The Inhumanities Of War
THERE were two obstacles to exchange of prisoners from the outset of the war, one of which was theoretical, and is noticed by Hon. S.S. Cox in his "Three Decades of Federal Legislation." It was the theory that the fighting which was going on was not public war, but only an insurrection. Dilemmas occurred almost daily in the career of this theory, out of which the only extrication was to affirm the singular doctrine that the United States had the privilege of saying when the fighting was public war and when it was only insurrection. The facility with which statesmen accommodated principles to conditions in those dreadful days of peril to life and liberty, now astounds sober reason. The other obstacle was that practical one, appearing later in the struggle, which General Grant presented from the military standpoint in opposition to exchange of prisoners near the opening of the spring campaign of 1864, in these words: "I did not deem it advisable or just to the men who had to fight our battles to reinforce the enemy with thirty or forty thousand disciplined troops at that time."
Grant's view was practical military cruelty, while the theoretical idea was the product of the combined genius for extractive expedients for which Mr. Seward and Mr. Stanton had no equals. Mr. Cox punctured the theory at the outset in 1861 when Mr. Lincoln applied it to the case of the seamen of the "Savannah," who had been tried and convicted as pirates, but whose peril was retaliated by the Confederate threat to hang certain Federal officers if these seamen were hung. Mr. Cox argued the cause of the limited exchange before the President until he cried out: "Ah, there it is--you would have me recognize these pirates as belligerents. Remember that to fight on land is one thing, but on an unstable element like the sea where men are isolated and helpless, it is another." Mr. Cox says he considered the answer as having in it no element of humanity or international law, and replied, "Where is the difference, in intent or conduct? Does the difference consist in one shot being fired on the land and the other on the sea?" There was of course no reasonableness in the position assumed by the administration and it was compelled to yield. Seward ordered the special exchange of the prisoners and Mr. Cox afterward pressed to passage his resolutions at the second session of the Thirty-seventh Congress for general exchange.
It is clear that the interest of the Confederacy was on the side of quick exchanges of prisoners and equally so that it was ready to make them for humane reasons. Difficulties were presented alone by the Federal view of the conflict which Confederate determination overcame or obviated from time to time. The care of Federal prisoners was a burden to the Confederacy since it was found to be easier to fight than to feed them. Hence all concessions were made for the sake of exchange, man for man, until at length the peremptory cessation of compliance with the cartel of 1862 forced the construction by both sides of prison dens. Elmira prison, Johnson's island prison, Fort Delaware prison, with all their somber annals were the inevitable results of the cessation of regular exchanges. And so was Andersonville on the Southern side. Andersonville prison in Georgia, Elmira prison and Johnson's island, Fort Delaware and the prison ships were the inevitable results of the cessation of the exchanges of prisoners usual in wars. It became plain to the Confederate government in January, I864, that it would be compelled to guard and support for an indefinitely prolonged time the increasing numbers of prisoners taken by its armies in battle, and in view of its diminishing resources, as well as its inability to certainly hold any positions securely, except such as were within the most central part of the South, at a distance from the Federal fleets and armies, the situation was embarrassing.
