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Andersonvilles of the North: The Myths and Realities of Northern Treatment of Civil War Confederate Prisoners

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Soon after the close of military operations in the American Civil War, another war began over how it would be remembered by future generations. The prisoner-of-war issue has figured prominently in Northern and Southern writing about the conflict. Northerners used tales of Andersonville to demonize the Confederacy, while Southerners vilified Northern prison policies to show the depths to which Yankees had sunk to attain victory.  Over the years the postwar Northern portrayal of Andersonville as fiendishly designed to kill prisoners in mass quantities has largely been dismissed. The Lost Cause characterization of Union prison policies as criminally negligent and inhumane, however, has shown remarkable durability. Northern officials have been portrayed as turning their military prisons into concentration camps where Southern prisoners were poorly fed, clothed, and sheltered, resulting in inexcusably high numbers of deaths.  Andersonvilles of the North, by James M. Gillispie, represents the first broad study to argue that the image of Union prison officials as negligent and cruel to Confederate prisoners is severely flawed. This study is not an attempt to “whitewashâ€� Union prison policies or make light of Confederate prisoner mortality. But once the careful reader disregards unreliable postwar polemics, and focuses exclusively on the more reliable wartime records and documents from both Northern and Southern sources, then a much different, less negative, picture of Northern prison life emerges. While life in Northern prisons was difficult and potentially deadly, no evidence exists of a conspiracy to neglect or mistreat Southern captives. Confederate prisoners’ suffering and death were due to a number of factors, but it would seem that Yankee apathy and malice were rarely among them.  In fact, likely the most significant single factor in Confederate (and all) prisoner mortality during the Civil War was the halting of the prisoner exchange cartel in the late spring of 1863. Though Northern officials have long been condemned for coldly calculating that doing so aided their war effort, the evidence convincingly suggests that the South’s staunch refusal to exchange black Union prisoners was actually the key sticking point in negotiations to resume exchanges from mid-1863 to 1865.  Ultimately Gillispie concludes that Northern prisoner-of-war policies were far more humane and reasonable than generally depicted. His careful analysis will be welcomed by historians of the Civil War, the South, and of American history.

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1. Servants of the Devil and Jeff Davis: The Northern Version of the POW Experience, 1865–1920

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SERVANTS OF THE DEVIL AND JEFF DAVIS

THE NORTHERN VERSION OF THE POW EXPERIENCE, 1865–1920

On April 9, 1865, General Robert E. Lee surrendered the South’s principle army and best hope for victory to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House in Virginia and signaled the beginning of the end of the Confederacy. Northerners everywhere were jubilant. The Civil War, which was not supposed to last so long or cost so much in lives and treasure, was finally, mercifully, over. What was not over, what in fact was only beginning, was the work of explaining to themselves, and more importantly, to future Americans, what this late conflagration meant and symbolized. Northern veterans began writing and talking about their experiences in the greatest event in American history since the Revolution almost as soon as the guns fell silent. Between 1865 and 1920 Northern writers churned out a massive body of work about the Civil War. Accounts of battles are, of course, numerous but many veterans also focused on the other aspects of soldier life—camp life, marches, forms of recreation, and the like. One area that received close attention was how Northern soldiers suffered in Confederate military prisons.

 

1. Servants of the Devil and Jeff Davis

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SERVANTS OF THE DEVIL

AND JEFF DAVIS

THE NORTHERN VERSION OF THE POW EXPERIENCE,

1865–1920

ON APRIL 9, 1865, GENERAL ROBERT E. LEE surrendered the South’s principle army and best hope for victory to General Ulysses S. Grant at

Appomattox Court House in Virginia and signaled the beginning of the end of the Confederacy. Northerners everywhere were jubilant. The Civil War, which was not supposed to last so long or cost so much in lives and treasure, was finally, mercifully, over. What was not over, what in fact was only beginning, was the work of explaining to themselves, and more importantly, to future Americans, what this late conflagration meant and symbolized. Northern veterans began writing and talking about their experiences in the greatest event in American history since the Revolution almost as soon as the guns fell silent. Between 1865 and 1920 Northern writers churned out a massive body of work about the Civil War. Accounts of battles are, of course, numerous but many veterans also focused on the other aspects of soldier life—camp life, marches, forms of recreation, and the like. One area that received close attention was how Northern soldiers suffered in Confederate military prisons.

