Andersonvilles of the North: The Myths and Realities of Northern Treatment of Civil War Confederate Prisoners

Overview

Soon after the close of military operations in the American Civil War, another war began over how it would be remembered by future generations. The prisoner-of-war issue has figured prominently in Northern and Southern writing about the conflict. Northerners used tales of Andersonville to demonize the Confederacy, while Southerners vilified Northern prison policies to show the depths to which Yankees had sunk to attain victory. Over the years the postwar Northern portrayal of Andersonville as fiendishly designed ...

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Andersonvilles of the North: The Myths and Realities of Northern Treatment of Civil War Confederate Prisoners

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Overview

Soon after the close of military operations in the American Civil War, another war began over how it would be remembered by future generations. The prisoner-of-war issue has figured prominently in Northern and Southern writing about the conflict. Northerners used tales of Andersonville to demonize the Confederacy, while Southerners vilified Northern prison policies to show the depths to which Yankees had sunk to attain victory. Over the years the postwar Northern portrayal of Andersonville as fiendishly designed to kill prisoners in mass quantities has largely been dismissed. The Lost Cause characterization of Union prison policies as criminally negligent and inhumane, however, has shown remarkable durability. Northern officials have been portrayed as turning their military prisons into concentration camps where Southern prisoners were poorly fed, clothed, and sheltered, resulting in inexcusably high numbers of deaths. Andersonvilles of the North, by James M. Gillispie, represents the first broad study to argue that the image of Union prison officials as negligent and cruel to Confederate prisoners is severely flawed. This study is not an attempt to "whitewash" Union prison policies or make light of Confederate prisoner mortality. But once the careful reader disregards unreliable postwar polemics, and focuses exclusively on the more reliable wartime records and documents from both Northern and Southern sources, then a much different, less negative, picture of Northern prison life emerges. While life in Northern prisons was difficult and potentially deadly, no evidence exists of a conspiracy to neglect or mistreat Southern captives. Confederate prisoners' suffering and death were due to a number of factors, but it would seem that Yankee apathy and malice were rarely among them. In fact, likely the most significant single factor in Confederate (and all) prisoner mortality during the Civil War was the halting of the prisoner exchange cart

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Editorial Reviews

Journal Southern History

“Gillispie’s most compelling evidence in disputing the retaliatory claim comes from his extensive and resourceful statistical analysis of the diseases treated, deaths by disease, and the recovery rates from disease at the nine camps. . . . Gillispie’s revisionist positions should stimulate much-needed debate regarding all aspects of Civil War prison history.”—Journal of Southern History

North Carolina Historical Review

“Gillispie takes pains to show that there was no retaliation against inmates and that poor conditions, such as dirty quarters or scant rations, were systematically addressed and improved. . . . [A]n important addition to our understanding of the prisoner-of-war issue.”—North Carolina Historical Review

Journal Military History

“Primitive medical treatment and mortality were the norms. Such were, as the author says in this outstanding study, the horrors and misfortunes of the American Civil War.”—Journal of Military History

Journal Illinois History

“Gillispie’s argument is both cogent and significant, and it seems likely that Andersonvilles of the North will become a major work in the field of Civil War prisons for years to come.”—Journal of Illinois History

Georgia Historical Quarterly

“A host of Confederate veterans’ statements tend to link with and support official reports by Federal prison officials and inspectors, as Gillispie points out convincingly.”—Georgia Historical Quarterly

Journal of Southern History

“Gillispie’s most compelling evidence in disputing the retaliatory claim comes from his extensive and resourceful statistical analysis of the diseases treated, deaths by disease, and the recovery rates from disease at the nine camps. . . . Gillispie’s revisionist positions should stimulate much-needed debate regarding all aspects of Civil War prison history.”—Journal of Southern History

Journal of Military History

“Primitive medical treatment and mortality were the norms. Such were, as the author says in this outstanding study, the horrors and misfortunes of the American Civil War.”—Journal of Military History

Journal of Illinois History

“Gillispie’s argument is both cogent and significant, and it seems likely that Andersonvilles of the North will become a major work in the field of Civil War prisons for years to come.”—Journal of Illinois History

>

“A host of Confederate veterans’ statements tend to link with and support official reports by Federal prison officials and inspectors, as Gillispie points out convincingly.”—Georgia Historical Quarterly
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781574413113
  • Publisher: University of North Texas Press
  • Publication date: 4/18/2011
  • Pages: 296
  • Sales rank: 1,455,423
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author


