Sherman's Inability to Liberate The South's Most Notorious Prison

Jerry Staub


In April 1864, Sherman embarked on his mission to strike at the heart of Dixie, with the intent of capturing Atlanta, the scene of much of the South’s industrial might, and then to cut the remainder of the South in half (much as Grant had done the previous year as part of his Vicksburg Campaign), as he marched through Georgia to the sea. During his Atlanta campaign, he sent a detachment of Cavalry under General George Stoneman to destroy General John B. Hood’s supply lines and communications between Macon and Atlanta. As part of this mission, Sherman consented to allow Stoneman to proceed to Andersonville Prison (Camp Sumter) and liberate the Union prisoners of war incarcerated there.

Stoneman was not successful in liberating the Union POWs, in fact, he was captured along with about 700 of his force and held captive until he was exchanged a couple of months later. This was the only serious attempt that Sherman made to free the prisoners at Andersonville during his Atlanta campaign and subsequent march to the sea and it was an abject failure. Given the opportunity and the superior force at his disposal, why didn’t Sherman make any further attempts to free these prisoners who were dying at the rate of 200 men per day by September 1864? The truth was, he didn’t really want to free them, for a number of reasons. First of all, he didn’t want to divide his force, diverting some for the task of liberating prisoners and, thereby, weakening it in the face of an aggressive foe. Secondly, he didn’t want to allocate his precious resources to the task of caring for these prisoners, many of whom were in very bad condition, once he did liberate them. Finally, he wanted to keep as much of the Confederate force as possible busy with the care and supervision of these prisoners so the South couldn’t use those troops against him.


Construction of the prison at Andersonville, Georgia, officially named Camp Sumter, began in December 1863 but still wasn’t finished when the first Union prisoners arrived February 24, 1864. The original intent was to use Camp Sumter as a holding area for Union prisoners until such time as they could be exchanged for Confederate soldiers imprisoned in the North.(1) Prison conditions were good initially, in spite of the fact that supplies, food, etc. were hard to come by. While few prisoners were ill or died within the first five months of the prison’s operation, the rapid influx of Union prisoners caused this to change dramatically. By June, 1864, the Andersonville prison had swelled to more than 26,000 prisoners and food and shelter were in ever dwindling supply. Although the camp was expanded to 26½ acres, it was still inadequate to house all of its charges and to relieve the rampant overcrowding. By Summer of 1864 conditions deteriorated further due to the scant rations and lack of medical supplies. Vegetables were practically non-existent, leading to numerous cases of scurvy. Adding to the overall distress were the deplorable sanitary conditions that existed. The hospital and guard quarters were located upstream from the prison and this stream was used for all manner of trash disposal, human and animal waste, as well as bathing. The prisoners, of course, used the same stream for drinking and bathing causing widespread diarrhea and dysentery among the captives. Conditions degenerated to the point that by July, Captain Wirz consented to the parole of five Union prisoners to deliver a signed petition to the Federal government requesting that prisoner exchanges be reinstated.(2)

Dr. Isaiah H. White, Camp Surgeon, repeatedly pointed out the deplorable conditions to his superiors requesting more medical and hospital supplies, additional medical staff, and adequate supplies and housing. All of his appeals fell on deaf ears, however. The prison population swelled to over 33,000 by August making Andersonville the fifth largest “city” in all the Confederacy. By now, hundreds of prisoners were dying daily. This, of course, strained the prison’s capacity even more in trying to dispose of the extremely high number of corpses – many bodies lay for the days in the hot, humid environment which only contributed more to the disease and suffering of the prisoners. According to Dr. White, the U.S. Government’s prisoner exchange policy had much to do with the deplorable conditions of Andersonville prison because it “…threw upon our impoverished commissariat the feeding of a large number of prisoners.”(3)

