A backwater for much of the Civil War— a contemporary newspaper described the town as a “name rather than a place”—Florence had an initiation to the conflict that was both deadly and controversial. The fall of Atlanta to General William T. Sherman on September 1 made the prison camps at Andersonville and Millen, Georgia, vulnerable to Federal forces. As a result, in September 1864 Confederate authorities began transferring thousands of Union prisoners from these sites to Florence.
Florence was chosen because of its proximity to three converging railroad lines. Neither the town nor the camp was ready for the sudden rush of Union prisoners—six thousand of whom arrived on September 17. Confederate leaders using slave labor worked quickly on a stockade prison, but it was still incomplete when the first prisoners arrived. Many had been transferred from a temporary facility in Charleston, where smallpox, yellow fever, and scurvy ran rampant. They found conditions no better at Florence. Although Confederate leaders periodically expressed concern about a prisoner mutiny, and particularly about sabotage to rail lines, such fears revealed more about the declining fortunes of the Confederacy than they did about the health and strength of the inmates. The faltering Southern nation simply could not provide basic necessities. Worse, the stockade was built in a swampy bog; six of the prison’s twenty-four acres were completely unusable. Nevertheless, twelve thousand Union prisoners were confined there by December. The camp, wrote one observer, was “full of what were once human beings . . . filthy, diseased, famished men, with no hope of relief except by death.” At least 2,800 Union prisoners, according to one account, died while in captivity.
Because of these problems and others that plagued the Confederate prison system, the Florence camp was shut down in February 1865. Most of the surviving prisoners were taken to North Carolina, where they were exchanged at various points.
King, G. Wayne. “Death Camp at Florence.” Civil War Times Illustrated 12 (January 1974): 35–42.
Rise Up So Early: A History of Florence County, South Carolina. Spartanburg, S.C.: Reprint Company, 1981.