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The Plight of Black Prisoners of War

Hubbard Pryor -- 44th USCT Prisoner of War
Library of Congress

Researchers studying the plight of the United States Colored Troops (USCT) who were captured by Confederate forces during the Civil War continue to bring to light new information that is surprising.

The previous contention that there were perhaps 776 black prisoners held in Confederate prisons has been surpassed several times over. The newest figure is 2,597 and climbing as the research continues.

The study also found that ideas of black prisoners being sold back into slavery or killed before they made it into prisons, while true in some instances, were generally not accurate.

And while most Civil War enthusiasts would have thought the death toll of the black prisoners would have been much higher than that of their white counterparts, it has been determined that also is not true.

The authoritative source for U.S. Colored Troops information has always been “Men of Color” by William A. Gladstone. The recently deceased collector of U.S.C.T. items and historian was a walking encyclopedia on the subject. However, the subject of black prisoners of war really hadn’t been studied until recently when much of the Civil War Service records of the colored troops from the National Archives went on line at an easily accessible research site.

The most accepted percentage of death for all Union prisoners of war (over 30,000 over the entire war) in Confederate prisons is 15.5%. The new study found the percentages of colored prisoners who died was remarkably similar – 15.3%.

The study also found that black prisoners were often put on work details by their Confederate overseers. This may have been a contributing factor to their survival, as they were fed regularly and got exercise, in order to work on the rebel railroads or to dig graves at the prisons.

Early in the war, Confederate officials were determined to sell captured colored soldiers back into slavery. While there is documented evidence that did indeed happen, it was not a common occurrence. There is also documentation to indicate that black soldiers were separated from the other Union soldiers and killed before making it to a Confederate prison. Again, while that happened in isolated cases, it certainly was not the norm.

Researchers have also found records of black prisons of war taken at Fort Pillow, TN, in the massacre that occurred on April 12, 1864. While only 58 USCT men were thought to have survived, now records have been found to show over 70 from that battle actually were prisoners of war.

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