THE TREATMENT OF PRISONERS
*
 PRISON - PENS NORTH
by Hon. A. M. Keiley
 
*SOUTHERN HISTORICAL SOCIETY PAPERS
Vol. XVIII. Richmond, Va., Jan-Dec, 1890
No.6  June - Pages 330-340


 
[From The Dispatch, June 21, 1891.]  
PRISON-PENS NORTH.  

Dr. Wyeth's Charges Sustained by the Most Conclusive Evidence. Horrors of Point Lookout 
and Elmira as Witnessed and Experienced  
by Hon. A. M. Keiley.  

I observe that various northern papers, in discussing Dr. Wyeth's recent Century article on the treatment of Confederate prisoners at Camp Morton, deny the truth of his statement on the ground of its appearance at so late a date since the war. I have now before me a little book (In Vinculis) written by Hon. A. M. Keiley and published in Richmond before the close of the war, and when he was but just released from the northern prison-pens of Point Lookout and Elmira. Perhaps some extracts from its pages may serve to render Dr. Wyeth's statements less startling and incredible to those who have hirherto heard only of the "horrors" of southern war prisons. 

Mr. Keiley was captured near Petersburg shortly before the affair of the Crater, and with other prisoners hurried off to Point Lookout, situated at the mouth of the Potomac. This famous prison-pen consisted of forty acres of glaring white flat sand, destitute of a single tree or shrub, where, "through the scorching summer and freezing winter (both particularly severe at this point), the poor fellows were confined in open tents on the naked ground, without a plank or 
a handful of straw between them and the hot or frozen earth." "In winter when a high tide would flood the whole surface of the ground, freezing as it flooded, the suffering of the half-clad wretches, accustomed to a southern climate, may be imagined. Many died outright, and many will go to their graves crippled and racked with rheumatism dating from this time. 

So severe was the cold that 'even the well-clad sentinels had to be relieved every thirty minutes, instead of every two hours, as is the army rule.'" "The rations of wood allowed each man was an armful for five days." "No bed-clothing was allowed beyond one blanket." If by gift or purchase another came into the possession of any more it was, by order, taken from him. The same rule applied to articles of clothing. "No man was allowed to receive anything in the way of clothing without giving up the corresponding article already in his possession, and so literally was this rule enforced that prisoners who came in barefooted were compelled to beg or buy a wornout pair of shoes for exchange before they were allowed to receive a pair sent them by friends." 

THE SCANT RATIONS

The rations were: For breakfast a slice of bread and a piece of salt beef or pork four or five ounces in weight; for dinner another slice of bread and rather over a half pint of watery slop called soup. At one time it was "hardtack and fat pork" only. 

Mr. Keiley writes: "Miss Dix, the northern prison philanthropist, gives a documentary statement that the prisoners at Point Lookout were supplied with vegetables, with the best of wheaten bread, and fresh and salt meat each day in abundant measure.'  *  *  *  * 

It is quite likely that some Yankee official made this statement to her, and her only fault was in suppressing the fact that 'she was so informed.' But it is inexcusable in the Sanitary Committee to have palmed this falsehood upon the world, knowing its falsity. For my part, I never saw any one get enough of anything to eat at Point Lookout except of the soup, one spoonful of which was too much for ordinary digestion." The miseries of the place were "greatly enhanced by the character of the water, which is so impregnated with some mineral as to be exceedingly offensive and induce disorder of every alimentary canal. It colors everything black, and the scum rising on its surface reflects all the prismatic hues. Outside the pen are wells of water, perfectly clear and wholesome, used by the Yanks." 

Many gifts of food and clothing were sent by charitable persons until the Government forbade the express companies to carry parcels for the prisoners. 

INSOLENT GUARDS. 

The guard was generally of negroes, and their insolence and brutality were intolerable. They would beat the prisoners, order them about, and point their guns at them, "jest to see the d--d rebels scatter," these performances being much enjoyed by the "Yanks." 

"Our rations grow daily worse, the pork more rancid, the soup more watery, the beef more lean and stringy." 

In July two hundred and eighty-two of the nine thousand prisoners here penned were transported to Elmira, Mr. Keiley being of the number. 

"Embarking," he says, "we were packed like sheep or cattle in the reeking hold of a villianous tub, with no means of ventilation, save two narrow hatchways, the sun melting the pitch in the seams overhead. Many were seasick and all hungry, but for fifty hours the only food given us was a slice of bread and a couple of ounces of fat per man." 

SYSTEMATIC INHUMANITY. 

