Results and ReflectionsThe Right and the Wrong of it All.
A few days of waiting in the buildings
of the Naval Academy at Annapolis while exchange papers
were preparing gave us opportunity for a much-needed
transformation. Our old clothing, encrusted with
dirt and infested with vermin, in many cases had to
be destroyed. One of our number especially unkempt,
Captain T., who gave up for an hour or two his beloved
trousers, found to his surprise and horror when he
called for their return that they had been burned
with four hundred dollars in greenbacks sewed up in
the lining! We smiled at his irrepressible grief;
it was poetic justice. He had carefully concealed
the fact of his being flush, pretending all along
to be like the rest in forma pauperis, and
contriving, it was said, to transfer in crooked ways
our pennies into his pockets!
Fumigated, parboiled, scrubbed, barbered,
decently clothed, “the deformed transformed”
were once more presentable in civilized society.
Then followed a brief leave of absence if desired,
to visit relatives. To them it seemed a veritable
resurrection after our months of living burial; yet
the joy of reunion was sometimes tinged with sorrow.
I learned that in the very week in which the tidings
of my capture came our home circle had been sadly
broken by the death of a beloved sister, and just
then the telegraph told of the loss by fever in the
army at Newbern of our household darling,
Younger by fifteen years than
Brother at once and son.
As previously stated we who held commissions
fared better on the whole than the non-commissioned
officers and privates, though receiving from the commissary
rations exactly equal to theirs. Commonly older
and therefore of larger experience and superior intelligence,
a good officer is as a father looking out for the
physical welfare of his men as well as himself.
Then there were some who, like Gardner, had been fortunate
in keeping clothing, money, or other valuable at the
instant of capture or in hiding it when searched by
Dick Turpin at Libby. Several like Captain Cook
had obtained pecuniary assistance from influential
friends across the lines, or in a few instances had
been favored by brother freemasons or by charitably
disposed visitors who gave us a little food, a few
old books, or even Confederate currency. Several
sold to the sentinels watches, rings, chains, breast-pins,
society badges, silver spurs, military boots, or curiously
wrought specimens of Yankee ingenuity carved with
infinite pains. The “Johnnies” appeared
to hanker for any article not produced in the Confederacy.
An officer of the guard offered Putnam three hundred
dollars for a nearly worn-out tooth-brush!
The educational standard among our
officers was quite respectable. I think that
West Point had a representative among us, as well as
Bowdoin and several other colleges. Certainly
we had ex-students from at least five universities,
Brown, Yale, Harvard, the Sorbonne, and Goettingen.
To afford diversion and as an antidote
to depression, as well as for intellectual improvement,
some of us studied mathematics or Shakespeare.
Three or four classes were formed in modern languages.
We had card-playing with packs soiled and worn; checkers
and chess on extemporized boards with rudely whittled
“pieces”; occasional discussions historical,
literary, political, or religious; many of us quite
regular physical exercises in brisk walks on the empty
lowest floor; story-telling; at times, though not
often, the reading aloud of a Confederate newspaper,
to a group of fifty or more listeners; at evening,
sweet singing, riddles, jests, or loud-voiced sarcastic
conundrums and satirical responses. Many found
interest and pleasure in carving with the utmost nicety
wood or bone.
Something like military discipline
prevailed among the two hundred in the upper room
where the superior rank of General Hayes was often
recognized. Among a hundred and fifty or more
in the lower room, where for a month or two I was
the senior but was unwilling to assume precedence,
I secured with the aid of Major Byron, Captain Howe,
and a few others a sort of civil government with semi-military
These measures and the favoring circumstances
that have been mentioned tended of course to the preservation
of health among the officers. There was severe
suffering from hunger, cold, rheumatism, and scurvy,
from all of which I was for weeks a victim and at
one time seemed doomed to perish. I recall, however,
the names of but two officers (there were said to
be four) who died at Danville. Some of us, though
enfeebled, were soon able to rejoin our commands;
as Putnam his at Newbern in April, Gardner and I ours
at Morehead City the day after Lee’s surrender
Of the effect in after-life of these
strange experiences it is safe to say that to some
extent they were a spur to intellectual effort.
At least they should have made all sadder and wiser;
and they certainly were in some cases an equipment
for descriptive authorship. Major (Adner A.)