After careful consideration the principal site selected for the construction of a prison was in the upper central part of south Georgia, in precisely the region chosen more than thirty years after as a suitable location for a large colony of pensioned Union soldiers and their families and friends emigrating chiefly from the West. The new city of Fitzgerald, said to contain in 1897 several thousand Northern colonists, was built in the section where the Andersonville prison was constructed. This location was chosen as a prison site on account of its salubrity, mild winter climate, the nearness to saw mills and grist mills, the large area of food-producing country in southwest Georgia, and certainly also because it was little exposed to raiding forces such as threatened the Libby prison at Richmond. In constructing this prison an enclosure of thirty acres in shape of a parallelogram surrounded two hills, and a box canal was built through which a bold stream of clear, pure water was made to flow with conveniences for bathing, the lowest outlet being arranged for proper police purposes. "Several bold springs of pure water emerged from the north bank of the stream and numerous wells of pure water were made inside the prison." The camp was laid off by streets, and sheds were constructed for protection against rain and cold. It does not appear that there was any neglect of precautions against disease, or any failure of effort to render the unavoidable horrors of prison life bearable. A competent authority declares," if it had not been that the fortunes of war crowded the prisoners to this spot, producing the direful effects of an unforeseen pestilence, a better selection could not have been made in this part of the South for the health and comfort of the captives." It will be considered that no mountainous section of the South, nor any portion of its sea-coast was at this time so securely in the possession of the Confederates as to justify the location in such sections. The Confederates were compelled to go into the interior for the site of their prison under so many disadvantages that the exchange man for man as was proposed would have been greatly in their interest. The rations were chiefly cooked in the bakery outside the walls, and issued regularly once a day, all faring alike,--the Confederate troops on duty and the prisoners receiving the same rations. The hospital, like all the structures, was a rude inclosure of five acres, well shaded and watered, and furnished with tents, and it would have been ample in ordinary circumstances, but was suddenly made insufficient by great outbreaks of diseases of the bowels. Every comfort, however, was provided for the sick and wounded that could be obtained within the limited means of the Confederate government. The greatest difficulty was experienced in procuring medicines and anti-scorbutics, which were inhumanly made contraband of war by an order of the Federal government, and the most rigid discipline failed to make the prisoners pay that attention to cleanliness which was absolutely necessary. Even the guards on duty and several Confederate officers were attacked by the diseases of the camp.
It will be noted that the selection of this prison was made in the beginning of 1864, after the fatal decision of the Federal administration against exchanges, and that with all the hurried efforts of the Confederates the place was scarcely ready when on the first of March a body of 850 unfortunate foreigners were necessarily sent from captured New England regiments whom the Confederate government would have gladly released by exchange. Very soon thereafter the prisoners taken from Sherman by the Confederate army under General Johnston began to come in, with many from other sources, until in May the prison was crowded. The advance of Grant on Richmond also made it necessary to empty Libby prison on the States farther south instead of sending them as President Davis earnestly desired into their own lines in exchange for Confederate equivalents. The removal of this body required transportation, guards and rations which were very greatly needed by General Lee, and their "equivalents" from Johnson's Island or other Northern prisons would have given the Confederate commander several more divisions of gallant soldiers. Whatever else is doubtful about the prison question it is well ascertained that the Confederate President craved his imprisoned legions while his antagonist thought it "better to feed them than to fight them."
The total number of prisoners in this prison of 1864 appears to have been increased about as follows: In April, 10,000; May, 18,000; June, 26,000; July, 31,000; August, 31,000. After this date the number was suddenly decreased to 8,000 in September, and to 4,000 in October, by the removal of all the prisoners except invalids and nurses to Millen in the eastern part of Georgia. This change was made in consequence partly of the advice of General Winder, and also because of a threatened raid from Sherman's army then at Atlanta. The deaths during five months from March 1st to August 1st, were only 4,485, about ten per cent. But on the occurring of a pestilence in the form of dysentery, scurvy and gangrene, the deaths increased greatly during the months of August, September and October. In consequence of the dangerous nature of the diseases appearing in the camp the Confederate government directed the above stated removal of at least 20,000 prisoners to other points remote from Andersonville as soon as barrack accommodations could be built and supplies collected. The removal was effected as rapidly as possible and by the last of September all were gone except such as were in the hospitals unable to travel. It thus appears that Andersonville was used as a main prison not more than six months, during the first four of which the percentage of mortality did not reach the average rate at which Confederate prisoners died in Northern hands, and that as soon as possible the prisoners were removed. The medical corps detailed to remain with the great body of the infected, struggled with the desperate disease with all odds against them. The camp being relieved of all except about 5,000 invalids and nurses, besides laborers and a small guard, the surgeons were enabled to improve the general sanitary conditions and to erect new and large hospital sheds. Confederate surgeons "remained by their dying patients when even their own countrymen had deserted them," some dying at their posts, and all evincing a devotion to professional duty and humanity which merits the linking of Andersonville prison and the heroic charity of their profession together. But with all their care the progress of death was terrible for two months. In fact, "at one time it had been thought by the medical officers that nearly all the infected would die, but by the use of vegetables in such quantities as could be procured and an acid beer made from cornmeal and sorghum molasses, the death rate fell from about 3,000 in August to 160 in December."
