The History that the Victors Chose Not to Write

By David A. Carrino, Roundtable Historian
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2017-2018, All Rights Reserved

Editor’s note: This article was the history brief for the March 2018 meeting of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable.

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There is a well-known axiom that all is fair in love and war, or, as the expression appears in its earliest known form, “The rules of fair play do not apply in love and war.” This expression is used to justify that in love and in war, it is acceptable to resort to anything in order to achieve the ultimate goal. Since our organization is the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable, which focuses its interest on a war, this is not the appropriate forum to discuss whether or not this axiom applies to love. On the other hand, there is more than enough evidence to prove that this axiom applies to war, and a great deal of such evidence can be found in the Civil War. Far too often, the axiom that all is fair in war has been used to justify cruelty, and there are many examples of cruelty in the Civil War. Perhaps the most well-known is the treatment of Union prisoners at Andersonville. But the Confederates were not alone in their cruel treatment of enemy prisoners. It is not as widely known that Confederate prisoners of war in Union prisons were also subjected to cruel treatment. The cruelty that both sides inflicted on prisoners is disturbing for the most basic, primal, and biological of reasons. Of all the species that exist on planet Earth, the one that displays the worst cruelty is Homo sapiens. This is because cruelty in other species arises from instinct, but for humans, cruelty very often arises by choice.

The prevailing perception, which has been influenced primarily by Andersonville, is that Union prisoners of war were treated far worse than Confederate prisoners. But the numbers tell a different story. One criterion that is useful in assessing the treatment of prisoners of war is the death rate of prisoners as a percentage of the total number of prisoners. Accurate numbers are likely impossible to obtain, and there is a disparity in the numbers depending on the source. But in general the numbers from different sources do not differ by much. The total number of prisoners of war that died in Union prisons was almost 26,000 and in Confederate prisons was just over 30,000. Expressed as death rate, slightly more than 15% of the total number of prisoners in Southern prisons died. In Northern prisons, about 12% of the total number of prisoners died. In other words, the overall death rates in Union and Confederate prisons differ by only three percentage points.

Confederate prisoners at Rock Island Prison

It is also useful to examine the numbers for individual prisons. Based solely on death rate, Andersonville, with a death rate of 29%, was the worst prison of the Civil War. Three of the most notorious Northern prisons were Camp Douglas in Chicago, Elmira Prison in Elmira, New York, and Rock Island Prison, which, technically, was in Illinois, but was on an island in the Mississippi River between Davenport, Iowa and Moline, Illinois. Camp Douglas has the distinction of being the place where the Union confined a Confederate prisoner named Henry Stanley, who is famous for the quote, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” Rock Island has the literary distinction of being the place of confinement of Ashley Wilkes, the fictional character in the novel Gone with the Wind. (The prison where Ashley Wilkes was confined is not mentioned in the movie, but it is mentioned in the book.) The death rate at Rock Island was almost 17%. (In the novel Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell indicated that the death rate at Rock Island was 75%, which is a gross exaggeration.) For Camp Douglas, there is some uncertainty about the death rate due to misconduct with regard to the burying of bodies of dead prisoners. The Camp Douglas death rate has been reported to be between 17% and 23%, but the 17% number is likely the most accurate one. At Elmira, which the Confederate prisoners called Hellmira, the death rate was just over 24%, which is only somewhat lower than Andersonville’s 29%. However, there was a much higher number of prisoner deaths at Andersonville compared to Elmira, nearly 13,000 and almost 3,000, respectively. The only reason that the total number of prisoner deaths at Elmira was much lower than at Andersonville, despite their similar death rates, is that over the course of the war, Elmira confined less than a third of the total number of prisoners that were confined at Andersonville.

Maps of Chicago showing the location of Camp Douglas

Another useful way to assess prisoner of war camps is by examining the living conditions at the prisons. It is well-known that the living conditions at Andersonville were beyond deplorable. However, the living conditions at Northern prisons were likewise horrific. As at Andersonville, overcrowding in Union prisons was rampant, with some prisons confining as many as twice the number of prisoners that they were designed to hold. This situation was made worse in mid-1863 when prisoner paroles and exchanges were suspended due primarily to the Confederacy’s refusal to exchange black prisoners. By late 1863, the Lincoln administration was under pressure from the public to resolve the prisoner exchange impasse, but the administration’s attempt to do so worsened the situation. To address the problem, the Lincoln administration appointed Benjamin Butler as a special agent for prisoner exchange with the responsibility of negotiating with his counterpart in the Confederacy to resolve any specific issues so that prisoner exchanges could be resumed. The naming of Butler was just another impediment to the resumption of prisoner exchanges, because Butler, due to his harsh treatment of the residents of New Orleans during his time as military governor there, had been proclaimed by Jefferson Davis “an outlaw and common enemy of mankind.” A Richmond newspaper denounced the appointment of Butler as an attempt by the U.S. “to interpose the obnoxious Beast in the way of a solution of this vexed problem.” Because of the failure to resume prisoner exchanges, overcrowding in the prisons was not alleviated, and prisoners on both sides were forced to remain in the appalling living conditions of the prisoner of war camps.

