Book Review Andersonvilles of the North: The Myths and Realities of Northern Treatment of Civil War Confederate Prisoners by James M. Gillispie

Pat Young

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Andersonvilles of the North: The Myths and Realities of Northern Treatment of Civil War Confederate Prisoners by James M. Gillispie published by University of North Texas Press (2012) 295 pages Hardcover $24.95, Kindle 11.96.

If you pick this book up thinking it is an indictment of Northern prisoner of war camps, you will be disappointed. Likewise if you want an overview history of Northern prisons. This book is aimed at debunking some of the myths about prisons in the North. Unfortunatley, at times it is a bit too much of a brief for the defense of the Union prison system.

Note: Because of its length, this review will be published in sections.
 

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Pat Young

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Part 2:

This book is premised on the notion that most published Confederate prisoner accounts of treatment at the hands of Union captors should not be taken at face value. According to the author, the post-war books were published for audiences that would only pay for atrocity stories. POWs exaggerated their suffering to conform to market demand.

There is nothing wrong with viewing Union and Confederate prisoner memoirs with some suspicion. My problem is that James M. Gillispie sometimes disregards them entirely and relies almost exclusively on the Official Records. But then, the ORs are filled with distortions as well.

This can make the book feel a little one-sided. I also felt that in some chapters, Confederate prisoners were rendered voiceless by the author's editorial choices.
 

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Part 3:

In his search of the Official Records, Gillispie finds ample evidence that the Union behaved more humanely than is commonly understood in its treatment of prisoners. He also says that the main reason for the deterioration of prisoner conditions was the breakdown of the prisoner exchange cartel and that this was caused by Confederate violation, not a Union desire to retain prisoners to cripple the Southern armies.

Gillispie tells us many times in this book that Union prisons "were not perfect." True, but sometimes they were a lot worse than not perfect.
 

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Part 4:

The issues of prison atrocities was important from early in the war until the modern era. Popular awareness in the North of bad conditions at Andersonville, Libby and other Confederate prisons was high. As horribly emaciated prisoners from those prisons were photographed in the last year of the war, awareness turned to anger at the inhumanity of incarceration. A Northern narrative of intentional abuse, ordered by Jefferson Davis himself, began to take hold of Unionist consciousness.

After the war, dozens of memoirs by the men freed from the Southern stockades were published, eventually becoming a literary genre of their own. Historians now believe that some of these books exaggerated the intentionality of the imposition of suffering. The overall impact was to depict the Confederacy as anti-Christian and immoral.
 
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CSA Today

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#6
Part 3:

In his search of the Official Records, Gillispie finds ample evidence that the Union behaved more humanely than is commonly understood in its treatment of prisoners. He also says that the main reason for the deterioration of prisoner conditions was the breakdown of the prisoner exchange cartel and that this was caused by Confederate violation, not a Union desire to retain prisoners to cripple the Southern armies.

Gillispie tells us many times in this book that Union prisons "were not perfect." True, but sometimes they were a lot worse than not perfect.
Sounds like another South bad, North not so bad trope.
 
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#7
Part 4:

The issues of prison atrocities was important from early in the war until the modern era. Popular awareness in the North of bad conditions at Andersonville, Libby and other Confederate prisons was high. As horribly emaciated prisoners from those prisons were photographed in the last year of the war, awareness turned to anger at the inhumanity of incarceration. A Northern narrative of intentional abuse, ordered by Jefferson Davis himself, began to take hold of Unionist consciousness.

After the war, dozens of memoirs by the men freed from the Southern stockades were published, eventually becoming a literary genre of their own. Historians now believe that some of these books exaggerated the intentionality of the imposition of suffering. The overall impact was to depict the Confederacy as anti-Christian and immoral.
Well there you have it!
 

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Part 5:

After the war ended, Henry Wirz, the comandant of Andersonville, was tried, convicted, and executed for the murder of prisoners. The emotional testimony of prisoners against Wirz stirred even more negative feelings against the defunt Confederacy. Northerners believed that they had triumphed over an inhuman regime in the South.

