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Chapter 26: treatment of prisoners, wounded and dead.

It was from the close of this campaign that the difficulties in regard to: the exchange of prisoners, and the consequent complaints about the maltreatment of those in our hands, dated.

The fall of Vicksburg simultaneously with the battle of Gettysburg, gave to the enemy the excess of prisoners, which had hitherto been on our side, and he now began to discover that we would be more damaged by a cessation in the exchange than he would:--our men when they came back would go into our army for the war, and we had no means of supplying their places while they remained prisoners. Many of his prisoners in our hands had but limited terms to serve out, and the places of those whose terms were longer could be readily supplied by new drafts, while his high bounties, national, state and local, opened to him the whole civilized world as a recruiting ground. He had no inducement, therefore, to continue the exchange as a matter of policy affecting the strength of his army, while a failure to do so would very much cripple us, by detaining from our army the men held as prisoners, by imposing on our already overtaxed resources the support of the prisoners themselves, as well as the diminution of the strength of our army by the detail of a force to guard them.

While we were in Pennsylvania, President Lincoln had issued an order, declaring that no paroles given, unless at some of the places specified for the exchange of prisoners in the cartel which had been adopted, or in cases of stipulation to that effect by a commanding officer in surrendering his forces, would be recognized. I think the date of that order was the 1st of July, and it was evidently intended to embarrass us while in Pennsylvania, with the guarding and sustenance of such prisoners [288] as should fall into our hands. This order found us in possession of more than 6,000 prisoners taken on the 1st at Gettysburg.

About 3,000 of them were paroled, but their paroles were not recognized and they subsequently returned to the army without being exchanged, including some officers who solemnly pledged their honor to surrender themselves as prisoners in the event their paroles were not recognized by their government. The rest declined to give paroles because of the order before mentioned, and they were carried to Virginia and held in custody. In addition to our willingness to parole these men, General Lee proposed to make an exchange of prisoners after the battle, but it was declined. Now if the prisoners brought off by us from Gettysburg subsequently suffered in prison, who was responsible for that suffering?

The order in regard to the recognition of paroles was in violation of the well recognized principles of modern warfare. In the most ancient times, a captive taken in battle was held to have forfeited his life to his captors and it was always taken. After a time this was changed, and from motives of humanity the prisoner's life was spared and he became by the laws of war, even among the most civilized nations, the slave of his captor — his enslavement being justified on the ground that it was a boon to him to spare his life at the expense of his liberty. The justice of this rule is recognized in Holy Writ itself, and the rule continued to prevail long after the commencement of the Christian era.

In the age of chivalry a modification of the rule prevailed, and a prisoner was allowed to ransom himself, when he could raise the means of doing so. In more modern times the system of paroles was adopted, and the prisoner was allowed to go at large upon pledging his honor not to take up arms against his captors until regularly exchanged, the penalty of a forfeiture of his parole being death if again captured. This is a contract between the prisoner and his captors, which his government [289] is bound to respect in the interests of humanity, by the recognition of all civilized nations. It is not necessary for him to receive the permission of his government or his leader to give his parole. When he is a captive, he is beyond the power and protection of either and has a right to stipulate for his individual safety against the penalties of death, slavery, or imprisonment by neutralizing his services for the time being. If his contract is not respected by his government, what must be the consequence?

When two nations or parties are at war, the object of each is to destroy the physical power of the other, in order to obtain peace, or accomplish the object for which the war is undertaken. If one party is so situated that it cannot hold, or cannot support its prisoners, and the other will neither exchange nor recognize the validity of paroles, is it to be expected that the prisoners shall be turned loose to return again to augment the force of the antagonistic party, and thus perhaps insure the destruction of that party liberating them?

The very principle which justifies killing in battle, that is the universal principle of self-preservation, will justify the taking of no prisoners or the destruction of all those that may be taken, if they can be neutralized in no other way. It was on this principle that the great Napoleon, in his Egyptian campaign, killed a number of prisoners whom he did not have the means of feeding, and who would not recognize the validity of a parole. If he turned them loose they would have gone immediately into the ranks of his opponents, if he kept them he would have had to take the food from the mouths of his own soldiers to feed them, and the only way of getting rid of them was by killing them. It is true a clamor was raised by his enemies, whose interest it was to make him appear as a barbarian devoid of humanity, but now that the feelings of that day have subsided, impartial men do not doubt the conformity of the act to the principles of war. [290]

So when Mr. Lincoln's order appeared, if the safety of General Lee's army, or the success of his campaign had been jeopardized by the necessity of feeding and guarding the prisoners in our hands, he would have been justified in putting them to death, and the responsibility for the act would have rested on the shoulders of the man who issued the inhuman order. So too the latter was responsible for all the sufferings to which those prisoners who were carried off were afterwards subjected, if they suffered.