James M. Gillispie earned a Ph.D. in American History from the University of Mississippi. He has published articles and numerous reviews on Civil War prison scholarship and has spoken at the Museum of the Confederacy on the era’s military prisons. Since 1999 he has taught history at Sampson Community College in Clinton, North Carolina, and has won several teaching awards. Residing with him are his wife, Julie, and daughter, Lauren.
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Read an Excerpt

Andersonvilles of the North

The Myths and Realities of Northern Treatment of Civil War Confederate Prisoners


By James M. Gillispie

University of North Texas Press

Copyright © 2008 James Gillispie
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-57441-370-0



CHAPTER 1

SERVANTS OF THE DEVIL AND JEFF DAVIS

THE NORTHERN VERSION OF THE POW EXPERIENCE, 1865–1920

On April 9, 1865, General Robert E. Lee surrendered the South's principle army and best hope for victory to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House in Virginia and signaled the beginning of the end of the Confederacy. Northerners everywhere were jubilant. The Civil War, which was not supposed to last so long or cost so much in lives and treasure, was finally, mercifully, over. What was not over, what in fact was only beginning, was the work of explaining to themselves, and more importantly, to future Americans, what this late conflagration meant and symbolized. Northern veterans began writing and talking about their experiences in the greatest event in American history since the Revolution almost as soon as the guns fell silent. Between 1865 and 1920 Northern writers churned out a massive body of work about the Civil War. Accounts of battles are, of course, numerous but many veterans also focused on the other aspects of soldier life—camp life, marches, forms of recreation, and the like. One area that received close attention was how Northern soldiers suffered in Confederate military prisons.

Postwar prison narratives written by Northerners between 1865 and 1920 were universally negative. When reading narratives from this era, one discovers quickly that regardless of when written they are virtually indistinguishable from each other. In fact, one will even occasionally find the same illustrations used in different books. Generally the researcher finds several charges leveled against the South. Confederates murdered Federal prisoners in cold blood on a regular basis. Union prisoners were improperly fed, when they were fed at all, and Southern authorities denied them adequate shelter from the elements. Vicious dogs, usually associated with Andersonville, tracked down escapees, mauling them for Confederates' amusement. Finally, guards tortured prisoners by various devices such as suspension by the thumbs and the use of cat o' nine tails.

Most of the postwar writing pertaining to Confederate prison life (and death) is set in the notorious Andersonville in Georgia. Books and articles set in other Southern facilities like Richmond's Libby Prison and Belle Isle in the James River and Salisbury in North Carolina do exist but they were far less popular than those using Andersonville as settings. Even before the war ended, Andersonville had gained a reputation with the Northern public as a black hole of suffering and death. Hanging its commandant, Henry Wirz, as a brutal war criminal gave such impressions the stamp of legitimacy. With Andersonville "proven" to have been a uniquely ghastly place by late autumn 1865, it is not surprising that writers would choose it as the setting for books and articles for the next half-century. These stories placed prisoners on the same plane as veterans who could tell more stories of combat; they proved that a morally corrupt element in the country had been vanquished; and they sold well too.

The notion of cruel Rebel jailors acting on orders from Jefferson Davis and other high-ranking Confederate officials did not emerge from thin air after Appomattox. During the war both sides had accused each other of inhumane treatment of prisoners. Many Northerners became convinced that Union prisoners were mistreated when newspapers published atrocity propaganda during the war's first year as a means of putting pressure on the Lincoln administration to do something to get Northern soldiers out of Confederate hands. Lincoln had been reluctant to negotiate a formal exchange agreement at the time out of fear that doing so would give the Richmond government official recognition, thus opening the door for European recognition and aid. An official exchange cartel was worked out in July 1862 and operated until its suspension in June 1863. From that point on, prison populations increased and stories of Confederate cruelty again became common.

In time of war any and all negative propaganda about one's enemy is generally accepted as unvarnished truth. It also usually follows that the actions of one's own government and soldiers during wartime are perceived as above reproach. Such was certainly the case with the prison issue. Northerners believed that their government ran spa-like resorts for Confederate prisoners while officials in Richmond fiendishly plotted new ways to increase suffering and death among Union prisoners. Veteran and ex-prisoner Alva C. Roach, writing at the war's close, offers a good example of the average Northerners' opinion about how prisoners of war were treated during the Civil War. "While our men in Southern prisons were dying from starvation and exposure, the rebels in Northern prisons fared sumptuously every day; had good quarters, ... and received the respect and civility due them as prisoners of war." Roach's claims of Southern cruelty were far from new or unusual. A year earlier, in the spring of 1864, some of the sickest prisoners the South held were paroled by special agreement and sent by flag-of-truce boat to Annapolis, Maryland. Being the worst cases, these parolees were in shockingly poor physical condition; some would live barely a month after their release.

