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  • The Production of Military Supplies at the Alabama State Penitentiary During the Civil War
  • Brett J. Derbes (bio)

The confederacy seemed to expand for soldiers on far-flung fields during the Civil War, but for inmates in the Alabama State Penitentiary, it remained limited to their cell, workshop, and prison yard. Nonetheless, prisoners participated in the war by supplying soldiers with crucial wartime supplies that reached far beyond the prison walls. The Union naval blockade of the southern coast disrupted trade, which increased the demand for goods, required expanded domestic production, and pushed extant manufactories to the limit. The penitentiary in Wetumpka had operated workshops using inmate labor during the antebellum era that the lessees now converted to produce military supplies for Confederate soldiers during the Civil War. The largely unknown penitentiary workshops contributed to Alabama’s manufacturing and industrial capabilities, and utilized a cost-effective, available, and reliable source of labor. The production of prison goods thus assisted Confederate soldiers’ ability to wage war, made the penitentiary a profitable enterprise, and contributed revenue to the State Treasury.1

The study of Confederate supply and logistics is essential to developing a more comprehensive understanding of the challenges faced by the Confederacy during the Civil War. Inadequate southern industry, transportation, and communication greatly contributed to shortages of all types. Prison labor competed with antebellum local private businessmen, and the sale of prison goods was not a profitable antebellum enterprise. When the country erupted in Civil War, the workshops turned to manufacturing a variety of military supplies, including knapsacks, shoes, wagon covers, and a variety of tents. The [End Page 131] variety and amount of canvas goods produced at the penitentiary workshops depended largely on manpower, the amount paid per item at the Montgomery Depot, and the availability of materials. In 1863, however, Governor Thomas H. Watts pardoned some inmates to serve in the Confederate military, undermining production. As the war dragged on, a shortage of raw materials also affected the major canvas supplier in Tallassee, which halted the manufacture of tents and wagon covers by the summer of 1864. In the spring of 1865, Union forces under the command of General James H. Wilson targeted Confederate manufactories in Central Alabama, overtook the penitentiary, and released all the remaining inmates.

Several works already explore the establishment of penitentiaries in the United States during the antebellum era, while other books investigate industry in the Confederacy. Yet, none provide a detailed analysis of the production of military supplies by inmate labor in workshops at the Alabama State Penitentiary. On October 25, 1935, at the first annual meeting of the Southern Historical Association, in Birmingham, Alabama, Charles W. Ramsdell brought attention to the extremely important but neglected subjects of supply and logistics within Confederate historiography. Yet, the daunting prospect of collecting scattered receipts, reports, and private account books delayed examinations of the contributions of state penitentiaries to Confederate supply.2

Robert David Ward and William Warren Rogers notably investigated interstate cooperation between Mississippi and Alabama regarding the transfer and confinement of inmates during the Civil War. They produced a comprehensive examination of the antebellum penal system and first state penitentiary, and discovered that Alabama was an integral part of the national movement for prison reform. Their work included valuable information regarding wartime management of the facility, but devoted only limited attention to the quality, quantity, and variety of prison goods manufactured during the Civil War. Similarly, Mary Ann Neeley’s Presidential Address to the [End Page 132] Alabama Historical Association in 1990 described the establishment, living conditions, management, manufacturing, and finances of the penitentiary, but limited her study to the first decade of operation. Neeley noted that public demand for moral reform and legislators’ desire to create a self-sustaining enterprise drove the construction of a house of incarceration that included workshops.3

The largely unexplored wartime production of military supplies with inmate labor depended on the establishment of a state penitentiary and expansion of prison workshops. Therefore, it is necessary to discuss the prewar history of the Alabama State Penitentiary. While the territory of Alabama achieved statehood in 1819, it lacked a prison system for nearly twenty years. Governor John Gayle, who opposed the...


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