The development of unsanitary conditions, pestulence, the hot and humid weather, insufficient protection from the elements, along with lack of food and, in many cases, poor quality food, led to disease, sickness, and, much of the time, death. In addition, medicine and medical supplies, in general, were in very short supply due the fact that many such supplies were produced only in the North and were naturally unavailable to the South during the war. As a result, the South was forced to obtain supplies from Europe, but the Northern naval blockade prevented the South from obtaining many of the supplies they needed from abroad. These deplorable conditions were related to General Sherman by some of the few men who actually escaped captivity at Andersonville. In his memoirs, Sherman spoke of their “…sad condition: more than twenty-five thousand prisoners confined in a stockade designed for only ten thousand; debarred the privilege of gathering wood out of which to make huts; deprived of sufficient healthy food, and the little stream that ran though their prison-pen poisoned and polluted by the offal from their cooking and butchering houses above.”(4)


It was during Sherman’s Atlanta campaign that he first learned of the situation at Andersonville and the plight of Union prisoners incarcerated there. He had been receiving reports from escapees who had made it back to his lines, since July. In spite of the fact that Andersonville was out of his way, and hadn’t been an issue when he began his campaign, it had now gotten his attention. Going into this campaign, it was clear that Sherman never intended to free the prisoners at Andersonville of his own volition, for several reasons. First of all, it hadn’t been a problem at the outset of his campaign and, even after he learned about the deplorable conditions, he wanted to maintain his focus on his primary objective, which was to cut Georgia and the South in half in an attempt to end the war once and for all, and as quickly as possible. Second, he was concerned about diverting large numbers of his troops and weakening his overall force in the face of a very aggressive and formidable foe in John Bell Hood. Third, he didn’t want to slow down his advance and over-burden his resources by having to care for thousands of sickly and feeble men who badly needed medical care and the attention of many of his own force. Last, he felt that by leaving the Union prisoners where they were, the Confederates would have to attend to them, taking troops and resources away from the Confederate forces he would be facing in combat.

In addition to Sherman’s reluctance to free prisoners out-right by liberating them from prison, he and his superiors, including Lincoln and Grant, did not want to exchange Union prisoners for rebel prisoners because it was felt that, from a strategic standpoint, Confederate prisoners were much more valuable to the Confederacy because they would be absorbed into fighting units immediately and begin to fight again. This wasn’t to say that Union prisoners were not valued by their leadership, it just meant that, due to the South’s disadvantage in terms of manpower, the re-absorption of Confederate prisoners into their armies was much more advantageous for them than for the Union. It was better to keep Confederate prisoners away from the fight while burdening the South further with the occupation of guarding, feeding, and caring for thousands of Union prisoners. According to Dr. White, Chief Surgeon of Andersonville Prison, Confederate authorities made many attempts to secure the exchange of prisoners sequestered not only at Andersonville but from their other prisons as well. But, it was the position of the U.S. Government not to exchange them because they felt that each rebel prisoner released would immediately become an active soldier.(5)

General Grant spoke of his unwillingness to exchange prisoners in his memoirs. In a letter to General Butler, dated August 18, 1864, General Grant put it this way, “it is hard on our men held in Southern prisons not to exchange them, but it is humanity to those left in the ranks to fight our battles. Every man released on parole or otherwise, becomes an active soldier against us at once, either directly of indirectly. If we commence a system of exchange which liberates all prisoners taken, we will have to fight on until the whole South is exterminated. If we hold those caught they amount to no more than dead men. At this particular time to release all rebel prisoners North would insure Sherman’s defeat and would compromise our safety here.”(6)

In addition, Sherman was also reluctant to accept Union prisoners into his army either by exchange or through liberation because of the poor condition of such men. He was only willing to exchange prisoners, between he and Confederate General John B. Hood, who were physically fit for duty. He was, however, willing to accept sickened or invalid prisoners from Andersonville in exchange for non-combatants whom he had captured while they were providing support to rebel troops or performing repair work on damaged rail lines or on telegraph lines and other communications.(7)