 

2. The Lost Cause and the Southern Side of the POW Debate

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THE LOST CAUSE AND THE

SOUTHERN SIDE OF THE

POW DEBATE

1865–1920

IN APRIL 1865 THE CONFEDERACY DIED for all intents and purposes when Generals Robert E. Lee and Joseph E. Johnston surrendered the

South’s principle armies to Generals Ulysses S. Grant and William T.

Sherman respectively. While white Southerners grieved for their lost cause,

Northerners celebrated wildly. Their joy came not only from victory and the chance to finally return home to loved ones; it came also from the conviction that right had triumphed over wrong. The idea that the Confederate

States of America had been a morally bankrupt society received official and public legitimacy during Andersonville commandant Henry Wirz’s trial and subsequent execution before the year was out.

Ex-Confederates did not want to be remembered as traitors or as members of a degraded society who were defeated by a righteous foe. Many, probably most, white Southerners feared that the victors’ history would become the official version of the Civil War—a concern not without precedent. Jefferson Davis expressed the concern many in his region harbored, warning, “Men live in the estimation of posterity not by their deeds alone, but by their historians also.” To make sure the victors’ history was not the only one that would be available, Davis wrote his massive version of events,

 

2. The Lost Cause and the Southern Side of the Pow Debate: 1865–1920

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THE LOST CAUSE AND THE SOUTHERN SIDE OF THE POW DEBATE

1865–1920

In April 1865 the confederacy died for all intents and purposes when Generals Robert E. Lee and Joseph E. Johnston surrendered the South’s principle armies to Generals Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman respectively. While white Southerners grieved for their lost cause, Northerners celebrated wildly. Their joy came not only from victory and the chance to finally return home to loved ones; it came also from the conviction that right had triumphed over wrong. The idea that the Confederate States of America had been a morally bankrupt society received official and public legitimacy during Andersonville commandant Henry Wirz’s trial and subsequent execution before the year was out.

Ex-Confederates did not want to be remembered as traitors or as members of a degraded society who were defeated by a righteous foe. Many, probably most, white Southerners feared that the victors’ history would become the official version of the Civil War—a concern not without precedent. Jefferson Davis expressed the concern many in his region harbored, warning, “Men live in the estimation of posterity not by their deeds alone, but by their historians also.” To make sure the victors’ history was not the only one that would be available, Davis wrote his massive version of events, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government. He made no claims about historical objectivity; this was going to be the pro-Confederate side of the story. By his own admission the project was undertaken to do “justice to the cause and add wherever I could another leaf to her crown of glory.”1

 

3. Continuity and Change

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CONTINUITY AND CHANGE

MODERN WRITERS AND THE ISSUE OF FEDERAL

TREATMENT OF CONFEDERATE PRISONERS

SINCE THE WAR GENERATION and its immediate descendents left the stage in the first third of the twentieth century, fewer people were willing to deal with the controversial issue of prisoners of war. Many probably thought there was little left to say on the topic given the rather large amount of material Northern and Southern writers produced in the halfcentury after the war’s conclusion. Some were probably reluctant to reopen old wounds. Others likely had an understandable reluctance to touch a topic that continued to generate heated debate by partisans on both sides of the issue. It was far more comfortable to leave such issues alone.