Elmira Prison
William Hoffman

In addition to overcrowding, the living conditions for Confederate prisoners in Union prisons included rations that were of poor quality and low amount. This situation was exacerbated in the spring of 1864 when the U.S. War Department, in response to poor treatment of Union prisoners in Confederate prisons, reduced the rations for Confederate prisoners. On May 3, 1864 William Hoffman, Commissary General of Prisoners for the Union army, sent a letter to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. In that letter Hoffman described the appalling condition of recently paroled Union prisoners whom Hoffman had personally seen as they were returning to Union lines. Hoffman further stated in his letter to Stanton, “I would very respectfully urge that retaliatory measures be at once instituted.” On May 19, 1864 Hoffman proposed reducing the rations for Confederate prisoners, even though these rations, at Hoffman’s suggestion, had already been reduced on April 20, 1864. After input from, among others, Chief of Staff Henry Halleck to alleviate the effect of Hoffman’s “retaliatory measures” on sick and wounded prisoners, Edwin Stanton approved this second reduction in rations for Confederate prisoners. In addition to the inadequate food, the drinking water at Union prisons, like the drinking water at Andersonville, was contaminated. One such example was Elmira Prison, for which the drinking water came from a pond within the camp, but this pond was also used as a latrine.

Elmira Prison

Similar to Andersonville, the prisoners in Northern prisons lived in filth, and poor drainage led to persistent standing water in the camps, which was a source of disease. For instance, a Union officer named Henry Lazelle, who was sent by William Hoffman to inspect a prisoner of war camp, wrote in his lengthy report, “The spaces between the clusters of quarters are heaped with the vilest accumulations of filth which has remained there for months, breeding sickness and pestilence. All the refuse of the prisoners’ food, clothing and the general dirt of a camp is gathered here and no care has been taken for its removal.” The prisoners in Union prisons had woefully inadequate clothing and living quarters, which left them exposed to the elements. For example, in his directive regarding Rock Island Prison, Union Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs stipulated that “the barracks…should be put up in the roughest and cheapest manner, mere shanties, with no fine work about them.” Because of the northern climate, this meant that the prisoners were forced to endure winter without sufficiently warm housing or clothing. Prisoners at most Union prisons faced sub-freezing temperatures with flimsy quarters, ragged clothing, and insufficient firewood. Moreover, medical facilities in Union prisons were inadequate, both with regard to the number of beds and doctors and also with respect to the quality of treatment. A Northern physician commented about prisoners released from Elmira, “The condition of these men was pitiable in the extreme and evinces criminal neglect and inhumanity.”

Prisoner roll call at Rock Island Prison

In a report specifically about Camp Douglas, Henry Bellows, the president of the U.S. Sanitary Commission, made an assessment of the camp after he personally inspected it. Bellows’ assessment, which is dated June 30, 1862, perhaps best summarized the situation at Union prisons in general, and his assessment reads like something that could have been written about Andersonville. Bellows wrote, “The amount of standing water, of unpoliced grounds, of foul sinks, of unventilated and crowded barracks, of general disorder, of soil reeking with miasmatic accretions, of rotten bones and the emptyings of camp-kettles is enough to drive a sanitarian to despair….The absolute abandonment of the spot seems the only judicious course. I do not believe that any amount of drainage would purge that soil loaded with accumulated filth, or those barracks fetid with two stories of vermin and animal exhalations. Nothing but fire can cleanse them.” This assessment of Camp Douglas was in a letter that Bellows sent to William Hoffman. Bellows felt that the condition of Camp Douglas was so poor that he recommended a new prison camp be built in a place with better drainage, and that the new camp be constructed with barracks that had better ventilation. In response to Bellows’ report, Hoffman sent a letter to Montgomery Meigs. In that letter Hoffman mentioned Bellows’ assessment of Camp Douglas and stated, “I do not agree with him as to its fearful condition.” Meigs refused to authorize Bellows’ extensive recommendations, calling them “expensive” and “extravagant,” and approved only modest repairs, in particular repairs to the leaky barracks.