In July 1864 as Sherman had almost completely surrounded Atlanta, there was still one problem which he needed to solve. Confederate supplies were still being transported into Atlanta by way of the Macon rail lines from the south. Sherman realized that he must cut this supply line if he was to be successful in capturing Atlanta quickly. To accomplish this, Sherman tasked his cavalry commanders, General George Stoneman, and Generals Kenner Garrard and Edward McCook to move their forces, consisting of about 9,000 troops, rapidly south to destroy the supply lines and communications between Atlanta and Macon.(8) Upon receiving his orders from Sherman to destroy Hood’s communications and supply lines, General Stoneman asked General Sherman for his permission to liberate Union prisoners of war held at Andersonville and Macon after completing his mission. General Sherman, sympathetic to the plight of the prisoners held at Andersonville, and believing that Stoneman’s plan had some merit, consented. Of Stoneman’s plan, Sherman said, “at the moment almost of starting General Stoneman addressed me a letter asking permission, after fulfilling his orders and breaking the road, to be allowed, with his command proper, to proceed to Macon and Andersonville and release our prisoners of war confined at those points. There was something most captivating in the idea, and the execution was within the bounds of probable success.” Sherman continued by telling Stoneman, “if you can bring back to the army any or all of those prisoners of war, it will be an achievement that will entitle you, and your command, to the love and admiration of the whole country.”(9)

The plan was to divide the force, sending Generals Stoneman and Garrard’s cavalry around Atlanta to the left to McDonough, and General McCook’s troops to the right toward Fayetteville, ultimately linking up at the Macon road near Lovejoy’s Station. However, at the last moment, the plan changed, calling for Garrard’s unit to follow Stoneman’s force only as far as Flat Rock. The rationale was for Garrard to support Stoneman and to act as a buffer between the Union forces and General Wheeler’s cavalry in the event the Confederates caught on to the scheme. This had the effect of reducing Stoneman’s force to only about 2,200 men. As Stoneman’s cavalry detachment set off on July 27th passing to the right of Stone Mountain and continuing through Covington, they were seen by rebel pickets. After a minor clash near Monticello, Stoneman’s force continued south toward Clinton, Georgia. When they arrived at Clinton, General Stoneman ordered a detachment of the 14th Illinois Cavalry to proceed to Gordon in an attempt to destroy as much as the Confederate supply line as they could. He then proceeded with the rest of his force toward Macon. As they approached Macon on the evening of July 29th, they encountered heavy resistance from a 3,000-plus Militia force. While looking for a point to cross the Ocmulgee River, in an effort to move on Andersonville Prison, Stoneman discovered that General Wheeler’s cavalry unit was advancing upon his rear, effectively cutting him off from the Union forces farther to the north of his position.

Realizing his predicament, Stoneman ordered his force to retreat back north to the vicinity of Clinton in an effort to engage the Confederate cavalry closing in on him and, hopefully, to link up with other Union troops. He reached Clinton on the evening of the 30th and, after some minor skirmishes in which he recaptured Clinton and freed some Union prisoners who had been captured earlier, bivouacked for the night. The following day he advanced north toward Hillsboro and encountered a large, entrenched Confederate force which blocked his advance. Also pursuing him from the South were additional rebel forces, which threatened to surround him. Stoneman decided that his best course of action was to try to penetrate the rebel lines in front of him in an effort to break out of his entanglement. In spite of repeated attempts to penetrate the enemy lines, Stoneman’s troops found themselves out-manned and outgunned. By 4:00 pm of July 31st, Stoneman ordered two-thirds of his force to penetrate the weakest part of the rebel force to the southeast while he and the remainder of his force stayed behind to provide cover for the escape. This main Union force fought their way through and escaped. Stoneman and the remaining 700 troops continued to fight until they had exhausted all of their ammunition, at which time they surrendered. The hope of liberating Andersonville was now completely dashed.

