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Civil War Series

Danville's Darkest Days

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Originally aired on December 02, 1994 - In part 14 of our Civil War series, Virginia Tech history professor James Robertson tells us about one of Danville, Virginia’s darkest hours during the Civil War.

#14 – Danville Prisons

Danville is a quiet, lovely city, situated in south-side Virginia and perched on the North Carolina border. At the time of the Civil War, Danville was isolated. The Richmond & Danville Railroad was its only major communications link with the war in the Old Dominion. 

Today visitors to the town are often shocked to find a national cemetery with headstones marking the graves of over one thousand Union soldiers. Why this is so is part of one of the saddest aspects of that terrible war.

In the 1860s, neither North nor South had any experience with prisoners of war. The measures both sides employed were makeshift, inadequate, and hence deadly for thousands of unfortunate soldiers who fell captive to the enemy. That was the setting when Danville helplessly faced one of its darkest hours.

Late in the war’s second year, Confederate officials determined to transfer Union prisoners in such Richmond compounds as Libby, Belle Island, and Castle Thunder to a more safe and secure place far from the sphere of battle. In November, 1863, the first contingent, four thousand Federal prisoners, boarded dilapidated boxcars on the R & D line and journeyed the 145 miles to Danville.

The town, a center of the tobacco industry, had six thousand inhabitants and little else. Food, clothing, medicines, and other necessities of life were painfully scarce. Citizens of Danville were already destitute; now they had to confront an influx of Union captives soon to equal in number the town’s population.

Confederate officials commandeered six tobacco warehouses, barred the windows, installed heavier doors, and designated the buildings as Prisons one through six. Number three housed officers; number six was for black soldiers; the other four held white enlisted men. Each of the warehouses was three stories stall. None had any furnishings except a pot-bellied stove at the end of each floor. About six hundred and fifty Union soldiers were packed into each warehouse.

Scores of citizens, notably the Reverend George W. Dame, sought to give assistance. Moral support was all they had. Prison conditions, intolerable at the beginning, got worse with time. Firewood and coal were both in short supply and of poor quality. In wintertime, prisoners walked and stumbled about the crowded floors to keep from freezing to death. Only one in five inmates possessed anything akin to a blanket. Cleanliness was impossible, vermin were everywhere, and food was so scarce that malnutrition and scurvy were inhabitants in every warehouse.

The prisons had been in existence only a few weeks when smallpox swept through the city. Within a month, eighty-six cases surfaced in just one of the six prisons. An isolation hospital was established some distance from town, but it was of little help in the situation. Wagons laden with corpses made daily trips to a makeshift cemetery on Danville’s southern outskirts. Because of all of those factors, prison deaths in the autumn and winter of 1864-1865 averaged over one hundred per month.

Such fearful conditions led to a number of escape attempts by prisoners willing to gamble with death for a chance at freedom. Only a handful of men ever made it to the safety of the Union lines in north-central Virginia and the Shenandoah Valley.

In all, over seven thousand Federal soldiers endured prison life at Danville. More than one thousand of them are buried there.  The number of sick Union prisoners who were transferred elsewhere and died soon thereafter can never be determined. Suffering in the six warehouses has assumed every form. Townspeople could offer only sympathy.

Today one of the six warehouse buildings still stands in downtown Danville; and the national cemetery, with its white headstones row on row, is a silent formation of men who loved their country more than they loved their lives. A message is there for all Americans, especially those who would have us believe that the past has no meaning.