Saturday, October 24, 2009
OHP BOOK REVIEW: GEORGIA'S CONFEDERATE SOLDIERS WHO DIED AS PRISONERS OF WAR 1861-1865 BY JAMES STALLINGS
Usually when someone hears the phrase “War Between the States POW Camps,” the first thought is normally of the Confederate Prisoner of War Camp Sumter, or more commonly known as Andersonville. Andersonville was built in February 1864 for 10,000 prisoners, but it eventually had around 45,000 men held within its walls. Captain Henry Wirz was appointed commandant of Camp Sumter in March of 1864. He ultimately would be tried and convicted of “conspiracy and murder” due to his command at Andersonville. During the 14 month existence, 28% of the Union prisoners, or approximately 12,910, is reported to have died. These numbers are staggering, but in many Northern books, it is never mentioned that Captain Wirz begged for food, medical supplies, and other provisions for the Northern prisoners. He was aware of the inadequate state of affairs, but had no way to fix the problem. The Confederate State government at this time was destitute and unable to even feed its own army. The blockade had taken its toll on the Southland. The United States refused to help their men for numerous political reasons. So Captain Wirz utilized what meager rations he could, which were the same for the prisoners as they were for the guards. Yet, Capt. Wirz was hung in the end.
For many who have studied this case, it is evident that Capt. Wirz was not given a fair trial. The politicians had to have someone to “answer” for all the deaths in Andersonville, so they found their scapegoat in Capt. Wirz. The public was pacified and the blood was off the hands of those that were responsible for the deaths. An innocent man died.
But what about the Northern POW camps? According to Georgia’s Confederate Soldiers Who Died as Prisoners of War 1861-65 by James Stallings, there were approximately 106 US prisons varying in size, used to incarcerate both political and military prisoners; however, the book discusses only nine main ones: Alton Federal Military Prison in Illinois, Camp Chase United States Prison in Ohio, Camp Chemung (Elmira) United States Prison in New York, Camp Douglas United States Prison in Illinois, Camp Hoffman (Point Lookout) United States Prison in Maryland, Camp Morton United States Prison in Indiana, Fort Delaware United States Prison in Delaware, Johnson’s Island Confederate Stockade in Ohio, and Rock Island Prison Barracks in Illinois.
Mr. Stallings’ research exposes the reader to the atrocities that take place within the walls of Northern prisons. He uses primary sources, from Northern viewpoints when possible, to describe the daily occurrences. The details included in the writings allow the reader to visualize the cruelty that occurs to Confederate soldiers. The sad truth is that Southern men died senseless deaths at the hands of Federal soldiers.
Many times the numbers recorded of those incarcerated and/ or interred at Northern POW camps were not accurate, if records were kept at all. Mr. Stallings tries to give the most precise figures, and notates when there are numerous accounts that differ from one another.
One aspect that Mr. Stallings reveals that majority of Federal POW camps had polluted water and improper drainage. In fact, Alton Federal Military Prison was a state penitentiary that was closed due to drainage issues, but the Federal government overlooked this aspect and placed Confederate prisoners in Alton. This issue would have dire affects on the quality of life for the captives.
Another concern for the prisoners was the extreme winters in the North, and the lack of clothes for the men. In one account it is stated that the detainees barley had shirts on their backs. In many of the camps outside gifts were forbidden, or limited. This was detrimental for the Southern men. There were times that the temperature was well below zero. Col. Robert Webb wrote, “Water froze in our canteens under our heads (being used as a pillow). I was afraid to walk from one end of the enclosure to the other for fear my blood would congeal and I would freeze to death.” Many of the buildings had been hastily constructed, with the workmanship being poor. Cracks in the walls and floors made it impossible to properly heat the buildings.
Food, in a land of plenty, was scarce in the camps. It is even reported that in a few prisons starvation was a used means to torture the prisoners. With the lack of food, especially fruits and vegetables, scurvy became an issue. Many times sutlers were not allowed to sell the needed food to the men who were lucky enough to have money. Dr. Wyeth of the 4th Alabama Cavalry best expresses the situation. “My comrades died by the hundreds amid healthful surroundings, almost all of these from the effects of starvation, and this in the midst of plenty. The official records show that at Camp Morton 12,082 prisoners were confined, of which number 1,763, or 14.6 percent perished. Excepting the few shot by the guards, the deaths from wounds were rare. The conditions were not malarial, for Indianapolis was not unhealthy. There were no epidemics during my imprisonment of about 15 months, and little cause for death had humane and reasonable care of the prisoners been exercised.”
General Grant is quoted as saying that he was against prisoner release because the Southern men would go back to their ranks and re-enlist. So instead, the Federal government kept them in concentration camps to starve and mistreat. Death is to be expected in small numbers; yet, the death rate in these Federal POW camps is appalling. Capt. Wirz was tried due to the atrocities of Andersonville, but no one was held accountable for Elmira.
Georgia’s Confederate Soldiers Who Died as Prisoners of War 1861-65 is ideal for those who would like to know more about the most infamous Northern Prisoner of War camps. In addition to the narratives about the history of the prisons, Mr. Stallings gives a listing of the known Georgians who perished and were to never return home to their loved ones. This added documentation is beneficial to genealogists and historians alike.
In closing, Sgt. George M. Brosheer, Landis Co, Missouri Light Artillery states, “And let not those who survive this struggle, forget those brave ones who languished, suffered and died, in those loathsome dens of many woes – they are indeed deserving of martyr’s crowns.”
By Cassie barrow