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The true story of Andersonville told by a Federal prisoner

By Edward Wellington Boate.
[In our discussion of the “Treatment of prisoners” we introduced the testimony of a number of Federal prisoners to refute the wholesale slanders against us, which had been published in every form and scattered over the world. We have recently met with the following, which is No. 6 of a series of articles which Mr. Boate published in the New York News in July, 1865. We regret that we have not the full series, for, from this specimen, we are satisfied they would all be valuable additions to our large collection of material. But the paper we give below (coming from a man who was twelve months a prisoner, who was in position to know whereof he affirms, who was a member of the commission sent to Washington by the prisoners to endeavor to effect an exchange, and who published his statements at a time when he had to [26] face great obliquy to do so) will be found of great interest as well as valuable testimony on points we made in the discussion :]

The bread was badly baked, the bakery being run night and day; the ten thousand prisoners--the number originally intended to be confined at Andersonville — having risen to thirty-eight thousand, and, in addition to the fact that many of our men engaged in the bakery had very little sympathy with the poor men in the stockade, and took as little trouble with their work as possible, they were themselves overtasked. Hence the bread was badly baked. Besides, our men were not used to corn bread, a fact which used to mate the Georgians wonder, as they grew fat on corn bred, just as the healthiest and most ablebodied Irishman you could meet at a fair was a man whose principal food was potatoes.

The water was diarrhoeal — a fact which was as injurious to the health of the Confederate authorities in that locality as to our men. But this difficulty was partially obviated by the digging of innumerable wells in various parts of the prison, and excellent water obtained, which the well diggers monopolized and sold for a cent a glass to those who had no claim on the wells.

But our men were great sufferers, and deaths were alarmingly on the increase. The Confederate doctors were, as I have already said, themselves startled and alarmed at the progress of disease and death. But they seemed powerless to check it. I can honestly say — and every man who was connected with the hospital department will bear me out — that the twenty-five or thirty Confederate surgeons who were in attendance at the hospital and in the stockade, acted with as much humanity to-ward the prisoners as the disheartening circumstances would permit. We were often a fortnight without being able to get medicine. They had no quinine for fever and ague; they had no opium for diarrhoea and dysentery. Our government made medicine a contraband of war, and wherever they found medicine on a blockade runner, it was confiscated, a policy which indicated, on the part of our rulers, both ignorance and barbaric cruelty; for, although no amount of medicine would save many of our men who have laid their bones in Georgia, I am as certain as I am of my own existence, that hundreds of men died, who, if we had had the right sort and proper quantity of medicine, would have been living to-day and restored to their families.

Scurvy was another disease which was making formidable inroads upon the health of the prisoners, but vegetables could not be had for love or money, although for miles the country was scoured, and I knew [27] Chief Surgeon White to pay from a hundred to two hundred dollars for a quantity of squashes, collards, onions and other garden stuff which could have been purchased in Fulton or Washington market for five or six dollars; although a “greenback” in Andersonville rated at only four times the value of a Confederate dollar — at Richmond it was rated at ten and twelve Confederate dollars. These vegetables were necessarily, from their limited quantity, confined to the hospital. In addition to this the hospital was supplied with eggs, no doubt in limited quantities. [Three dollars in greenbacks for a dozen of eggs.] Fresh beef was supplied to the hospital two or three times a week, and sometimes to the stockade, when it could be had, cattle having for this purpose been sought for miles around the country.

The hospital and sick men in the stockade were supplied with whiskey, three and four barrels having been some days brought into headquarters, and regular details of our own men appointed to distribute it, who, however, often drank the rations themselves. The hospital was supplied with tea and sugar, not abundantly to be sure, but hospitals, even in New York city, are not over-abundantly supplied with such articles.

Nevertheless, great misery prevailed in the stockade. But it was inevitable from the circumstances. The men, two out of every three, had no change of underclothing, and although there was water enough to wash them, they could not get soap, an article of which the Confederate authorities were themselves especially in need. The bodies of our men, and indeed the minds, had become prostrated from long confinement, in many instances sixteen and twenty months. There were gathered into one prison, by the force of events, nearly forty thousand men, to be provided with food, and five thousand with medicine. They were deprived of their accustomed food, and had to live upon the same kind of rations, day after day, nearly the whole of the time. But none, except those who have gone through the mill, know what a tremendous task it is to provide daily rations for such a vast multitude of human beings.

