Civil War Battlefields an Alternative to Imprisonment

face of a prisoner

During the U.S. Civil War, the ratio of men to women in prison was substantially lower than in years preceding and following the Civil War. In New York State prisons, the ratio of men to women in prison fell from 18.5 men per woman in 1861 to 10.0 men per women in 1864. That ratio then rose back to 18.5 in 1867, and continued rising to 23.5 in 1875. For a set of state prisons across the U.S. for which comparable data are available for 1870 and 1880 (excluding prisons in New York State), the sex ratio rose from 11.7 men per woman in 1870 to 22.9 in 1880.

Civil War Reduced Ratio of Men to Women in Prison

(prisoners held in NY state prisons on Sept. 30 of given year)
yeartotal prisonerssex ratio (men to women prisoners)
Source: See NY Census data, 1850-80, in US 19th-century prisoner statistics
18471,42415.0
18481,30914.8
18491,46623.0
18501,61121.7
18511,71421.9
18521,84319.0
18531,95218.3
18541,97619.4
18551,88820.2
18561,86926.5
18571,96226.3
18582,23020.4
18592,48617.3
18602,65918.4
18612,67418.5
18622,34017.9
18632,11417.7
18641,73110.0
18651,79610.3
18662,55914.6
18672,84318.5
18682,80520.1
18692,85220.9
18702,71321.2
18712,83024.7

The prisoner sex ratio in New York county jails (including those called prisons or penitentiaries) was much lower during the Civil War than after it. The sex ratio for prisoners in jails across all the counties of New York State in 1863 was 2.6 men per women. For those county jails for which data are available, the aggregate sex ratio rose from 1.3 men in prison per woman in prison about 1864 to 5.7 in 1876. The total number of prisoners more than doubled.

NY County Prisons During and After the Civil War

 sex ratioprisoners
Sources: see US 19th-century prison statistics.
prison \\\ year1863/418761863/41876
Monroe County (Rochester)1.97.1228275
Erie County (Buffalo)1.03.2178437
Onondaga County (Syracuse)1.98.089225
King's County (Brooklyn)0.56.8291714
Blackwell's Island (New York City)1.06.1278992
Albany Penitentiary3.06.0375953
total1.35.71,4393,596

A committee from the Prison Association of New York in late 1865 noted a reduction in the number of prisoners during war:

It has been observed that the number of prisoners had sensibly diminished during the Mexican war, and after its close had increased again even beyond its former limits, and that their crimes had changed from those of fraud to those of violence. … {data on imprisonment during the Civil War also} illustrate the idea of a diminution {of prisoner numbers} during the war and an increase after it.^

That descriptions applies much more to male prisoners than to female prisoners. Military service has been historically an alternative to imprisonment for disposing of men.

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