Book Review Haunted by Atrocity: Civil War Prisons in American Memory by Benjamin G. Cloyd

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Haunted by Atrocity: Civil War Prisons in American Memory by Benjamin G. Cloyd published by LSU Press (2010) 289 pages $27.00 paperback $9.99 Kindle.
410,000 soldiers were held as prisoners in the Civil War, 56,000 of whom died. One-in-ten men who died in the Civil War died in captivity. David Blight wrote in Race and Reunion that “No wartime experience . . . caused deeper emotions, recriminations, and lasting invective than that of prisons.” This book discusses the development of public consciousness of the prisons, the political uses to which they were put, and the memories of the prisons after the war was over.

Note: This review will occur over several posts.


 

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Part 2:

Americans perceived themselves as a people apart from the base cruelties of the rest of the world. Most white Protestant Americans viewed themselves as the members of an exceptional people, a providential race selected by the Almighty to do His will. While some recognized that American treatment of Blacks and Native Americans would make an inquisitor of the Middle Ages blush with shame, most saw themselves as part of an enlightened nation. The experience of Civil War prisons left several generations of "Americans, angered, dismayed, and perplexed by the treatment of Civil War prisoners of war, engaged in an ongoing search to find meaning in the tragedy experienced by those captives," according to the author.

While the book covers the memory of Civil War prisons generally, special attention is given to Andersonville. This is often the only Civil War prison most Americans can name and it has been uppermost in people's memory of the war since 1865. Cloyd explains that:

Several factors ensure Andersonville’s singular reputation despite the persistent misery that occurred in other prison camps. Thirteen thousand Union soldiers died there, making Andersonville the deadliest of all Civil War prisons. In 1865, the camp’s commander, Henry Wirz, was executed for war crimes against Union prisoners. During the postwar decades scores of Andersonville survivors published embellished memoirs rehashing their wartime experiences. And while most of the other prison sites disappeared into oblivion, Andersonville, due to the consistent northern fascination with the prison, has been preserved. Today at Andersonville National Historic Site, visitors will find Andersonville National Cemetery, the old prison grounds, and the National Prisoner of War Museum.
 
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What's a shame is how divisive a topic these prisons can be. It's a little crazy. Andersonville memorializes the barbarity in all of them and stands witness to what happens when we allow this stuff. Conversations devolve into ' They did it too ' instead of ' Why did anyone do it? ' IMO communities tended to be so ashamed of their own What Happened they forgot the prisons in their midst as quickly as humanly possible. Thank goodness Barton was involved with Andersonville post war. Seems to me her name was helpful ensuring we both knew that story and we still have the site.
 

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Part 3:

The prison atrocity issue became a serious topic of public debate in 1863 with the collapse of the prisoner exchange cartel over the failure by the Confederacy to treat captured black soldiers as prisoners of war and the perception that returning prisoners South only prolonged the war. Unfortunately, the debate was largely propaganda driven, with each side accusing the other of committing atrocities.

Even visual images conveyed a sense that evil was being committed only by the other side. Cloyd writes:

Most photographs or cartoons published during the war years depicted the toll that prison life took on the health and strength of young soldiers. In the North, the circulation of the shocking images of emaciated troops, who had been hale and hearty when they left home, often conveyed the harsh reality of prison life better than any article could. Beginning in 1863, a series of illustrations appeared in Harper’s Weekly confirming the rumors of prison evils taking place in the Confederacy. That December, one of the early drawings showed a ragged group of Union prisoners at Belle Isle, in Richmond. Most of them sat or lay prone on the ground, half naked, without the strength or desire to move. Two other prisoners stood, weakly, clutching each other for support. The gloomy scene revealed a world of brutality and deliberate cruelty as the northern soldiers helplessly awaited their fate. On the front page of the March 5, 1864, edition, a picture of tottering prison escapees, held upright only with the help of Union soldiers, suggested that even these brave, determined individuals—the strongest—barely survived the hell of prison in Dixie. More images in December 1864 and January 1865 followed, focusing northern attention on the pitiful health of the recently exchanged survivors of southern prisons.

When illustrations of Union prisons occasionally appeared, as in the April 15, 1865, issue of Harper’s Weekly, they depicted a much more benign existence. A panoramic drawing of Elmira Prison, in New York, complete with an American flag waving in the breeze, presented a stark contrast to the claustrophobic, graphic images that northern artists offered of the suffering individuals in the South. When a picture focused on Confederate prisoners, as in one rendering of Fort Lafayette, in New York, they sat peacefully inside a comfortable barracks room reading and playing games.

