Dead Lines (2014)

Andersonville guards enforcing the dead line

Now that I’m not on deadline, this seems a good time to discuss dead lines. It’s also timely given the discussion of U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, an American prisoner of war exchanged for five Taliban prisoners.

Like deadbeat, deadline is a term that originated during the American Civil War. It is often associated with the Andersonville Prison in Georgia, an abominably foul and horrific stockade where some 13,000 Union war prisoners died. Most prisoners there succumbed to disease, thirst and starvation, but many of them were shot for going past the so-called dead line.

The dead line was often a low fence, or a row of stakes, or a rope line, or maybe even a line in the sand; it was erected 15 to 20 feet inside the main stockade walls. The prison was grossly overcrowded, and the dead line was created to keep prisoners from getting too close to the walls. The instant a Union soldier crossed the dead line, he was shot dead.

The dead line at the Union's Rock Island Arsenal prison

Most stockade prisons, North and South, had dead lines. But Andersonville guards enforced theirs with the most enthusiasm.

After the war the term was embraced by newspaper editors as a threat to reporters to file their stories on time. Go past the deadline, the editors warned, and the story – perhaps along with the reporter – would be killed. In time the phrase spread beyond the newspaper business, and now deadlines are everywhere. Punishments for crossing the deadline are less severe these days.

Esoterica: The historian Kennedy Hickman wrote:

On April 12, 1864, Confederate forces under Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest massacred black Union soldiers at Fort Pillow, Tennessee. In response, President Abraham Lincoln demanded that black prisoners of war be treated the same as their white comrades. This was refused by Confederate President Jefferson Davis. As a result, Lincoln and Lt. General Ulysses S. Grant suspended all prisoner exchanges. With the halt of exchanges, POW populations on both sides began to grow rapidly. At Andersonville, the population reached 20,000 by early June, twice the camp’s intended capacity.

The Andersonville prison, built to hold 10,000, at one point held 35,000.