Gillispie says that facing the harsh moral judgement of the North, many Southern whites began to publicize the abuse they say befell Confederates held in Unionist prisons in the North. The author writes:

ex-Confederates did not want to accept that God favored the Yankees over themselves or that Southern honor had been forever sullied by its gross mistreatment of Northern prisoners during the war. Southerners resolved the crisis by creating creating a model for interpreting the Civil War era that came to be known as the Lost Cause. This model allowed Southerners to take pride in their Confederate past in part by denying that God had played much, if any role, in the military outcome and by arguing that the true story of how prisoners were treated showed that the South had been humane and Christian in its care of prisoners while Northerners had been the true demons. How each side prosecuted the war and conducted itself in battle became more important in the Lost Cause school than ultimate victory or defeat. That model taught, among other things, that losing carried no stigma and could even be called heroic if one fought nobly and chivalrously against a huge and unprincipled foe....
 

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#9
Part 6:

Gillispie tells the, by now familiar to me, story of the drive by the UDC to prove the guiltlessness of Wirz as part of its sanctification of the memory of the Confederacy. If Wirz was accused by Northerners of being the worst criminal of the war, and he were innocent, that might prove the stainlessness of the white Southern cause. This whitewash of Wirz's record reached its apogee in the first years of the 20th Century when the UDC successfully raised the funds to erect a Wirz monument in Andersonville.

Lost Cause adherents also sought to cleanse the Southern record, claims Gillispie, by inverting the charge of Confederate abuse of Union soldiers and flinging it backs at Northerners. A key feature was the constant reference to various Union prisons as "the Andersonvilles of the North."

Southern wrfiters deployed statistics to brand the North as the real malefactor. Gillispie says that Lost Cause authors claimed that:

26,436 of the 220,000 Confederates held by the North died, a mortality rate of 12%. That statistic became an important weapon in the
Lost Cause arsenal because it was higher than the mortality rate among Union prisoners in Confederate care. Southern writers after the war often claimed that despite serious shortages only 22,576 of the 270,000 Union prisoners held by the Confederacy died, a mortality rate of 8.36%. Unlike the well-supplied North, one Southerner wrote in 1898, “the Confederate Government did all that could possibly be done for the well-being of Federal soldiers. . . .” This idea was expressed often by Southern writers in the postwar era; it seemed to be cold hard evidence that the Confederacy had acted with utmost humanity towards Federal prisoners at all times thus refuting Northern accusations and actually turning them on their heads.
(p. 33-34)
 

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Northern prisoner of war camps fit nicely into the Lost Cause narrative. The North had all the resources, therefore mistreatment of Confederates prisoner could only be willful by the Union. The Union Army always had good uniforms, good shoes, and full haversacks so how could they not adequately care for Confederate POWs?

Neither side had an adequate system in place to properly handle large numbers of prisoners. Nor did they have reason to do so. The ACW was unprecedentedly large by American standards and the prisoner exchange system breakdown fairly abrupt. Nor could medicine of the time handle the inevitable problems of that many people in confined spaces.

As for prisoner abuses by guards: I would consider an anomaly the prisoner system where such things don't happen. They are both a magnet and a breeding ground for such behavior given the necessity of a lopsided power dynamic. It's an ugly side of human nature throughout history.

Lots of mistakes were made and I find the Camp Douglas vs Andersonville blame battle tiresome.
 

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#11
How does one determine the reliability of a prisoner narrative? It is the kind of thing that lends itself to sensationalism. I suppose it helps if it is part of a larger memoir. If the veteran was fairly honest with the rest of his experience, it would seem unlikely he would only sensationalize his POW experience. On the other hand, a newspaper article that contains only POW experiences, in that era of heavily partisan papers, seems very suspect.
 

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Part 7:

Gillispie points out that Southern white narrative was based on shaky stats. He writes:

The problem is that the numbers given here and used quite often by Southern writers after the war was that they were contained in a report by Federal Surgeon-General Joseph K. Barnes that was lost—if it ever existed. Not only is evidence lacking that this report ever existed, the numbers are not supported by any other wartime documents, official or otherwise. Furthermore, they conflict with those provided by the Official Records published at the end of the century, which indicate that a greater percentage of Union prisoners died in captivity, not the other way around.
 

