THE TREATMENT OF PRISONERS


PROFESSOR DABNEY VS. "THE NATION"
 TESTIMONY OF A GERMAN
*

*SOUTHERN HISTORICAL SOCIETY PAPERS
Vol. XVII, Richmond, Va., Jan-Dec, 1889
 Pages 379 - 381

Prisoners of the Civil War. 

PROFESSOR DABNEY VS. "THE NATION" - TESTIMONY OF A GERMAN. 

To the Editor of The Times: 
[Feb.12,1890.] 

Sir,- 
It has long been the habit of The Nation to pat the South on the back, and, while giving her people much paternal admonition on the subject of duels, street fights, and the like, to encourage them to hope that if they will diligently read The Nation, a civilication quite passable (considering the great harbarism and iniquity of their past history) may at length arise in the South. This complacent condescension has been mistaken by many for fairness and impartiality, among whom, however, the present writer is not one. 

For years he has seen through the gauzy pretence of judicial calmness, and now presents to The Times a typical instance of this pretence.

In reply to The Nation's article of January 30th, on "The Prisons of the Civil War, "I wrote the following letter to the editor, which he declines to publish, telling me that he thinks I will, "on reflection, see the inadvisability of a controversy" on the subject.

He himself - he writes me - need for any further discussion. The almost five columns in which he tells his readers of the "unspeakable horros of Andersonville," of the "millions of flies," which "deposited their maggots on the are, of course, sufficient; and a "controversy" could, he says, "conduce to no good end." Let there be no controversy. To hear one side of a question is enough. The Nation has spoken. Its editor is in his holy sanctum. Let all the earth keep silence before him. 

To the Editor of the Nation: 

Sir, -
As I have not personally investigated the history of prisons during the civil war,
I shall not venture to express in this letter any opinion of my own concerning the relative humanity of North and South in the treatment of prisoners; but,as you state in your editorial of last week that the diet at Johnson's Island was "exceptionally abundant and varied," I wish to call the attention of your readers  to certain evidence to the contrary, which I have heard. 

After reading your article I went to a gentleman whose brother, a Confederate lieutenant, died after leaving Johnson's Island, from the effects of hardships suffered at that place, and asked him whether his brother had found the food "exceptionally abundant and varied." 

Briefly stated, the lieutenant's account was as follows: The food, though usually satisfactory as to quality, was not always so, as may be inferred from the fact that, in order to have a better Christmas dinner than was furnished him, he made soup out of some fish-skins which he had raked out of a gutter. As to the abundance,
he heard the commandant of the prison, whom he praised highly for his kindness, say that he was well aware that the prisoners did not have enough to eat, but that he was under strict orders not to give them any more.   Delicacies were sent him by
New York Louisville ladies, but were intercepted by the guards or other persons and never reached him. Moreover, in that bitterly cold climate, he was not allowed a blanket to cover himself at night until after Christmas. 

I am well acquainted with a Confederate captain now living in Richmond, a perfect Hercules in physique,who (if I remember rightly) weighted fifty pounds less upon leaving Johnson's Island than when he entered its prison walls. 

And now let me quote from "Land and Leute in den Vereinigten Staaten" (Leipzig,1886), a work by Ernst Honewart (possibly a pseudonym), a German who spent nearly thirty years in the United States, and who fought as an officer in the Northern army. I shall italicize certain important phrases:   "Much has been said of the cruel treatment of Northern soldiers in Southern prisons. Having myself been a prisoner in the South for more than thirteen months, and having been afterwards stationed with my regiment at a place where more than 25,000 Southern soldiers were confined, I think I have a right to an opinion as to the relative treatment of prisoners in the North and South. 

"It is true that the Southerners treated their prisoners much less well than the means to treat them better, and often, especially towards the end of the war, themselves suffered from want. 

"The South wished to permit the officers, according to European custom, to live in town on parole and half pay. I myself and other officers lived for some months in Raleigh, and were granted much freedom of movement, but the North treated Southern officers like common soldiers, and the South afterwards did the same.
So long as they were able they gave us good rations, afterwards very often spoilt bacon, cured with wood-ashes - they were short of salt - or beef cured with saltpetre, or fresh horse meat; a pound of bread a day being added, and sometimes a handful of beans or rice. During the winter we were unable to buy anything additional, but as soon as summer came, country people brought us provisions, which we were permitted to buy. The fare of our guards was not much better than our own. 

"Of intentional cruelty I saw nothing, but on the contrary, always found both officers and men very friendly and obliging, and most willing to alleviate our lot. When requested to bring us tobacco or other articles from town, they were always glad to do so, and I never heard of a single instance in which such a reguest was refused. 

"The horrors of Andersonville are not to be denied, but that was an exeption - the cruel policy adopted by the Southern government to compel the North to exchange prisoners, which the North refused to do," etc. 

Since writing the above I have seen another gentleman, who tells me that he knows a number of Confederates who "varied" their "abundant" diet at Johnson's Island with the flesh of rats, an article of food which was also enjoyed by the lieutenant whom I mentioned in the first part of my letter. 

R.H.DABNEY. 

University of Virginia, February 2,1890. 

The above letter, as you see, contains nothing polemical or one-sided on my part. I have, in fact, refrained from the expression of any opinion whatever, confining myself to quoting the opinions of others. The testimony is certainly worthy of notice, but The Nation wishes to supress it, and I, therefore, appeal to The Times for a hearing.* 

R.H.DABNEY. 


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