The Last Days of the Salisbury Prison
The Last Days of Salisbury Prison
The Salisbury prison was located in Rowan County in an old cotton factory known as the Maxwell Chamber Factory. The prison originally consisted of a four story brick building measuring 40 by 100 feet plus five smaller buildings. The first prisoners arrived in Salisbury on December 9, 1861. Originally 119 prisoners were shipped from Raleigh to their new home in Salisbury. Throughout most of the war the prison had a good reputation of providing adequate food and shelter. By October 1864, General Bradley T. Johnson had been appointed commandment of the prison and the prison population had grown by thousands. By November 7, nearly 10,000 prisoners were crowded in the enclosure. The conditions became horrendous. No shelter and little food took tremendous toll in lives. Attempted escapes were commonplace and throughout its history more than 500 prisoners managed to escape to freedom.
On December 13, 1864, Brig. Gen. John H. Winder, the new Commissary of Prisoners, inspected the prison and sent an adverse report back to Insp. Gen. S. Cooper in Richmond. Winder listed six reasons why he considered Salisbury to be “very objectionable” as a prison site. Winder proposed that the prison be moved to a tract of 900 acres at the 14 mile post from Columbia on the railroad to Charlotte.
On December 20, 1864 Secretary of War Seddon accepted Winder’s recommendations and issued an order stopping all repairs and halting an ambitious building program begun at the prison. Six new buildings were under construction and with this order the prisoners were forced to endure conditions as they were for the rest of their confinement.
As time passed with an official decision to relocate the prison, prisoners suffered without shelter and with reduced supply of wood for fuel. Finally, in mid-January 1985, the decision was made to move the prison to Killian’s Mill between Columbia and Charlotte. Instructions were issued to rush construction with all dispatch. These efforts were stopped by Sherman’s capture of Columbia on February 17, 1865.
On February 17, 1865, a general POW exchange was announced and carried out within the next three weeks. Following this exchange, only a few civilian prisoners were left in Salisbury.
On February 8, 1865, Winder died and was replaced by Brig. Gen. Daniel Ruggles on March 24, 1865. Gen. Bradley Johnson was promoted and Col. H. Forno replaced him as senior officer at Salisbury which was at the time serving as headquarters of military prisons. On April 2, 1865, Forno reported he had quite a few prisoners which were being kept in open fields because existing buildings had been turned over to the Ordinance Department. He requested instructions on what to do with his POWs.
On April 7, 1865, Col. Forno sent Brig. Gen. Daniel Ruggles, Commissary General of Prisoners, a letter suggesting options of other sites. This letter is the subject of this article. Figure 1 is the envelope used to carry this letter to Gen. Ruggles in Danville, Virginia. The content of this letter is in the official records of the Confederacy. One day later, April 9, 1865, Lee would surrender in Durham and the war would be officially over. On April 12 and 13, 1865, General George Stoneman marched into Salisbury and burned the prison buildings and destroyed much of the Confederate property in Salisbury. This cover can be considered the last official letter mailed from the Salisbury prison.