Book Review Civil War Prisons edited by William B. Hesseltine

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Civil War Prisons edited by William B. Hesseltine published by The Kent State University Press (1972) 123 pages $12.00 Paperback, $11.40 Kindle.

This collection of short essays, originally published in the journal Civil War History at the start of the Civil War Centennial, was the standard scholarly work on the subject for more than a quarter of a century. Hesseltine had put together the volume to bring a scholarly lens to the lurid field of writing about the prison hell holes of the Civil War.

Horrible photos of newly liberated priosners of war published in 1865 showed skeletal survivors of Andersonville. After the Civil War many Union soldiers who had been incarcerated at Andersonville, Libby, and elsewhere published first-person accounts of prison life in Confederate jails. These volumes sometimes exaggerated the intentional ill-treatment prisoners received in order to attract readers. Except for William Hesseltine's 1930 scholarly work on the subject, there was little objective scientific history being applied. Mackinlay Kantor’s fictionalized Andersonville was published in 1955. When it became a bestseller and won the Pulitzer Prize it cemented the image of Andersonville as the predecessor of the death camps of the 1940s.

For all of the popularity of non-academic books on Civil War prisoners of war, there was very little scholarly work on the subject for the first century after Appomattox. Hesseltine decided to work with the Civil War History journal to try to establish prison studies as a sub field of Civil War history. This collection of essays was the result. It was such a popular issue of the journal that in 1972 Kent State Press published it as a book. That book went on to sell 22,000 copies, a large number for a university press publication.

Note: This review will be published in several posts.
 
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Part 2:

In his opening essay, William Hesseltine writes that from the very earliest days of the shooting war, prisoners alleged that their captors had abused them. While the prisoner accounts may well have been truthful, they were quickly magnified by Union and Confederate propaganda. No "controversy ever evoked such emotions as the mutual recriminations between Northern and Southern partisans over the treatment of prisoners of war," says Hesseltine. An industry of partisan prison accusation emerged after the war, he writes, as "quick-change journalists reprinted the alleged reminiscences of prisoners; novelists of varying repute found gory and p@rnographic material in the prisons; and neophyte historians wrote extended term-papers, dripping with footnotes, to support one or another contender in the undying quarrel." Indicting the "other side" for atrocities (along with selling books) became the focus rather than scholarly and objective study of the facts.

The bare statistical facts show that this was a field much more deserving of academic attention than it had received by 1960. According to Hesseltine:

The records are inadequate, but the estimates which Adjutant General F. C. Ainsworth gave to James Ford Rhodes in 1903 seem reasonable. General Ainsworth counted 193,743 Northerners and 214,865 Southerners captured and confined. Over 30,000 Union and nearly 26,000 Confederate prisoners died in captivity. Rhodes concluded that over 12 per cent of the captives died in Northern prisons and 15.5 per cent died in the South.

More than 400,000 Americans had passed through Civil War prison camps and more had died in some of them than had been killed at Gettysburg. Yet, serious study of the prisons was still in its infancy on the eve of the Centennial.

Hesseltine believed that while all could agree on the tremendous suffering of prisoners, especially in the last year of the war, the causes of the death and degredation were not as clear as some of the prisoners insisted. While they blamed their starvation and lack of medical care on intentional deprivation, Hesseltine said that the causes were often more complex. Certainly the reduction in rations for prisoners ordered by Stanton when the poor conditions at Andersonville were exposed was an intentional infliction of harm on Confederates held captive, but malicious intent was harder to find, he contends, in other harms on both sides.
 

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Part 3:

The next essay is by Ovid Futch, then emerging as a premier scholar of Andersonville prison. Futch tries to provide a view of ordinary prisoner life at the infmous compound. He says that prisoners were consumed with thoughts of food and freedom. The fantasized about prisoner exchanges and prison escapes and longed always for food.

Andersonville was extablished where it was in Georgia almost solely because it was far from the reach of Union raiders. It was not a particularly healthy place and it lacked even a good water supply. Its establishment was poorly planned and it was inadequate from the start, a common theme in Civil War prisons.

One prisoner wrote that after some excitement during a Confederate drill, the camp returned to its "usual state of semi-confusion.” It was less a death camp and more a place of neglect and incompetent administration.
 

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Part 4:

Futch sees most of the harm in negligence, short supplies, and bad planning, but he also cites instances of cruelty from the Confederates. Members of the reserve charged with guarding the camp wrote home about the wonton killing of prisoners by some fellow guards. For example, Pvt. James Anderson of the guard wrote the following complaint to Jefferson Davis:

We have many thoughtless boys here who think the killing of a Yankee will make them great men. … Every day or two there are prisoners shot. When the officer of the guard goes to the sentry stand, there is a dead or badly wounded man invariably within their own lines. The sentry, of course, says he was across the dead-line when he shot him. … Last Sabbath there were two shot in their tents at one shot. The boy said that he shot at one across the deadline. Night before last there was one shot near me (I being on guard). The sentry said that the Yankee made one step across the line to avoid a mud hole. He shot him through the bowels, and when the officer of the guard got there he was lying inside their own lines. He [the sentry] as usual told him that he stepped across, but fell back inside.