Over the past century, though, a few writers have stepped forward and addressed this particular topic. Most of the writing is fairly recent, perhaps a response to James McPherson’s 1998 comment in Writing the Civil War that this topic has been neglected relative to the voluminous attention other aspects of the war years have received. “Although good books and articles on individual prisons (especially Andersonville) have appeared in recent years,” McPherson wrote, “only one general study of this important matter has been published since 1930.” Since then two general studies have been published, the most recent, While in the Hands of the Enemy, on a major academic press. Still, compared to other aspects of the war this area remains an under-explored topic.1

 

3. Continuity and Change: Modern Writers and the Issue of Federal Treatment of Confederate Prisoners

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CONTINUITY AND CHANGE

MODERN WRITERS AND THE ISSUE OF FEDERAL TREATMENT OF CONFEDERATE PRISONERS

Since the war generation and its immediate descendents left the stage in the first third of the twentieth century, fewer people were willing to deal with the controversial issue of prisoners of war. Many probably thought there was little left to say on the topic given the rather large amount of material Northern and Southern writers produced in the half-century after the war’s conclusion. Some were probably reluctant to reopen old wounds. Others likely had an understandable reluctance to touch a topic that continued to generate heated debate by partisans on both sides of the issue. It was far more comfortable to leave such issues alone.

Over the past century, though, a few writers have stepped forward and addressed this particular topic. Most of the writing is fairly recent, perhaps a response to James McPherson’s 1998 comment in Writing the Civil War that this topic has been neglected relative to the voluminous attention other aspects of the war years have received. “Although good books and articles on individual prisons (especially Andersonville) have appeared in recent years,” McPherson wrote, “only one general study of this important matter has been published since 1930.” Since then two general studies have been published, the most recent, While in the Hands of the Enemy, on a major academic press. Still, compared to other aspects of the war this area remains an under-explored topic.1

 

4. Union Policies, 1861–1865

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UNION POLICIES REGARDING PRISONERS OF WAR

1861–1865

To look at most of the writing done between 1865 and the present, the evidence against Northern officials regarding how they treated Confederate prisoners during the Civil War appears to be pretty damning. Ex-prisoners and modern writers have agreed, with some very limited, very recent exceptions, that the Federal government could have done considerably more than it actually did to mitigate Southern prisoners’ suffering and mortality. Many have contended that the North had everything it wanted, materially speaking, but failed to share its bounty with Southern captives out of a spirit of vindictiveness. Others cite a misguided retaliation policy wherein vital supplies were intentionally kept from prisoners in Northern pens for the supposed misdeeds of the Richmond government. Still others have preferred the lesser charge of simple negligence. Whatever the reasons offered by writers discussing Union treatment of Confederate prisoners, most have stated explicitly or implied strongly that Southern prisoners’ suffering and mortality were excessive.

 

4. Union Policies Regarding Prisoners of War

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UNION POLICIES

REGARDING PRISONERS

OF WAR

1861–1865

TO LOOK AT MOST OF THE WRITING DONE BETWEEN 1865 and the present, the evidence against Northern officials regarding how they treated

Confederate prisoners during the Civil War appears to be pretty damning.

Ex-prisoners and modern writers have agreed, with some very limited, very recent exceptions, that the Federal government could have done considerably more than it actually did to mitigate Southern prisoners’ suffering and mortality. Many have contended that the North had everything it wanted, materially speaking, but failed to share its bounty with Southern captives out of a spirit of vindictiveness. Others cite a misguided retaliation policy wherein vital supplies were intentionally kept from prisoners in Northern pens for the supposed misdeeds of the Richmond government. Still others have preferred the lesser charge of simple negligence. Whatever the reasons offered by writers discussing Union treatment of Confederate prisoners, most have stated explicitly or implied strongly that Southern prisoners’ suffering and mortality were excessive.

 

Photo Section

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5. Federal Policies at the Four Major Prisons in Illinois and Indiana

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FEDERAL POLICIES AT THE FOUR MAJOR PRISONS IN ILLINOIS AND INDIANA

To this point the argument has been made that Union officials enacted policies that cannot accurately be termed negligent or abusive. Their policies towards captured Confederate soldiers and officers were well within the boundaries of the rules of war as defined and accepted by both sides during the Civil War. Yankee regulations were designed to provide prisoners with the basic necessities for survival: food, clothing, shelter, and medical care. Of course, setting policies and actually having them implemented adequately can be two completely different things, as anyone familiar with government bureaucracies will readily confirm. Therefore a brief examination of major individual Northern prisons is necessary to determine whether or not the charges of negligence and abuse leveled at Yankee authorities are as irrefutable as many commentators have maintained for over a century.

