The American Civil War was bad enough as it was, leading to hundreds of thousands of deaths due to disease and combat. But some lesser known events still manage to stand out, for all the wrong reasons. From starving in a prison camp to Black troops being murdered as a matter of principle, to deadly wildfires in the Wilderness, and more, these are some lesser known horrors of America’s deadliest conflict.
10. Andersonville Prison
Andersonville Prison, also known as Camp Sumter, was a nightmarish place for captured Union soldiers during the Civil War. Located in Andersonville, Georgia, it became synonymous with suffering and death. The prison was originally designed for 10,000 Union prisoners, but it became horrifically overcrowded, holding over 30,000 inmates at its peak. By the end of the war, thanks to the Federal blockade and Union campaigns to burn Southern farmland in the Shenandoah and Georgia, the Confederates could barely keep their own dwindling armies from starving. As you can imagine, Union POWs were even more neglected.
Conditions at Andersonville were unbearable. Starvation, disease, and exposure took a devastating toll on the captives. The lack of food, clean water, and shelter resulted in rampant illness, primarily dysentery and scurvy. Approximately 12,000 Union soldiers died within the camp’s walls, making Andersonville one of the darkest chapters of the war, and providing some chilling foreshadowing for the concentration camps of the 20th century.
9. Fort Pillow Massacre
The Fort Pillow Massacre, which occurred during on April 12, 1864, is likely the most infamous war crime of the entire war. It involved the murder of African American Union soldiers and their white officers, by Confederate forces under the command of General Nathan Bedford Forrest.Yes, that Nathan Bedford Forrest – the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. So none of this should come as a shock.
Fort Pillow, located in Tennessee, had been occupied by Union forces and was defended by both white and African American troops. When Confederate forces attacked the fort, many of the Union defenders tried to surrender. However, what followed was a brutal massacre. Confederate troops showed no mercy, killing both the African American soldiers and their white officers, despite clearly communicated attempts to surrender. Thing is, this behavior was actually required by Confederate law. Rebels were so appalled by the very concept of Black men getting the chance to fight that they refused to take them, or their white officers, prisoner under any circumstances.
8. Treatment of African-American Troops
Following Lee’s strategic defeat at Antietam, Abraham Lincoln issued the long-awaited Emancipation Proclamation, which declared all Confederate-held Black slaves to be contraband that should be freed immediately upon contact with Union forces. This effectively changed the war, from the Union perspective, at least, from one about preserving the Union to one about also emancipating the slaves once and for all. It also slammed the door on much-needed foreign recognition for the South, as the European nations they were courting couldn’t be seen publicly supporting a slave nation.
In response, the outraged Confederate States enacted laws and policies that explicitly called for the killing of Black prisoners of war (POWs) on the spot. One of the most notable instances was the Confederate policy enacted by General Nathan Bedford Forrest, which we discussed in the context of the Fort Pillow Massacre. This policy dictated that any captured African American Union soldiers, along with their white officers, should not be treated as traditional POWs but should instead be murdered on the spot.
7. New York City Draft Riots
The New York City Draft Riots of 1863 were a dark and violent chapter. Triggered by the unpopular draft imposed by the US government, since the volunteer system was no longer sufficient to meet the army’s ravenous demand for manpower, they quickly escalated into days of chaos and bloodshed. What began as anti-draft demonstrations soon transformed into a brutal attack on the city’s African American community, along with their homes, businesses, and churches. It was proof that anti-Black racism wasn’t unique to the South (although it was still far worse there).
Federal troops had to be dispatched to restore order, and by the time the riots ended, the toll was staggering. Over a hundred people lost their lives, and countless others were injured. The events of the New York City Draft Riots exposed the grim reality of racial prejudice and discrimination, making it clear that even in a time of crisis, the struggle for equality and justice was far from over.
6. Confederate Kidnappings
Robert E. Lee took his Confederate Army of Northern Virginia on two major invasions of the north. The first, in 1862, ended in failure at Antietam. The second was turned back at Gettysburg, less than a year later.
On both occasions, Confederate troops went out of their own way to seek out and kidnap free Black Americans living in peace in the north, and traffic them back south in bondage. Lee himself was fully aware of this and made no effort to stop it. It should be proof that Lee was far from the kindly, grandfatherly southern gentlemen and friend to Black Americans the Lost Cause has made him out to be. Nor was he a reluctant enemy – he was fully committed to the cause of upholding slavery, which rebels saw as a divine right for all white Americans.