 

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Part 5:

One thing that Futch comments on is that while few clergy from outside the prison ministers to the Unionists, Catholic priests came fairly regualry. Futch writes:

The priests won the sincere admiration of most prisoners, of whatever faith. One inmate observed that smallpox cases received the same attention as any others. “The priests are in every day,” another wrote, “and are the only Christian professors who visit the camp.” The Holy Fathers frequently had to get down on hands and knees and crawl into dug-outs in order to hear confessions. Sometimes they had to administer extreme unction while lying alongside sick or dying prisoners. Some non-Catholic residents of the countryside were ashamed because none of their clergy visited the prison.

In reading about other prison camps, north and south, Catholic priests seem to have been among the most regualr vistors. I wonder if it is because the unity of the church was maintained even through the war, which differed from the Protestant denominations like the Baptists which divided into Northern and Southern sects in the years leading up to war.
 

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Part 6:

The next essay is on Fort Warren in Boston Harbor. When the prison first began operations, local newspapers solicited donations to help provide for the health of the prisoners. Boston's Democratic Mayor Wightman visited the prison and sent food and other supplies to assist the captured Confederates. Republican newspapers pilloried him for diverting supplies that were supposed to go to aid Union soldiers to the Confederates instead.

One odd feature at the prison was the fact that prisoners were allowed to drink alchohol and have parties that included spiked punches. The camp's commander Colonel Dimick appears to have been a liberal man. Prisoner John M. Brewer wrote that Dimick “did all in his power to render our condition more tolerable. … He was a kind and a good man, and was willing to extend to us every privilege that the Government would allow.” Another prisoner wrote, “We experienced none of the rudeness and insolence we had daily to encounter at Fort Lafayette. … In that large heart of his no bitterness, no malice, no sectional hate could find an abiding place. There was not a prisoner under his charge who did not learn to respect and love him before a week had rolled over their heads.”

Colonel Dimick's own son was killed fighting for the Union, but he made no effort to use his control over powerless prisoners to take revenge. In the end, only 13 Confederate prisoners out of more than 2,000 impriosoned at Fort Warren died there. That is a mortality rate of less than 1%.
 

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Part 7:

Rock Island prison was not the healthy camp that Fort Warrent was. While never as bad as Elmira or Andersonville, still one-in-seven prisoners there died while incarcerated. Local newspapers paid attention to the mortality rate at the camp and raised alarms over the neglect of prisoners, which may have helped keep the death rate from climbing higher.

The commandant responded to reports of abuse by insisting that prisoners received a ration of food nearly equal to that given to the garrisson. In an extraordinary letter to a local newspaper, he said that he would prefer to "give [the prisoners], as near as possible, the same quantity and quality of provisions that the fiendish rebels give our men; and instead of a constant issue of clothing to them, I would let them wear their rags, as our poor men in the hands of the rebel authorities are obliged to do; or, in other words, had I the power, strict retaliation would be practiced by me." He also implied that he would like to lock up critics of the camp's management! The tone of the letter certainly undermined the comandant's assertions of humane treatment for the Confederates interned at his camp.

Whatever their treatment at the hands of their captors, about a third of the jailed Confederates wound up enlisting in the Union army for service in the West.
 

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Part 8:

You get the idea of the first part of this book. A handful of short histories of prisons, large and small. Except for the humanely run Ft. Warren, I was more or less aware of the information in the other essays. When the book was first published almost 60 years ago, this was groundbreaking, now it is information readily available on Wikipedia. There area lot of facts and some telling quotes, but not too much interpretation.

The next chapter in this collection was probably the best for me. It is the publication of the diary of Neal Dow, a general who was locked up in Libby prison. The editor of this diary, Frank Byrne, says that researchers find so many accounts of Libby that one might think that every Union officer held there wrote his own account. Byrne believes that Dow's diary is important because it was written contemporaneously with his captivity and it was not written for publication. Because of that last fact, it contains none of the conventions of the POW memoir. It is straightforward, intimate, and lacking in the polemnics of later published works by former prisoners.

Dow kept track of the food he was given by his captors, the rurmors that swept the camp, the shooting of prisoners by guards, and the general conditions of his jail. Editor Byrne sees this as a truthful account of a life which Dow likens to that of enslaved African Americans. This is a really interesting piece that I had not read before.
 

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Part 9:

The next essay is the one that has been among the most reprinted. "The Scourge of Elmira" is by the now well-known James "Bud" Robertson. At the time, he was a young historian working with the Centennial Commission. The essay he wrote on "The Scourge of Elmira" is among the most memorable in part because it does not adopt as detached a tone as some of the others in the collection. Because Robertson's outrage occassionally breaks through, there is a little more feeling in his writing.

Unlike some of the other Northern camps, Elmira (24%) had a death rate approaching that of Andersonville (29%). Like Andersonville, it was situated as far from the fighting as possible.