In the beginning of these horrors the Confederate government renewed the efforts for exchange of prisoners for at least the one good reason that the captives on their hands were an immense disadvantage. Supposing that the South had no humane feelings toward Northern captives and cared nothing for the appeals of its own brave soldiers suffering at Elmira, Johnson's Island and elsewhere, it will still appear that there were military and civic reasons for the humane efforts so zealously put forth to relieve the brave men held in such prolonged and fatal bondage. This fact is sufficient answer to all statements that the South obstructed exchanges, just as a New England audience was once convinced that Southern planters did not use negroes in place of mules at the plow, since the negro had a money value of $1,500 and mules could be bought for $150.
Senator Hill, of Georgia, in his crushing, unanswered reply to Senator Blaine in the House of Representatives January 11, 1876, collates the efforts to facilitate exchanges, and coming to this period of horrors, says: "Then again in August, 1864, the Confederates made two more propositions. I will state that the cartel of exchange was broken by the Federal authorities for certain alleged reasons. Well, in August, 1864, prisoners accumulating on both sides to such an extent, and the Federal government having refused to provide for the comfort and treatment of these prisoners, the Confederates next proposed, in a letter from Colonel Ould dated the 10th of August, 1864, waiving every objection the Federal government had made, to agree to any and all terms to renew the exchange of prisoners, man for man and officer for officer, as the Federal government should prescribe. Yet, sir, the latter rejected that proposition. It took a second letter to bring an answer to that proposition. Then again in that same month of August, 1864, the Confederate authorities did this: Finding that the Federal government would not exchange prisoners at all, that it would not let surgeons go into the Confederacy, finding that it would not let medicines be sent into the Confederacy, meanwhile the ravages of war continuing and depleting the scant supplies of the South, which was already unable to feed adequately its own defenders, and much less able to properly feed and clothe the thousands of prisoners in Confederate prisons--what did the Confederates propose? They proposed to send home the Federal sick and wounded prisoners without equivalent. Now, sir, I want the house and the country to understand this: That in August, 1864, the Confederate government officially proposed to Federal authorities that if they would send steamships or transportation in any form to Savannah, they should have their sick and wounded prisoners without equivalent. That proposition communicated to the Federal authorities in August, 1864, was not answered until December, 1864. In December, 1864, the Federal government sent ships to Savannah. Now the record will show that the chief suffering at Andersonville was between August and December. The Confederate government sought to avert it by asking the Federal government to come and take its prisoners without equivalent--without return, and it refused to do that until four or five months had elapsed."
The efforts of the Confederate government to have the imprisoned soldiers of both armies released were strenuously supported by their friends at home and by the appeals of the prisoners themselves. The Richmond government was beset with communications from citizens inclosing distressing accounts of the treatment to which Confederate prisoners were subjected in Northern prisons, and violent censures of Mr. Davis became common because he did not enforce better treatment on Confederate soldiers in these Northern prisons by retaliation, since he was unable to effect the customary exchanges. In the same way the administration at Washington was besieged by the friends of Federal prisoners, and by appeals from prisoners themselves, urging that no party or military considerations should doom the Union troops to the continued horrors of prison life. The pressure grew as the summer came on and the numbers of these unfortunate heroes of both armies had increased until it became necessary for the Washington administration to give a reason for the refusal of these powerful appeals. The reason was given by the military chieftain, but a better should have been discovered and announced by the civil authority at Washington. General Grant was compelled to assume the responsibility and having no other ground to stand upon he placed the denial of all these appeals upon "military necessity." The same plea of military necessity having been used to excuse all the early measures which the conservative statesman at Washington had opposed, was now employed to defend a policy which according to Junius Henri Browne, a Northern gentleman, cost the Republic at least twelve or fifteen thousand heroic lives. He might have added the same number of equally heroic Confederates, and given 30,000 as the total life-loss by the cruelties of "military necessity." The reason given by General Grant was sound enough from the ferocious military idea that "war must be made terrible," and his justification rests upon his obligations as the lieutenant-general commanding all the armies of the Union to destroy the Con federate forces as quickly as possible. Influenced by this view of war General Grant sent a dispatch to General Butler August 18, 1864, in the midst of the Andersonville horrors, containing these words: "It is hard on our men held in Southern prisons not to exchange them, but it is humanity to those left in the ranks to fight our battles. Every man released on parole or otherwise becomes an active soldier against us at once, either directly or indirectly. If we commence a System of exchange which liberates all prisoners taken, we will have to fight on until the whole South is exterminated. If we hold those caught, they amount to no more than dead men. At this particular time to release all rebel prisoners north would insure Sherman's defeat and would compromise our safety here." This remarkable confession was made with thorough knowledge of the vast resources of the United States.