Thankfully, slaves captured in this way weren’t in chains for long, as the Emancipation Proclamation ensured their liberation upon contact with Yankee troops. And the 13th amendment freed everyone who slipped through those cracks.
5. The Sultana Disaster
Imagine finally being freed after victory, and on your way home to your loved ones after unimaginable suffering, only to die in a freak boat accident. Enter the Sultana disaster, one of the lesser-known tragedies in American history but ranks as one of the deadliest maritime disasters to ever occur in the United States. On April 27, 1865, just days after the end of the Civil War, the steamboat Sultana, designed to carry around 376 passengers, was catastrophically overloaded with over 2,000 people, primarily Union soldiers who had recently been released from Confederate prison camps. The boat’s boilers exploded, causing a massive explosion and subsequent fires, leading to the deaths of over 1,500 individuals.
The Sultana disaster remains a poignant reminder of the post-war chaos and the terrible consequences of greed. The overcrowding was largely due to financial incentives, as the boat’s owners were paid for each soldier they transported. The tragic event was largely overshadowed by the end of the Civil War and Lincoln’s assassination. But it needs to be discussed.
4. Burning the Shenandoah Valley
During the American Civil War, the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia witnessed a series of devastating events, particularly during the Union Army’s campaigns in 1864. In an effort to disrupt the Confederate Army’s supplies and transportation routes, Union General Philip Sheridan initiated a scorched-earth campaign in the Shenandoah Valley.
This brutal tactic, known as “The Burning,” involved Union forces destroying crops, barns, mills, and other resources vital to the Confederate war effort, all in response to Jubal Early’s attack on Washington, DC (a desperate and unsuccessful attempt by Robert E. Lee to take the pressure off Richmond, VA, during the climactic siege of Petersburg). The destruction was widespread, and thousands of civilians, including women, children, and the elderly, were affected.
It was savage, but sadly effective. Without the farmlands of the Shenandoah, the Confederates struggled to feed their already dwindling armies. Sherman’s March to the Sea further devastated southern farmland, this time in Georgia, just months later.
3. The Cornerstone Speech
The “Cornerstone Speech” was delivered by Alexander H. Stephens, Vice President of the Confederate States of America, on March 21, 1861, shortly before the outbreak of the American Civil War. This speech was notable for its articulation of the principles underlying the Confederacy’s decision to secede from the United States. If you’re under the very mistaken impression that the South wasn’t fighting for slavery, get a load of this excerpt:
“[Our new government’s] foundations are laid, Its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.”
Yikes. Earlier, Stephens argued that the United States was founded on the erroneous belief that all men were created equal, asserting that the Confederate government was explicitly founded on the opposite premise. But yeah, go on about state’s rights.
2. Battle of the Crater
The Battle of the Crater was a particularly gruesome and tragic episode that took place on July 30, 1864, during the Siege of Petersburg. It was named for a massive crater created when Union soldiers detonated a mine beneath the Confederate defenses, sending hundreds of men flying into the air. That part went according to plan. The rest did not.
The Union’s initial plan was to explode the mine and then launch an attack, but due to poor planning and coordination, the assault that followed was chaotic. Black soldiers who had been specifically trained to go around the edge of the crater were replaced at the last minute due to doubts that their race could fight, and concerns about bad press if Black troops were used as cannon fodder.
The white troops who replaced them cluelessly charged into the crater itself, where there was no escape. The confederates rallied around the edge of the crater and poured fire onto the human crush below, where thousands of men suffocated, panicked, and died in the storm of bullets. It was a humiliating disaster for the north and led to thousands of casualties. The creative plan could’ve ended the war then and there. But its botched execution meant it would continue until spring 1865, costing many more lives.
1. Battle of the Wilderness
In Spring 1864, Ulysses S. Grant took command of all Union armies. He chose to camp with George Meade’s Army of the Potomac, and personally oversee the war against Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. His goal was to destroy Lee by attacking towards Richmond, which Lee was ordered to defend at all costs. Each engagement gave Grant a chance to weaken Lee, who couldn’t replace his losses.
The first clash of this Overland campaign, in the Wilderness, was a shock for both sides. Poor visibility in the dense thicket led to far closer quarters than troops were used to. Battle lines dissolved in the woods and chaos, and confusion seized both armies, as enemy troops could be behind every branch and felled log. The fierce fighting also sparked raging wildfires, which wounded men couldn’t escape from. Imagine the horror of being too injured to move, watching a wall of fire inch its way towards you. In the end, neither side gained a decisive victory here. Nearly a year of horrifying bloodshed still remained before the guns would fall silent, in April 1865.