previous next

Doc. 112.-treatment of rebel conscripts.

The following is a copy of the report of the Joint Committee of the two Houses of the Genral Assembly of Virginia, appointed to investigate the charges of abuse and inhumanity to conscripts at Camp Lee, near Richmond, Va.:

Richmond, March, 1864.
The Joint Committee, appointed “to inquire and report whether any, and if any, what abuses or inhumanity may have been practised or tolerated at Camp Lee in the treatment of conscripts,” have performed the duty assigned them, and beg leave respectfully to submit the following report:

Before entering upon the investigation required by the resolution of the General Assembly, your Committee deemed it becoming to apprise the Secretary of War of their purpose, and to request of him authority to visit Camp Lee, in order to obtain information and to enable them more thoroughly to prosecute their inquiries. To this application the Secretary promptly and courteously replied, giving the authority asked for, and expressing the pleasure he felt at the interest manifested in the conscripts by the General Assembly in the resolutions of inquiry which they had adopted and under which your Committee were acting. The letter of Mr. Seddon, together with his written authority to visit Camp Lee accompanying it, your Committee regard of sufficient importance and as due alike to the subject and the Secretary of War, to refer to and make a part of their report, and they accordingly append them, marked A and B. They think it proper to remark also in this connection, that they found the proposed investigation of the subjects committed to them had been in part anticipated by the action of the Secretary of War, before the passage of the joint resolution by the General Assembly, who, upon learning that rumors had obtained currency of suffering among the men at Camp Lee for want of wood, ordered an officer to go out and investigate the matter and make immediate report. Your Committee have been furnished with a copy of that order, and the reports thereon of Colonel Shields, the commandant of the post, and of the several officers in charge of the troops at Camp Lee, which are of interest and value as illustrating and explaining the subject and as constituting a part of the evidence upon which your Committee relied in arriving at their own conclusions. These documents are appended, marked 1 and in consecutive order.

It will be perceived that the complaints which reached the Secretary of War assumed the general form of “suffering for want of wood,” the inquiries directed by him were confined to that specific charge; and so far as the investigation under the order of the Secretary upon this head are concerned, the reports of the commandant at Camp Lee, and of his subordinate officers, seems to your Committee satisfactory, and fully acquit these officers of any neglect of duty in attending, as far as practicable, to the wants and comforts of the men in supplying them with fuel. Their statements, made in the reports to the Secretary of War, were confirmed to us in the examination we made at the interview we had with these officers. It appears that the men were furnished with all the wood allowed by the army regulations. The supply was stated to be ample in ordinary weather, but during an extremely rigorous spell of cold, such as occurred about the middle of February, it was admitted that the quantity of wood was not adequate. That some discomfort was experienced by some of the conscripts for want of sufficient fire is quite probable, but we could ascertain no individual case of the kind, and find nothing in the circumstances and evidence to fix culpability upon the officers in charge of the troops at Camp Lee, much less to sustain the allegation made through the press of inhumanity and cruelty to the conscripts, or of any extraordinary degree of suffering resulting in loss of limb or death, or even of illness from cold. It may be proper here to state, however, [460] as a fact developed in the course of our investigation that many of the newly arrived conscripts do suffer for the want of clothes and blankets. This is not the fault of the commander or his officers. It results from the circumstance that conscripts recently enrolled are sometimes hurried to camp without an opportunity being afforded them to visit home and provide themselves with clothes and blankets, and make other preparations for camp-life, but often from their own neglect to do so after ample notice. If there be blame anywhere, it is attributable to the carelessness or indifference of the enrolling officer in the country to the wants and comforts of the conscripts, or to defects in the provisions or execution of the law.

