soldier


Photo from Zazzle
Field Rations by bhbphotos

In Camp, the Troops Cooked over an Open Fire

Unfortunately at Andersonville, wood for cooking was often unavailable.
Unfortunately at Andersonville, wood for cooking was often unavailable. | Source

Tell Me What Interests You in the Civil War?

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    • Virginia Allain profile imageAUTHOR

      Virginia Allain 

      7 years ago from Central Florida

      @Gypzeerose: Thank you for sharing the lens in those places. Amazingly, he lived into his 90s after nearly dying there.

    • Gypzeerose profile image

      Rose Jones 

      7 years ago

      Amazing lens, Virginia. Pinned to my History board, out by digg and g+. I think this is just one more piece of information that proves how awful war is, any war. I am sorry that your relative went through that horror.

    • gottaloveit2 profile image


      7 years ago

      Fascinating lens, Virginia. I really enjoy all of the work you've done about your family history.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      This is so sad, I'm glad your great, great grandfather made it through the horrible experience OK, your great, great grandmother must have shocked to find out that he was actually alive! Thank you for sharing such an interesting story.

    • Coreena Jolene profile image

      Coreena Jolene 

      8 years ago

      Great lens. I read a little bit about the prisons after I started doing my family history research. It was so brutal. It is amazing to have information from your great grandfather.

    • Nancy Hardin profile image

      Nancy Carol Brown Hardin 

      9 years ago from Las Vegas, NV

      Starvation is one of the worst ways to die, because it's slow and painful. This is an excellent lens about the struggle for food in Andersonville.


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