Alton

 

6. Federal Policies at the Major Ohio Prisons

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FEDERAL POLICIES AT THE MAJOR OHIO PRISONS

Johnson’s Island

Johnson’s Island opened as an officers’ prison in 1863 and operated as such for the rest of the war. Located in Sandusky Bay in Lake Erie, this facility was described in terrible terms after the war by ex-prisoners. In February 1904, James F. Crocker spoke of his experiences at Johnson’s Island before a United Confederate Veterans meeting in Virginia. “My God,” he exclaimed, “it was terrible.” He explained to the gathering that prisoners there were intentionally starved by the Union officials as a matter of policy. “It was a cruel, bitter treatment,” he said, adding to the postwar argument that the North’s superior resources ought to have made Yankee prisons oases, “and that too, by a hand into which Providence had poured to overflowing its most bounteous gifts.” In 1917 ex-prisoner Henry E. Shepherd recalled life in Johnson’s Island as a “grim and remorseless struggle with starvation. . . .” This was not just his experience; Shepherd claimed that for all prisoners on the Island, “relentless and gnawing hunger was the chronic and normal state.”1

 

5. Federal Policies at the Four Major Prisons in Illinois and Indiana

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FEDERAL POLICIES AT THE

FOUR MAJOR PRISONS IN

ILLINOIS AND INDIANA

TO THIS POINT THE ARGUMENT HAS BEEN MADE that Union officials enacted policies that cannot accurately be termed negligent or abusive. Their policies towards captured Confederate soldiers and officers were well within the boundaries of the rules of war as defined and accepted by both sides during the Civil War. Yankee regulations were designed to provide prisoners with the basic necessities for survival: food, clothing, shelter, and medical care. Of course, setting policies and actually having them implemented adequately can be two completely different things, as anyone familiar with government bureaucracies will readily confirm. Therefore a brief examination of major individual Northern prisons is necessary to determine whether or not the charges of negligence and abuse leveled at Yankee authorities are as irrefutable as many commentators have maintained for over a century.

Alton

Alton prison, located in Illinois on the banks of the Mississippi River, was opened in 1833 as Illinois’s first state prison. For nearly thirty years Alton served the state in that capacity until a newer facility was built at Joliet. By

 

6. Federal Policies at the Major Ohio Prisons

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FEDERAL POLICIES AT THE

MAJOR OHIO PRISONS

Johnson’s Island

Johnson’s Island opened as an officers’ prison in 1863 and operated as such for the rest of the war. Located in Sandusky Bay in Lake Erie, this facility was described in terrible terms after the war by ex-prisoners. In February

1904, James F. Crocker spoke of his experiences at Johnson’s Island before a United Confederate Veterans meeting in Virginia. “My God,” he exclaimed, “it was terrible.” He explained to the gathering that prisoners there were intentionally starved by the Union officials as a matter of policy.

“It was a cruel, bitter treatment,” he said, adding to the postwar argument that the North’s superior resources ought to have made Yankee prisons oases, “and that too, by a hand into which Providence had poured to overflowing its most bounteous gifts.” In 1917 ex-prisoner Henry E. Shepherd recalled life in Johnson’s Island as a “grim and remorseless struggle with starvation . . . .” This was not just his experience; Shepherd claimed that for all prisoners on the Island, “relentless and gnawing hunger was the chronic and normal state.”1

 

7. Point Lookout, Fort Delaware, and Elmira

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POINT LOOKOUT, FORT DELAWARE, AND ELMIRA

I followed old mas. Robert

For four years near about,

Got wounded in three places,

And starved at Pint Lookout.

