The treatment of prisoners during the war between the States.
[Compiled by Secretary of Southern Historical Society.]There is, perhaps, no subject connected with the late war which more imperatively demands discussion at our hands than the Prison Question. That the Confederate Government should have been charged in the heat of the passions of the war with a systematic cruelty to prisoners was to be expected. The pulpits, the press, and the Government reports, which were so busy denouncing “Rebel barbarities” that they had no censure for the McNeils, the Turchins, the Butlers, the Milroys, the Hunters, the Shermans, and the Sheridans, who, under the flag of “Liberty,” perpetrated crimes which disgrace the age, were not to be expected to be over scrupulous in originating and retailing slanders against the Government and people of the South. But it was hoped that after the passions of the war had cooled, and the real facts had become accessible, that these sweeping charges would be at least modified, and these bitter denunciations cease. We have been doomed to a sad disappointment. The leader of the Radical party (Mr. Blaine) has recently in his place in the United States Congress revived all of the charges which twelve years ago “fired the Northern heart,” and has marred the music of the “Centennial chimes,” with such language as this:
Mr. Davis was the author, knowingly, deliberately, guiltily and wilfully, of the gigantic murder and crime at Andersonville. And I here, before God, measuring my words, knowing their full extent and import, declare that neither the deeds of the Duke of Alva in the Low countries, nor the massacre of Saint Bartholomew, nor the thumb-screws and engines of torture of the Spanish Inquisition, begin to compare in atrocity with the hideous crimes of Andersonville.He then quotes and endorses the following extract from the report  of the ex parte committee of Congress who examined this question at a time when passion was at its flood tide:
The subsequent history of Andersonville has startled and shocked the world with a tale of horror, of woe and death before unheard and unknown to civilization. No pen can describe, no painter sketch, no imagination comprehend its fearful and unutterable iniquity. It would seem as if the concentrated madness of earth and hell had found its final lodgment in the breasts of those who inaugurated the rebellion and controlled the policy of the Confederate Government, and that the prison at Andersonville had been selected for the most terrible human sacrifice which the world had ever seen. Into its narrow walls were crowded thirty-five thousand enlisted men, many of them the bravest and best, the most devoted and heroic of those grand armies which carried the flag of their country to final victory. For long and weary months here they suffered, maddened, were murdered, and died. Here they lingered, unsheltered from the burning rays of a tropical sun by day, and drenching and deadly dews by night, in every stage of mental and physical disease, hungered, emaciated, starving, maddened; festering with unhealed wounds; gnawed by the ravages of scurvy and gangrene; with swollen limb and distorted visage; covered with vermin which they had no power to extirpate; exposed to the flooding rains which drove them drowning from the miserable holes in which, like swine, they burrowed; parched with thirst and mad with hunger; racked with pain or prostrated with the weakness of dissolution; with naked limbs and matted hair; filthy with smoke and mud; soiled with the very excrement from which their weakness would not permit them to escape; eaten by the gnawing worms which their own wounds had engendered; with no bed but the earth; no covering save the cloud or the sky; these men, these heroes, born in the image of God, thus crouching and writhing in their terrible torture and calculating barbarity, stand forth in history as a monument of the surpassing horrors of Andersonville as it shall be seen and read in all future time, realizing in the studied torments of their prison-house the ideal of Dante's Inferno and Milton's Hell.So industriously have these statements been circulated — so generally have they entered into the literature of the North--so widely have they been believed, that the distinguished gentleman from Georgia (Hon. B. H. Hill), who ventured upon a calm reply, in which he ably refuted the assertions of Mr. Blaine, has been denounced by the Radical press as a “co-conspirator with Jeff. Davis to murder Union prisoners,” and has been told by even some of our own papers that his speech was “very unfortunate.” As we have in the archives of our Society the means of triumphantly vindicating the Confederate Government from the charge  of cruelty to prisoners, as we have been appealed to by leading men North and South and in Europe to give the facts in reference to this matter, and as the present seems an opportune time, we have decided to enter upon the task. We have only to premise that our work is mainly one of compilation, and that our chief difficulty is which documents to select from the vast number which we have in our collection.