There are some special facts I wish to state of my own knowledge, as they will throw some light on this unhappy subject. It has been stated over and over, and reiterated in a thousand different shapes, that the Confederate authorities meant to starve our men. But I, who was twelve months a prisoner of war, and suffered sickness, and cold, and hunger, in common with the other prisoners, deny this flatly, for, while we all suffered, there was no desire to inflict suffering or hardship upon Federal prisoners. Why, the Confederate authorities were suffering [28] many a privation at Andersonville. The surgeons who were in attendance upon the sick had not decent shoes or stockings; their shoes and boots being in many instances so patched, that the original leather out of which they had been manufactured had become invisible. These gentlemen, men of education and professional ability, and who were reared in luxury, did not know often — while giving their services daily and nightly to such a host of prisoners — where to look for a dinner or a bed. During the six months I was in Andersonville, not one of them received a dollar's pay. The consequence was, that they had been turned out of their boarding houses in the adjacent villages and country houses, and Dr. White, head surgeon, had to provide quarters for them as best he might. These surgeons had often to share the tents of the paroled Federal prisoners. Dr. White himself was often glad to get even a share of the prison rations — corn bread and ham — while engaged in his official and professional duties; often for fourteen or fifteen hours without intermission. He was an able surgeon, humane, enlightened, abstemious and self-denying, and had all the high-souled chivalry and deportment of the best of the F. F. V's.

In this connection, let me refer to Captain Wirz, the Commandant of the prison, who was generally regarded as being very harsh. But his position should be considered. He was a mere keeper of prisoners — a work which can never be popular. The Yankees were nightly and indeed daily trying to run away, as they were bound to do; but he said he was bound to catch them wherever he could find them. Between the jailer and the jailed, there could not and never can be any peculiar love; but, under a rough exterior, more often assumed then felt, this Captain Wirz was as kind-hearted a man as I ever met. Being myself at headquarters I learned his character, and the opinion I formed of him when in the stockade, which was one of a bitter kind enough, I had to change when I came really to know the man. The first collision between Captain Wirz and his prisoners was, when on the 17th of March he wanted to squad them off, for the purpose of exactly ascertaining the number of rations that would be needed at that date, the men wanted to play a flank movement, so as to get counted in two squads, and thereby get double rations. Half the prisoners were placed at the south side of the “swamp,” the other at the north side. When the Confederate sergeants counted the squads at the north side, and dismissed each squad as counted and named, hundreds of them dodged across the “swamp” and got into the southern side squads by the time the sergeants were able to get across, in order to get double rations, giving different names to those they went by at the other side. But the number of prisoners [29] sent into the stockade had been kept carefully at headquarters, and it was found that some two thousand had attempted the “flank movement,” that is some two thousand more rations were returned on the count in the prison than could be accounted for. The trick was discovered, and as it was perpetrated on the north side the captain stopped their rations that day, but gave them to the south side of the prison.

This caused bad blood between the north side and the captain. The men groaned him when he entered, and henceforth there was an intermittent feud; but the men who attempted this trick ought to have known and done better. In quantity the rations were double, whatever other drawbacks there might have been.

Every night men worked at the tunneling from under some tent, out, under and at the other side of the stockade; but there was always some traitor in camp who informed on the “conspirators,” just as the tunnel was completed. When discovered, the captain would ride in at the head of his guards and march to the exact spot where the tunnel was to be found. But, although nightly discovered, the men worked like beavers at “tunneling” in some other part of the camp; but I do not believe that a single one of those tunnels ever proved successful. The captain was thus kept in hot water, and being a man of a by no means mild temper, he often cursed and damned, but that was all.

Men were, however, nightly making their escape over the stockade, by bribing the guards, and by other dodges; and, though they often had a five hours start, the hounds being sent in pursuit, they were almost invariably overtaken and brought back, when they were for some days put in ball and chain, and sent back to the stockade; but they were no sooner inside than they managed to file off the ball and chain, only appearing in their (sham) pedal bracelets every morning during the counting of the men by the Confederate sergeants. As an evidence that Wirz was actuated by no desire to inflict hardship upon our men, I heard him often exclaim, when a new batch of some five or six hundred prisoners would come: “I would as soon send these unfortunate men into h — l as into that d — d bull pen. It sickens me.”

The men often arrived at the prison without a blanket or any sort of “kit;” and in they marched and had to make their lodging on the cold ground. At this time every branch and leaf for miles around had been cut down to make tents; and men had, when permitted to haul firewood, to go several miles around the country under guard. It often happened, by the by, that on these occasions the Federal soldiers would, when a sufficient distance from the stockade, lay hands on the guard, “buck and gag” him, take away his gun, and make their escape. [30]

Many of the men were suffering sadly for want of tents to keep them from the fierce rays of the sun and the equally fierce rain which often fell for ten or twelve hours together. It will here be asked, as it has often been asked before, “Why did not the Confederate authorities at Andersonville give our men wooden huts in a woody country?” This question has been often asked, and never answered. Yet it can be fairly, if not quite satisfactorily, explained.

