HE TREATMENT OF PRISONERS
PRISONERS NORTH AND SOUTH*
*
*SOUTHERN HISTORICAL SOCIETY PAPERS
Volume XIX, Richmond, Va. January, 1891
   Pages 48 -51



 
PRISONERS NORTH AND SOUTH. 

Interesting Statistics as to Mortality Among Prisoners During the War. 

To the Editor of the Republican: 

The tone of fairness which is evident in your editorial of September 4th on "Rebel Prisoners
at Camp Morton" emboldens me to write you concerning the treatment of prisoners during
our late unhappy war. I should deeply regret the result of a discussion of this subject should
it arouse animosities or rekindle feelings of bitterness. After more than a quarter of a century has elapsed the survivors or the partisans of both sides in that terrible conflict should be able--unblinded by passions natural to and engendered in the tumult of war, and unbiased 
by predjudice--calmly to discuss the merits and demerits of either side of this question. 

That which we term civilized warfare is really only semi-civilized. On either side the lot of the soldier was hard at best, and the lot of the prisoner was still harder. This is the history of all 
wars in all countries, and ours was no exception. The treatment of prisoners by both North
and South during our war was characterized either by indifference or neglect on the part of those responsible for the welfare of the helpless beings placed under their care, amounting in many instances to criminality. A careful study of the subject by any reasonable and fair-minded being can lead but to this conclusion. 

It so happens that the Southern side of the prison question has never been made known to the Northern people. Though a good deal has been written, it appeared in Southern magazines or other periodicals of limited circulation, never finding its way to the masses of the North. 

On the other hand, the narratives of Union prisoners have been widely diffused through the daily papers, made the texts of passionate oratory by the statesmen of a day, elaborated by the illustrated journals, and emphasized by the immense circulation and influence of the Northern magazines.  

Until the article on "Johnson's Island," by Lieutenant Carpenter, and "Camp Morton," appeared in the Century, only one side of the sufferings of prisoners was known north of the Mason and Dixon line. Little wonder, then, that these articles attracted attention, created surprise, aroused indignation; and still less wonder that those to whom this indignation would direct itself rushed into the daily papers and the magazines with columns of denials of the accuracy of my statements, with explanations of this and that; long lists of rations, attested by the commissary, supplies furnished by the quartermaster, all certified to as correct; comfortable quarters, warm fires, plenty of blankets and bedding, &c.; and yet the men died in large numbers. 

Facts are cold and unanswerable, and dead men do tell tales. The death rate at Camp Morton was within seventh-tenths of one percent. of that among all Union prisoners confined in the Confederacy; and Camp Morton was by no means the worst prison. At Elmira, N. Y., out of a total of twelve thousand one hundred and forty-seven prisoners, two thousand nine hundred and eighty died; that is two hundred and forty-five in every one thousand. These figures are from the United States War Records Office. I have the report of the chief surgeon of the prison hospital at Andersonville, Ga., showing officially the number of prisoners that died at Andersonville, the causes of death, and a classified list of all that died in stockade and hospital. The total number of prisoners received during its occupation was forty-five thousand six hundred and thirteen; deaths, twelve thousand nine hundred and eleven; ratio of mortality, two hundred and eighty-three in one thousand. The United States War Records Office, however, have revised these Andersonville figures, giving the total confined as forty thousand six hundred and twenty-eight--and the deaths as fourteen thousand four hundred and eight, or three hundred and fifty-four per one thousand. Accepting the revised statistics, the difference in the mortality at Andersonville and Elmira is one hundred and nine in each one thousand. The civilized world has heard much of the horrors of Andersonville; how little it knows of Elmira and Camp Morton! The death rate on either side cannot be explained away. These prison pens of North and South must stand as blots on even the darkest page of our history. May they help to make was impossible! 