The prison-pen at Elmira was divided by a stagnant piece of water or "lagoon," the miasma arising from which "rendered it necessary for eight or ten hospitals to be built. Yet the head surgeon, Dr. Sanger, would sign no report which ascribed to this cause the death of a patient;" consequently the lagoon remained undisturbed, and the frightful mortality continued. "The better class of officers were loud and indignant in their reproaches of Dr. Sanger's systematic inhumanity to the prisoners, and they affirmed that he avowed his determination to stint these poor, helpless creatures in retaliation for alleged neglect on the part of our own authorities!" 

PERISHED FROM STARVATION. 

In August there were nine thousand six hundred and seven prisoners at Elmira. "The most scandalous neglect," says Mr. Keiley, "existed in providing food for the sick, and many of them perished from actual starvation. One man in the hospital complained to his comrades that he could get nothing to eat, and was dying in consequence. They got leave (Dr. Sanger not being consulted) to buy him some potatoes, and when these were roasted and brought him the poor creatures in the neighboring cots crawled out of their beds to beg for the peelings to relieve the hunger that was gnawing them. 

"But the great fault next to the scant supply of food was the inexcusable deficiency of medicine. During several weeks of dysentery and inflammation of the bowels there was not a grain of any preparation of opium in the dispensary, and for want of this many a poor fellow died." 

"The result of this sparseness of food and medicine was apparent in the shocking mortality 
of the camp.     This exceeded even the reported mortality at Andersonville, great as that was.  *  *  *  I know that the reader, if a Northern man, will deny this and point to the record of the Wirz trial. I object to the testimony. There never was in all time such a mass of lies as that evidence could have been proven to be if it had been possible to sift the testimony or examine before a jury the several witnesses. I take as the basis of my comparison the published report made by four returned Andersonville prisoners, who were allowed to come North on their representation that they could induce their humane government to consent to an exchange. Vanaspes! Edwin M. Stanton would have seen the whole of them perish before he would give up to General Lee one able-bodied soldier. 

COMPARATIVE MORTALITY 

"These four prisoners alleged that out of thirty-six thousand in that pen six thousand, or one-eighth of the whole, died between the 1st of February and the 1st of August, 1864. 

"Now, out of less than nine thousand five hundred Confederate prisoners who were at Elmira the 1st of September, three hundred and eighty-six died that month.  *  *  *  At Andersonville the mortality averaged one thousand a month out of thirty-six thousand, or one thirty-sixth. At Elmira it was three hundred and eighty-six out of nine thousand five hundred, or one twenty-fifth of the whole. At Elmira it was four per cent.; at Andersonville, less than three percent. If the mortality at Andersonville had been as great as that at Elmira the deaths should have been one thousand four hundred and forty per month, or fifty per cent. more than they were.  

"I speak by the card respecting these matters, having kept the morning returns of deaths during the last month and a half of my stay at Elmira, and transferred the figures to my diary, which lies before me." 

RATS AS FOOD  

In regard to the scarcity of food, Mr. Keiley says: 

"It often happened that the same man got only bones for several successive days. The expedients resorted to were disgusting. Many found a substitute for meat in rats, with which the place abounded, and they commanded an average price of four cents apiece. I have seen scores of them in various stages of preparation. Others found, in the barrels of refuse fat, which accumulated in the cook-house and in the pickings of the bones which were thrown out in a dirty heap behind the kitchen to be removed once a week, the means of gratifying the cravings of hunger. I have seen a mob of starving 'Rebs' besieging the bone-cart and begging of the driver fragments on which the August sun had been burning for several days." 

Of the brutal treatment of prisoners Mr. Keiley gives the following instances: "A sick boy having inadvertently stepped across a mark made by one of the officials, he was compelled to leap back and forth across it until he fell exhausted. Another brute would lay about him with a tent-pole among the crippled and helpless prisoners. A man named Hale, one of the Stonewall brigade, having refused to compromise others by telling where he had obtained a little whiskey, instead of the usual confinement in the guard-house, had his thumbs tied together behind his back and the rope drawn up across a beam overhead until his whole weight rested upon them, causing excruciating agony. Still refusing to 'peach,' he was gagged with a piece of wood, and struck in the face with an oaken billet, which knocked out his front teeth and covered his face with blood. 

THE NEGRO GUARD, AGAIN

The negro guard would, almost without warning, fire among the prisoners, and this at last culminated in the murder of a poor, feeble old man named Potts, a prisoner, one of the most harmless creatures in the pen. He was hailed by one of the guard while approaching his ward, ordered to stop, and shot dead while standing still. 

In August the surgeons' consolidated report announced eighteen hundred and seventy scorbutic cases among ninety-three hundred prisoners--the result of the restriction to a bread and salt-meat diet. 

