TREATMENT OF PRISONERS *


EDITORIAL STATEMENT
*SOUTHERN HISTORICAL SOCIETY PAPERS  -
Vol. I. Richmond, Va., March, 1876.
No.3. March - Pages 113 - 116

THE TREATMENT OF PRISONERS DURING THE WAR BETWEEN THE STATES. 

[Compiled by Secretary of Southern Historical Society.]

There is, perhaps, no subject connected with the late war which more imperatively demands discussion at our hands than the Prison Question. That the Confederate Government should have been charged in the heat of the passions of the war with a systematic cruelty to prisoners was to be expected. The pulpits, the press, and the Government reports, which were so busy denouncing "Rebel barbarities" that they had no censure for the McNeils, the Turchins, the Butlers, the Milroys, the Hunters, the Shermans, and the Sheridans, who, under the flag of "Liberty," perpetrated crimes which disgrace the age, were not to be expected to be over scrupulous in originating and retailing slanders against the Government and people of the South. But it was hoped that after the passions of the war had cooled, and the real facts had become accessible, that these sweeping charges would be at least modified, and these bitter denunciations cease. 

Mr. Blaine's Arraignment:

We have been doomed to a sad disappointment. The leader of the Radical party (Mr. Blaine) has recently in his place in the United States Congress revived all of the charges which twelve years ago "fired the Northern heart," and has marred the music of the "centennial chimes," with such language as this:

"Mr. Davis was the author, knowingly, deliberately, guiltily and wilfully, of the gigantic murder and crime at Andersonville. And I here, before God, measuring my words, knowing their full extent and import, declare that neither the deeds of the Duke of Alva in the Low countries, nor the massacre of Saint Bartholomew, nor the thumb-screws and engines of torture of the Spanish Inquisition, begin to compare in atrocity with the hideous crimes of Andersonville."

He then quotes and endorses the following extract from the report of the ex parte committee of Congress who examine this question at a time when passion was at its flood tide: 

"The subsequent history of Andersonville has startled and shocked the world with a tale of horror, of woe and death before unheard and unknown to civilization. No pen can describe, no painter sketch, no imagination comprehend its fearful and unutterable iniquity. It would seem as if the concentrated madness of earth and hell had found its final lodgment in the breasts of those who inaugurated the rebellion and controlled the policy of the Confederate Government, and that the prison at Andersonville had been selected for the most terrible human sacrifice which the world had ever seen. Into its narrow walls were corded thirty-five thousand enlisted men, many of them the bravest and best, the most devoted and heroic of those grand armies which carried the flag of their country to final victory. For long and weary months here they suffered, maddened, were murdered, and died. here they lingered, unsheltered from the burning rays of a tropical sun by day, and drenching and deadly dews by night, in ever stage of mental and physical disease, hungered, emaciated, starving, maddened; festering with unhealed wounds; gnawed by the ravages of scurvy and gangrene; with swollen limb and distorted visage; covered with vermin which they had no power to extirpate; exposed to the flooding rains which drove them drowning from the miserable holes in which, like swine, they burrowed; parched with thirst and mad with hunger; racked with pain or prostrated with the weakness of dissolution; with naked limbs and matted hair; filthy with smoke and mud; soiled with the very excrement from which their weakness would not permit them to escape; eaten by the gnawing worms which their own wounds had engendered; with no bed but the earth; no covering save the cloud or the sky; these men, these heroes, born in the image of God, thus crouching and writhing in their terrible torture and calculating barbarity, stand forth in history as a monument of the surpassing horrors of Andersonville as it shall be seen and read in all future time, realizing in the studied torments of their prison-house the ideal of Dante's Inferno and Milton's Hell."

So industriously have these statements been circulated - so generally have they entered into the literature of the North - so widely have they been believed, that the distinguished gentleman from Georgia (Hon. B. H. Hill), who ventured upon a calm reply, in which he ably refuted the assertions of Mr. Blaine, has been denounced by the Radical press as a "co-conspirator with Jeff. Davis to murder Union prisoners," and has been told by even some of our own papers that his speech was "very unfortunate." 

As we have in the archives of our Society the means of triumphantly vindicating the Confederate Government from the charge of cruelty to prisoners, as we have been appealed to by leading men North and South and in Europe to give the facts in reference to this matter, and as the present seems an opportune time, we have decided to enter upon the task. 

We have only to premise that our work is mainly one of compilation, and that our chief difficulty is which documents to select from the vast number which we have in our collection. 

THE QUESTION STATED. 

Let it be distinctly understood that we do not for a moment affirm that there was not a vast amount of suffering and fearful mortality among the Federal prisoners at the South. But we are prepared to prove before any fair tribunal, from documents now in our archives, the following points:. 

1. The Confederate authorities always ordered the kind treatment of prisoners of war, and if there were individual cases of cruel treatment it was in violation of positive orders. 

2. The orders were to give prisoners the same rations that our own soldiers receives, and if rations were scarce and of inferior quality it was through no fault of the Confederacy. 

3. The prison-hospitals were put on the same footing precisely as the hospitals for our own men, and if there was unusual suffering caused by want of medicine and hospital stores it arose from the fact that the Federal authorities declared these "contraband of war," and refused to accept the Confederate offer to allow Federal surgeons to come to the prisons with supplies of medicines and stores. 

4. The prisons were established with reference to healthfulness of locality, and the great mortality among the prisoners arose from epidemics and chronic diseases which or surgeons had not the means of preventing or arresting. 

A strong proof of this is the fact that nearly as large a proportion of the Confederate guard at Andersonville died as of the prisoners themselves. 

5. The above reasons cannot be assigned for the cruel treatment which Confederates received 
in Norther prisons.   Though in a land flowing with plenty, our poor fellows in prison were famished with hunger, and would have considered half the rations served Federal soldiers bountiful indeed. Their prison-hospitals were very far from being on the same footing with the hospitals for their own soldiers, and our men died by thousands from causes which the Federal authorities could have prevented. 

6. But the real cause of the suffering on both sides was the stoppage of the exchange of prisoners, and for this the Federal authorities alone were responsible. The Confederates kept the cartel in good faith. It was broken on the other side. 

The Confederates were anxious to exchange man for man. It was the settled policy on the other side not to exchange prisoners. The Confederates offered to exchange sick and wounded. This was refused. In August, 1864, we offered to send home all the Federal sick and wounded without equivalent. The offer was not accepted until the following December, and it was during that period that the greatest mortality occurred. The Federal authorities determined as their war policy not to exchange prisoners,  they invented every possible pretext to avoid it,  and they at the same time sought to quiet the friends of their prisoners and to "fire the Northern heart" by most shamelessly charging that the Confederate Government refused to exchange, and by industriously circulating the most malignant stories of "Rebel barbarities" to helpless veterans of the Union. 

7. But the charge of cruelty made against the Confederate leaders is triumphantly refuted by such facts as these: The official reports of Secretary Stanton and Surgeon General Barnes shows that a much larger per cent. of Confederates perished in Northern prisons than of Federals in Southern prisons. And though the most persistent efforts were made to get up a 
case against President Davis, General Lee, and other (even to the extent of offering poor Wirz a reprieve if he would implicate them), they were not able to secure testimony upon which even Holt and his military court dared to go into the trial. 

It may be well, before discussing the question in its full details, to introduce the testimony of leading Confederates,who are implicated in this charge of cruel treatment to prisoners. 


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 LETTER FROM PRESIDENT DAVIS 


 
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