Now, in all fairness and candor, what excuse can there be for so frightful a death rate at 
Elmira?  The North was rich in all that should have contributed to the protection of its prisoners. That they died by wholesale is proof, I hold, that they did not receive this humane treatment. 
As to Andersonville, there is something of palliation. I believe the spirit of fairness in the Northern people will appreciate and admit it when the facts are known. The South was greatly 
in need of food, clothing and medical supplies. In 1864 its armies were subsisting almost wholly on corn and corn-meal. The supply of meat was almost exhausted. On October 18, 1864, S. B. French, major and commissary on subsistence, reports: "We have on hand in the Confederate States rations of meat to subsist three hundred thousand men for twenty-five days." On August 2, 1864, Dr. White, the medical officer in charge at Andersonville, reports: "The supplies of medicine have been entirely exhausted. The ration issued to the prisoners is the same as that issued to the Confederate soldier in the field. The meal is unbolted, and when baked is coarse and unwholesome." Even sieves or means for bolting could not be had on account of the strict blockade. 

Judge Robert Ould, Confederate commissioner of exchange, in his statement published in the National Intelligencer in August, 1868, says: "In the summer of 1864, in consequence of certain information communicated to me by the Surgeon General of the Confederate States as to the deficiency of medicines, I offered to make purchases of medicines from the United States authorities, to be used exclusively for the relief of Federal prisoners. I offered to pay in gold, cotton or tobacco, and agreed that such medicines might be brought into the Confederate lines by United States surgeons and dispensed by them. To this offer I never received any reply." 
 
It is a matter of history that the Confederates at this time were desirous of an exchange of prisoners and that the United States authorities would not consent to exchange. The New York Tribune, editorially referring to the occurrences of 1864, says: "In August the rebels offered to renew the exchange, man for man. General Grant then telegraphed the following important order: "It is hard on our men held in Southern prisons not to exchange them, but it is humanity to those left in the ranks to fight our battles. If we commence a system of exchange which liberates all prisoners taken we will have to fight on till the whole South is exterminated. If we hold those caught they amount to no more than dead men." 

With no hope of exchange and without supplies, and the death rate increasing, in the summer of 1864 Commissioner Ould further reports: "I did offer to deliver from ten to fifteen thousand of the sick and wounded prisoners on the north of the Savannah river without requiring any equivalent. Although this offer was made in the summer of 1864, transportation was not sent to Savannah river until about the middle or last of November, and then I delivered as many as could be transported--about thirteen thousand. About three thousand sick and wounded (Confederates) were delivered to me. The original rolls showed that some thirty-five hundred had started from Northern prisons, and that death and reduced the number to about three thousand." 

Now as to the difference of one hundred and nine per one thousand in the ratio of mortality at Andersonville and Elmira. It is an admitted fact that the residents of colder zones, passing into and residing in warmer localities, are more liable to contract diseases peculiar to warm or hot climates, such as diarrhoea, dysentery and the malarial diseases, than are residents of warmer climates migrating to colder latitudes. In the carefully classified list of the twelve thousand nine hundred and twelve deaths among the prisoners recorded at Andersonville, one thousand three hundred and eighty-four died from dysentery, four thousand eight hundred and seventeen from diarrhoea, and one hundred and seventy-seven from remittent fever. In other words, six thousand three hundred and seventy-eight, or one-half of all deaths there, were due to diseases which would naturally result from the exposure to the climate of Georgia during July, August, September and October, especially when they were subsisting chiefly on coarse corn-meal, a diet to which the prisoners were not accustomed and which tended to produce gastric and intestinal irritation. 

Considering these facts, was there not as much culpability on one side as the other? Let us do away with the Pharisaism which affects all the virtues, according to our neighbor the vices. The truth is, there were virtues and vices on both sides. We have a right to be proud of the heroism the war developed, yet when it comes to the question of the treatment of prisoners, both North and South may well say Peccavi! 

JOHN A. WYETH. 

New York, September 9, 1891. 

[From the Richmond Times, September 27, 1891.] 

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