Small wrote a valuable account of prison life.
Dr. Burrage’s narratives of his capture and
its results are entertaining and instructive.
Major Putnam’s A Prisoner of War in Virginia
(reprinted in his Memories of My Youth) is
an important contribution to our military history.
Lieutenant Estabrooks’s Adrift in Dixie
is charmingly told. “Dutch Clark”
(Adjutant James A. Clark, 17th Pa. Cav.), one
of the four who nightly tried to sleep under my blanket,
started and edited with ability at Scranton The
Public Code, for which I was glad to furnish literary
material. He afterwards became prominent in theosophic
circles. Others distinguished themselves.
Captain (Frank H.) Mason, in prison our best chess
player, was long Consul-General at Paris. Cook
studied five or six years in Germany, France, and Italy,
then was for eight or ten years assistant professor
in German at Harvard, and afterwards for two years,
until his untimely death, professor in the same department
at the Institute of Technology in Boston. In
addressing a Sunday-school in Brooklyn, 1871, I unexpectedly
lighted upon Captain Tiemann doing good work as a teacher.
Captain Gardner continued for many months a model
military officer in Georgia. I remained in the
service a full year, often on courts-martial, military
commissions, and “reconstruction” duty.
As already described, the condition
of the enlisted men strongly contrasted with ours.
The Report of the Confederate Inspector of Prisons
now on file in the War Records of our government,
though the reports of his subordinate officers are
significantly missing, covers the few months next
preceding January, 1865. It sharply censures the
immediate prison authorities, stating, as the result
of the privations, that the deaths at Danville were
at the rate of about five per day! I think they
were more numerous in January and February. None
of my battalion were there, but at Salisbury three-sevenths
of them died in less than three months!
It is hard to refrain from the expression
of passionate indignation at the treatment accorded
to our non-commissioned officers and privates in those
southern hells. For years we were accustomed to
ask, “In what military prison of the north,
in what common jail of Europe, in what dungeon of
the civilized or savage world, have captives taken
in war nay, condemned criminals been
systematically exposed to a lingering death by cold
and hunger? The foulest felon his soul
black with sacrilege, his hands reeking with parricide has
enough of food, of clothing, of shelter; a chair to
sit in, a fire to warm him, a blanket to hide his
nakedness, a bed of straw to die on!”
But listen a moment to the other side.
Alexander H. Stephens, Vice-President of the Confederacy,
afterwards for eight years a representative in our
Congress, a man of unquestioned integrity, shows in
his War between the States (pu-70) by
quotation from the Report of our then Secretary of
War (July 19, 1866) that only 22,576 Federal prisoners
died in Confederate hands during the war, whilst 26,436
Confederate prisoners died in Federal hands. He
shows also from the United States Surgeon-General
Joseph K. Barnes’s Report that the number of
Federal prisoners in southern prisons was about 270,000,
but the number of Confederate prisoners in northern
prisons was about 220,000; so that the percentage
of deaths in southern prisons was under nine, while
the percentage of deaths in northern prisons was over
Had there been, from the first, prompt
exchanges of prisoners between the north and the south,
few of these forty-nine thousand lives would have
been lost. Who, then, blocked the exchange?
Stephens declares (War between the States,
“It is now well understood to
have been a part of the settled policy of the
Washington authorities in conducting the war, not to
exchange prisoners. The grounds upon which
this extraordinary course was adopted were, that
it was humanity to the northern men in the field to
let their captured comrades perish in prison rather
than to let an equal number of Confederate soldiers
be released on exchange to meet them in battle.”
To the same effect our Secretary Stanton
in one of his letters in 1864 pointed out “that
it would not be good policy to send back to be placed
on the firing line 70,000 able-bodied Confederates,
and to receive in exchange men who, with but few exceptions,
were not strong enough to hold their muskets.”
The responsibility, then, for this
refusal and the consequent enormous sacrifice of life
with all the accompanying miseries, must rest in part
upon the Government of the United States.
Blame not the tender-hearted Lincoln for this.
Did he not judge wisely? Was
it not best for the nation that we prisoners should
starve and freeze?
The pivotal question for him and Grant
and Stanton was, “Shall we exchange and thereby
enable the South to reinforce their armies with fifty
to a hundred thousand trained soldiers?