Federal officials were on the scene or arrived shortly after the prisoners' arrival to view their condition and gather first-hand evidence of conditions in Confederate prisons. One of these officials was the chairman of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, Benjamin Wade. What Wade saw understandably horrified and angered him. Many, he commented had "literally the appearance of living skeletons, many of them nothing but skin and bone." Such specimens were not the unfortunate but inevitable byproducts of war; these men were reduced to their wretched state, Wade concluded, by wicked, premeditated policy.

Wade, and other Union officials on hand, were mistaken in their conclusion that the 1864 parolees were victims of Confederate cruelty, but under the circumstances it seemed to be the obvious one. Wade scoffed at Southern claims that Union prisoners were fed the same rations as Southern soldiers. How, he asked, was it possible for rations to reduce sedentary Northerners to the state of emaciation he witnessed at Annapolis while the same rations fortify "the rebel soldiers [sufficiently] ... to make long and rapid marches and to offer a stubborn resistance in the field[?]" The Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, did not think the claim that Northern captives starved on the same rations that Southern soldiers seemed to thrive on made much sense either. Even allowing that the Annapolis parolees were the worst cases, Stanton concluded that Union men in Confederate hands were not getting all they were entitled to. He spoke for most Northern officials that spring when he said that there must exist "a deliberate system of savage and barbarous treatment and starvation, the result of which will be that few, if any of the prisoners ... will ever again be in a condition to render any service, or even to enjoy life." These official ideas about Confederate prison policies did not change after the shooting stopped.

Government officials from Washington were not the only ones to investigate and report on the Annapolis prisoners. The United States Sanitary Commission was in Maryland that spring as well. The Commission's report, published in 1864, confirmed what the newspapers had been printing regularly for at least a year and reinforced officials' conclusions about Southern barbarity towards Union prisoners. The same commission, in a separate investigation in Annapolis of Southern treatment of prisoners, drew the same conclusion. "The best picture cannot convey the reality, nor create that startling and sickening sensation which is felt at the sight of a human skeleton, with the skin drawn tightly over its skull, and ribs, and limbs, weakly turning and moving itself, as if still a living man!" Repeating Wade's query, the Commission asked, "what other deduction can be drawn, than that all was a premeditated plan, originating somewhere in the rebel counsels for destroying and disabling the soldiers of their enemy, who had honorably surrendered in the field." The report was never amended and stood as powerful proof of Confederate cruelty in the decades after 1865.

Without a doubt, though, the most decisive act cementing images of Southern barbarity in Northern minds was the trial and execution of Henry Wirz. Union officials would have preferred to try the Confederate prison head, General John Winder, but he had died of natural causes the preceding February. In July 1865 the New York Times helped sustain the popular desire to hold someone or some group responsible for Southern prison policies. "The assassins of the president disposed of, the Government will next take in hand the ruffians who tortured to death thousands of Union prisoners. The laws of civilized warfare must be vindicated; and some expiation must be exacted for the most infernal crime of the century...." The following month the New York Tribune expressed the opinion; "It is very certain that our soldiers in Southern military prisons were treated with a degree of inhumanity and barbarity that finds no parallel in modern civilization." Another Northerner railed that Andersonville's and other prisons' horrors were directly attributable to "some general design upon the part of the rebel Government...." It was in this vengeance-laden atmosphere that Wirz (and through him the South) went on trial before a Northern military tribunal. Little wonder that Andersonville's most recent and best historian has noted that, "Wirz was a dead man from the start."

One of the first books published after the war detailing Union prisoners' suffering at Andersonville was The Demon of Andersonville or, The Trial of Wirz, an abridged, newspaper-style recounting of the trial filled with "evidence" of Southern depravity as personified by Wirz. The book's title page sends the clear message that Wirz was not of this world, but was from an evil nether region. The page sports a color illustration of Wirz in an oval frame with a malevolent glare on his face. Behind the frame is a winged demon with long nails, a barbed tail, and an evil grin. According to the book, it was Wirz's demonic qualities that made him Richmond's choice to run Andersonville. Confederate authorities knew that such a heartless individual would ensure that Yankee prisoners suffered terribly and died in large numbers. General Winder, readers discover, wrote Wirz during the war to tell him, "he was wanted to torture and murder at his discretion the Union soldiers whose fate it was to be captured by the rebels." Wirz, being the fiend that he was, eagerly accepted the position.