"One of the men who died to-day told his brother, with almost his last breath, that he died of starvation." 

September 21st.--"Deaths yesterday, twenty-nine, and this with pure air, healthy location, good water, no epidemic. The men are being deliberately murdered by the surgeon (Dr. Sanger). 

"Of fourteen men in Dr. Martin's section twelve are dead; of seventeen in Dr. Graham's section fourteen have died and two more are certain to die for want of food and medicines. Both Dr. Martin and Dr. Graham (Confederate surgeons) have refused to send any more patients from their ward to the hospital, as death is almost certain to supervene." 

"As I went over to the hospital this morning quite early there were eighteen dead bodies lying naked on the bare earth. Eleven more were added to the list by half past 11 o'clock." 

"In October the weather grew bitterly cold, and the men, especially the thousands who were lying on the ground in open tents, began to suffer severely, being mostly quite destitute of necessary clothing." 

At length an order came from Washington that a list of prisoners should be made out for exchange, consisting of "those only who, by reason of age, sickness, or wounds, would be unfit for service for sixty days." 

Some fifteen hundred were chosen as "unfit for duty for sixty days," being one-sixth of the whole; and on the morning of October 19, 1864, these were ordered to assemble for parole. 

A HARROWING SPECTACLE

Says Mr. Keiley: "I speak in all reverence when I say the I do not believe that such a spectacle was ever before seen on earth since the sick and the maimed and the afflicted of every sort crowded for help and healing around the Saviour's feet. * * * * As soon as the announcement was made that the parole-lists were ready, the poor wretches began to crawl from their cots and turned their faces toward the door. On they came (fifteen hundred of them), a ghastly tide, with skeleton bodies and lustreless eyes, and brains bereft of all but one thought--freedom and home. On they came, some on crutches, some on their cots, others borne in the arms of their comrades; others still creeping on hands and knees, pale, gaunt, emaciated; some with the seal of death already stamped on their wasted cheeks and fleshless limbs; yet, fearing less death than the agony of dying amid enemies, where no hand should give them reassuring grasp as they tottered forth into the dark valley, and their bones would lie in unhonored graves amid aliens and foremen. Such a set of haggard, miserable, helpless, hopeless wretches I never saw, and yet I have seen more than one consignment of Federal prisoners on their way home. Several died between their parole and the day of departure." 

SEVEN DEAD ON THE TRAIN

"We arrived in Baltimore with seven dead men on the train," and "left in Baltimore a number whose condition was such that their further progress would have been certain death--" one, a gray-haired old man, who there died. 

They had to be landed at Point Lookout to await further consignments of prisoners for exchange. And here "a plank was stretched from the side of the ship to the dock, and down this 'shoot' the poor, helpless, maimed creatures were slid like coal into a vault.

They were turned into their former pen, where they found "a scanty supply of tents, and, after some days, a scanty supply of straw. The water was scant, the rations scant," and all this for men just taken out of the hospital, condemned thus to sleep on the bare ground with insufficient food and clothing. 

Here they remained until the number for exchange sent from various points amounted to five thousand, when they were all re-embarked in three ships and sent South, first having "all their blankets and every extra coat or pair of pants taken from them." 

In Hampton Roads they were detained ten days

"Every day," continues Mr. Keiley, "we saw coffins going over the sides of the other ships. On the Atlantic alone were forty deaths during our stay in the harbor--a stay obviously unnecessary and therefore shamefully cruel, since it compelled the confinement of hundreds of sick men in the filthy and unventilated holds of the vessels, without proper food, medicine, or attendance. Captain Grey, of the Atlantic, protested loudly against its inhumanity. 

Arrived at length at Savannah, Ga., they were landed amid the enthusiastic welcome of the populace, and here found the Richmond ambulance corps awaiting them--that excellent institution which rendered service alike to the suffering of both armies." 

A FULL CORROBORATION

It will be noted that in this account is a corroboration of all that is charged by Dr. Wyeth in his mention of the treatment of Confederate prisoners at Camp Morton--i. e., the criminal neglect 
of the sick; their starvation, where every species of food was abundant, until they were reduced to devouring rats and refuse; the general malicious ill-treatment of prisoners, and the shooting down without cause of innocent men. 

Major Keiley is too well known at the North, as well as at the South, to admit of a doubt being cast upon his statements. He has also much to say concerning the kindness shown the Confederate prisoners by individuals at the North, and even by Federal officers. One of the latter was threatened with court-martial for this cause, when he replied that in that case he would have a startling story to make public of the inhuman treatment of the Confederate prisoners. Mr. Keiley significantly adds, "He was not molested." 

S. A. W.  

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