The alleged reason for stopping the exchange was the fact that the Confederate Government would not parole or exchange negro slaves belonging to Southern citizens who were captured in the Federal ranks. But it cannot be doubted that this was the mere pretext and not the real reason. That is to be found in the belief existing on the part of the Federal authorities that the failure to exchange would cripple us. The constitution of the United States, then unchanged in any respect, recognized the right of property in slaves, and guaranteed the return of such as should flee from service.

The constitution of the Confederate States contained the same guaranty, and the institution of slavery was recognized by the laws and constitutions of all the States composing the Confederacy, from which States alone the Confederate Government derived its delegated powers. That government was bound to respect the laws of the States and the rights of the citizens under those laws, and to protect them. Granting, for the sake of the argument, that the United States may have had the right to employ as soldiers the captured or fugitive slaves, as it had to take into its armies deserters from ours, still it took them subject to all the rights of the owners and of the Confederate Government, in the event of their recapture, just as deserters taken in arms in the opposite camp were liable to all the penalties for their crime without any infraction of the rules of war.

Many of the slaves put into the ranks of the Federal [291] Army were put there by force, but whether their service was enforced or voluntary, the Confederate Government would have been recreant to its trust, and grossly neglectful of its rights and interests, to have allowed so large a proportion of its own population to be used by its enemy for the purpose of strengthening his armies, by recognizing the claim set up on the part of these slaves to the benefit of the rules of war. Most nations have denied the right of its citizens even to expatriate themselves, so as to be competent to serve in the ranks of its enemies. None permit that expatriation to take place after the commencement of hostilities, and it would be the blindest folly to do so. In the case of the recaptured slaves, our government did not propose to punish the slaves themselves, though those that had voluntarily entered the enemy's service had justly forfeited their lives, but merely returned them to their owners, to the great gratification of the negroes themselves in most cases.

It was a case in which the Federal Government had no rights whatever, any more than it could have had in the case of deserters. The claim therefore set up to have these slaves treated as other soldiers taken in battle was without the slightest foundation in the principles of international law, or the rules of civilized war; and the cessation of the exchange on that pretence was a most atrocious act of cruelty to its own prisoners by the Federal Government.

A great clamor was raised on this specious pretext in order to reconcile the soldiers and the people of the North to the discontinuance of the exchange, and blind their eyes as to the real reason. Not denying the right of the Federal Government to refuse to exchange prisoners, if it was its interest to do so, and the war could not be terminated favorably to itself in any other way, still it had no right to violate the faith pledged to the exchange by the cartel; and least of all did it have the right to deprive its own soldiers in our hands of the [292] right to release themselves from prison by giving their paroles. If it thought proper not only to adopt the extreme harsh measure of non-exchange from motives of policy, but to go further and adopt a new rule upon the subject of paroles, then it had no right whatever to complain of any measures of harshness towards its prisoners which the necessities or the interests of our government and our army rendered necessary.

So much for the question of rights; and now for the facts as to the actual treatment which the prisoners in our hands received. I think I can safely deny that they were ever subjected to any maltreatment, suffering, or neglect, which it was in our power to avoid. We did not resort to the extreme measures which perhaps the laws of war and our own necessities would have justified, but the prisoners were treated with all the humanity possible under the circumstances in which we were placed. Doubtless there may have been rare individual acts of maltreatment, but until human nature is a very different thing from what it is, there can be no body of men in which there are not some who act unjustly and oppressively.

Such is the case everywhere over the world, in the church, in government, in society, and in all the relations which men bear to each other, it has been the case, and will continue to be the case until the end of all things that some will do wrong, and we of the South cannot claim an exemption from the common lot. What I maintain is that no harsh treatment to the prisoners was authorized or tolerated, and if there were individual cases of the kind they were exceedingly rare.

