Widgets Magazine
MIGHTY CULTURE

The word 'deadline' has a horrible origin in Civil War prisons

Have you got a project due that you should be working on? A paper, a PowerPoint presentation, a briefing to the commander? If so, you are probably on a deadline. But missing a deadline in our modern world is typically just a problem of professional conduct, or maybe they'll be some sort of financial penalty. But for Civil War prisoners, it was a matter of life and death.


Anderson prisoner of war tents run right up to the deadline demarked by the low fencing. Prisoners who crossed this line could be shot by prison guards.

(Library of Congress)

That's because the original deadlines existed in Civil War prisons, most famously at Camp Sumter, the prison camp at Andersonville, Georgia. Most Civil War prisons weren't like Alcatraz Island, where prison cells and buildings were used to keep prisoners confined. Instead, officers would build rough wooden fences 10-20 feet high to contain the prisoners.

But, of course, a healthy man can typically climb a 10-foot fence. And, working as teams, troops could fairly easily clamber over 20-foot fences as well. So prison commanders built positions for sentries to watch the prisoner population, and the sentries typically had orders to kill any man attempting to escape.

Well, to ensure that the sentry would have time to shoot a man or raise the alarm before the prisoner got away, the camps put in something called a "deadline." This was a line, usually literally made on the ground with fencing or some type of marking, that prisoners would be killed for crossing.

In the case of Andersonville, the line was marked with low fencing and sat up to 19 feet from the tall wooden walls of the prison. If a prisoner even reached over this wall, guards were allowed to shoot him. And the guards were well positioned to do so. The prison incorporated "pigeon roosts" every 90 feet along the wall. These were guard posts that sat above the wall and gave the guards great lines of sight to fire onto the deadline.

If the prisoners ever attempted to rush the line en masse, the guards could drop back to a series of small artillery positions around the fort and blow the Union prisoners apart. These artillery positions also served to protect the prison from outside attack.

The bulk of the nation found out about this deadline in the trial of Confederate officer Henry Wirz, the commander of Fort Sumter. Because of overcrowding and a massive shortage of supplies at Andersonville and Fort Sumter, Union prisoner deaths there numbered approximately 13,000, and an angry Union public wanted justice.

A reconstruction of the wall at Fort Sumter at Andersonville, Georgia. The low fencing near the wall was the dead line.

(Bubba73 CC BY-SA 3.0)

During the prosecution of Wirz, the deadline around the camp was described and reported across the nation, and it helped to seal Wirz fate even though the practice occurred in other places. Wirz was sentenced to death and executed on October 31, 1865.

It was in the 1920s that the word morphed into its current usage, becoming "deadline" and describing a looming time or date by which something must be completed.

So, yeah, deadlines in the Civil War meant a lot more than they do today. The term has been watered down to mean something completely different.