So wrote the author of the popular southern tune, “I’m a Good Old Rebel.” In all likelihood the writer did not intend to single out Point Lookout so much as to use it to represent the hardships Confederate prisoners endured in all Yankee pens because it was easier to rhyme with than Fort Delaware or Alton. Other writers over the last century and a quarter, however, have pointed to that particular prison as especially nasty. Anthony M. Keiley, an unreconstructed Rebel politician from Virginia who was no more above waving the bloody prison shirt than were others in and outside of his region, said the food was awful at Point Lookout and there was never enough of it. Prisoners were, according to Keiley, abused physically and denied adequate clothing and shelter as a matter of policy. He claimed that to get decent treatment one had to appeal to guards’ greed—a congenital defect found in Northern character. Bribery was the only effective way to assure humane treatment in Federal military prisons because, according to Keiley; “Yankee soldiers are very much like ships: to move them, you must ‘slush the ways.’”1

 

8. The Omnipresent Specter of Disease

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THE OMNIPRESENT SPECTER OF DISEASE

Previous chapters argued that union officials generally did a decent job of providing Confederate prisoners with adequate food, clothing, shelter, and medical care. Many still question, however, how that could have been so when 12 % of the South’s soldiers died in captivity. The reason many have concluded that such a statistic was excessive is that mortality in Confederate prisons, which operated under severe material constraints, was not much higher at 15.5 %. The North, on the other hand, was practically bursting with material resources and was virtually untouched by the war’s destructiveness. Given the respective resource disparities between North and South, many commentators have assumed that a starker contrast between the regions’ military prisons should have existed as well. A 3.5 % difference has not seemed significant enough, leading many to continue following the well-worn path leading to the conclusion that Yankee officials were negligent or abusive in their treatment of Southern prisoners.

 

7. Point Lookout, Fort Delaware, and Elmira

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POINT LOOKOUT, FORT

DELAWARE, AND ELMIRA

I followed old mas. Robert

For four years near about,

Got wounded in three places,

And starved at Pint Lookout.

SO WROTE THE AUTHOR OF THE POPULAR SOUTHERN TUNE, “I’m a

Good Old Rebel.” In all likelihood the writer did not intend to single out

Point Lookout so much as to use it to represent the hardships Confederate prisoners endured in all Yankee pens because it was easier to rhyme with than Fort Delaware or Alton. Other writers over the last century and a quarter, however, have pointed to that particular prison as especially nasty.

Anthony M. Keiley, an unreconstructed Rebel politician from Virginia who was no more above waving the bloody prison shirt than were others in and outside of his region, said the food was awful at Point Lookout and there was never enough of it. Prisoners were, according to Keiley, abused physically and denied adequate clothing and shelter as a matter of policy. He claimed that to get decent treatment one had to appeal to guards’ greed—a congenital defect found in Northern character. Bribery was the only effective way to assure humane treatment in Federal military prisons because, according to Keiley; “Yankee soldiers are very much like ships: to move them, you must ‘slush the ways.’”1

 

8. The Omnipresent Specter of Disease

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THE OMNIPRESENT SPECTER

OF DISEASE

PREVIOUS CHAPTERS ARGUED THAT UNION OFFICIALS generally did a decent job of providing Confederate prisoners with adequate food, clothing, shelter, and medical care. Many still question, however, how that could have been so when 12 % of the South’s soldiers died in captivity. The reason many have concluded that such a statistic was excessive is that mortality in Confederate prisons, which operated under severe material constraints, was not much higher at 15.5 %. The North, on the other hand, was practically bursting with material resources and was virtually untouched by the war’s destructiveness. Given the respective resource disparities between North and South, many commentators have assumed that a starker contrast between the regions’ military prisons should have existed as well. A 3.5 % difference has not seemed significant enough, leading many to continue following the well-worn path leading to the conclusion that Yankee officials were negligent or abusive in their treatment of

 

Appendix A: Recovery Rates From Disease at the Nine Major Union Prisons and at Chimborazo Hospital

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APPENDIX A

RECOVERY RATES FROM DISEASE AT THE NINE MAJOR UNION PRISONS AND AT CHIMBORAZO HOSPITAL 1

1. Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion, Volume I, Part III, 30, 46.

 

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