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Prisoners of the civil war.

Professor Dabney Vs. ‘the nation’—testimony of a German.

To the Editor of The Times:
[Feb. 12, 1890.]
Sir, —It has long been the habit of The Nation to pat the South on the back, and, while giving her people much paternal admonition on the subject of duels, street fights, and the like, to encourage them to hope that if they will diligently read The Nation, a civilization quite passable (considering the great barbarism and iniquity of their past history) may at length arise in the South. This complacent condescension has been mistaken by many for fairness and impartiality, among whom, however, the present writer is not one. For years he has seen through the gauzy pretence of judicial calmness, and now presents to The Times a typical instance of this pretence. In reply to The Nation's article of January 30th, on ‘The Prisons of the [379] Civil War,’ I wrote the following letter to the editor, which he declines to publish, telling me that he thinks I will, ‘on reflection, see the inadvisability of a controversy’ on the subject. He himself—he writes me—has discussed the matter ‘dispassionately,’ and, of course, there is no need for any further discussion. The almost five columns in which he tells his readers of the ‘unspeakable horrors of Andersonville,’ of the ‘millions of flies,’ which ‘deposited their maggots on the gangrenous wounds of the living, and in the mouths of the dead,’ are, of course, sufficient; and a ‘controversy’ could, he says, ‘conduce to no good end.’ Let there be no controversy. To hear one side of a question is enough. The Nation has spoken. Its editor is in his holy sanctum. Let all the earth keep silence before him.

To the Editor of the Nation:
Sir,—As I leave not personally investigated the history of prisons during the civil war, I shall not venture to express in this letter any opinion of my own concerning the relative humanity of North and South in the treatment of prisoners; but, as you state in your editorial of last week that the diet at Johnson's Island was ‘exceptionally abundant and varied,’ I wish to call the attention of your readers to certain evidence to the contrary, which I have heard.

After reading your article I went to a gentleman whose brother, a Confederate lieutenant, died after leaving Johnson's Island, from the effects of hardships suffered at that place, and asked him whether his brother had found the food ‘exceptionally abundant and varied.’ Briefly stated, the lieutenant's account was as follows: The food, though usually satisfactory as to quality, was not always so, as may be inferred from the fact that, in order to have a better Christmas dinner than was furnished him, he made soup out of some fish-skins which he had raked out of a gutter. As to the abundance, he heard the commandant of the prison, whom he praised highly for his kindness, say that he was well aware that the prisoners did not have enough to eat, but that he was under strict orders not to give them any more. Delicacies were sent him by New York and Louisville ladies, but were intercepted by the guards or other persons and never reached him. Moreover, in that bitterly cold climate, he was not allowed a blanket to cover himself at night until after Christmas.

I am well acquainted with a Confederate captain now living in Richmond, a perfect Hercules in physique, who (if I remember rightly) weighed fifty pounds less upon leaving Johnson's Island than when he entered its prison walls. [380]

And now let me quote from ‘Land and Leute in den Vereinigten Staaten’ (Leipzig, 1886), a work by Ernst Hohenwart (possibly a pseudonym), a German who spent nearly thirty years in the United States, and who fought as an officer in the Northern army. I shall italicize certain important phrases:

Much has been said of the cruel treatment of Northern soldiers in Southern prisons. Having myself been a prisoner in the South for more than thirteen months, and having been afterwards stationed with my regiment at a place where more than 25,000 Southern soldiers were confined, I think I have a right to an opinion as to the relative treatment of prisoners in the North and South.

It is true that the Southerners treated their prisoners much less well than the Northerners, for the simple reason that they had not the means to treat them better, and often, especially towards the end of the war, themselves suffered from want.

The South wished to permit the officers, according to European custom, to live in town on parole and half pay. I myself and other officers lived for some months in Raleigh, and were granted much freedom of movement, but. the North treated Southern officers like common soldiers, and the South afterwards did the same. So long as they were able they gave us good rations, afterwards very often spoilt bacon, cured with wood-ashes—they were short of salt—or beef cured with saltpetre, or fresh horse meat; a pound of bread a day being added, and sometimes a handful of beans or rice. During the winter we were unable to buy anything additional, but as soon as summer came, country people brought us provisions, which we were permitted to buy. The fare of our guards was not much better than our own.

