By November 1864, the Confederacy was slowly collapsing upon itself. The loss of manpower and territory was dooming the young nation ever quickly, and responding to threats was becoming harder to do. The growing fears of a possible Union attack on Wilmington, North Carolina, and its outer forts were increasingly taking center stage as the standing order of business for Governor Zebulon Baird Vance and Confederate officials in the state. Wilmington remained the only viable port on the eastern seaboard to supply the Confederacy and North Carolina, and the only connection to the rest of the world.
Roughly two hundred miles to the west of Wilmington, the inmate population at the Confederate Prison at Salisbury, N.C. was growing at an alarming rate. The ending of the prisoner exchange by Union Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant and the inability of the Confederacy to transport prisoners to Camp Sumter at Andersonville, Georgia turned the compound into the main prisoner of war camp for the Virginia Theater in the fall of 1864. As a result, the prison population grew by 15,000 in two months. This rise in the prison population brought further deterioration of the conditions within the prison, and food rations were reduced as a result.
The rise in the prison population prompted the Confederate government to move the Sixty-Eight North Carolina Troops (NCT) from Morganton to Salisbury to guard the prison compound. The threat of a possible prison riot by an ever-growing prison population was becoming a real threat, especially by men who were becoming desperate by a lack of food and were forced to live in holes for cover from the weather. The arrival of the regiment stabilized the situation until the threat to Wilmington became the main focus of military high command in North Carolina. In response to pleas by Confederate Major General William Henry Chase Whiting and others, Governor Vance wrote to Confederate General Robert E. Lee to allow the Sixty-Eight NCT to be redeployed to Wilmington on 2 November 1864. Since October 20th, Governor Vance have been trying to get the regiment moved to the coast, but was overruled by Confederate officers who were concerned about having enough soldiers to guard the prison compound.
By the morning of November 25 at six o’clock in the morning, Governor Vance’s request was finally acted on by the Confederate army. The prison commander, Major John H. Gee, telegraphed that the regiment had left Salisbury, but he did not have enough men to effectively guard the compound. At two o’clock, relief guard of ten soldiers was overpowered by a number of prisoners. As those prisoners of war armed themselves with the guards’ weapons, another force of roughly 1,000 prisoners rushed the sentinels guarding the parapet. Those Confederate reservists were unable to return fire and quickly retreated in the face of the advancing mob. Two cannon were quickly employed to fire shot into the advancing prisoners, and coupled with the rallying of the remaining guards, were able to disperse the prisoners back into the camp. Unfortunately, one cannon shot ricocheted off the ground and bounced into the town itself, but no civilians were injured. The Confederate guards suffered two killed, one mortally wounded, and 10 wounded. The prisoners had thirteen killed, three mortally wounded, and 60 wounded. During the next two days, Major Gee pleaded with his superiors to send reinforcements to the camp, which was finally done with members of the Home Guard.
On Monday, 28 November 1864, the Salisbury Carolina Watchman newspaper reported details of the riot and noted that:
“It is madness for them to expect to get out and make their escape. But in the mean time let the citizens thoroughly organize so as to render any assistance that may be required in such an emergency.”