A comparative study of two Civil War prisons: Old Capitol prison and Castle Thunder prison

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Virginia Tech


During the early parts of the Civil War authorities created two distinct prisons, Old Capitol in Washington, D.C. and Castle Thunder in Richmond, Virginia. These institutions were reactions to an increase in prisoners of state. Confederate and Union officials established these prisons for this particular group: the disloyal.

Although both structures held prisoners of war, the most vocal and prominent group of prisoners were civilians. The variety and character of both of these prisons are entirely unique in the annals of the war. The conglomeration of the young and old, rich and poor, male and female forced atypical social settings and class antagonisms.

For the most part, governmental authorities took added interest in Old Capitol and Castle Thunder because of the distinctive characters of these prisons and the concurrent feelings that civil liberties should be preserved. Under constant scrutiny, both Congresses, along with prison and military officials, attempted to make sure the prisoners in these two capitals received good treatment. Inmates at these two prisons did receive above average treatment. In some instances, life in these institutions did not resemble incarceration. The heightened awareness of officials and prison superintendents were the primary reason for this good treatment.

Yet officials in each state understood that these treasonous persons could be dangerous to each respective government. These feelings were not unwarranted, because many deserved confinement and punishment for their traitorous ways.