“If yes, then we must draft
many more than that; for they being on the defensive
we must outnumber them in battle. If no, then
we must either stop their cruelties by equally cruel
retaliation, as Washington hung Andre for the execution
of Hale, or we must, more cruelly still, leave myriads
of our soldiers to sink into imbecility and death.”
The North had not the excuse of destitution
which the South had, and it could not bring itself
to make reprisals in kind. To draft again, as
evinced in the terrible riots of July, 1863, would
have been extremely unpopular and perhaps overthrown
the administration and defeated the policy of the
government. To exchange would pretty surely have
prolonged the war, and might have resulted in permanent
As to the right or wrong of the refusal
to exchange, it is hardly relevant to insist that
the triumph of the South would have perpetuated slavery.
Lincoln’s Proclamation, January 1, 1863, did
not touch slavery in the Border States. And from
the southern nation, denuded of slaves by their escape
to the North and confronted by the growing anti-slavery
sentiment of the civilized world, the “peculiar
institution” would soon have died out.
Need we attempt, as is often done,
to justify our government’s attitude in this
matter by affirming that the nation was in a life-and-death
struggle for its very existence? Did that existence
depend upon its territorial limits? Would it
have gone to pieces if the victorious North had relinquished
its hold on the defeated South? Had a boundary
line been drawn half-way across the continent, separating
the twenty-three loyal States from the eleven seceding,
the twenty-two millions of the North from the nine
or ten millions of the South, would it not have remained
a mighty nation with no cause for further disunion,
and able as the war had shown to place in the field
more than two million fighting men?
Is it not equally unnecessary to urge,
as if it were a valid excuse for our government’s
refusal to exchange, that between the two nations there
would have been frequent if not perpetual hostilities?
Why so, any more than between the United States and
Canada, where for fifty (it is now a hundred) years,
along a boundary line of thirty-eight hundred miles,
there had been unbroken peace and no fort nor warship?
Let us not raise the question whether
Lincoln made a colossal blunder when he renounced
his favorite doctrine so emphatically set forth in
his Congressional speech (page 47). The die was
cast when Sumter was fired on. The question which
confronted him in 1863-64 What to do with
the perishing Union prisoners? was simply
one of military necessity.
According to the ethics of war was
he not fully justified in sacrificing us rather than
imperiling the great cause which he had at heart?
Are we, then, to blame President Davis,
or the Confederate Commissioner Robert Ould, or Gen.
John H. Winder, Superintendent of Military Prisons,
for allowing the Federal prisoners to starve and freeze
and die by thousands? Must we not admit the truth
of their contention that their soldiers needed the
food, clothing, and medical care for want of which
their prisoners were suffering? And if the shocking
conditions at Andersonville, Salisbury, Danville,
and other prisons could easily have been avoided,
or even if they were made more distressing by the
deliberate inhumanity of those in immediate charge,
ought not such facts to have intensified a desire
on the part of both governments to effect a speedy
The southern people were threatened
with subjugation, their government with annihilation.
In such a critical situation, what measures are allowable?
We endeavor to look at the matter
from both standpoints.
This brings up the whole question
of the rightfulness of war. If it must be waged,
is success the highest duty? If military necessity
demands, may any and every law of God and man be disregarded?
While we write these concluding pages,
the European conflict is raging, and the voice of
the most warlike nation on the globe is heard continually
affirming that war is useful and highly honorable,
and that any means, however frightful, if necessary
to ensure or hasten victory is praise-worthy!
Then both presidents were right!
But is not international war murder
on a great scale? It is glorious to die for one’s
country; but how about killing for our country? killing
innocent men, too? for the soldiers on either side
honestly believe they are doing their duty in shooting
and stabbing as many as possible! “The
business of war,” said John Wesley, “is
the business of devils.” So it would seem;
but at heart few are enemies, none devils.
It has been a pleasure in this narrative
to record instances of a very different spirit.
Surely, in proportion to population such were not
fewer in the South than in the North. Like Whittier’s
Angels of Buena Vista they rescue us from pessimism.
They are prophetic of a better day.
Not wholly lost, O Father,
is this evil world of ours!
Upward through the blood and
ashes spring afresh the Eden flowers:
From its smoking hell of battle,
Love and Pity send their prayer,
And still thy white-winged
angels hover dimly in our air!