The condition of a prisoner is by no means a desirable one under any circumstances, and he who is captured in war must expect to suffer inconveniences. The soldiers of the Federal Army were supplied with an abundance of everything necessary for their comfort and even luxury, to which many of them, including some officers, had never been accustomed before, and to which but few [293] of them perhaps, except those who enriched themselves by the plunder of our people, returned again after the war. No army that ever took the field was so well supplied in all that was necessary, and much that was superfluous.

The easy communication always kept up with the positions of that army by railway and steamboat supplied it abundantly not only with ample and comfortable clothing of every kind and the government ration of everything, but with most of the delicacies incident to city life. They had not only bread, meat, vegetables, coffee and sugar in abundance, but the enormous horde of sutlers following the army supplied it with wines, liquors, fruits, oysters, canned meats and in fact everything that could be desired; and which high pay and high bounties enabled both officers and men to purchase. When such men, therefore, fell into our hands and were subjected to the scanty fare to which Confederate soldiers were reduced, it was very natural for them to complain of their treatment.

Our ports were blockaded and we were cut off from the commerce of the world. The enemy made not only provisions, but medicines, contraband of war. He had devastated the portions of our country to which he had penetrated, destroying crops and farming utensils, and burning barns, mills, factories of cloth and stuffs of all kinds, and tanneries, and in fact committing every possible waste and devastation which could cripple our army or pinch the non-combatants who remained at home. Coffee, tea and sugar had disappeared early in 1862 as a part of the ration to our men, and if there was any at all, it was to be found in rare quantities and at the most enormous prices. The scanty supplies of provisions to which our own men were reduced can hardly be conceived of by one who was not present to know the actual state of the case.

On the night after the second victory at Manassas, thousands of our men lay down to rest without having [294] had a mouthful to eat all day. I was then in command of a brigade, and I was very well content, after the fight at Ox Hill or Chantilly, to make my supper on two very small ears of green corn, which I roasted in the ashes. On the next day and for a day or two afterwards, all that I had to eat was a piece of cold boiled fresh beef without either salt or bread, which I carried in a haversack. This was the strait to which a Brigadier General was reduced in our army.

I have many a time on the march, while a division and corps commander, been glad to get a hard cracker and a very small piece of uncooked bacon for my dinner, and I have been often thankful on the road to a soldier for a biscuit from his haversack which he himself had baked, after mixing up the flour on an India rubber cloth, which he had secured on some battlefield. When our money became so depreciated as to be worth only from five to ten cents on the dollar, many of the company officers were compelled from necessity to eat with their men of the scanty food furnished them.

I have seen commissioned officers often, marching on foot with their pantaloons out behind, their coats out at the elbow and their toes sticking out of their shoes, with but a pretence for a sole, while they had but the shirt that was on their backs as their whole supply of linen. I have seen this the case with gentlemen of refinement, whose means before the war had enabled them to live with every desirable comfort, yet they submitted cheerfully not only to this, but to actual hunger; and I have seen them go into battle with the proud tread of heroes, encouraging their men, cheering over the victory, or bravely meeting death in defence of a country which could treat them no better.

What these men were content with, the prisoners taken by their valor, and who had been so well pampered in their own country, thought proper to regard, when furnished them, as evidence of a disposition to starve them. Not only was our army so meagrely supplied with [295] what was necessary not only to its comfort, but to its very existence, but our people everywhere were pinched for the necessaries of life. Gentlemen, ladies, and children, who had been accustomed to every indulgence and luxury, were very often put to the utmost straits for clothes to wear and meat and bread to eat, and while this was the case with them there was a long, long list of the wives and the children of the privates in the ranks fighting for their homes and their altars, who were on the very brink of actual starvation.

Now, I ask, in the name of all that is sacred, did they expect that the men who had come down to make war upon a people so reduced by their barbarous acts to the very verge of starvation and nakedness should, when taken in battle, be fed and clothed better than the men who, sacrificing all mere personal considerations, were so bravely meeting their foes in deadly strife, while their wives, children, mothers and sisters were starving?

