|Two Witnesses on the "Treatment of Prisoners"-
Hon J. P. Benjamin and General B. F. Butler.
In our numbers for March and April, 1876, we very fully discussed the question of "Treatment and Exchange of Prisoners" during the war. We think that we fully demonstrated that the charges made against the Confederate Government of deliberate cruelty to prisoners were false; that our Government was more humane than the Federal Government, and that suffering on both sides might have been prevented by carrying out the terms of the cartel for the exchange of prisoners, for the failure of which the Federal authorities alone were responsible.
Our statement of the question, and the documents, facts and figures which we gave, have never been answered, and we have had abundant testimony (not only from distinguished Confederates and intelligent foreigners, but also from candid men at the North whose opinions were all the other way before reading our discussion), that our argument is conclusive and cannot be answered. But in order that we may accumulate evidence of the truth of every position we have taken in this discussion, we shall continue from time to time to introduce additional papers bearing on the question.
We append the statements of two very different witnesses, given under very different circumstances. The first is a letter written by Hon. J. P. Benjamin, ex-Secretary of State of the Confederacy, to the London Times soon after the close of the war. The other is a report of General B. F. Butler's celebrated Lowell speech made in the early part of 1865, with the editorial comments of the New York World.
Letter of Mr. Benjamin.
To the Editor of the Times:
A very material fact in relation to this charge of cruelty was omitted in the recent letter from your "Richmond correspondent", who was probably not aware of it, but which I can attest from personal knowledge. During the difficulties which prevented the exchange of prisoners of war, cases arose which appealed so strongly to humanity that it was impossible for the most obdurate to remain insensible. The Federal authorities, therefore, empowered Colonel Mulford, their Commissioner of Exchange, to consent to a mutual delivery of such sick and disabled prisoners as were incapable of performing military service. To this class was the exchange of prisoners rigorously restricted. Colonel Ould, the Confederate Commissioner of Exchange (who has recently been honorably acquitted by the Federals themselves of the same false charge of cruelty to prisoners), made to the President, to the Secretary of War and of myself repeated complaints that prisoners on both sides were frequently delivered in a condition so prostrate as to render death certain from exposure during the transit between James river and Washington or Annapolis. Efforts were made in vain to check this evil. In spite of surgeon's certificates that they were too ill for removal without imminent danger, sick men on both sides, wearied by long confinement, fearful that the exchange would again be interrupted, longing for the sight of home and friends, would either insist on their ability to endure the journey, or professing that recovery was hopeless, would piteously bodies to be allowed to see their families before death. The lifeless bodies of numbers of Confederate, shipped from the North under these circumstances, were delivered to us at City Point, and the like results have attended the delivery from our side. Rigid care was taken by the authorities of the United States to exclude from the exchange all cases of slight illness, in accordance with their avowed prisoners, this being our only resource for filling our thinned ranks, while they were able to procure unlimited recruits from this side of the Atlantic. From the class just mentioned the most emaciated specimens were chosen by our enemies, and exhibited as conclusive evidence that we exercised habitual cruelty toward prisoners of war. The most wretched and desperate cases were even made the original for "photographs which can not lie", and the revolting pictures of human infirmity thus procured were affixed as embellishments to sensational reports, manipulated by Congressional committees and sanitary commissions.
It is not my purpose to examine in detail the question whether on us
or on the Federal rests the responsibility of interrupting the exchange
of prisoners, and thus producing a mass of human misery and anguish of
which few examples can be found in history. The published correspondence
of the Commissioner of Exchange, and certain revelations made by Federal
officials in public speeches and in newspaper articles, will be sufficient
to satisfy on this point the few who take the pains to ascertain the truth;
but it response to the allegations imputed, in the latest from America
to General Hitchcock, that "for the delays
in exchanging and the consequent sufferings of the prisoners, the fault
rested entirely with the Confederates",
The first effort to establish a cartel of exchange was made by the Confederates when I was temporarily in charge of the War Office, at Richmond, toward the close of the Provisional Government. General Howell Cobb on our part, and General Wool on the part of the United States, agreed on a cartel which was submitted to their respective governments for approval. In my instructions to General Cobb was especially directed to propose that, after exhausting exchanges, the party having surplus prisoners in possession should allow them to go home on parole till the other belligerent should succeed in capturing an equivalent number for exchange.
When this proposal was made by us, we held a larger number of prisoners than were in the hands of the enemy. It was accepted by General Wool as one of the terms of the cartel, but, unfortunately, some successes of our enemies intervened before ratification by their government. They obtained, in their turn, as excess of prisoners, and at once refused to ratify the cartel. In the ensuing year, when General Randolph was Secretary of War, the Confederates were a second time in possession of a excess of prisoners, and succeeded in negotiating a cartel under which they liberated many thousands of prisoners on parole, without any present equivalent, thus securing in advance the liberation of a like number of their own soldiers that might afterward fall into the enemy's hands. This cartel remained for many moths in operation. No check or difficulty occurred as long as we made a majority of captures.
