Congressional Committee on Treatment and Conditions
In March of 1865, the honorable John Perkins, Jr. and John W. C. Watson, members of the 38th Congress of the United States selected a small committee of medical doctors, lawyers, and clergy to investigate into the truth behind the treatment of prisoners of war, both of the United States as well as the Confederate Governments. Two publications had been widely circulated throughout the North, in parts of the Confederacy and all over Europe; one had been the Joint Select Committee of the Northern Congress on the Conduct of the War, more widely known as Report No. 67. The other, professed to be a narrative of the privations and sufferings of the United States Officers and soldiers while prisoners of war and had been issued as a report from a commission of inquiry appointed by the United States Sanitary Commission.
The honorable James M. Mason, former Senator from the state of Virginia, more famously known for having been captured aboard the HMS Trent in November 1861, characterized these documents as belonging to the class of the "sensational" having been created by the reporters of newspapers and cheap fiction, later believed and accepted as the understood and favored method of reporting by medical professionals, judges of the court rooms, revered clergymen and now chosen as a proper style for reporting in Congressional Committee.
After viewing the sensationalistic ideas that the Confederate Government persistently practiced a barbarous and savage system of treatment and starvation that after surviving the final winter of the war in their hands, these prisoners of war would never again be in a condition to render any service or even to enjoy life once more; the sought after truth became the goal to either remove the evils complained of should the reports be accurate; but if false and unfounded, they deemed it a sacred duty to present to that very same Confederate Government a vindication and to relieve her authorities from the injurious slanders brought against her.
In April of 1864, a series of photographs accompanied Report No. 67 as well as the Sanitary Commission's publication illustrating the general overall condition of federal prisoners of war in the South as being emaciated and sick; however, the committee was enlightened to find that the Confederate hospitals in which Northern prisoners had been treated in proved to be highly creditable both the authorities who established them as well as the hospital surgeons and staff that operated them.
The federal authorities, then in violation of the cartel having for the longest time refused any exchange of prisoners, finally consented to a partial exchange of the sick and wounded on both sides. The authorization accorded the South an opportunity to send a number of prisoners from the hospitals about Richmond, Virginia. None were asked to be sent for the journey except those capable of enduring it, but in some cases the surgeons were induced to depart from this rule by listening to the pleas of the officers and men in their last stages of emaciation; suffering not only from excessive debility but also from homesickness and whose cases were regarded as desperate. The odds of these cases living became hopeless if continued incarceration was inevitable; however there was a slight chance of survival if brought home.
The committee discovered that both North and South in spite of the best medical treatment there were thousands of these prisoner of war cases. These were the objects that the Northern committees had hideously paraded in front of the cameras. They had taken their own enfeebled soldiers, stripped them naked and exposed them not for relieving their sufferings but of bringing a false and slanderous charge against the South.
Assistant Surgeon Alexander Tinsley had testified that many Southern prisoners returned from the North had been nothing more than skin and bone. Two hundred and fifty were brought in off the steamer from Rocketts on the James River. Thirteen dead bodies came off with them, and no less than thirty had passed away the first night after being received. Surgeon W. A. Spence reported of a prisoner return of 3,028 at Savannah, Georgia, nearly five hundred had died on the voyage from Baltimore. In exchange 11,000 federal soldiers were delivered to Northern authorities from both Savannah and Charleston whose health compared to those received had been most favorable.
Richard Dibrell of the Ambulance Committee in Richmond, Virginia commented that the incoming Confederate prisoners were so enfeebled and emaciated that many of them could be lifted like little children; many more were simply living skeletons. One seventeen year old Confederate, his structure having been reduced to nothing, had been completely eaten up with vermin. He could not be nourished back to health and died in the hospital but a few days later. It became the committee's conclusion that the public outcry regarding those federal prisoners received were not in a worse state than were those returned from Northern prisons at all; but the humanity and superior management were now made subject of special boasting by the United States Sanitary Commission.
Hospital Number 21 in Richmond, the subject of distinct charges in the U.S. Sanitary Commission's report, proved itself of having everything that humanity could dictate. The wards had been well ventilated and clean; the food for the prisoners had been the best that could be procured; and, in fact, presented no distinction in the treatment between the Federal and Confederate sick alike. The testimonies of prisoners E. P. Dalrymple of New York, George Henry Brown of Pennsylvania and Freeman B. Teague of New Hampshire presented that they had even been regularly fed: milk, butter, eggs, tea and other delicacies when required by the condition of the patient.
Of Johnson's Island in contrast, Colonel James H. Holman testified that the Federal Authorities had not provided nutriment and other articles which were prescribed by their own surgeons. Instead, they were offered to those in need for exchange of money, and since that was a rare commodity among the prisoners many suffered without.