There is talk about the food furnished the sick and wounded as being unsuited for their condition. I will mention an incident that occurred under my own observation. While we were at Spottsylvania Court-House in May, 1864, battling with such immense odds, I was in command of a corps, and I received a message to come to General Lee's headquarters at night on one occasion for the purpose of receiving some instructions from him. General Lee was then himself suffering with a dysentery which had reduced him very much, and rendered all of us who were aware of his condition exceedingly uneasy, for we knew that if he failed all was gone.

When I arrived, his dinner and supper, both in one, were just ready and I was invited in to partake of the meal, and I found it to consist of, what to me was most acceptable, a scant supply of hard crackers, fried fat bacon, and a beverage made as a substitute for coffee out of parched wheat, without sugar, and this was all. This was what the foremost commander of the age was reduced to in the then critical condition of his health. [296] Such fare, if furnished to a sick or wounded Federal soldier, would have been regarded as evidence of a barbarous purpose to cause his death. To inflame the minds of the Northern people and prejudice the civilized world against us, an investigation was had before a committee of the Federal Congress who made a report upon “rebel atrocities,” founded on the testimony of men who swore to some things they had seen, many that they had heard, and a great many more that they had neither seen nor heard.

The press was flooded with stories of cruel treatment, illustrated by pictures, and during the war every device was resorted to, to fix upon us the stigma of barbarous treatment of the prisoners in our hands. After the close of the war a poor feeble foreigner, Captain Wirz, who had been in our service, and was then on the very verge of the grave from wounds received in battle, was selected as a victim to be sacrificed to the demands of the North for more blood, and, after a farce of a trial, was hung for alleged cruelty to prisoners. As a specimen of the evidence given on his trial, it is only necessary to mention that of Boston Corbet, the man who killed Booth, while the latter, with a fractured leg, was in a house in flames and surrounded by a large party of Federal cavalry, by slipping up to the side of the house and firing his revolver through a crack.

Boston Corbet testified on the trial of Wirz, stating that he was a prisoner at Andersonville, and among other atrocities testified to, by him, he mentioned the fact that bloodhounds were kept to pursue escaped prisoners, and he said that he himself with some others made an escape, and the bloodhounds were put on the track; that while he was concealed in the bushes, one of the bloodhounds came up and rubbed its nose against his. When asked why the hound did not do any mischief to him, he said that he served the same Lord that Daniel served when in the lions' den.

There were many other witnesses in whose stories [297] there was as little truth as in that of Boston Corbet, and “rebel” witnesses were denounced as unworthy of credit unless they would prove renegades and endeavor to propitiate their masters by turning against their comrades. Even poor Wirz himself was offered his life if he would testify against the high officials of the Confederate Government, but he was too true a man and Christian to attempt to save himself from his unjust sentence by perjuring his soul; and he, therefore, suffered on the gallows.

To appreciate at its proper worth the evidence of the witnesses who have tried to fix upon the Confederate authorities this iniquitous charge of maltreatment of prisoners, it is only necessary to refer to the evidence of the general officers of the Federal Army before the Congressional Committee on the War. Let any candid man read, for instance, the evidence contained in that part of the report which refers to the battle of Gettysburg and the operations of the Army of the Potomac under Meade, where there is such palpable conflict, not as to opinions merely, but as to facts; and when he has determined in his mind which of those general officers tell the truth and which do not, let him say how much credence is to be given to the stories of those men who testified as to the horrors of Andersonville, and other Confederate prisons. When the general officers of the army were so loose in their testimony as to important facts affecting each other, what was to be expected of the subordinates and the privates, when testifying against their enemies?

It is very easy to raise the cry of “rebel” when any statement is put forth on the part of the Confederate authorities; and that is conceded a sufficient answer. The same cry would invalidate the testimony of General Lee or “StonewallJackson. If such atrocities were committed as those alleged, why is it that poor Wirz is the solitary victim offered up in expiation of the thousands of victims who, it is said, died from the effects of the [298] atrocities? The popular heart at the time of his sacrifice thirsted for blood, notwithstanding the oceans that flowed during the war, but when the first frenzy was over the more cautious panderers to the tastes of their countrymen felt that there was danger of shocking the minds of the civilized world, and desisted.

If poor Wirz was guilty, he was the least guilty of all those charged with the same crime, and was but a mere instrument in the hands of others. His executioners owed it to themselves and to the cause of truth and justice to bring the others to trial in order to vindicate their action in his case, and failing in this, they must stand before the world as his murderers. Sufferings there were doubtless at Andersonville and other prisons, but how could they be avoided?

