The origin of “dead-lines”

The following are excerpts from “Trial of Henry Wirz,” a report from the trial of a Confederate soldier at the conclusion of the U.S. Civil War. These appear to be the first records of “dead-lines.”

“… and he, the said Wirz, still wickedly pursuing his evil purpose, did establish and cause to be designated within the prison enclosure containing said prisoners, a ‘dead line,’ being a line around the inner face of the stockade or wall enclosing said prison, and about twenty feet distant from and within said stockade; and having so established said dead line, which was in many places an imaginary line, and in many other places marked by insecure and shifting strips of boards nailed upon the tops of small and insecure stakes or posts, he, the said Wirz, instructed the prison-guard stationed around the top of said stockade to fire upon and kill any of the prisoners aforesaid who might touch, fall upon, pass over, or under, or across the said ‘dead line;’ …” (p 4)

“I know of there having been established a dead-line at the prison. I do not know if Captain Wirz had anything to do with the construction of it. Its object was to keep the prisoners from approaching the stockade. I cannot tell what Captain Wirz’s orders were in regard to it. I presume there were orders, but do not know what they were. I never heard them. I never gave any, and I never heard Wirz give any. The existing regulation at all the military prisons I know of was that anyone crossing the dead-line was to be shot; I believe that was the regulation at Andersonville.” (p 22)

“That dead-line was a slight wooden railing, about the height of this railing, (some three feet;) it was on little upright posts, running inside of the stockade, about twelve or fifteen feet from it, as I thought then; but I have heard since that it was further than that–that it was twenty feet; I judged myself that it was from twelve to fifteen feet. At the place where the stream entered the stockade the dead-line was broken down for some weeks, and during that time there were several men shot there. I have seen several carried away from there who were said to have been killed in that way. The horrors of that prison were so great that one man went over the line, and refused to leave it until he was shot dead. So great was the horror and misery of that place that I myself had thoughts of going over that dead-line to be shot in preference to living there.” (p 73)

“By the JUDGE ADVOCATE: I do not know who originated the dead-line. It originated some time after Captain Wirz reported there, while I was in command of the post. I did not originate it. It was the duty of the commanding officer of the prison to originate it.

“By COUNSEL: The dead-line was simply a little piece of railing on uprights, running around the interior of the prison, six or eight 0r ten feet from the wall of the stockade. It ran entirely around the prison, to the best of my recollection. That is the first line I ever saw. I never saw a dead-line before. I suppose it was called a dead-line because the penalty of passing it was death. It is customary in camp to have an order that soldiers shall not pass beyond such a line. If the order is violated, the man is shot, I suppose. That would be a dead-line. There was no difference at all between the dead-line in this stockade and such a line in camp. The dead-line was a precautionary measure to help to guard that prison.” (p 102-103)

“The object of the dead-line was to prevent prisoners escaping.” (p 103)

“I have no reason to think that there was anything in those instructions to allow him to go to that extreme. I do not know whether there was anything in those instructions permitting him to establish a dead-line, with orders unqualified to shoot anybody who might cross it.” (p 249)


  • Wirz, H., & United States. (1868). Trial of Henry Wirz: Letter from the Secretary of War Ad Interim, in answer to a resolution of the House of April 16, 1866, transmitting a summary of the trial of Henry Wirz. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office. Retrieved from
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