The much cozier image fit the popular opinion in the North, fed by the press, that Confederate prisoners lived in luxury while their counterparts starved and died.75 The sharp contrast indicated the deepening fury of the Civil War. It also showed a stubborn refusal in the North, fueled by the influence of such propaganda, to confront the reality of the evil done in the name of its cause. The anger over the seemingly singularly brutal treatment of northern soldiers in southern prisons, fed by the constant publication of charges and images of atrocity, increased the bitterness and sense of moral outrage that fueled the destruction of the Confederacy during the latter stages of the war.

 

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Part 4:

Cloyd alleges that both the Union and Confederate governments manipulated public opinion through the prisoner atrocity issue during the last two years of the war. He sees a cynicism in how both governments behaved. Rather than improve the conditions for the prisoners each side held, the respective leaderships hurled charges of inhumanity against the other side. Men in the prisons came to worry that their respective presidents had stopped caring about the welfare of the men, and saw them as more useful as objects of pity than as men to be helped. Martyrs had a propaganda value to both sides.

Cloyd describes this manipulation:

Patriotic northerners and southerners ignored their own failings and decried those of their opponents instead. But the end of the war did not mean the end of the illusion. The reality of unleashing destruction, of course, is that the bitter feelings last. The painful controversy remained raw precisely because of the frequent and remarkable employment of each section’s divisive memories of Civil War prisons in cajoling both a devotion to cause and justification for violence.
 

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Part 5:

Henry Wirz may or may not have been guilty as charged at his trial, but he was also a scapegoat in the ancient sense of that term. A guilty nation extirpated its sins by assigning them to an outsider, a Swiss immigrant with a heavy German accent. His alleged malevolence could stand in for the responsibility of hundreds of men (most born in the U.S.) for the death of tens of thousands of prisoners held by both sides.

In the post-war press Wirz was not a man, he was a "devil," "tiger," and "fiend." Anything but an American.

Wirz was a most useful figure, writes Cloyd. He provided the Unionist "public a demonic figure on which to focus their outrage. And the relatively innocuous official status of Wirz, as a mere captain, allowed the government to place responsibility for the prison debacle on the Confederacy without further stirring up the emotions of southerners, as a trial of Jefferson Davis might have done."
 

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Part 6:

Almost as soon as Wirz was hanged, Union prison memoirs began regularly appearing in print. In the years right after the war, former prisoners began accusing the Confederacy of trying to murder them. One author wrote that; “It is past question that the Confederate authorities did deliberately, and with thoughts of murder in their hearts, perpetuate the awful enormity of torturing to death sixty or seventy thousand helpless but brave men; slain by a refined process of cruelty.”

The Republican Party found the prison narratives useful campaign tools in the elections of 1868. Nothing outraged Northern voters more than reading of the death by starvation of their brave sons. Connecting the Democrats to Andersonville completed the circle.
 

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Part 7:

Cloyd writes that a Southern white counteroffensive sought to place the blame for even Unionist deaths on the Yankees:

Their version contained several components that not only excused the Confederacy’s prison record but placed the burden of responsibility for the dead prisoners back on the Union. According to Stephens, Davis, Craven, and Schade, the Confederacy strove to fulfill its obligations to its prisoners even in the midst of total collapse. If the North had fought a more civilized war, refraining from destroying much of the Confederate heartland and preventing the import of medicine and other supplies, then tending to the needs of Union captives would have been far easier. Had the Union at any time acquiesced to the resumption of the exchange cartel the misery of the supposedly intentionally deprived Yankee soldiers would have ended. Finally, even with the concession that Confederate prisons took an incredible toll on Union prisoners, the fact remained that Union prisons killed Confederate captives at similar rates. While northerners scoffed at these arguments and dismissed them as selective, false, and conjectural, southerners clung to these rhetorical positions and began to repeat them, at first weakly, but eventually with growing confidence.

Like its northern counterpart, the southern memory represented a severe distortion of the truth about Civil War prisons. A clear preference for hypothetical alternatives defined the southern position. Such narratives are not surprising given the grim reality of the outcome of the conflict. As defenders of the Confederacy, through the power of hindsight, reflected on the war, the natural human tendency to revisit mistakes and to ask what if crept in and influenced their arguments. The more troubling aspect of the southern deflective memory lay in its defiant mirroring of the northern stance. The denial of all responsibility for the suffering in Confederate prisons combined with the insistence that the Union instead deserved sole blame not only was untrue but indicated just how deep the wounds inflicted by the Civil War, and constantly reopened, as with the Wirz trial, during Reconstruction, really were.
 