Of intentional cruelty I saw nothing, but on the contrary, always found both officers and men very friendly and obliging, and most willing to alleviate our lot. When requested to bring us tobacco or other articles from town, they were always glad to do so, and I never heard of a single instance in which such a request was refused.

The horrors of Andersonville are not to be denied, but that was an exception—the cruel policy adopted by the Southern government to compel the North to exchange prisoners, which the North refused to do, etc.

Since writing the above I have seen another gentleman, who tells me that he knows a number of Confederates who ‘varied’ their ‘abundant’ diet at Johnson's Island with the flesh of rats, an article [381] of food which was also enjoyed by the lieutenant whom I mentioned in the first part of my letter.

R. H. Dabney. University of Virginia, February 2, 1890.

The above letter, as you see, contains nothing polemical or one-sided on my part. I have, in fact, refrained from the expression of any opinion whatever, confining myself to quoting the opinions of others. The testimony is certainly worthy of notice, but The Nation wishes to suppress it, and I, therefore, appeal to The Times for a hearing.1

R. H. Dabney. University of Virginia, February 9, 1890.

Jefferson Davis.

In this connection the remarks on the subject made by Senator Daniel in his oration on January 25th will be of interest to recall. Senator Daniel said:

He would have turned with loathing from misuse of a prisoner, for there was no characteristic of Jefferson Davis more marked than his regard for the weak, the helpless, and the captive. By act of the Confederate Congress, and by general orders, the same rations served to the Confederates were issued to the prisoners, though taken from a starving army and people.

Brutal and base was the effort to stigmatize him as a conspirator to maltreat prisoners, but better for him that it was made, for while he was himself yet in prison the evidences of his humanity were so overwhelming that finally slander stood abashed and malignity recoiled.

Even at Andersonville, where the hot summer sun was of course disastrous to men of the Northern clime, well nigh as many of their guard died as of them.

With 60,000 more Federal prisoners in the South than there were Confederate prisoners in the North, 6,000 more Confederates than Federals died in prison. A cyclone of rhetoric cannot shake this mountain of fact, and these facts are alike immovable:

1. He tried to get the prisoners exchanged by the cartel agreed upon, but as soon as an excess of prisoners was in Federal hands this was refused. [382]

2. A delegation of the prisoners themselves was sent to Washington to represent the situation and the plea of humanity for exchange.

3. Vice President Stephens was sent to see President Lincoln by President Davis and urge exchange, in order ‘to restrict the calamities of war;’ but he was denied audience.

4. Twice—in January, 1864, and in January, 1865—President Davis proposed through Commissioner Ould that each side should send surgeons, and allow money, food, clothing, and medicines to be sent to prisoners, but no answer came.

5. Unable to get medicines in the Confederacy, offer was made to buy them from the United States for the sole use of Federal prisoners. No answer was made.

6. Then offer was made to deliver the sick and wounded without any equivalent in exchange. There was no reply for months.

7. Finally, and as soon as the United States would receive them, thousands of both sick and well were delivered without exchange.

The record leaves no doubt as to the responsibility for refusal to exchange. General Grant assumed it, saying in his letter of August 18, 1864: ‘It is hard on our men in Southern prisons not to exchange them, but is humanity to those left in the ranks to fight our battles. If we commence a system of exchanges which liberates all prisoners taken, we will have to fight on until the whole South is exterminated. If we hold those caught they amount to no more than dead men. At this particular time to release all rebel prisoners North would insure Sherman's defeat and would compromise our own safety here.’

Alexander H. Stephens declared that the effort to fix odium on President Davis constituted ‘one of the boldest and baldest attempted outrages upon the truth of history which has ever been essayed.’

Charles A. Dana, of the New York Sun, formerly Assistant Secretary of War, nobly vindicated President Davis while he lived, declared him ‘altogether acquitted’ of the charge, and said of him dead: ‘A majestic soul has passed.’

When General Lee congratulated his army on the victories of Richmond, he said to them: ‘Your humanity to the wounded and the prisoners was the fit and crowning glory of your valor.’ And could that army now march by, they would lift those laurels from their bayonets and throw them upon the grave of the Confederate President.

1 The Editor has received like information from a friend who was several months in prison.

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