The question stated.Let it be distinctly understood that we do not for a moment affirm that there was not a vast amount of suffering and fearful mortality among the Federal prisoners at the South. But we are prepared to prove before any fair tribunal, from documents now in our archives, the following points: 1. The Confederate authorities always ordered the kind treatment of prisoners of war, and if there were individual cases of cruel treatment it was in violation of positive orders. 2. The orders were to give prisoners the same rations that our own soldiers received, and if rations were scarce and of inferior quality it was through no fault of the Confederacy. 3. The prison-hospitals were put on the same footing precisely as the hospitals for our own men, and if there was unusual suffering caused by want of medicine and hospital stores it arose from the fact that the Federal authorities declared these “contraband of war,” and refused to accept the Confederate offer to allow Federal surgeons to come to the prisons with supplies of medicines and stores. 4. The prisons were established with reference to healthfulness of locality, and the great mortality among the prisoners arose from epidemics and chronic diseases which our surgeons had not the means of preventing or arresting. A strong proof of this is the fact that nearly as large a proportion of the Confederate guard at Andersonville died as of the prisoners themselves. 5. The above reasons cannot be assigned for the cruel treatment which Confederates received in Northern prisons. Though in a land flowing with plenty, our poor fellows in prison were famished with hunger, and would have considered half the rations served Federal soldiers bountiful indeed. Their prison-hospitals were very far from being on the same footing with the hospitals for their own soldiers, and our men died by thousands from causes which the Federal authorities could have prevented.  6. But the real cause of the suffering on both sides was the stoppage of the exchange of prisoners, and for this the Federal authorities alone were responsible. The Confederates kept the cartel in good faith. It was broken on the other side. The Confederates were anxious to exchange man for man. It was the settled policy on the other side not to exchange prisoners. The Confederates offered to exchange sick and wounded. This was refused. In August, 1864, we offered to send home all the Federal sick and wounded without equivalent. The offer was not accepted until the following December, and it was during that period that the greatest mortality occurred. The Federal authorities determined as their war policy not to exchange prisoners, they invented every possible pretext to avoid it, and they at the same time sought to quiet the friends of their prisoners and to “fire the Northern heart” by most shamelessly charging that the Confederate Government refused to exchange, and by industriously circulating the most malignant stories of “Rebel barbarities” to helpless veterans of the Union. 7. But the charge of cruelty made against the Confederate leaders is triumphantly refuted by such facts as these: The official reports of Secretary Stanton and Surgeon General Barnes show that a much larger per cent. of Confederates perished in Northern prisons than of Federals in Southern prisons. And though the most persistent efforts were made to get up a case against President Davis, General Lee, and others (even to the extent of offering poor Wirz a reprieve if he would implicate them), they were not able to secure testimony upon which even Holt and his military court dared to go into the trial. It may be well, before discussing the question in its full details, to introduce the
Testimony of leading Confederateswho are implicated in this charge of cruel treatment to prisoners And first we give a recent letter of ex-President Davis in reply to Mr. Blaine's charges:
We next introduce
The testimony of General R. E. Lee,who was Commander-in-Chief of the Confederate armies, who has been widely charged with being particeps criminis in this matter, but whom the world will ever believe to have been as incapable of connivance at a cruel act as he was of the slightest departure from the strictest accuracy of statement. The following is an extract from his sworn testimony before the Congressional Reconstruction Committee:
Question. By Mr. Howard: “I wish to inqure whether you had any knowledge of the cruelties practiced toward the Union prisoners at Libby Prison and on Belle Isle?” Answer. “I never knew that any cruelty was practiced, and I have no reason to believe that it was practiced. I can believe, and have reason to believe, that privations may have been experienced by the prisoners, because I know that provision and shelter could not be provided for them.” Q. “Were you not aware that the prisoners were dying from cold and starvation?” A. “I was not.” Q. “Did these scenes come to your knowledge at all?” A. “Never. No report was ever made to me about them. There was no call for any to be made to me. I did hear — it was mere hearsay — that statements had been made to the War Department, and that everything had been done to relieve them that could be done, even finally so far as to offer to send them to some other points — Charleston was one point named — if they would be received by the United States authorities and taken to their homes; but whether this is true or not I do not know.” Q. “And of course you know nothing of the scenes of cruelty about which complaints have been made at those places' (Andersonville and Salisbury)?” A. “Nothing in the world, as I said before. I  suppose they suffered for want of ability on the part of the Confederate States to supply their wants. At the very beginning of the war I knew that there was suffering of prisoners on both sides, but as far as I could I did everything in my power to relieve them, and to establish the cartel which was agreed upon.” Q. “It has been frequently asserted that the Confederate soldiers feel more kindly toward the Government of the United States than any other people of the South. What are your observations on that point?” A. “From the Confederate soldiers I have heard no expression of any other opinion. They looked upon the war as a necessary evil, and went through it. I have seen them relieve the wants of Federal soldiers on the field. The orders always were that the whole field should be treated alike. Parties were sent out to take the Federal wounded as well as the Confederate, and the surgeons were told to treat the one as they did the other. These orders given by me were respected on every field.” Q. “Do you think that the good feeling on their part toward the rest of the people has continued since the close of the war?” A. “I know nothing to the contrary. I made several efforts to exchange the prisoners after the cartel was suspended. I do not know to this day which side took the initiative. I know there were constant complaints on both sides. I merely know it from public rumors. I offered to General Grant, around Richmond, that we should ourselves exchange all the prisoners in our hands. There was a communication from the Christian Commission, I think, which reached me at Petersburg, and made application to me for a passport to visit all the prisoners South. My letter to them I suppose they have. I told them I had not that authority, that it could only be obtained from the War Department at Richmond, but that neither they nor I could relieve the sufferings of the prisoners; that the only thing to be done for them was to exchange them; and, to show that I would do whatever was in my power, I offered them to send to City Point all the prisoners in Virginia and North Carolina over which my command extended, provided they returned an equal number of mine, man for man. I reported this to the War Department, and received for answer that they would place at my command all the prisoners at the South if the proposition was accepted. I heard nothing more on the subject.”The following private letter to a friend and relative was never intended for the public eye, but may be accepted as his full conviction on this subject:
 Mr. Davis and the Confederate authorities “constitute one of the boldest and baldest attempted outrages upon the truth of history which has ever been essayed.” After briefly, but most conclusively, discussing the general question, Mr. Stevens continues as follows in reference to the Federal prisoners sent South:
Large numbers of them were taken to Southwestern Georgia in 1864, because it was a section most remote and secure from the invading Federal armies, and because, too, it was a country of all others then within the Confederate limits, not thus threatened with an invasion, most abundant with food, and all resources at command for the health and comfort of prisoners. They were put in one stockade for the want of men to guard more than one. The section of country, moreover, was not regarded as more unhealthy, or more subject to malarious influences, than any in the central part of the State. The official order for the erection of the stockade enjoined that it should be in “a healthy locality, plenty of pure water, a running stream, and, if possible, shade trees, and in the immediate neighborhood of grist and saw mills.” The very selection of the locality, :so far from being, as you suppose, made with cruel designs against the prisoners, was governed by the most humane considerations. Your question might, with much more point, be retorted by asking, why were Southern prisoners taken in the dead of winter with their thin clothing to Camp Douglas, Rock Island and Johnson's Island-icy regions of the North--where it is a notorious fact that many of them actually froze to death? As far as mortuary returns afford evidence of the general treatment of prisoners on both sides, the figures show nothing to the disadvantage of the Confederates, notwithstanding their limited supplies of all kinds, and notwithstanding all that has been said of the horrible sacrifice of life at Andersonville. It now appears that a larger number of Confederates died in Northern than of Federals in Southern prisons or stockades. The report of Mr. Stanton, as Secretary of War, on the 19th of July, 1866, exhibits the fact that, of the Federal prisoners in Confederate hands during the war, only 22,576 died; while of the Confederate prisoners in Federal hands 26,436 died. This report does not set forth the exact number of prisoners held by each side respectively. These facts were given more in detail in a subsequent report by Surgeon General Barnes, of the United States Army. His report I have not seen, but according to a statement editorially, in the National Intelligencer--very high authority — it appears from the Surgeon General's report, that the whole number of Federal prisoners captured by the Confederates and held in Southern prisons, from first to  