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Part 8:

African Americans developed their own traditions and memories of the prisoners. Soon after the war they began traditions of assembling at the old grounds of the prisons, first in solemn commemoration of men who had died to help free the slaves, and later as a civic celebration. White Southerners resented these commemorations and the white media ignored them typically, only mentioning them to mock the black assemblies.

By the late 1870s, white America's memory of the prisons was sloley reshaped. Prisons were not longer as much of a partisan political issue as they had been and former prisoners of war worried that they would be forgotten. Many were appalled that a younger generation did not see their lingering disabilities from their prison years as "real" war wounds worthy of a hero's reward (or a pension).

Prison memoirs, which continued to appear until the start of the 20th Century, began to stress the heroism of the former inmates. The authors particularly emphasized their role in plots to escape the camps, turning the stockade around Elmira or Andersonville into the equivalent of Gettysburg.
 

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Part 9:

As the years went by, Civil War prison experiences became the fodder for adventure yarns. One volume, Famous Adventures and Prison Escapes of the Civil War, went through a number of printings. Prisons were also seen as likely tourism sites, with Libby Prison being dismantled and moved to Richmond to be opened to paying customers. Communities around Andersonville began to advertise the prison as a tourist destination. Elderly veterans held reunions at the once detested prison.

In spite of the lessening of conflict between white Northerners and Southerners, veterans on both sides continued to act as the guardians of "true history" and they rebelled against anything that they felt distorted their experiences.
 

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Part 10:

The ultimate guardians of "true history" decided that merely policing the history books was not enough. The United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) announced four decades after his death that they would build a monument to the most notorious accused war criminal in American history up to that time, Henry Wirz. In 1909 the new statue was unveiled before as many as 4,000 people. The message was that Wirz was a martyr, not a criminal. In 1919, three American soldiers painted the monument in the colors of the German flag.

Mildred Rutherford, historian of the UDC, spoke out in defense of Wirz and the policies that he represented. She wrote a book attacking the Wirz trial entitled Facts and Figures vs. Myths and Misrepresentations: Henry Wirz and Andersonville Prison. Cloyd writes that "Rutherford hoped to dispel what seemed to her and many southerners an irrational, and at this point in time, unnecessary, prejudice in the North against Wirz.22 Given her obvious prosouthern viewpoint, however, she convinced few not already in the fold."
 

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Part 11:

The 1930s were better years for the UDC's prison project. The novel Gone With the Wind called the Rock Island camp the Northern equivilent of Andersonville, establishing moral equivilence between the North and South. In 1937, the UDC erected a monument at the cemetery in Elmira where many of the Confederate prisoners are buried.

Annual Unionist commemorations at places like Andersonville no longer transmitted their older messages of war crimes and emancipation. With the generation of veterans almost entirely gone, the now white-dominated proceedings stressed bravery and reconciliation. Cloyd writes that "The vital questions of race, freedom, and equality raised by the Civil War and its prisons were increasingly—and comfortably—ignored."
 

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Part 12:

If the prisons had been primarily a partisan football in the 19th Century, in the 1920s they became an object of scholarly study for the first time. William Hesseltine and a handful of other academic historians evolved what became the Objectivist School of Civil War prison history. Rather than settling scores or assigning blame, these scholars typically rejected the narratives of former POWs, which were seen as incredibly biased, and instead searched the prison records of the two sides. They employed modern forms of historical analysis in trying to understand and explain the prison experience.

Historian William Hesseltine was the leading figure for three decades in this movement towards objectivity. In 1930 he published a book that would dominate the field when it was first published and that is still routinely referenced today. Civil War Prisons: A Subject in War Psychology was an overview of the prisons and offered an explanation of why, by 1864, both sides accepted the large numbers of deaths in their prisons. In his introduction to the book, Hesseltine wrote that with the passions of the Civil War finally cooled, the subject of its prison camps could finally be taken up dispassionately.
 

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Part 13:

Cloyd writes of the reception of the academic community to Hesseltine's study:

According to his peers, Hesseltine succeeded in his attempt to handle the volatile subject delicately; reviewers hailed the “judicial spirit” and “cool detachment” of the “critical study.”31 Drawing primarily on evidence from The Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies as well as the scores of published prison accounts, Hesseltine reduced the overall controversy over Civil War prisons into individual pieces, including the issue of prisoner exchange, conditions in the prison systems on both sides, and the heated emotions generated by the suffering. He then, at least to his own satisfaction, systematically and dispassionately explained the reasons behind the tragedy of the Civil War prison camps.