Those delving into The Demon of Andersonville's "evidence" learned how Southern leaders such as Winder and their henchmen "perfected the plan of murdering the Union soldiers ... by starvation, by overcrowding, and by exposure to all weathers." Accusations of cold-blooded murder were common in this book and would be repeated numerous times, sometimes verbatim, over the subsequent half-century. In one instance a one-legged wretch pleaded pitifully with Wirz to be let out of the stifling stockade for a little fresh air. Wirz's response was, "Shoot the one-legged Yankee devil!" According to the author, a sentinel eagerly complied by blowing part of the prisoner's head off. When authorities hanged Wirz in November 1865, the event, according to this particular book, and in the North's collective imagination, "ended the career of a faithful servant of the Devil and Jeff Davis." The Demon of Andersonville's tone and wild accusations were echoed in numerous memoirs and other writing by Northerners between 1865 and 1920.

Far and away the most common specific charge made against the South's prison camps after the war was that the guards routinely shot prisoners without provocation. One former prisoner wrote, "The guards appear delighted to receive orders [to shoot prisoners] and seem to find real consolation in having the privilege of firing upon us on the most trivial pretext. A thirst for blood seems to characterize them." Published shortly after the war, A. O. Abbott's Prison Life in the South revealed how cruelly trigger-happy Southern prison personnel were. While on the way to prison, the train stopped, at which point one poor prisoner stepped out of line to relieve himself and was shot. In his 1865 book, Gilbert Sabre reported that at Belle Isle Union men were shot down for singing patriotic songs. Warren Lee Goss told readers in his 1869 memoir: "Frequently the guard fired indiscriminately into a crowd." At the end of the century another ex-prisoner reported that "prisoners were shot down in cold blood at Macon and Columbia, simply because some of the guards wanted to kill a 'Yankee'." Another claimed in 1912, "Prisoners were frequently shot without cause by the rebel officers and guard, in a spirit of malice or as a vindictive display of power, and often the act was accompanied by the language of hatred and sometimes ... of levity."

Often one finds the allegation that prison officials rewarded sentinels with furloughs or promotions for killing defenseless Yankees. Robert H. Kellogg, who testified at the Wirz trial and became something of a professional Andersonville survivor in the postwar years, writing and speaking about his ordeals there, was among the first to allege that Southern keepers were rewarded for murdering prisoners. The guard who shot a captive, according to Kellogg, "receives a furlough as a reward for the very virtuous deed he has done." According to another, a guard murdered a prisoner and shortly after the incident the perpetrator had new sergeant's stripes, proving that murdering prisoners was rewarded rather than punished by the Confederate government.

According to at least a few Northern writers after the war, armed guards were not the only personnel in Southern prisons doing their part to kill as many Yankees as possible. Some claimed that post surgeons were very active in furthering the Confederate policy to use prisons to incapacitate and murder Union captives. The Demon of Andersonville points out in several places that Southern surgeons injected prisoners with poison on the pretext of vaccinating them against the dreaded smallpox. One 1870 memoir claimed that not only were prisoners poisoned, but many were injected with a hereditary disease so that survivors of captivity would return to the North to weaken and kill Yankees for generations to come. Another ex-prisoner claimed shortly after the war that Andersonville doctors ran a "dissecting house" where they conducted "experiments" on human guinea pigs. No details about the "experiments" are provided, probably to allow Northern imaginations to supply images far more gruesome than anything the writer might have been able to conjure with mere words. One narrative must have horrified readers when they read that doctors at Andersonville performed amputations on fully conscious prisoners for fun, not because such terrifying operations were necessary.

Charges that Southern surgeons actively participated in programs to actually induce death were less common than the accusation that sick and wounded prisoners were ignored and/or mistreated. John Lynch of the 13th New York Cavalry painted a very nasty picture of Andersonville's medical personnel. They strolled through the stockade, Lynch said, "apparently more with the view of enjoying the sufferings of their victims than to prescribe for their relief." Augustus Hamlin wrote that Confederate doctors "gloated over the distresses of their fellow men, and delighted in the awful destruction of life which was branding with eternal infamy the manhood of their nation." The notion that a government would permit, even encourage, its doctors to neglect and mock sick and wounded prisoners was truly reprehensible and a good indication of how morally bankrupt the Confederate cause truly was.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from Andersonvilles of the North by James M. Gillispie. Copyright © 2008 James Gillispie. Excerpted by permission of University of North Texas Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Contents

List of Illustrations,
Acknowledgments,
Introduction,
CONCLUSION,
APPENDIX A Recovery Rates From Disease at the Nine Major Union Prisons and at Chimborazo Hospital,
APPENDIX B Leading Killers of Confederate Prisoners of War,
Bibliography,
Index,

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