But General Grant did not assume this responsibility without the previous sanction of the civil government. The policy had been fixed at Washington, and the cabinet secret was divulged in a speech by General Butler at Lowell, Massachusetts, August, 1865, in which he informed the public that this continued imprisonment of Union as well as Confederate soldiers was the policy of Mr. Stanton, the secretary of war. In the speech he "stated positively that he had been ordered by Mr. Stanton to put forward the negro question to complicate and prevent exchanges," and he boastfully declared at another time that he had discharged this task so offensively as to produce the required result, thus justifying the charge made by other Northern men that the miseries and deaths of these Union soldiers were "due alone to Edwin M. Stanton's peculiar policy and dogged obstinacy." In addition also to Grant's military reasons for desiring that no prisoners of war should be exchanged, there is given by General Butler in his official report to the committee on the conduct of the war a very remarkable personal objection to exchange, as follows: "In case the Confederate authorities should yield to the argument, and formally notify me that their former slaves captured in our uniform would be exchanged as other soldiers were, and that they were ready to return us all our prisoners at Andersonville and elsewhere in exchange for theirs, then I had determined with the consent of the Lieutenant General (Grant), as a last resort to prevent exchange, to demand that the outlawry against me should be formally reversed and apologized for before I would further negotiate the exchange of prisoners." General Butler coolly excuses himself in the same reports for complicity in the schemes of cruelty, by the statement "that those lives were spent as a part of the attack upon the rebellion devised by the wisdom of the general-in-chief of the armies to destroy it by depletion, depending on our superior numbers to win the victory at last." The battle for the Union was accordingly transferred in 1864 from the soldiers in the field to the sufferers in the prisons. Victory was to be won over the South by the confinement of fighting men in prisons, although they should die there like sheep in the shambles.
A statement of Colonel Ould, agent of exchange, was made and published in 1868, verifying the facts concerning the questions relating to prisoners between the two governments and his testimony remains unimpeached. He says that the first cartel of exchange, which bears date July 22, 1862, was designed to secure the delivery of all prisoners of war, the fourth article providing that all prisoners of war should be discharged on parole in ten days after their capture. From this date until the summer of 1863 the Confederacy held the excess of prisoners, and during that interval of about a year the Confederate authorities made prompt deliveries of all prisoners except the few held under charges. On the other hand, during the same time the cartel was notoriously violated by the Federal authorities on various pretexts. In the summer of 1863, the Federal authorities insisted on limiting exchanges to such prisoners as had been placed in confinement, which was in violation of the cartel, and was proposed after the excess of prisoners had changed to the Federal side. The new proposition nullified that part of the cartel which required the discharge on parole or delivery of prisoners within ten days after capture. The cartel was thus for a time interrupted, but in August, 1864, the Confederate government, moved by the sufferings of prisoners, abated their demand for the delivery of the excess on parole according to the cartel, and formally consented to exchange officer for officer and man for man. The official note to General Mulford, then assistant agent of exchange, containing this consent to the exchange, was unanswered, and after two weeks, the same proposal was forwarded to General Hitchcock, the Federal commissioner of exchange. No answer to either letter was received. General Mulford, on August 31, 1864, informed Ould that he had no communication from his government on the subject. An offer which would have released within ten days every Northern soldier in the Confederate prisons, but at the same time have left a large number of Southern soldiers in Northern prisons because the excess was then on the Federal side, was not even noticed.