The Congressional reports charged the Southern Government with the reckless and inhuman act of randomly shooting prisoners of war; which accordingly had been an act of sport in and about Libby Prison in Richmond. Libby hadn't fired on any such prisoner with the exception of six cases resulting in their revolt or escape of the facility. At Camp Douglas in Chicago, Illinois eighteen rebel soldiers had been shot in a single month. These atrocities, indulged in most brutally had been learned through the depositions of C. C. Herrington, William F. Gordon, Jr., J. B. McCreary, Doctor Thomas P. Holloway, and John P. Fennell.
The stoppage of boxes and clothing for the prisoners sent from the North had never been ordered by Confederate authority to be ransacked by the prison guard as reported and charged previously. These boxes had only been stopped for a thirty day period while an investigation was underway as to why the prisoners up in the Northern Prison camps had not been receiving their own care packages. These had been stored away in a warehouse and delivered later upon discovery that these conclusions were entirely unfounded.
The testimony of Lieutenant Colonel James M. Sanderson, incarcerated at Richmond's infamous Libby Prison testified that clothing or supplies had been promptly delivered and particularly made note of the humanity and kindness of the Confederate officers; one in particular, Lieutenant Virginius Bossieux, then commanding the camps upon Belle Isle.
The reports before Congress furthermore listed allegation that the Confederate authorities had mined Libby Prison with the purpose of blowing it up, inmates included, should federal combatants attempt fighting their way into town to rescue them. The 1864 raid under Brigadier General Judson Kilpatrick and Colonel Ulric Dahlgren had been threatening the city and the authorities in Richmond took every measure to protect the prisoners as well as their own citizens. It had been clearly noted what the attempt of such a raid was designed for, and the outbreak of 5,000 to 6,000 prisoners among the city's population would have subjected the capital to the mercy of thousands of outlaws. The tactic of the gunpowder placement worked keeping the prisoners quiet, the federal raid was defeated and scattered and the gunpowder was removed thereafter.
An act by the Confederate Congress approved on May 21, 1861 thus provided the stand all prisoners of war would be handled and treated: "...all prisoners of war taken, whether on land or at sea, during the pending hostilities with the United States shall be transferred by the captors from time to time, and as often convenient to the Department of War; and it shall be the duty of the Secretary of War, with the approval of the President, to issue such instructions to the Quartermaster General and his subordinates as shall provide for the safe custody and subsistence of prisoners of war; and the rations furnished prisoners of war shall be the same in quantity and quality as those furnished to enlisted men in the Army of the Confederacy."
This had always been the Confederate policy until the suspension of the prisoner exchange in 1864 which created such deficiencies in taking care of the excessive volume now overcrowding those camps. In spite of the best human efforts, the Federal Government refused to relieve the privations of their own soldiers and sailors and the means to take care of these men became far more difficult to perform.
The question of Congress as to why these prisoners had not been exchanged was thus unavoidable. The select committee appointed by the United States House of Representatives and United States Senate could only say in their findings that the Confederate Government had always desired a prompt and fair exchange of prisoners. The Southern authorities had always desired exchange but the central government in Washington City refused credence on the matter until July 22, 1862 when the Dix-Hill Cartel was consented to.
Secretary of War Edwin Stanton who unjustly charged the Confederacy with inhumanity is open to the charge of having done all in his power to prevent a fair exchange, and thus to prolong the sufferings of which he speaks of. In April of 1864, in an open letter above his name, Benjamin Butler had declared that Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant forbade him "to deliver to the rebels a single able-bodied man;" that not diplomatically but obtrusively and demonstratively, not for the purpose of furthering exchange of prisoners, but for the purpose of preventing and stopping the exchange, and furnishing a ground on which we could fairly stand.
Nothing more could be said than the policy on prisoner exchange as dictated to by the Federal Government justified the responsibility of prisoner conditions to rest upon their own shoulders.
National policy on the prisoner of war caused more suffering to those incarcerated by their enemies than any such acts against humanity itself. To have knowledge of such privations fed to you by the adversary's own government and refuse to offer a hand in relieving what is now a non combatant's fate; the decision to refuse aid became the root of the evils thus reported on. Parading emaciated men before a camera for propaganda opportunity, lead the public opinion to look away from those who had the power to prevent or change such horrors from continuing.
War itself is the by product of human nature; and one could not restrict human nature to a boundary line between two sections of the country. The Committee found that as humanity dictated a plea from the South to save such men from certain suffering and death; likewise humanity could have done much to avoid it by rendering such aid to relieve them. It had the finances, it had the means; it simply did not have the heart.
Editors Note: Mr.Moran is a feature writer on the US-Civilwar.com writers staff. He may be contacted with your questions, ideas and requests at email@example.com