Hesseltine did open himself up to later criticism by discounting the importance of race in stalling the exchanges of prisoners in the last two years of the war, the deadliest time for prisoners. The exchange agreement broke down for reasons heavily disputed after the war. Cloyd writes:

Since the 1860s, northerners insisted that the Confederacy’s refusal to recognize the rights of African American prisoners prompted the Union’s principled stand of not exchanging prisoners with the Confederacy—unless black troops received the same treatment as white Union soldiers. Southerners fired back that the Union government always opposed the cartel because it returned Confederate soldiers to the front lines, obstructing Grant’s strategy of attrition, and that defending the rights of African Americans existed purely as a political smokescreen to distract northern families from the fact that Lincoln and Stanton made conscious decisions to sacrifice their sons in Confederate prisons. On the cartel issue, Hesseltine clearly sided with the southern view, claiming that the Union government waited “until the country showed signs of restlessness” with the lack of exchange to declare the South’s policy toward captured African American soldiers as “reason for the non-exchange of prisoners.” Hesseltine’s discounting of the impact of race on the prison controversy showed just how seductive the conjoined memories of reconciliation and white supremacy remained in 1930.
 

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Part 13:

Hesseltine was the first scholar to examine closely the planning of both sides to cope with the new and expanding prisons. While the Confederate leadership sometimes seemed to have no plans and no structure for overseeing the welfare of the prisoners, the Union created a significant administrative capacity for the administration of the camps. Hesseltine seemed to think that much of prisoner suffering in the South was caused by bureaucratic inefficiency. The camps were so poorly run that men were bound to die by the thousands. What then explained the death toll in the camps in the North?

The Northern camps had a lower death rate than the Southern camps, and no Northern camp had a death rate equal to Andersonville. However, Hesseltine wondered, if the Union prisons were better administered and better resourced than the Southern camps, why did they still have relatively high numbers of deaths?

Hesseltine believed that as the stories of the abuse and starvation of prisoners held by the Confederacy became known in the North in 1864 and 1865, many Unionists ascribed an evil intent to the Confederate leaders all the way up to Jefferson Davis. This, Hesseltine contended, led to a "war psychosis" in the North. Atrocity stories from the South inspired in many Northerners “the fiercest antagonism toward that country’s enemies,” Hesseltine wrote. This led to Union prison policies that purposely reduced rations for captives. While more recent historians contest the claimed negative health impact of these reductions, Hesseltine offered the first evidence-based argument for the rise in prison deaths towards the end of the war.
 

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Part 14:

Hesseltine "attacked the traditional belief that evil individuals bore responsibility for the tragedy and instead confirmed the modern, more scientifically nuanced perception of how the world worked," writes Cloyd. His "revisionist combination of objective psychoanalytic theory and the impersonal dominance of large bureaucratic organizations, with their capacity for mismanagement, presented the history of Civil War prisons in a more compelling, usable form, especially compared to the outdated sectional memories of the prisons."

Hesseltine helped establish a research paradigm that critically examined the old prisoner memoirs that had been so central to the memory of Civil War prisons. Much academic research in the ensuing years operated within this paradigm. Cloyd writes that "Inspired by Hesseltine’s example, professional and amateur historians alike rejected the old selective memories of Civil War prisons and instead approached this particular example of 'man’s inhumanity to man' with the objective goal of more faithfully chronicling and explaining the horrors of Civil War prison camps in terms of scientific theory."
 

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Part 15:

The horrors of World War II, particularly the Nazi concentration camps and the Bataan Death March led historians to compare the atrocities of the mid-20th Century to the Civil War prisoners' experiences. The Nuremburg Trails led to comparisons with Wirz's trial. The notion that Americans could not commit the same sorts of atrocities as the Germans was called into question by had happened in America 80 years earlier.

Cloyd writes that Bruce Catton popularized this post-war view:

In a 1959 American Heritage article, Catton enthusiastically reminded his readers that “the passage of the years has at last brought a new perspective.” Andersonville remained “the worst of a large number of war prisons,” but all prisons, North and South, “were almost unbelievably bad.” “The real culprit” for the suffering, Catton declared, was not “Wirz, the luckless scapegoat,” but “war itself.” Catton’s focus on the inherent evil of modern war reflected a sense of weariness with the tragic development of world events. By 1959, the experience of the Civil War, World War I, World War II, and the Korean War convinced Catton and many Americans that, starting with the Civil War, in each and every instance war meant the infliction of unspeakable cruelty, no matter when or where it took place.
 

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Part 16:

The 1955 publication of MacKinlay Kantor's novel Andersonville both popularized the study of the prison's history and implanted distortions of that history inside people's minds. Although the book is much criticized now, at the time several important historians praised its objectivity. Hesseltine hated the novel and he mobilized a group of younger historians to respond to it in the journal Civil War History.
 

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