In January, 1864, and even before that date it was feared by the Confederate authorities that prisoners of war on both sides would be held in captivity without the benefits of exchange. Colonel Ould, the Confederate agent of exchange, therefore wrote, January 24, 1864, officially to General Hitchcock, the Federal agent of exchange, a formal proposal to have surgeons appointed by both governments to take charge in the prisons of the health and comfort of the prisoners. The surgeons were also to act as commissaries with power to receive and distribute money, food, clothing and medicines. But even this very humane offer was not answered, although its acceptance would have alleviated the sufferings and saved the lives of thousands of brave men. In the summer of 1864, Colonel Ould was instructed by Mr. Davis to offer to deliver all sick and wounded prisoners without any exchange whatever, and accordingly he did offer to send ten or fifteen thousand to the mouth of the Savannah river without requiring any equivalents, but the acceptance of this noble proposal was delayed for months. Finally, about the last of the year, vessels were sent to receive this free offering, and Ould turned over as many as could be transported--some thirteen thousand--among whom were over five thousand' well men. In return the Federal agent sent in at the mouth of the Savannah river about 3,000 sick and wounded Confederates from Northern prisons.
During this same summer the deficiency in medical supplies became so embarrassing that the Confederate administration offered to buy from the United States, payable in gold, cotton or tobacco, these needed medicines, stipulating that they might be brought into the Confederate lines by United States surgeons and dispensed by them solely for the benefit of Union prisoners. To this offer there was no reply. In the meantime the blockade was effective and medicines were contraband.
Colonel Ould declares concerning Colonel Mulford that "while he discharged his duties with great fidelity to his own government he was kind and tender to Confederate prisoners--an honorable and truthful gentleman to whom he could appeal for the truth of statements with which he was familiar," and other corroborations of Ould's testimony are to be found in the report of Major General Butler to the committee on the conduct of the war. Ould was subpoenaed to testify in the trial of Wirts and expressed his intention to tell the whole story as to the conduct of the two administrations in the matter of the treatment of prisoners, but his subpoena was revoked by the prosecution. Mr. Stephens, Vice-President of the Confederacy, was conspicuously active from the beginning to the close of the Confederate war in attempts to secure the usual exchanges of prisoners common among civilized nations at war, on which account he was particularly qualified to speak as a credible witness. Condemning the cruel and untenable position of the Federal administration that the crew of the Savannah and all other ships of the Confederate navy were pirates, he expresses the opinion in his work prepared since the war that the desistance of the authorities at Washington from this position was due alone to fear of England, and that the cartel for general exchange afterward agreed to was forced by public sentiment. The policy pursued by the administration at Washington as he viewed its effects, produced the difficulties of exchange, and the consequent intolerable sufferings and deaths in Northern and Southern prisons. The question of exchange was treated by the Federal authorities almost solely as a policy of war, by which captured men should be made to suffer for their cause in prison whenever such suffering contributed to the crushing of the rebellion. Confederate sentiment unvaryingly required the opening of the prisons by equal exchange and the settlement of the issue by treaty or battle. "I insist," says Mr. Stephens, "upon irrefutable fact that but for the refusal of the Federals to carry out an exchange, none of the wrongs or outrages, and none of the sufferings incident to prison life' on either side could have occurred."
There is no purpose in this history to recount the cruelties practiced during the great struggle of the South for independence, and hence no account will be given of the atrocities at Camp Douglas, Rock Island, Elmira, Point Lookout or anywhere perpetrated by Federal subordinates in charge of Confederate prisoners. There were sufferings in all prisons and brutalities perpetrated in this as in other wars, but the proofs furnished by the evidence of General Butler, by the orders of Federal military officers, by the orders and communications of General Grant, and by the reports of Secretary Stanton, all of which are of record, fix the responsibility of this uncivilized mode of war upon the Federal administration. Secretary Stanton's report of July 19, 1866, shows that 26,246 Confederate soldiers died in Northern prisons, and 25,576 Union soldiers died in Southern prisons. Twelve per cent of the Confederate prisoners who fell into Northern captivity died notwithstanding all the facilities for receiving food, clothing, medicines and healthful conditions which the United States unquestionably possessed, while in the absence of these requisites on the part of the Confederacy the astonishing fact appears that less than nine per cent of the Union soldiers in Southern hands died in prisons. It is indisputably established that the Confederate authorities constantly pressed exchanges on equal terms, that they acceded to terms that were unequal for the sake of exchange, that they proposed many measures of relief which. were denied, that at length the most pitiable and unusual of all spectacles occurred when a deputation of Union soldiers appeared in Washington, sent by Mr. Davis to plead for release by fair exchange, and to plead in vain.
Source: The Confederate Military History, Volume I, Chapter XX
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