A war-haunted landscape
By Karen Lilly-Bowyer
The notion of a prison full of Yankee soldiers was not a popular idea with the people of Salisbury in 1861. In fact, many of the community leaders were Union sympathizers and like much of North Carolina, the population in general was not initially in favor of succession. However, once Fort Sumter fell and President Lincoln called for troops to put down “the rebellion,” North Carolina joined the Confederacy. It would suffer more casualties than any other Southern state.
Once the conflict began, the Confederate government appealed to the states for a prison site, and a former cotton factory in Salisbury was suggested. An adjacent rail line would facilitate prisoner transportation.
Formerly owned by Maxwell Chambers, the mill site had been donated to Davidson College, which sold it to the Confederacy. A plat of land on the edge of town that contained the old three-story cotton mill and the mill superintendent’s large wooden frame home, six tenement houses and several out buildings became the Confederate Prison at Salisbury. A high wall was constructed around the perimeter, with the main gate positioned near the railroad crossing.
The prison was designed to house 2,000 men, but by 1865 more than 11,000 prisoners of war, Confederate deserters, criminals and civilians charged with treason had been confined within the prison walls.
The Dix–Hill Cartel, an agreement between the Confederacy and the Union, which allowed for the equal exchange of prisoners on the battlefield, had been revoked. There were numerous problems with the agreement, but negotiations broke down when the Confederacy refused to exchange black Union soldiers using the same standards that were established for the exchange of white soldiers. The Confederacy refused to exchange any African American soldier who might possibly have been a runaway slave.
By 1864, overcrowding, disease and starvation were facts of life at the prison. In the early years, soldiers who died at the prison were buried on the prison grounds. Officers often had funerals with full military honors. Toward the end of the war, the daily death rate forced this civil behavior to an end. Dead and near dead prisoners were carried to a shack called “the dead house.” There, they were stripped of their clothing and boots. Once a day, a wagon was loaded with the dead and driven through the prison gate to an abandoned cornfield approximately three-quarters of a mile away. By the end of the war, there were 18 trench graves, each approximately 240 feet long. Early estimates stated that more than 11,000 men were buried in the trenches. Later estimates, made using aerial thermal imaging cameras, place the number of dead between 6,000 and 7,000.
The prison had several different commanders. The last commander, Major John Henry Gee, was one of only two Confederate prison commanders to be tried for war crimes. The commander of Georgia’s infamous Andersonville, Henry Wirz, was found guilty and hung for his crimes against humanity. Major Gee was found innocent. Numerous Union soldiers as well as Confederate soldiers testified on his behalf at the trial.
In February of 1865, a new prisoner exchange program was established. The prisoners in Salisbury were divided into two groups. The most able bodied were marched to Greensboro and put on a train bound for Wilmington, which was already under Union control. The prisoners who were too sick to march were sent by rail to Richmond. Gen. George Stoneman entered Salisbury on April 12, 1865 (three days after Gen. Robert E. Lee had surrendered at Appomattox). Stoneman’s objective was to free the federal prisoners.
What he found was not a prison but a poorly guarded supply depot. Stoneman burned the prison buildings and supplies, and built a fence around the trench graves. After the war, another 412 soldiers from the surrounding towns were moved to the grounds. The National Cemetery was dedicated in 1874. Today the cemetery encompasses 63.5 acres. In 2005, there were 20,970 internments.
Over the years, the National Cemetery and the area of Salisbury where the prison once stood have been of great interest to paranormal investigators. Numerous accounts of a Union soldier walking sentry have been recorded. In 2010, a group of investigators from Winston-Salem managed to photograph a figure standing over the trench graves using a thermal imaging camera. Several very clear EVPs (electronic voice phenomenon) have been recorded around the trenches. One of the most amazing that I have heard seems to say, “We are victorious.” Additional EVPs have been captured near the cemetery’s old caretaker’s house, but they do not seem to be related to the trench graves.
Only one building that was used as a part of the prison remains today. A house on East Bank Street that belonged to a free black man, William Valentine, was commandeered by the Confederacy and was used as the garrison house for prison guards. This house, along with several nearby houses that existed when the prison was in use, has a history of paranormal activity. Numerous orbs have been photographed.
The current owner of the garrison house has shared that moaning is often heard in late afternoon. In addition, rocking chairs rock all alone and unexplained shadows are often seen on the stairs. The houses that were built on prison land after the prison was burned also have their share of unexplained activity. Doors open and close unattended and voices are heard. One owner reported that she and others have seen a Confederate soldier walk down her hall and then disappear through a wall.
The trench graves that hold thousands of Union soldiers, Confederate deserters, civilians and criminals are situated on the crest of a hill. Most visitors who walk through the National Cemetery will be overwhelmed by the sacrifice of life that is demanded by war. At the top of the hill, 36 simple white stone markers, one at each end of the 18 trench graves, stand to remind us of the tragic time when armed conflict almost destroyed the United States of America. The markers let us know whom we need to thank.
Each marker is engraved with two words — “Unknown Soldiers.”
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Karen Lilly-Bowyer is a retired educator who lives in Salisbury. She operates Salisbury’s Downtown Ghost Walk Tour and writes about local history.