Our men in the army were suffering, and our women at home were suffering. Could the men who came down to kill and plunder us expect a better fate than that which befell our own soldiers and people? Many perhaps died from the want of proper medicines, but thousands upon thousands of our own wounded and sick died from the same cause. Who deprived us of the means of getting medicines? When we could not feed, clothe, and provide for these prisoners in such a manner as would satisfy them, whose fault was it that they were not released to be cared for by their own friends? Who issued the order forbidding their being paroled? Who put a stop to the exchange? Was it to be expected that we would turn those men loose to come back again to kill and plunder our people?

Kindred to this is another charge of plundering and disfiguring the dead. Now as to the question of plundering, I cannot but think that it is more cruel to plunder the living than the dead, especially if the living be helpless women and children. I presume it is not necessary to state the reasons why I entertain this opinion.

It is to me a little strange that the men who applauded [299] Butler, Banks, Milroy, Sherman, and Sheridan, for plundering and rendering utterly desolate the houses of thousands of woman and children, should complain that our barefooted soldiers took the shoes from the feet of some of the men who had been engaged in this plunder and were killed in order that they might not be able to follow and fight the rest.

I have myself but too often seen in the track of the Federal armies the evidence of how they plundered and destroyed the property of our people. Not content with taking provisions, cattle, horses, sheep and other things which they might use, they often took what was of no earthly use to them as soldiers, and destroyed what they could not carry away. I have seen where they had torn up the clothes of the women and children, hacked to pieces furniture, pianos, and other articles, destroying valuable papers and books, burned besides houses, plows, carts and a variety of such things. This I have seen in not a few instances, but I have seen whole communities rendered destitute in this way.

They also burned all our factories and tanneries which they could reach, taking the hides out of the vats in the latter and cutting them to pieces. When a man is naked and barefooted, is he to be blamed for taking such articles as he needs from the dead body of his enemy who has thus treated him or his comrades, in order that he may still continue to fight the despoilers of his home and his country? Let the man who is disposed to condemn him put the case to himself. He is plundered and robbed, and perhaps some of his family or friends killed, he pursues his plunderers and succeeds in killing one of them, but he finds himself faint and sorefooted from the want of shoes, and is therefore unable to continue the pursuit. Will he hesitate to strip the shoes from the feet of his fallen enemy to enable him to resume the task of recovering his own and chastising his other enemies? [300]

On one occasion, a very worthy chaplain in our army on riding over a battlefield found a soldier pulling the shoes from the feet of a dead Federal soldier, and this being new to him, his feelings were rather shocked. Speaking to the soldier he said: “My friend, if I were in your place, I would have more respect for the dead, and not do that.” The soldier, looking at the comfortable pair of boots which the chaplain by good luck was able to sport, said: “Sir, I have as much respect for the dead as you or any other man, but if you had marched as long as I have without any shoes, and your feet were as sore as mine, you would not think it so wrong to take these shoes which can't do this man any good now, and will do me a great deal.” The chaplain was silenced, and that was the whole question in a few words.

As to the other part of the charge, about disfiguring the bodies, I do not presume our enemies themselves believe it, though it was their policy to show that we were barbarous, and this was set forth in the report of a Congressional Committee. I was on many battlefields beginning with first Manassas, both during and after the battles, and I slept on some, with the enemy's dead lying all around me. I never in a solitary case saw any evidence of any such treatment, and I never heard of any except from the reports put in circulation.

As I have passed along over the ground when we were fighting I have had some of the wounded appeal to me, saying they were informed by their officers that we killed all the wounded, and I have ordered them to be carried off and cared for. It was the policy to circulate such reports in regard to the treatment of prisoners, the wounded, and the dead, not only to inflame the minds of the Northern people in order to induce them to give a hearty support to the war, but to make the soldiers in the army fight more obstinately; and there were not wanting witnesses to aid the authorities by their testimony. [301]

The appeal may be safely made to the world to decide these charges against the comrades of General Robert E. Lee and “StonewallJackson, and now that the war is over, it would seem that we might even “appeal from Philip drunk to Philip sober,” but it will seem as if such critics had not allowed those passions to subside, by which they were intoxicated during the existence of active hostilities.

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