In the aftermath of Stoneman’s debacle, Sherman in his explanation to General Halleck on August 7, 1864, wrote, “nothing but natural and intense desire to accomplish an end so inviting to one’s feelings would have drawn me to commit a military mistake at such a crisis, as that of dividing and risking my cavalry so necessary to the success of my campaign.”(10) Sherman was obviously conflicted – on one hand he was sympathetic to the plight of fellow Union troops and the misery they were suffering but, and on the other hand, he felt that he had diverged from his own ideals and the unwavering logic which had guided his military success. Grant, in his memoirs, characterized Stoneman’s raid and its aftermath as follows: “In the latter part of July Sherman sent Stoneman to destroy the railroads to the south, about Macon. He was then to go east and, if possible, release our prisoners about Andersonville. There were painful stories current at the time about the great hardships these prisoners had to endure in the way of general bad treatment, in the way in which they were housed, and in the way in which they were fed. Great sympathy was felt for them; and it was thought that even if they could be turned loose upon the country it would be a great relief to them. But the attempt proved a failure.”(11) It’s questionable whether Stoneman’s attempt to liberate the prisoners from Macon and Andersonville Prisons would have succeeded, even if he had followed orders. It seems that the effort was doomed to failure no matter what the circumstances because it lacked careful planning and coordination on Stoneman’s part.

Apparently, there was no consideration given to how Stoneman’s troops would handle resistance from Confederate units between Atlanta and the prisons, such as Wheeler’s cavalry, for example. In addition, Stoneman had very little intelligence about how the prisons were fortified and how many troops were guarding the prisoners, and exactly how he would overcome the defenses. Even if he was successful in effecting the release of the prisoners, there was no plan or consideration given to how his cavalry force was going to move 30,000 sick and emaciated men 100 miles to safety, across territory teeming with Confederate troops. While most of the blame for this failed attempt lies with Stoneman, Sherman certainly deserves some of the blame as well. After all, in spite of the fact that he agreed to Stoneman’s request, Sherman did have some reservations, later referring to it as “a bold and rash gesture.” He was also aware of the risks involved in transferring the prisoners to safety, indicating that after the prisoners were freed, “the difficulty will then commence for them to reach me.”(12) Later when writing to the Sanitary Commission to obtain supplies for those incarcerated at Andersonville, and suffering from a certain amount of guilt and remorse for not successfully freeing the prisoners, Sherman wrote, “I don’t think I ever set my heart so strongly on any one thing as I did in attempting to rescue those prisoners.”(13)


After Stoneman’s debacle, Sherman hesitated from making any further direct attempts to liberate prisoners at Andersonville, or other prisons nearby, not wanting to stray again from his “cold logic and unsentimental reasoning,” so that he would be sure to maintain his focus on the military objective at hand. General Hood and his army demanded all of Sherman’s attention and any additional attempts to free prisoners would only distract him from that endeavor and would certainly prolong the war and the suffering of the prisoners involved. Another reason that Sherman didn’t pursue the liberation of Union prisoners from Andersonville and Macon, among others, was the fact that, due to the perceived threat of liberation by Sherman’s army, the prisoners within close proximity to Sherman’s army were being located to other prison camps throughout the South. After the fall of Atlanta, the Confederates began moving prisoners from Andersonville by rail to various towns and cities throughout Georgia and South Carolina.

Blackshear, Milledgeville, Millen, Savannah, and Thomasville were some of the 30 or so towns selected to house these prisoners until the threat had passed. The prisoners were fairly evenly split up, with several thousand going to Millen, ten thousand going to Savannah, ten thousand to Florence, ten thousand to Charleston, S.C., and the rest split up among some of the smaller towns. The disabled and critically sick were kept at Andersonville, since it was believed that they would be of little value to Sherman’s army.(14) Of his inability to secure the release, or exchange, of Northern prisoners, General Sherman probably said it best in a letter to his wife Ellen, in which he wrote, “… it is idle to attempt the exchange…” I have already lost Stoneman & near 2,000 Cavalry in attempting to rescue the Prisoners at Macon. I get one hundred letters a day to effect the exchange or release of these Prisoners. It is not in my power. The whole matter of Exchanges is in the hands of Col. Hoffman, Commissioner at Washington. I am capturing & sending north hundreds of prisoners daily and have not intercourse with the Enemy.”(15)

Unfortunately, General Sherman let emotion get the better of him, straying from his guiding principles for one of the few times in his career when he consented to Stoneman’s request to free the prisoners at Andersonville and Macon. While it is certainly difficult to fault him for his compassion and concern for the prisoners, it is more difficult to understand why, given his reputation for careful and methodical planning, he didn’t insist that the raid be more carefully planned and coordinated. On the other hand, it is probably due to the failure of Stoneman’s raid, that he didn’t attempt any further diversions of this sort, insuring that he maintained his focus on his military objective, and, ultimately, shortening the war and the suffering of Union prisoners.