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#13
Part 8:

The distortion of history by Southern white apologists included throwing the blame for Unionist deaths on Northern leaders. Gillispie says that the Lost Cause advocates "presented the suffering and mortality that occurred in Confederate military prisons as ultimately the North’s responsibility." The Union blockade of Southern ports and the depredations caused by advancing Union armies cut down on Confederate food supplies and the disruption of Southern railroads by Yankee raiders sometimes made it impossible to move supplies to the prison camps.

As most of you familiar with the subject of Civil War prisons know, the main charge that Lincoln and the Union leaders were responsible for the deaths of their own men comes from the suspensions of the prisoner exchange cartel. The cartel had allowed for the regularized exchange of prisoners using a straightforward algorithm. Its operation meant that even if prison conditions were not particularly good in 1862, prisoners would only be in them for a brief time. The long-term impacts of incarceration would be avoided as would severe overcrowding. The cartel would be suspended several times beginning in 1863.
 

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#14
Northern prisoner of war camps fit nicely into the Lost Cause narrative. The North had all the resources, therefore mistreatment of Confederates prisoner could only be willful by the Union. The Union Army always had good uniforms, good shoes, and full haversacks so how could they not adequately care for Confederate POWs?

Neither side had an adequate system in place to properly handle large numbers of prisoners. Nor did they have reason to do so. The ACW was unprecedentedly large by American standards and the prisoner exchange system breakdown fairly abrupt. Nor could medicine of the time handle the inevitable problems of that many people in confined spaces.

As for prisoner abuses by guards: I would consider an anomaly the prisoner system where such things don't happen. They are both a magnet and a breeding ground for such behavior given the necessity of a lopsided power dynamic. It's an ugly side of human nature throughout history.

Lots of mistakes were made and I find the Camp Douglas vs Andersonville blame battle tiresome.
The treatment of soldiers in the pow camps do not fit nicely in any narrative.
 

Jimklag

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#15
Gentlemen. The topic of this thread is the northern treatment of prisoners of war and not the Lost Cause narrative or the Yankee narrative or which side lied more than the other. There are several zillion threads available on those subjects where you can vent to your heart's content. Stay on topic or more posts will be deleted and members will be thread banned.

Posted as moderator
 

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#17
Read it (it's free) and find out: you might be surprised....
Not likely, The only thing I ever read that surprised me was the high death toll of POWs from the companies raised in my small rural county. It's not that I doubt what your source said, it's that I don't buy into: “If you pick this book up thinking it is an indictment of Northern prisoner of war camps, you will be disappointed. Likewise if you want an overview history of Northern prisons. This book is aimed at debunking some of the myths about prisons in the North.” I do agree with: “Unfortunately, at times it is a bit too much of a brief for the defense of the Union prison system.” But that is the opinion of a poster not something in the book.
 

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#18
Part 8:

The distortion of history by Southern white apologists included throwing the blame for Unionist deaths on Northern leaders. Gillispie says that the Lost Cause advocates "presented the suffering and mortality that occurred in Confederate military prisons as ultimately the North’s responsibility."
I do recall reading about Confederates offering to allow medicines into the South for the aid of Union prisoners and to be administered by Union doctors, but the offer was refused (or ignored) by the Lincoln government. It's difficult to understand why they would refuse.
 

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Thanks for your response.
I don't have a source: like you, I am just reading the posts.
It does seem like it might be a worthwhile read (especially at the price) that- if nothing else- may challenge what we think we know about Civil War POW camps.
 

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#20
Thanks for your response.
I don't have a source: like you, I am just reading the posts.
It does seem like it might be a worthwhile read (especially at the price) that- if nothing else- may challenge what we think we know about Civil War POW camps.
I have a backlog of books I need to read; another stack of books to reread to keep sources fresh in my mind. If I had the time I might reread such a book out of curiosity, but I don't have the time – it just not a high priority.
 

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