Day after day in May and June the papers were bringing us authentic reports that exchange was at hand. Exchange became a fixed fact for some time. The commissioners had met at City Point, and General Grant had gone to Fortress Monroe, and the basis of exchange, as arranged by the commissioners, had been approved by the Lieutenant-General. But disappointment was sure to follow, and no exchange was visible. At one period, during a long interval of disappointment, I saw a plan drawn up at headquarters for the erection of wooden barracks, so ingenious and comprehensive that 40,000 men could be conveniently housed in prison; and the wood was commenced to be cut down for the purpose. In mid-career an official report reached headquarters that exchange would be commenced in ten days from date, and wood-cutting was given up as superfluous. In a few weeks, toward the close of July, General Stoneman's raid at Macon took place, and the Confederates immediately commenced, with their available help of niggers, to fortify Andersonville, which they certainly believed was to be immediately attacked. At this very period Dr. White, who had started for Macon to hurry up medicine, was stopped at Fort Valley, half-way between Andersonville and Macon; and, instead of coming back with medicine, came to his office armed to the teeth, announcing to the surgeons that they must help to defend the place, according to the instructions of General Winder, as the prison was to be immediately attacked. We, Federal paroled prisoners, it was announced, were to be sent down to the hospital. The cannon planted around headquarters, which dominated the prison, were charged and manned, and everything ready for defense. During the previous week of rumors of attack, huge breast-works were thrown up by niggers who labored at them night as well as day. Stoneman was, however, himself captured, and the excitement passed away. Thoughts of changing the location of the prison occupied the minds of the authorities, as they did not know what moment the prison would be attacked and the prisoners carried off. Confusion, apprehension and dread filled the minds of the Andersonville officers.

Things, however, soon calmed down. A few weeks previously, a great movement had taken place in the prison. The great paramount [31] idea of the prisoners was exchange. They accordingly called a great meeting, and after some preliminary proceedings, resolutions, and a memorial to President Lincoln, were adopted, asking, in view of the suffering and mortality of our men, that he should agree to an exchange of prisoners, as the Confederates were willing to exchange man for man, and officer for officer, leaving the excess of prisoners at which ever side found. Six prisoners, including myself as Chairman, were appointed a Commission to proceed to Washington, and lay the whole question before the Executive. This was toward the close of August. After some negotiations with General Winder, the balance of twenty-one men due to our government, the six delegates being included, were permitted to come North; and on our way through Macon we met General Stoneman at Prison Oglethorpe, where the Federal officers were confined, and he gave us a letter to the President, strongly urging the necessity of exchange, not for the officers he said, but for the brave men who had fought so gallantly in the field, and suffered so much in prison, and begging the President to forego all idea of the exchange of negroes, if that were the point which stood in the way.

Down to Charleston. Arriving at Pocotaligo, we were exchanged — that is, nine out of the twenty-one, two of the commissioners being kept back, although the twelve not exchanged might as well have been, as there were plenty Confederate prisoners at Beaufort, only a dozen miles away.

Arriving in New York, the four commissioners applied for the necessary transportation at General Dix's office. It was refused, although Colonel Hall, Deputy Provost Marshal at Hilton Head, had given us letters to the headquarters of the department of the east, stating our mission, etc. The Sanitary Commission, however, supplied the transportation, and three of the commissioners proceeded to Washington, I remaining, however, in this city through illness, although I was not idle. They wrote to the President, and reported the object of their visit on three consecutive days; but it distresses me to state that the representatives of thirty-eight thousand Union prisoners were treated with silent contempt, the President declining to see them or have any communication with them!!!

For obvious reasons I shall be silent as to the motive of President Lincoln in his treatment of the delegation. But I cannot help stating that the lives of some ten or twelve thousand men might have been spared had an exchange justly, I will not add generously, taken place at this period.

From February to the end of August there were some six thousand [32] deaths at Andersonville from various causes, circumstances and diseases. This number, I understand, before exchange took place, or our government consented to do so, reached some fifteen or sixteen thousand.

General Winder remarked to us before we quitted Andersonville, that the object of our government in refusing to exchange was that they felt it hard to give soldiers for civilians. “The time,” added he, “of thousands of those unhappy men in that stockade is out many months; thousand of others are rendered worthless for soldiers through long confinement, disease and privations — for I will admit that we have not the resources to treat your men as we would wish.”

Since I returned to the North, Winder's words were confirmed, for it was semi-officially stated to me that, “It might look very hard that we refused to exchange; but we could not afford to do so. We would have to give a number of strong, well fed, available soldiers for a number of men broken down from campaigning, disease, and out of the service by the expiration of their term.”

A policy like this is the quintessence of inhumanity, a disgrace to the Administration which carried it out, and a blot upon the country. You rulers who make the charge that the rebels intentionally killed off our men, when I can honestly swear. they were doing every thing in their power to sustain us, do not lay this flattering unction to your souls. You abandoned your brave men in the hour of their cruelest need. They fought for the Union, and you reached no hand out to save the old faithful, loyal, and devoted servants of the country. You may try to shift the blame from your own shoulders, but posterity will saddle the responsibility where it justly belongs.

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