Thursday, March 20, 2014

The History of Deadlines

by Allison Pang

So, here's the thing. Deadline is one of those words writers use all the time. We talk about the pressures of writing under a deadline. "Can't talk/tweet/blog now - I'm under deadline!" And it's not just writers who have deadlines - pretty much any sort of professional office is going to have them for various things - before a deliverable is due, for example. (Projects also have "milestones" which are basically mini-deadlines, but eh.)

Point is, we're pretty flippant in the way that we use it, given its rather macabre beginnings.

Where does the term deadline come from? How did it come to be associated with writing in the first place?

If you start digging a bit, you discover that newspapers started using the term around the end of the Civil War. (The theory being that newspapers had to get articles out on time when the information was relevant. If you missed your "deadline," it meant that the story was dead and wouldn't be printed.)

But how did the newspapers come to use the term?

By interviewing Union prisoners of war kept at the now-infamous Andersonville Prison. (Not to say that captured Confederate soldiers had it much better in Union prison camps, but this is the one people talk about. History is written by the victors, after all.)

Anyway - for the 14 months it was open, Andersonville Prison held about 45,000 Union soldiers. Over 13,000 died in that time due to the terrible conditions.

The prison itself was built in 1864 - at 26 acres, it was only intended to house 10,000 soldiers, but at its peak held 33,000 at one time.

And by prison, I mean it was just a big open field with a stockade built around it - 20 foot log walls buried 5 feet into the ground, with guard towers every 80-100 feet.

Initially, the prisoners weren't allowed to have any shelter at all, but many of them died as a result of heat stroke and exposure and eventually they were allowed to erect little tents to block some of the elements.

Not to mention the stream that ran through it that was supposed to be used for drinking/bathing water. This might have been better if the Confederate soldiers who guarded the prison camp weren't camping upstream
and basically polluting the water with their own garbage and feces. The center of the prison was basically a 4 acre swamp of liquid shit.

So, basically you have 30,000 people crammed into a tiny area without shelter, a disease-laden source of drinking water and limited supplies of food/medicine/clothes - this led to typhoid, cholera, dysentery, scurvy and other assorted awfulness. There were two "dead barns" located at the north and south ends - where bodies were stacked up until they could be buried in mass graves later on. (About 100 people died a day, in fact, during that summer in 1864.)

The man in this picture was one of the survivors, if that helps paint the picture more accurately.

Where do the deadlines come in?

On the inside of the stockade there was a trench dug about 19 feet away from the wall. (Eventually a small wooden fence was built to make it easier to mark the barrier - you can see it in this picture to the right.)

If any prisoner crossed or even touched that barrier, they were shot dead by the guards in the towers without warning.

Hence, the "deadline."

Sort of puts a new perspective on things, doesn't it?

There is a lot more to this particular bit of history than these small number of facts, but it's a bit more complicated than this blog will allow for, so I'll end it here.

1 comment:

  1. I've know where the term came from, but not the graphic details. Deadline is much worse than I ever thought! Most likely old and new, ha!