I have been to Elmira in the summer and it is a pleasant place. In the winter it is a place of pain for the unprotected.

For those who know of the severe mortality of "Hellmira," it may come as a surprise that it did not start operations until May 15, 1864. So all of the deaths there occurred over a little more than a year. Robertson's essay offers some explanation of this grim outcome.
 

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Part 10:

Elmira was supposed to be built to accomodate 10,000 prisoners. Its commandant seems to have ignored orders and only provided facilities for 5,000. Any additional prisoners could sleep in tents in the open. Considering the winter temps were nearly always below freezing, this was forseeable suffering for anyone not inside a barrack.

The fourth load of prisoners on their way to Elmira were suffering even before they arrived when their train derailed in Shohola, Pa. 48 prisoners and 17 guards were killed. After two months, the camp was full, and yet a month later the number of internees had doubled! As the chill of the fall set in, there were 10,000 Confederates at Elmira. Warmth was a desperately needed commodity. Many prisoners did not even have a blanket to keep them warm.

In October, 1864, when a number of prisoners from Elmira passed through Washington, doctors in D.C. were shocked by their poor condition. Several literally died while inspections were taking place. Col. Hoffman, who supervised prison care, wrote to Sec. of War Stanton: “It appears that both the commanding officer and the medical officers not only failed to be governed by [my] orders, but neglected the ordinary promptings of humanity in the performance of their duties toward sick men, thus showing themselves to be wholly unfit for the positions they occupy, and it is respectfully recommended that they be immediately ordered to some other service.”
 
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Part 11:

Bud Robertson provides a detailed examination those elements of life at Elmira that resulted in its having the highest death rate among Union prison camps. Poor food supplies, incompetent medical care, miserable sanitation were all factors in the deaths of hundreds of young men. The Washington authorities did not help the situation. Stoves for the men to warm themselves were not installed in the barracks until December of 1864. By March of 1865, 16 Confederates were dying each day.

It was not until the war ended and the paroles of prisoners began that the suffering of thousands of Confederates was relieved.
 

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Part 12:

The final mini-history is of Johnson's Island off of Sandusky, Ohio. The island could be a cold place in the winter, but it had a death rate of only 2%. Designed to serve as a prison for officers, its inmates typically had some finacial resources to purchase necessities to supplement what was offered by the Union War Department. The prison was decently designed, althought the placement on an island on Lake Erie left it vulnerable to cold temperatures as low as 25 degrees below zero.

Health was jeopardized when the War Department retaliated for the poor treatment of prisoners at Andersonville by cutting rations for the Confederates in 1864. Prisoners suffered from hunger and many saw their weights begin to drop. The were fortunate in that medical care was better than at Elmira, even during the period of food deprivation. Only 221 men died of over 12,000 imprisoned on Johnson's Island. The death rate was considerably lower than if these men had continued on in the Confederate ranks, one measure of the safety of the camp.

The Johnson Island prisoners suffered from the same lack of foresight in facility planning as those in other prisons did. Expecting a short war that would end soon, the camp was cheaply built and expected to last just a year or so. The Unionists guarding the Confederates, if rarely cruel, were often negligent or simply overwhelmed. The situation was not helped by the refusal of many of the gentlemanly Southern officers to perform the sorts of common sanitation duties that were necessary for the health of everyone confined on Johnson's Island.

The essay also includes a description of the comic attempt of Confederate agents in Canada to attack Johnson's Island in conjunction with a rising of Ohio Copperheads. The combined forces were then to march against Buffalo!
 

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Part 13:

The book ends with a synopsis of the journal of Edmund Ryan, a Union soldier who spent eight months imprisoned in half-a-dozen prisons in the South. Ryan wrote with some detachment and objectivity and his account is valuable because he was in a position to describe the differences in camps. He could also describe the mode of transit and the need for the Confederates to keep prisoners on the move as their rebellion collapsed in 1864.

At one point, he was confined to the jail in Charleston where he observed the treatment of black Union troops:

Most of the colored soldiers confined in this prison were captured on Morris or James Co. land about a year ago. These colored soldiers are good loyal men and should be protected by our government. All that these poor fellows receive in the shape of eatables is a small piece of corn bread per day for each man. Most of these are free colored men from the state of Mass. … The Rebel authorities compel most of our colored troops who fall into their hands, who were on[c]e slaves, to work on fortifications, plantations and do other menial service. In other words, they are not treated as prisoners of war.

Ryan was among the Union officers used as human shields by the Confederates to try to halt the shelling of the city.
 

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Conclusion:

This was so influential when it was published first as a special edition of the Civil War History journal and later as a book that much that is contained in it has become common knowledge among most students of the Civil War. It is still valuable for those not fully acquainted with the modern literature on the prisons. The short nature of the essays means that the neophyte can dive in without much of a committment.

There are a few pieces that are worth the price of admission even for more knowledgeable readers. Neal Dow's diary is among the treasures.
 

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Pat. Thanks for this very interesting book review on such a mundane topic as civil war prisons, a topic I must admit that I had no interest in pursuing until I read your book review. David.
 


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