The American Civil War left many scars on this nation politically, economically, and socially, but it also left many soldiers physically and psychologically wounded as well. Some of the most poignant stories come not from the battlefields but from the prisoner-of-war camps in both the North and South. The men who were confined in these institutions would have struggled with the process of being captured and imprisoned, not knowing if or when they would be released and allowed to see their families. As there were few outlets that were allowed to most prisoners, art and crafts provided a way to cope with their condition, feel productive, and in some cases provide for themselves and their loved ones back home.
The condition of each camp varied from one to another, but all of them were unpleasant and sanitary conditions were subpar at best. Several camps were occupied for a short time, sometimes for mere months. Johnson’s Island Civil War Prison was a long-standing Union structure during the war, and had better conditions than most. The men who were confined there were officers which meant they were better educated and of a higher class than most soldiers. These circumstances allowed for a greater variety and amount of materials to be produced, and archaeological investigations have allowed for a better understanding of the process of creating art and crafts.
At Point Lookout, MD and Elmira, NY, materials were harder to locate due to worse prison conditions and lack of studies completed by historians and archaeologists. Sketches were more popular at these sites, and John Jacob Omenhausser’s sketch book of Point Lookout Prison contains some of the most famous images from a prisoner-of-war camp (see the top two images here). Several prisoners were stationed at multiple prisons, which would have allowed for a transmission of styles and forms of art being created.
Examples from Southern prisons are harder to find, possibly due to conditions and inability to obtain materials. For these prisons, art created after the war was greatly produced, but may not accurately depict the prisons or the psychology of the POW. Thomas O'Dea from Pennsylvania did the painting of Andersonville Prison in Georgia (third from the top) after the war; in fact it took him six years to complete, from 1879 to 1885. He later said "I never drew a picture before in my life. Were I an artist, I could have completed it in a short time." The work shows the innermost fears of prisoners: death and the leaving behind of family. Robert Sneden of the 40th NY Volunteers produced the above sketch of Millen Prison (Georgia) after his release, although he based it on an original sketch done during his incarceration. These folk artists may have altered some details by relying on memory, but their work captures the psychological realities that stayed with them for the rest of their lives.
by Amanda Manahan, American Folk Art course, Cooperstown Graduate Program