One of the stone markers indicating the location of Elmira Prison

In spite of Henry Bellows’ grim assessment regarding the land where Camp Douglas once stood, that location is now a residential area. In contrast, Andersonville became a National Historic Site in the U.S. National Park Service, and a reconstruction of the prison stands on that site. Unlike Andersonville, nothing of Camp Douglas remains standing, not even a reconstruction of all or part of the prison. At one time a small plaque stood near the site of Camp Douglas, and this was the only tangible evidence to document that the prison once stood there. That plaque was not put up by a government agency, but by a private citizen named Ernie Griffin. Griffin, who has since died, was not sympathetic to the cause of the Confederacy, but was an African-American who was interested in history and whose grandfather was a member of a Colored Infantry Regiment. After Griffin’s death the plaque was removed. Similarly, nothing remains of Rock Island Prison, which was completely demolished after the Civil War, and no reconstruction of the prison was done to commemorate the suffering of the Confederate prisoners who were confined there. The site where Elmira Prison once stood is now a residential area, although there are small stone markers to indicate the location of the prison. Recently some reconstruction of the prison was completed by a non-profit organization, most notably a prisoner barracks, and the grounds now operate as a museum and education site for the general public, but this commemoration of the suffering of Confederate prisoners at Elmira did not come about until over 150 years after the last prisoners left the camp.

Plaque marking the location of Camp Douglas

An important question is why wretched conditions existed in both Northern prisons and Southern prisons. Certainly there is not simply one reason, and there is controversy about the reasons. But if a single reason were to be offered, it would be different for each side. For the South, a shortage of supplies, such as food, was a primary reason for the despicable conditions in the South’s prisoner of war camps, although there is no question that the Confederacy could have made the conditions better. For the North, a principal reason for the dreadful conditions in its prisons seems to be negligence, and there is reason to believe that a motivation for the poor treatment of Confederate prisoners was retaliation for the mistreatment of Union prisoners. Both sides were plagued by problems in dealing with contractors who sold food and other supplies, such as lumber, for the prisons. For the North, one significant issue with contractors was their tardiness in providing supplies and services for the prisons and the government’s failure to seriously address this problem. For the South, a significant issue with contractors was their unwillingness to sell their goods to the government for Confederate currency rather than to sell goods to private entities for greenbacks or gold. In addition, for both sides, a significant reason for the appalling treatment of prisoners of war was a lack of preparation for dealing with large numbers of prisoners, perhaps due to the fact that both sides anticipated a short war. As stated in the book Portals to Hell: Military Prisons of the Civil War by Lonnie R. Speer, “The truth is, the care and feeding of prisoners is, and always has been, the last concern—the least of any government’s worries—at the beginning of any war. In the Civil War, the situation was worsened by the general contention, of both sides, that it would be of short duration and permanent facilities for POWs would not be necessary.” This lack of preparation became an even more serious problem when prisoner exchanges were suspended in mid-1863. Some of the Northern prisons, such as Elmira, Camp Douglas, and Rock Island, had conditions that were so deplorable that each of these prisons has been referred to as the Andersonville of the North. Based on available information, it is an exaggeration to equate any Union prisoner of war camp with Andersonville. Nevertheless, the expression “Andersonville of the North” is useful in that it makes clear that Northern prisons did not operate at standards that can in any way be considered acceptable with regard to the treatment of prisoners.

The axiom that all is fair in war is widely known. Another well-known axiom that applies to war is that history is written by the victors. While the source of this axiom is not known with certainty, this expression is quite often true with regard to how the events of a war are recorded for posterity. After the Civil War, a Southerner expressed this sentiment in a more acrimonious way when he said about Northern versions of the war’s events that “the spoiler is now busily and rapidly taking from us, by the pen, the truth of history more precious to us than all the spoils of war which were ever captured by his sword.” Biased writing of history frequently involves more than simply a less-than-objective narrative of the war. One technique that has been used to skew the recording of a war’s events was, interestingly, put into song in the musical Wicked. This technique involves clever wording to color the history that the victors write. In the musical Wicked, the Wizard cynically sings to the Wicked Witch, “Where I’m from, we believe all sorts of things that aren’t true. We call it – ‘history.’ / A man’s called a traitor – or liberator. / A rich man’s a thief – or philanthropist. / Is one a crusader – or ruthless invader? / It’s all in which label is able to persist. / There are precious few at ease with moral ambiguities. / So we act as though they don’t exist.” While not relevant to prisoner of war camps, it can be argued that the Civil War provides an example of the first of the Wizard’s pairs of contradictory terms, traitor or liberator, as they are applied to a prominent player in the Civil War, Robert E. Lee, in contrast to fellow Virginian George Washington. Both of these men were the principal military leaders in a rebellion against the government, but history has labeled the one whose side lost a traitor and labeled the one whose side won a liberator. Had the outcomes been the reverse for the rebellions in which these two men participated, perhaps the victors who wrote the history of the wars in which Lee and Washington fought would have used the opposite term to define them. More relevant to prison camps, Henry Wirz, the commandant of Andersonville, who, by any objective reckoning deserved punishment for war crimes, was vilified in an 1865 Northern publication as “The Demon of Andersonville.” In fact, Wirz suffered more than vilification. Wirz lost his life for the atrocities at Andersonville. On the other hand, William Hoffman, the Commissary General of Prisoners for the Union army, was lauded by the U.S. government, because he saved the government $1.8 million by, among other measures, reducing rations for Confederate prisoners, failing to provide prisoners adequate clothing and housing, and mandating the construction of inadequate hospital facilities at prisoner of war camps. Hoffman saw his wartime efforts characterized by his superiors as “faithful, meritorious, and distinguished.” Thus, a person on the losing side who was responsible for many prisoner deaths was labeled by the victors a “demon,” and a person on the winning side who was responsible for many prisoner deaths was labeled by the victors “meritorious” and “distinguished.”

