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Bite Dog, Bite Bear

"It's 'bite dog, bite bear,' with most of us prisoners; we don't care which licks, what we want is to get out of this pen. Of course, we all care and want our side to win, but it's sure tough on patriotism."


bandaged prisoners

John Ransom's July 14, 1863 diary entry from his incarceration at Andersonville reflects the desperation of Civil War prisoners at the deplorable conditions in Union and Confederate prisons alike. At the onset of the war, neither the North nor the South had made adequate provisions for holding the captured. The make-shift prisons lacked, for the most part, even the most elementary sanitary facilities. Medical assistance was often too little, too late. Overcrowding, which would come to a head when General Halleck suspended all exchanges in May of 1863, was rampant. Prison shelter ranged from tents as at Point Lookout and Belle Isle to open stockades without shelter such as Camp Sumter in Andersonville and Camp Lawton in Millen to converted training camps and other structures as in the Barracks at Elmira, New York and Camp Morton in Indianapolis. Many captives died of malnutrition or exposure.

image of Millen


Bite dog, bite bear chronicles the experiences of both Union and Confederate prisoners and guards through their personal letters and journals as well as photographs, contemporary media, and army records.


Demon of Andersonville

Among the Southern camps presented are Andersonville, Belle-Isle, and Libby. Life at Andersonville, the most infamous of the Southern prisons, is described through the eyes of friends and fellow prisoners of Leander Chapin, who died of typhoid in the camp, and of Amelia Johnson, a young woman hired by the family to maintain his grave. Contemporary newspaper accounts, escapee narratives, and pamphlets document the conditions at Andersonville and the subsequent trial of the camp's commander, Henry Wirz, for his war crimes. Lee Barfield's letters home to his wife Maggie portray his duties as a guard in Belle Isle and the situation of the prisoners of the camp near Richmond. The letters home of Erastus Newton Bates, imprisoned at Libby for fifteen months, and the Libby Chronicle, a paper written by inmates of Libby, uniquely depict the compound.

Camp Morton

Northern prisons such as Elmira, Johnson Island, and Camp Morton are also represented. In his September 2, 1864 letter, J.D. Carwsell compares the conditions at Point Lookout with those at Elmira: "[Elmira is] a much more desirable place indeed, here we have splendid water and comfortable Barracks to stay in." The Stephens-Reid correspondence recounts the stay of John A. Stephens, nephew of Alexander Stephens, on Johnson Island. Stephens was later exchanged through an agreement made at the secret Hampton Roads conference by Lincoln and Stephens. A look into the administration of Camp Morton is seen through photographs and official reports.


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