In July, 1863, the fortune of war became very adverse to the Confederacy. The battle of Gettysburg checked the advance of General Lee on the Federal capital, while almost simultaneously the fall of Vicksburg and Port Hudson gave to our enemies a large prepond- erance in the number of prisoners. The authorities at Washington immediately issued general orders refusing to receive from General Lee the prisoners held by him, until they should be reduced to possession in Virginia, thus subjecting their own men to the terrible suffering glanced at by Colonel Fremantle, in order to embarrass General Lee's movements. They further refused to restore to us the excess of prisoners held by them, after having received for nearly or quite a year the benefit of the special provision of the cartel when it operate in their favor; and during the entire war they never once consented to a delivery to us of any prisoners in excess of the number for which we were prepared to return an immediate equivalent.
It require no sagacity to perceive that every motive of interest as well as of humanity operated to induce us to facilities to exchange of prisoners and to submit even to unjust and unequal terms in order to recover soldiers whom we could replace from no other source. On the other hand, interest and humanity were at war in their influence on the Federal officials. Others must judge of the humanity and justice of the policy which consigned hundreds of thousands of wretched men to capacity, apparently hopeless, but I can testify unhesitatingly to its sagacity and efficacy, and to the pitiless sternness with which it was executed. Indeed, this refusal to exchange was one of the most fatal blows dealt us during the war, and contributed to our overthrow more, perhaps, than any other single measure. I write not to make complaint of it, but simply to protest against the attempt of the Federals so to divide the consequences of their own conduct as to thrown on us the odium attached to a cruelty plainly injurious to us, obviously beneficial to themselves.
The sense of duty which prompts this letter would be but imperfectly satisfied were I to withhold at this juncture the testimony which none so well as myself can offer in relation to the charge of inhumanity made against President Davis. For the four years during which I have been one of his most trusted advisers, the recipient of his confidence and the sharer to the best of my abilities in his labors and responsibilities, I have learned to know him better, perhaps, than he is known by any other living man. Neither in private conversation nor in Cabinet council have I ever heard him utter one unworthy thought, one ungenerous sentiment. On repeated occasions, when the savage atrocities of such men as Butler, Turchin, McNeil and others were the subject of anxious consideration, and when it was urged upon Jefferson Davis, not only by friends in private letters, but by members of his Cabinet in council, that it was his duty to the people and to the army to endeavor to repress such outrages by retaliation, he was immovable in his resistance to such counsels, insisting that it was repugnant to every sentiment of justice and humanity that the innocent should be made victims for the crimes of such monsters. Without betraying the confidence of official intercourse, it may be permitted me to say that when the notorious expedition of Dahlgren against the city of Richmond had been defeated, and the leader killed in his flight, the papers found upon his body showed that he had been engaged in an attempt to assassinate the President and the heads of the Cabinet, to release the Federal prisoners confined in Richmond, to set fire to the city and to loose his men and the released prisoners, with full license to gratify their passions on the helpless inhabitants.
The instructions to his men had been elaborately prepared, and his designs communicated to them in an address; the incendiary materials for firing the town formed part of his equipment. The proof was complete and undeniable. In the action in which Dahlgren fell, some of his men were taken prisoners. They were brought to Richmond, and public opinion was unanimous that they were not entitled to be considered as prisoners of war; that they ought to be put on trial as brigades and assassins, and executed as such, if found guilty. In Cabinet council the conviction was expressed that these men had acquired no immunity from punishment for their crimes, if guilty, by the fact of their having been admitted to surrender by their captors, before knowledge of their offences. A discussion ensued which became so heated as almost to create unfriendly feeling, by reason of the unshaken firmness of Mr. Davis in maintaining that although these men merited a refusal to grant them quarter in the heat of battle, they had been received to mercy by their captors as prisoners of war, and as such were sacred; and that we should be dishonored if harm should overtake, in his judgment, a pledge that they should receive the treatment of prisoners of war. To Jefferson Davis alone, and to his constancy of purpose, did these men owe their safety in spit of hostile public opinion, and in opposition to two-thirds of the Cabinet.
I forbear from further trespass on your space, although I am in possession of numerous other facts bearing on the subject that could not fail to interest all who are desirous of seeing justice done to the illustrious man, of whose present condition I will not trust myself to speak.
I remain, sir, your obedient servant,
J. P. BENJAMIN.
General Bulter's Lowell Speech.