The fault lies here, and not, as your Committee are assured, in the administration of the laborious and responsible department, under the management of the commander, Colonel Shields, whose high character, urbane manners, delicate feelings of humanity, and eminent qualifications for his post forbid the conclusion that he would exercise his authority otherwise than in the most considerate and humane manner toward the conscripts under his charge, or would practise or tolerate any other than a proper care and attention to their wants and necessities. As far, therefore, as your Committee could pursue their investigation — and it was as searching as the nature of the case and their sources of information admitted — they could discover no instance of a death, cruelty, inhumanity, or even of extreme suffering or hardship. Hardships there undoubtedly are and have been; but only such, and not more severe than are incident to camp fare and a soldier's life. We are informed by the surgeon, Dr. Palmer, of a case where a man fell in a fit; but he was known to be subject to fits, and they were not produced by exposure to the cold, as the surgeon believes. It happened during the severe weather, in February, and probably gave origin to the report of inhumanity at the camp, which was so widely propagated and excited the sensibility of the General Assembly and the people.

Your Committee did not consider themselves limited in their inquiries to the rumor of suffering among the conscripts for the want of wood. Their duty embraced a wider scope. It was to examine whether any abuses or inhumanity was practised or tolerated at Camp Lee in the treatment of conscripts in any way or in any form. The General Assembly of Virginia had a special interest in the investigation, as the camp is near her capital, and the place of rendezvous for her conscript soldiers. Over them she was bound to exercise a parental care. Your Committee, therefore, proceeded to Camp Lee, and take pleasure in stating were received with politeness and courtesy by Colonel Shields, the commandant, and all the officers at the post. Every facility and opportunity were afforded them for examination and inquiry into the condition of the camp, and of the wants, necessities, accommodations, and comforts of the men. Colonel Shields himself, and all of his officers, frankly and with alacrity responded to every inquiry addressed to them touching the matter to which we directed our inquiries.

We were allowed unrestricted access to every place we desired to visit, and an officer accompanied us, to show us through the hospital, the barracks and quarters of the men, which we inspected as closely as time and our inexperienced habits in relation to such matters would enable us. We found the hospital clean, well provided with comfortable beds and bed-clothing, and, we do not doubt, the patients are attentively nursed and attended with skilful medical treatment. The large building appropriated as the principal quarters of the men, we would remark, is, by reason of the open floors being made of green plank, and the small fire-places, difficult to be warmed sufficiently to be comfortable in extremely cold weather. But otherwise the quarters are dry and well cleaned, and as well adapted to the sleeping uses of the healthy soldier as could be expected. Camp Lee is situated upon an elevated plain, remarkably dry, and represented to be unusually healthy. Although it was generally understood at camp that the Committee had made the visit to ascertain if there existed or had been practised any abuses, yet no complaints were made, nor in answer to inquiries could we learn that any existed upon which complaint could be founded. No facts, at least, were brought to our knowledge.

Your Committee take pleasure in reporting this as the result of their inquiries. They believe that the investigation will have a good effect, and was, under the circumstances and gravity of the charges, alike due to our conscripts and the officers of the post. It will show to our people that the General Assembly are not insensible to the wants and sufferings of our noble soldiers, in whatever field or camp they are called to render service to their country; nor faithless to her solemn obligations to extend a parental care over them, and to shield and protect them whenever oppression and distress may come upon them. It will accomplish more. It will relieve the minds of distant families and friends as to the supposed maltreatment of husbands, sons, and brothers in Camp Lee, and mitigate something of that repulsiveness and dread with which that military post is viewed by conscripts who are sent there, pursuant to military regulations.

G. W. Lewis, Chairman of Senate Com. B. H. Magruder, Chairman of House Com.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide Places (automatically extracted)

View a map of the most frequently mentioned places in this document.

Sort places alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a place to search for it in this document.
Richmond (Virginia, United States) (1)

Download Pleiades ancient places geospacial dataset for this text.

hide People (automatically extracted)
Sort people alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a person to search for him/her in this document.
Shields (4)
John A. Seddon (1)
John M. Palmer (1)
B. H. Magruder (1)
G. W. Lewis (1)
Doc (1)
hide Dates (automatically extracted)
Sort dates alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a date to search for it in this document.
February (2)
March, 1864 AD (1)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: