Cahaba Federal Prison

Castle Morgan Cahaba Federal Prison was a Civil War prisoner of war (POW) camp located at Cahaba, Dallas County, at the junction of the Alabama and Cahaba rivers. Also unofficially known as Castle Morgan, after Confederate cavalry general John Hunt Morgan, it began officially operating sometime in the late spring or early summer of 1863, though some sources suggest informally as early as 1862. Used as a POW camp and collection and transfer point for prisoners, the camp remained in operation until war's end in 1865. It covered less than a third of an acre but at one point housed more than 3,000 Union prisoners. Cahaba Federal Prison (CFP) was perhaps the largest of several POW camps in Alabama, with others being located in Mobile, Mobile County, Talladega, Talladega County, and Tuscaloosa, Tuscaloosa County.

Cahaba Federal Prison Diagram The main prison building of Cahaba Federal Prison was an unfinished agricultural products warehouse. Construction began when the town's economic prospects looked promising in the late 1850s after the construction of a railroad spur line to Cahaba from Marion, Perry County. The brick structure measured 193 feet (~58.8 meters) by 116 feet (~35.3 meters) with walls 14 feet high (~4.2 meters). It enclosed approximately 15,000 square feet (~1,393.5 square meters) and was surrounded by a stockade 12 feet high (~3.6 meters) with a guard's walk at the top; the roof, however, was never finished. Prisoners were allowed in the prison yard during the day and were locked in the warehouse at night.

Officially established as a permanent POW camp with a capacity of approximately 500 men in mid-1863, the camp closed in the spring of 1864 and its prisoners were sent to the newer, larger Camp Sumter, more commonly known as Andersonville, in Americus, Georgia. The Cahaba camp continued to be used as a collection point for Union prisoners prior to relocation to Andersonville. In the late summer of 1864, after the Union and Confederate governments ceased exchanging prisoners (until near the war's end), CFP again became a permanent POW internment facility, as the number of Union prisoners held by the Confederacy swelled.

The commander of the prison was Capt. Howard A. M. Henderson of Paris, Kentucky. A Methodist minister, Henderson was said to be well liked, respected, and considered humane by the prisoners under his care. He reportedly did his best for them, even as the prison became grossly overcrowded, and the prisoners at Cahaba suffered a far lower death rate than at other POW camps. At some point late in the war, Henderson left, and Lt. Col. Sam Jones, who commanded the prison guards, had taken over by the spring of 1865. Jones was remembered as cruel and abusive and quick to punish prisoners in some accounts.

Civil War Prisoner Exchange When the camp was most crowded, prisoners had fewer than seven square feet of space each. By comparison, Andersonville prison had nearly 35 square feet per prisoner. Even though badly overcrowded and subject to flooding, historical records show that the death rate among the prisoners was at just under three percent, with only 147 men of the approximately 5,000 men imprisoned at CFP dying during the camp's operation. By comparison, the average death rate of all Confederate POW camps together was more than 15 percent, and the death rate at Andersonville was more than 30 percent. As Union general William Tecumseh Sherman began his fall 1864 Savannah Campaign, known popularly as "Sherman's March to the Sea" through Georgia, Cahaba received prisoners from Andersonville to keep them from falling into the hands of advancing Union troops. This further contributed to overcrowding. At the end of the war more than 3,000 POWs were being held at CFP.

Steamship Sultana After the Civil War ended in April 1865, the former antagonists arranged a prisoner parole agreement to return the former prisoners to their homes. Many of the men held at Cahaba boarded the steamboat Sultana at Vicksburg, Mississippi, on April 24, 1865. Tragically, three of the Sultana's four boilers exploded on the morning of April 27 as the boat struggled against a strong current seven miles north of Memphis, Tennessee. Of the 2,100 former prisoners on board, between 1,700 and 1,800 (about 800 being former Cahaba prisoners) died of burns, drowning, or hypothermia. This high loss of life makes the Sultana disaster the greatest maritime disaster in U.S. history.

The Cahaba Federal Prison was eventually dismantled and its bricks removed to Selma as material to further that town's growth. The prison site was lost until 1986, when an archeological dig found the foundations of the building and other evidence that indicated that the find was indeed the prison. Today, the site is part of the Old Cahawba Archaeological Park, with an historic marker commemorating the location.

Further Reading

  • Bryant, William O. Cahaba Prison and the Sultana Disaster. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2001.
  • Noe, Kenneth W., ed. The Yellowhammer War: The Civil War and Reconstruction in Alabama. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2013.
  • Pickenpaugh, Roger. Captives in Blue: The Civil War Prisons of the Confederacy. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2013.

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