Tag Archives: POW

Deadlines: Civil War POW Security

Good Monday morning Bologna readers. I hope you all had a good weekend.


Many of us have full-time jobs & with that line of work come many schedules we have to meet, or deadlines. It’s a phrase we use every day, without really thinking about it.

Deadlines may be stressful things to meet these days, but when the phrase was first coined, the stress level (understatement of the century), was much higher & they were things you definitely didn’t want to come in contact with.

Let’s go back to the American Civil War.

Before the war started, methods of holding prisoners of war were varied. Some were kept in actual prisons with real criminals, while others were kept on prison ships, where diseases like smallpox ran rampant. After the outbreak of war, the number of POWs rose very quickly. Almost instantaneously, both the Union & Confederate armies had a gigantic number of captives on their hands, the likes of which had never been seen before. Both armies had to begin thinking of new ways to keep prisoners & so, both sides simultaneously decided to build detainment centers, modeled after the first prisoner of war camp, built around the turn of the Eighteenth Century in England, called Norman Cross.

One of the most notorious prisons was built by the Confederates in Andersonville, Georgia to hold Federal prisoners caught in the Richmond, Virginia area. Even though POW prisons were works in progress at the time & mistreatment was common in many contemporary camps, this one was notorious for its sadism towards the captives it housed, as food was deliberately withheld & the prisoners had to make do with a single stream to use as a shower, kitchen & bathroom. It was designed to house 10,000 prisoners, but would eventually contain three times as much. Unsurprisingly, the place was a disease breeding ground & pool of starvation. I’m not going to post pictures of survivors. They’re not pretty.

Around the edge, fifteen foot walls made of logs were constructed, with guard towers nicknamed “pigeon roosts” positioned every ninety feet or so. About 20 feet from the wooden walls, a fairly shallow trench was dug. In some areas, it was replaced with a short fence, but both served the same purpose. What were these built for? Well, let’s let Walter Bowie, a captain in the Confederate Army explain it through one of his inspection reports, dated May 10, 1864:

On the inside of the stockade and twenty feet from it there is a… line established, over which no prisoner is allowed to go, day or night, under penalty of being shot.


Reconstructed walls of Andersonville, complete with pigeon roosts. Note the small fence. You can also see the most basic of tentsPhoto courtesy of Jud McCranie

Yes, that’s right, guards were positioned in these guard towers & they had orders to shoot & kill any prisoner who crossed this line & regardless of whether it was an accident or not.

What did soldiers come to call this marker? They called it the “deadline.”

The Confederates weren’t the only ones guilty of deplorable POW conditions, & many camps in the North adopted deadlines, as well. This includes the Union Chicago-area prison, Camp Douglas, which because of its detestable treatment of its prisoners, especially during the city’s freezing winters, earned the nickname “The North’s Andersonville.”

The website, Today, I Found Out’s article, “Origin of the ‘Deadline,'” describes the natural evolution from POW security measure to time limit. Before its modern use became widespread, it switched from a literal meaning, to a figurative one. For example, in 1900, a parent might have set a deadline on a child’s behavior at dinner. The child might have been sent from the table, if they misbehaved.

The phrase as we know it came to life in the 1920’s, in the newspaper business. If you cross the deadline to get the paper out, people won’t get the news & you’ll most certainly be fired.

So, there it is, everyone. That’s the morbid origin of the term “deadline.” I hope you have a great rest of the week, & be sure not to cross those deadlines at work.

Leave a comment

Filed under Etymology