In a review of Butler's speech at Lowell, the New York World holds the following language:
Butler does not content himself with attempting to show that General Grant's military operations in Virginia are a total failure; he also tries to fasten on him the brutal indifference to the sufferings of the Union soldiers. He not only insinuates that General Grant is guilty of a useless and butcherly prodigality of their lives, but endeavors to fasten on him the responsibility for their lingering starvation in loathsome Southern prisons. Butler states that himself and made successful arrangement with Mr. Ould, the Southern Commissioner, for the exchange of all our white soldiers against an equal number of the Rebel prisoners held by us, leaving the exchange of the negroes for a separate and subsequent arrangement. This, he says, would have left a balance of fifteen thousand Rebel prisoners in our possession, and about five hundred negro prisoners in the hands of the Rebels. When matters had reached this stage, General Butler was permitted to proceed no further. What then followed was so remarkable, and puts upon a painfully interesting and much mooted question a face so entirely new, that the account of it must be given in General Butler's own language:
"I reported the points of agreement between myself and the Rebel agent to the Secretary of War, and asked for power to adjust the other questions of difference, so as to have the question of enslaving negro soldiers stand alone, to be dealt with by itself; and that the whole power of the United States should be exerted to do justice to those who had fought the battles of the country and been captured in its service. The whole subject was referred by the Secretary of War to the Lieutenant-General Commanding, who telegraphed me on the 14th of April, 1864, in substance: 'Break off all negotiations on the subject of exchange till further orders'. And, therefore, all negotiations were broken off, save that a special exchange of sick and wounded on either side went on. On the 20th of April, I received another telegram of General Grant, ordering 'not another man to be given to the Rebels'. To that I answered, on the same day: 'Lieutenant-General Grant's instructions shall be implicitly obeyed. I assume that you do not mean to stop the special exchange of the sick and wounded now going on'. To this I received a reply in substance: 'Do not give the Rebels a single able-bodied man'.
From that four, so long as I remained in the department, exchanges of prisoners stopped under that order, because I could not give the Rebels any of their able-bodied soldiers in exchange. Be sending the sick and wounded forward, however, some twelve thousand of our suffering soldiers were relieved, being upward of eight thousand more than we gave the Rebels. In August last, Mr. Ould, finding negotiations were broken off and that no exchanges were made, wrote to General Hitchcock, the Commissioner at Washington, that the Rebels were ready to exchange, man for man, all the prisoners held by them, as I had proposed in December. Under the instructions of the Lieutenant-General, I wrote to Mr.Ould a letter, which has been published, saying: 'Do you mean to give up all your action, and revoke all your laws about back men employed as soldiers?' Those questions were therein argued justly, as I think, not diplomatically, but obtrusively and demonstratively, not for the purpose of furthering exchange of prisoners, but for the purpose for preventing and stopping the exchange and furnishing a ground on which we could fairly stand. I am now at liberty to state these facts, because they appear in the correspondence on the subject of exchange now on the public files of Congress, furnished by the War Department upon resolution. I am not at liberty to state my opinions as to the correctness and propriety of this course of action of the Lieutenant-General in relation to exchanges, because it is not proper to utter a word of condemnation of any act of my superior; I may not even applaud where I think them right, lest, not applauding in other instances, such acts as I may mention would imply censure. I only desire that the responsibility of stopping exchanges of prisoners, be it wise or unwise, should rest upon the Lieutenant-General Commanding, and not upon me. I have carried the weight of so grave a matter for nine months, and now propose, as the facts are laid before Congress and the country, not to carry any longer any more of it than belongs to me. Since I wrote my farewell address to the Army of the James, I have received letters from the far West, saying 'Why do you claim that you have not uselessly sacrificed the lives of your men, when you have left thousands of our brethren and sons to starve and rot in Southern prisons? In answer to all such appeals I am allowed only to repeat, I have not uselessly sacrificed the lives of the soldiers of the Union: their blood does not stain my garments. This is not criticism upon the acts of anybody, but only the enunciation of a fact, in explanation of which the responsibilities of my position will not allow me to say more".
If this astounding recital is true, it unmasks one of the most remarkable examples upon record of cold-hearted atrocity, studied deceit and cruel imposition on the public. We forbear all remark on General Grant's alleged share in these discreditable transactions until a reasonable time has elapsed for him or such of his friends as may be cognizant of the facts, to make the denial due to his reputation. But candor requires no such delay in judging of General Butler. He has unconsciously painted his own portrait in colors of the blackest craft and hypocrisy. He attempts to cast on General Grant the admitted odium of leaving thousands of our captured brothers to die deaths of horror and starvation. "Their blood", he says, "does not stain my garments". But, by his own showing, this hypocritical pretender to mercy and humanity was the accomplice and tool of General Grant in a business revolting to humanity! By his own account, he gave his aid, he lent the resources of his devilish cunning, in writing a piece of chicanery deliberately intended to place the whole subject in a false light! It was a fixed sand foregone conclusion that no prisoners should be exchanged; and he himself informs us that he (Butler) was base enough and subservient enough to prostitute his talents in the preparation of a document setting forth false reasons for an act of monstrous inhumanity to our starving captives! he knew when he wrote that letter to Mr. Ould that the reasons stated in it were sham reasons; that while affecting anxiety for an exchange, no exchange was either desired or would be permitted; that, to use his own unblushing language, it was written "not for the purpose of furthering exchange of prisoners, but for the purpose of preventing the exchange".
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