Who doesn’t know this much-dreaded word that we have been dealing with from the time we were in school doing school projects or assignments up until the time we became part of the working forces with the project or task that your boss assigned to you or perhaps that huge electric bill that you received a week ago. Ugh, deadline.

Despite the rather familiar word that we use on our day-to-day basis in this modern culture, it is surprising to know that the word could be traced back to the old horrible times of the American Civil War, in that morbid situation of the Andersonville Prison. Think you hate being reminded of your deadlines now? Wait until you hear about its origin.


The earliest recorded use of the word could be traced back to the 1800s when the Oxford English Dictionary discovered the use of “deadline,” which refers to a fishing line with a weight at the end to prevent it from moving. In the 1900s, the word also saw use in the printing industry, referring to the name of a boundary line on a printing press, indicating that the text will not print beyond that line.

Andersonville Prison’s Deadline

Those two meanings are definitely okay, but what was believed to have truly shaped the meaning of “deadline” in the sense that we know today was the Andersonville Prison of the American Civil War.

In 1864, the Confederate prisoner of war camp was created to hold Union soldiers they managed to capture. The camp was commanded by Captain Henry Wirz. Given that it was a prison camp, the conditions were very poor: about 13,000 out of the total 45,000 prisoners died over the course of their stay there. There was not enough food and water not just for the prisoners but also for the guards. Many of them fell victims to typhoid fever, scurvy, and dysentery.

Andersonville Prison. (John L. Ransom, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

There were no decent materials to properly construct the prison, its living facilities, and cells, too, so it was no surprise that the fence was made out of a simple wooden stake fence about 10-20 feet high to keep the prisoners inside. The question was, how could they make sure that the POWs would not escape and just climb over their rickety fence, something that a perfectly healthy individual could do? Especially, these men, with a common goal of fleeing, could help each other out.

The solution was to place the prison guards in watch positions, and they were instructed to shoot anyone who would attempt to climb the walls. This was effective, although there were still instances when some Union soldiers would manage to climb and escape before someone noticed.

To solve this, Wirz came up with the concept of “deadline.” It was a literal line of wooden planks or fences positioned about 20 feet from the walls. Anyone who would dare cross the deadline, even by a hair, would automatically be a deadman. That was without warning or explanation. The guards were positioned some 90 feet apart along the wall, with a perfect angle to fire at anyone who would cross the deadline.

What if the prisoners all joined forces to revolt? Wiz had that scenario in his head before, too, so they made sure that the guards could still retreat from the watch positions to a line of artillery emplacements around the camp. These artillery emplacements were really designed for outside defenses, but they could be turned inwards as needed.

After-War Legacy

It was in May 1865 that the prisoners of Andersonville were finally freed. Upon the discovery of the horrible conditions in the camp, it was the commander, Wirz, who was mostly blamed. He was tried, charged with war crimes, and then hanged.

Execution of Henry Wirz. (Alexander Gardner, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

That was not the end of the Andersonville saga as the word “deadline” would start to be loosely used in the 1920s, first in the US media industry, to refer to the time when writers should complete their covered stories for publication. Up to now, the term still has negative associations, especially when the deadline slowly approaches. Even so, for sure, it isn’t as bad as it was for the prisoners of Andersonville.