Clever wording is not the only technique that is used to color the account of a war. It is also often true that the victors, in their desire to make themselves appear noble and their cause just, neglect to publicize certain events that occurred in a war, or at least do not publicize these events with the same fervor as they do for other events of the war, or, in the words of the Wizard in Wicked, act as though certain moral ambiguities don’t exist. Regarding the atrocities in Union prisoner of war camps, these were largely allowed to escape scrutiny in the aftermath of the Civil War, because the victors directed the attention of the nation on atrocities in Confederate prisons. The conditions that existed in Union prisons were for the most part not publicized, but the atrocities that took place at Andersonville and other Confederate prisons were widely reported in the aftermath of the Civil War during the time when attention was focused on military tribunals and punishments for Confederate war crimes. While a number of accounts of personal experiences in Union prisons were written by Confederate prisoners of war shortly after the conflict, it was not until decades after the war that thorough accounts of Northern prisons were published, which brought a comparable level of scrutiny to Union prisons as had been focused on Confederate prisons in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War. It is true that several years after the Civil War accounts of the war from the perspective of the South were published by former Confederates, and these accounts were by no means objective narratives, but this does not change the fact that Confederate prisoners in Union prisons, like Union prisoners in Confederate prisons, were treated inhumanely.

The treatment of Confederate prisoners provides evidence that no side in a war, any war, has a monopoly on cruelty. In reality, cruelty has always been and always will be an inseparable component of war. Union General William Tecumseh Sherman expressed this quite well when he wrote, “War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it.” In spite of this, there are justifiable limits to cruelty in war, and treatment of prisoners is one aspect of war that lies outside these limits. The available evidence indicates that Andersonville was the worst prisoner of war camp in the Civil War, so if anyone deserved punishment for prisoner of war atrocities, it was anyone who was responsible for what happened at Andersonville. But were those who were responsible for Andersonville the only ones who deserved to be punished? Civil War enthusiasts are intrigued by discussions of Civil War-related questions, which is why the Roundtable holds an annual debate. With that in mind, here are some questions that involve Civil War prisons. Henry Wirz was one of only a handful of people who were executed because of war crimes that were committed during the Civil War, and every person who was punished for war crimes was a Confederate. But were there any members of the Union army who deserved punishment for war crimes, in particular atrocities at prisoner of war camps? Or do the victors win not only the privilege of writing history, but also the privilege of setting the standards for guilt and innocence regarding wartime atrocities? And do the victors also win the privilege of applying these standards differently to themselves and to the enemy?

It is important to acknowledge that both sides in the Civil War failed to treat prisoners of war in accordance with proper rules for treatment of prisoners or, for that matter, in accordance with an acceptable code of humanity. The reason why it is important to acknowledge that both sides were guilty is expressed in a statement from an unlikely source. This statement refers specifically to atrocities that were committed in a different war than the Civil War and were so unspeakably horrible that no other wartime atrocities should ever be compared to them. Nevertheless, the statement eloquently expresses why it is important to acknowledge wartime atrocities, particularly if ‘our side’ was guilty, because failure to acknowledge atrocities that ‘our side’ committed is the first step in allowing such behavior to become an acceptable part of our moral code. The statement was made by Rod Serling in an episode of the television program The Twilight Zone, and the quote has been altered in this history brief by replacing the original names in the quote with names that make the quote more pertinent to the Civil War. The altered quote is as follows. “All the Andersonvilles must remain standing. The Andersonvilles, the Elmiras, the Rock Islands, the Camp Douglases ̶ all of them. They must remain standing because they are a monument to a moment in time when some men decided to turn the Earth into a graveyard. Into it they shoveled all of their reason, their logic, their knowledge, but worst of all, their conscience. And the moment we forget this, the moment we cease to be haunted by its remembrance, then we become the gravediggers.”

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