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

James M. Gillispie University of North Texas Press ePub

2

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

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6. Federal Policies at the Major Ohio Prisons

James M. Gillispie University of North Texas Press PDF

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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

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

James M. Gillispie University of North Texas Press ePub

1

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.

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8. The Omnipresent Specter of Disease

James M. Gillispie University of North Texas Press PDF

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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

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

James M. Gillispie University of North Texas Press ePub

3

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

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