(1) John Rice, “Andersonville,” [document on-line], UMKC School of Law, accessed 23 April 2002; available from; Internet.

(2) Ibid.

(3) “Andersonville Prison – Testimony of Dr. Isaiah H. White, Late Surgion Confederate States Army, As to the Treatment of Prisoners There,” [papers on-line] (Southern Historical Society Papers, Vol.XVII., Richmond, Va., January – December, 1889, Richmond Times, August 7, 1890.

(4) William T. Sherman, “Memoirs of General William T. Sherman,” Volume II, (New York: D. Appleton & Company, 1875) , 143.

(5) “Andersonville Prison – Testimony of Dr. Isaiah H. White, Late Surgeon Confederate States Army, As to the Treatment of Prisoners There,” (Southern Historical Society Papers, Vol.XVII., Richmond, Va., January – December, 1889, Richmond Times, August 7, 1990.

(6) Ibid.

(7) Lloyd Lewis, “Sherman – Fighting Prophet,” (New York: Harcourt, Brace & Company, 1932), 418 – 419.

(8) Stanley P. Hirshson, “The White Tecumseh,” (New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1997) , 234.

(9) Robert Wayne Philbrook, “Albert Philbrook & The 14th Illinois Cavalry,” [document on-line], accessed 13 April 2002; available at, Internet.

(10) Lloyd Lewis, “Sherman – Fighting Prophet,” (New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1932) , 403.

(11) Ulysses S. Grant, “The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant,” (New York: Mount MacGregor, 1885; reprint, Connecticut: Konecky & Konecky, 1992) , 437 – 438 (page citations are to the reprint edition).

(12) James Lee McDonough and James Pickett Jones, “War So Terrible – Sherman And Atlanta,” (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1987), 252 – 255.

(13) Lloyd Lewis, “Sherman – Fighting Prophet,” (New York: Harcourt, Brace & Company, 1932), 403.

(14) John Ransom, “John Ransom’s Andersonville Diary,” (New York: Berkley Publishing Group, 1963); 154.

(15) Ed Brooks, D. Simpson, & Jean V. Berlin, “Selected Correspondence of Sherman’s Civil War – William T. Sherman, 1860 – 1865,” (Chapel Hill & London: University of North Carolina Publishing, 1999); 684 – 685.


Brooks, Ed, D. Simpson and Jean V. Berlin. “Selected Correspondence of Sherman’s Civil War – William T. Sherman, 1860 – 1865.” Chapel Hill & London: University Of North Carolina Publishing, 1999.

Grant, Ulysses S. “The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant.” New York: Mount MacGregor, 1885; reprint, Connecticut: Konecky & Konecky, 1992.

Hirshson, Stanley P. “The White Tecumseh.” New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1997.

Kennett, Lee. “Marching Through Georgia – The Story of Soldiers & Civilians During Sherman’s Campaign.” New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1995.

Lewis, Lloyd. “Sherman – Fighting Prophet.” New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1932.

McDonough, James Lee, James Pickett Jones. “War So Terrible – Sherman and Atlanta.” New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1987.

Ransom, John. “John Ransom’s Andersonville Diary.” New York: Berkley Publishing Group, 1963.

Sherman, William T. “Memoirs of General William T. Sherman.” Volume II. New York: D. Appleton & Company, 1875. BizSuite Web Service.

“The Atlanta Campaign.” Internet.

“Biography of George Stoneman.”, Internet. Golden Ink.

“The Atlanta Campaign.”, Internet.

Philbrook, Robert Wayne. “Albert Philbrook & the 14th Illinois Cavalry.”, Internet.

Rice, John. “Andersonville.”, Internet.

Southern Historical Society Papers, Vol.XVII. “Andersonville Prison – Testimony of Dr. Isaiah H. White, Late Surgeon Confederate States Army.” Richmond: Richmond Times, 1990.


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