last during the war, was, in round numbers, 270,000; while the whole number of Confederates captured and held in prisons by the Federals was, in like round numbers, only 220,000. From these two reports it appears that, with 50,000 more prisoners in Southern stockades, or other modes of confinement, the deaths were nearly 4,000 less! According to these figures, the per centum of Federal deaths in Southern prisons was under nine! while the per centum of Confederate deaths in Northern prisons was over twelve! These mortality statistics are of no small weight in determining on which side was the most neglect, cruelty and inhumanity! But the question in this matter is, upon whom does this tremendous responsibility rest of all this sacrifice of human life, with all its indescribable miseries and sufferings? The facts, beyond question or doubt, show that it rests entirely upon the authorities at Washington! It is now well understood to have been a part of their settled policy in conducting the war not to exchange prisoners. The grounds upon which this extraordinary course was adopted were that it was humanity to the men in the field, on their side, to let their captured comrades perish tin prison, rather than to let an equal number of Confederate soldiers be released on exchange to meet them in battle! Upon the Federal authorities, and upon them only, with this policy as their excuse, rests the whole of this responsibility. To avert the indignation which the open avowal of this policy by them at the time would have excited throughout the North, and throughout the civilized world, the false cry of cruelty towards prisoners was raised against the Confederates. This was but a pretext to cover their own violation of the usages of war in this respect among civilized nations. Other monstrous violations of like usages were not attempted to be palliated by them, or even covered by a pretext. These were, as you must admit, open, avowed and notorious! I refer only to the general sacking of private houses — the pillaging of money, plate, jewels and other light articles of value, with the destruction of books, works of art, paintings, pictures, private manuscripts and family relics; but I allude, besides these things, especially to the hostile acts directly against property of all kinds, as well as outrages upon non-combatants — to the laying waste of whole sections of country; the attempted annihilation of all the necessaries of life; to the wanton killing, in many instances, of farm stock and domestic animals; the burning of mills, factories and barns, with their contents of grain and forage, not sparing orchards or growing crops, or the implements of husbandry; the mutilation of county and municipal records of great value; the extraordinary efforts made to stir up servile insurrections, involving the wide spread slaughter of women and children; the impious profanation of temples of worship, and even the brutish desecration of the sanctuaries of the dead! All these enormities of a savage character against the very existence of civilized society, and so revolting to the natural sentiments  of mankind, when not thoroughly infuriated by the worst of passions, and in open violation of modern usages in war — were perpetrated by the Federal armies in many places throughout the conflict, as legitimate means in putting down the rebellion, so-called!--War Between the States, vol. 2, pp. 507-510.We next present the
Testimony of Hon. Robert Ould, Confederate Commissioner of exchange.The following paper was published by Judge Ould in the National Intelligencer in August, 1868. It is a calm, able, truthful exposition of the question, which has not been and cannot be answered:
We may add to the above statement that (through the courtesy of Judge Ould) we now have on our table the letter-book of our Commissioner of Exchange, containing copies of all of his official letters to the Federal authorities, and they prove, beyond the shadow of a doubt, every point which he makes. If it be replied to the above testimony that President Davis, General Lee, Vice-President Stevens and Judge Ould were “all criminals in this matter,” and that their testimony is thereby invalidated, we will not pause to defend these high-toned gentlemen, whom the verdict of history will pronounce as stainless as any public men who ever lived, but we will proceed to introduce testimony of a different character. While the Northern press was ringing with the charge of “Rebel barbarity to prisoners,” the Confederate Congress raised a joint committee of the Senate and House  of Representatives to consider the whole subject of the treatment of prisoners. The Chairman was Judge J. W. C. Watson, of Holly Springs, Mississippi, an elder of the Presbyterian Church and a pure minded, Christian gentleman, and the committee was composed of gentlemen of highest character, who were absolutely incapable of either countenancing or whitewashing cruelty to prisoners, or of subscribing their names to statements not proven to be true. After a full investigation, and the taking of a large volume of testimony, the committee submitted a report. The testimony was being printed when Richmond was evacuated, and was unfortunately consumed in the great conflagration. A few copies of the report were saved, and we have secured one for our archives, which we now give in full:
Rev. William Brown, D. D., of the Central Presbyterian, writes as follows in his paper:
So far as the intentions and orders of the Confederate Government were concerned, no blame can rest upon it. The places selected were healthy, and the food and medicines ordered were the same as those assigned to our own soldiers and hospitals. The fate of prisoners, especially if the number be large, is generally and unavoidably a hard one. When the intentions of the Government may be right, the neglect or tyranny of subordinates may render the condition of the captives miserable. We can testify from personal observation, and from an intimate acquaintance with the most unimpeachable testimony, that the treatment of our soldiers in prison was often horrible and brutal in the extreme. A vast mass of evidence had been obtained by a committee appointed by the Confederate Senate. At the head of this committee was that pure minded, eminent Christian gentleman, Judge J. W. C. Watson, of Holly Springs, Mississippi. The volume of testimony gathered from a large number of returned prisoners, men of undoubted veracity, we were invited, by the kindness of Judge Watson, to inspect. It was in the hands of the printer in Richmond when the memorable fire occured, at the time of its evacuation in April, 1865, and was unfortunately consumed in the great conflagration. But Camp Douglas, Rock Island, Johnson's Island, Elmira, Fort Delaware, and other Federal prisons, could they find a tongue, would tell a tale of horror that should forever silence all clamor about “Libby Prison” and “Belle Isle” and “Andersonville.” At Fort Delaware the misrule and suffering were probable less than at any other; yet whoever wishes to get a glimpse at the Federal prisons in their best estate, and under the control of the “best Government the world ever saw,” let him consult “Bonds of the United States Government,” a volume published last year by the Rev. I. W. K. Handy, D. D., a member of the Synod of Virginia now residing near Staunton; or let him inquire of the Rev. T. D Witherspoon, D. D., another member of the same Synod, and now  residing in Petersburg. They can both say, as victims, “We speak concerning that which we know, and testify of that we have seen.” It may be — we neither affirm here nor deny — that Wirz deserved his unhappy fate for his treatment of prisoners at Andersonville; he was a subordinate officer, and may have abused his power. But whoever shall look into that whole dreadful history of the treatment of prisoners during the war, even in the light of such imperfect evidence as it has been possible to obtain, will have to conclude that the operation of hanging ought to have been extended a great deal further, and not to have stopped till it reached certain very high quarters. The refusal of the military court to allow Judge Ould to appear as a witness for Wirz is to be noted as a most significant fact. Read his remarkable statement. He went on to Washington city, summoned by the court to give testimony in behalf of this man charged with a high crime, which put his life in peril. He was fully prepared to bring before that court certain incontestible facts which it was afraid to allow the public to hear. If they should only get before the world in such a conspicuous light, then would somebody — the coming men — have to say, “Farewell, a long farewell, to all my future greatness!” And so we have the extraordinary fact, here asserted by Judge Ould (and when did criminal jurisprudence, even in the worst acts of Jeffries, surpass its infamy?), that a witness, of the highest character, summoned by the defence was debarred from giving testimony, and was dismissed by the prosecutor! The reports of the Federal authorities show that a larger number of Confederates died in Northern than of Federal prisoners in Southern prisons or stockades. The whole number of Federal prisoners held in Confederate prisons was, from first to last, in round numbers, 270,000; while the whole number of Confederates held by the Federals was, in round numbers, 220,000. But, with 50,000 more prisoners held by the Confederates, the deaths were actually about 4,000 less. The number of Federal prisoners that died was 22,576; of Confederate prisoners, 26,436. Now let the voice of truth tell where was the greater neglect, cruelty, inhumanity. And more than this: upon which side rests the tremendous responsibility of the suffering and distress from the long imprisonment of so many thousands of soldiers? Do not the facts show, beyond a question, that it rests solely upon the authorities at Washington? The source of the documents referred to is of the most responsible character. The standing of Judge Ould and Alexander H. Stevens before the world is such as to leave no excuse for disregarding them. Besides this, they make a straightforward issue; they quote or point to their authorities for what they say, and calmly challenge contradiction. The documents were, after the surrender of General Lee, delivered over to the Federal Government, and are now on file in the city of Washington. If the letters quoted or referred to by Judge Ould are not official or genuine, their falsity can easily be shown from the original  papers. If any of his or Mr. Stephens' statements are untrue, the means of refutation are at hand; let them be produced.But we will now introduce the
Having produced the testimony of reliable witnesses who were in position to know the truth in reference to this whole question, we proceed to give a somewhat more detailed statement of the facts in reference to it.