Cahaba Prison
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Cahaba Prison
near Selma, Alabama

Cahaba Prison in Alabama where
the Confederacy held Union Soldiers

Cahaba prison was named for the small Alabama town that lay nearby on the Alabama and Cahaba Rivers, not far from Selma. Built as a cotton and corn shed measuring roughly 193 feet by 116 feet, Cahaba's walls were 8 to 10 feet high and only partially roofed over. The entire center area was left open.... Into this small stockade the Confederates crowded from 3,000   5,000 men from late 1863 until the end of the war in 1865.

Estimates suggest that each man in the prison had only six square feet of living space (U.S. Army regulations at the time required that military posts allow at least 42 square feet of living space per soldier.) In late February 1865, heavy rains caused the Alabama River to flood the prison grounds at Cahaba. The water was so deep that on the morning after the high water reached the stockade, the Confederates in charge floated through the prison gate in boats. For four days and nights, prisoners were left to stand in freezing water which reached as far as the waist on some. Guards finally allowed the prisoners to leave the compound to gather driftwood, which was stacked to form platforms for the men. John Walker, a private with the 50th Ohio Infantry, was one prisoner lucky enough to find a few pieces of heavy timber and cordwood, which he and seven comrades stacked high enough to clear the water. There they sat, back to back, for two days. Finally, 700 prisoners were taken to nearby Selma, while 2,300 waited in the flooded prison.

Cooking done by prisoners
The cooking was done by the prisoners themselves in the open area in the center of the prison yard.   There was a single fireplace in the building and fires were sometimes built upon the earthen floor of the barracks. The firewood, when furnished at all, was either green sap pine or decayed oak from old fields.   The daily rations for the prisoners consisted of 10 to 12 ounces of corn meal (including ground cobs and husks), and five to seven ounces of bacon or beef. But in the warm months, the meat rations often gave off such a nauseating smell that only a few of the men could force themselves to eat it.

The sleeping arrangements consisted of rough bunks, without straw or bedding of any kind, under a leaky roof which extended out from the brick wall.. These bunks could accommodate only four hundred and thirty two men.

Water Supply Poor
The supply of water for drinking, cooking, washing, and bathing was conveyed from an artesian well, along an open street gutter for two hundred yards into the prison. In its course the stream gathered the washings of Confederate soldiers and citizens, the slops of tubs, and the spittoons of groceries, offices, and hospitals.

It was an open sewer in the midst of a small town and the receptacle of the filth, solid and liquid, which the careless, indifferent, or vicious might cast into it.  

In 1819, the state of Alabama was carved out of the wilderness. From 1820 to 1826, Cahaba was its state capital. Cahaba's low elevation next to the river gave it a reputation for flooding and an unhealthy atmosphere. Those people who were opposed to Cahaba being the capital used these arguments to persuade the legislature to move the capital to Tuscaloosa in 1826. Within weeks Cahaba was nearly abandoned.

The claim of flooding had been greatly exaggerated by the opponents of the town. The area recovered and reestablished itself as a social and commercial center. Cahaba became the major distribution point for cotton shipped down the Alabama River from the fertile "black belt" to the port of Mobile.

Railroad Caused Boom
The addition of a railroad line in 1859 triggered a building boom in the town. On the eve of the Civil War, more than 3,000 people called Cahaba home.

Cahaba's glory days were again short-lived. During the Civil War, the Confederate government seized Cahaba's railroad, tore up the iron rails and used them to extend a nearby railroad.

In 1865, a flood inundated the town, and in 1866 the Dallas County seat was removed to nearby Selma. Businesses and families followed. Within 10 years, even the houses were being dismantled and moved away.

Further Reference
Several detailed books, magazine and newspaper articles have been written about Cahaba and its prisoners. Here are a few of the more popular books:

bulletJesse Hawes, Cahaba: A Story of Captive Boys in Blue, 1888.
bulletCharles B. Reed, The Curse of Cahawba, 1925.
bulletWilliam Best Hesseltine, Civil War Prisons: A Study in War Psychology, 1930.
bulletWilliam O. Bryant, Cahaba Prison and the Sultana Disaster, 1990.

 

  
 

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Last updated March 26, 2002