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Chapter 50


I have in other places dwelt upon the insufficiency and the nauseousness
of the food. No words that I can use, no insistence upon this theme, can
give the reader any idea of its mortal importance to us.

Let the reader consider for a moment the quantity, quality, and variety
of food that he now holds to be necessary for the maintenance of life and
health. I trust that every one who peruses this book--that every one in
fact over whom the Stars and Stripes wave--has his cup of coffee, his
biscuits and his beefsteak for breakfast--a substantial dinner of roast
or boiled--and a lighter, but still sufficient meal in the evening.
In all, certainly not less than fifty different articles are set before
him during the day, for his choice as elements of nourishment. Let him
scan this extended bill-of-fare, which long custom has made so
common-place as to be uninteresting--perhaps even wearisome to think about
--and see what he could omit from it, if necessity compelled him. After a
reluctant farewell to fish, butter, eggs, milk, sugar, green and
preserved fruits, etc., he thinks that perhaps under extraordinary
circumstances he might be able to merely sustain life for a limited
period on a diet of bread and meat three times a day, washed down with
creamless, unsweetened coffee, and varied occasionally with additions of
potatos, onions, beans, etc. It would astonish the Innocent to have one
of our veterans inform him that this was not even the first stage of
destitution; that a soldier who had these was expected to be on the
summit level of contentment. Any of the boys who followed Grant to
Appomattox Court House, Sherman to the Sea, or "Pap" Thomas till his
glorious career culminated with the annihilation of Hood, will tell him
of many weeks when a slice of fat pork on a piece of "hard tack" had to
do duty for the breakfast of beefsteak and biscuits; when another slice
of fat pork and another cracker served for the dinner of roast beef and
vegetables, and a third cracker and slice of pork was a substitute for
the supper of toast and chops.

I say to these veterans in turn that they did not arrive at the first
stages of destitution compared with the depths to which we were dragged.
The restriction for a few weeks to a diet of crackers and fat pork was
certainly a hardship, but the crackers alone, chemists tell us, contain
all the elements necessary to support life, and in our Army they were
always well made and very palatable. I believe I risk nothing in saying
that one of the ordinary square crackers of our Commissary Department
contained much more real nutriment than the whole of our average ration.

I have before compared the size, shape and appearance of the daily half
loaf of corn bread issued to us to a half-brick, and I do not yet know of
a more fitting comparison. At first we got a small piece of rusty bacon
along with this; but the size of this diminished steadily until at last
it faded away entirely, and during the last six months of our
imprisonment I do not believe that we received rations of meat above a
half-dozen times.

To this smallness was added ineffable badness. The meal was ground very
coarsely, by dull, weakly propelled stones, that imperfectly crushed the
grains, and left the tough, hard coating of the kernels in large, sharp,
mica-like scales, which cut and inflamed the stomach and intestines,
like handfuls of pounded glass. The alimentary canals of all compelled
to eat it were kept in a continual state of irritation that usually
terminated in incurable dysentery.

That I have not over-stated this evil can be seen by reference to the
testimony of so competent a scientific observer as Professor Jones, and I
add to that unimpeachable testimony the following extract from the
statement made in an attempted defense of Andersonville by Doctor R.
Randolph Stevenson, who styles himself, formerly Surgeon in the Army of
the Confederate States of America, Chief Surgeon of the Confederate
States Military Prison Hospitals, Andersonville, Ga.:

V. From the sameness of the food, and from the action of the poisonous
gases in the densely crowded and filthy Stockade and Hospital, the blood
was altered in its constitution, even, before the manifestation of actual

In both the well and the sick, the red corpuscles were diminished; and in
all diseases uncomplicated with inflammation, the fibrinous element was
deficient. In cases of ulceration of the mucous membrane of the
intestinal canal, the fibrinous element of the blood appeared to be
increased; while in simple diarrhea, uncomplicated with ulceration, and
dependent upon the character of the food and the existence of scurvy,
it was either diminished or remained stationary. Heart-clots were very
common, if not universally present, in the cases of ulceration of the
intestinal mucous membrane; while in the uncomplicated cases of diarrhea
and scurvy, the blood was fluid and did not coagulate readily, and the
heart-clots and fibrinous concretions were almost universally absent.
From the watery condition of the blood there resulted various serous
effusions into the pericardium, into the ventricles of the brain, and
into the abdominal cavity.

In almost all cases which I examined after death, even in the most
emaciated, there was more or less serous effusion into the abdominal
cavity. In cases of hospital gangrene of the extremities, and in cases
of gangrene of the intestines, heart-clots and firm coagula were
universally present. The presence of these clots in the cases of
hospital gangrene, whilst they were absent in the cases in which there
were no inflammatory symptoms, appears to sustain the conclusion that
hospital gangrene is a species of inflammation (imperfect and irregular
though it may be in its progress), in which the fibrinous element and
coagulability of the blood are increased, even in those who are suffering
from such a condition of the blood and from such diseases as are
naturally accompanied with a decrease in the fibrinous constituent.

VI. The impoverished condition of the blood, which led to serous
effusions within the ventricles of the brain, and around the brain and
spinal cord, and into the pericardial and abdominal cavities, was
gradually induced by the action of several causes, but chiefly by the
character of the food.

The Federal prisoners, as a general rule, had been reared upon wheat
bread and Irish potatos; and the Indian corn so extensively used at the
South, was almost unknown to them as an article of diet previous to their
capture. Owing to the impossibility of obtaining the necessary sieves in
the Confederacy for the separation of the husk from the corn-meal, the
rations of the Confederate soldiers, as well as of the Federal prisoners,
consisted of unbolted corn-flour, and meal and grist; this circumstance
rendered the corn-bread still more disagreeable and distasteful to the
Federal prisoners. While Indian meal, even when prepared with the husk,
is one of the most wholesome and nutritious forms of food, as has been
already shown by the health and rapid increase of the Southern
population, and especially of the negros, previous to the present war,
and by the strength, endurance and activity of the Confederate soldiers,
who were throughout the war confined to a great extent to unbolted
corn-meal; it is nevertheless true that those who have not been reared
upon corn-meal, or who have not accustomed themselves to its use
gradually, become excessively tired of this kind of diet when suddenly
confined to it without a due proportion of wheat bread. Large numbers
of the Federal prisoners appeared to be utterly disgusted with Indian
corn, and immense piles of corn-bread could be seen in the Stockade and
Hospital inclosures. Those who were so disgusted with this form of food
that they had no appetite to partake of it, except in quantities
insufficient to supply the waste of the tissues, were, of course, in the
condition of men slowly starving, notwithstanding that the only
farinaceous form of food which the Confederate States produced in
sufficient abundance for the maintenance of armies was not withheld from
them. In such cases, an urgent feeling of hunger was not a prominent
symptom; and even when it existed at first, it soon disappeared, and was
succeeded by an actual loathing of food. In this state the muscular
strength was rapidly diminished, the tissues wasted, and the thin,
skeleton-like forms moved about with the appearance of utter exhaustion
and dejection. The mental condition connected with long confinement,
with the most miserable surroundings, and with no hope for the future,
also depressed all the nervous and vital actions, and was especially
active in destroying the appetite. The effects of mental depression,
and of defective nutrition, were manifested not only in the slow, feeble
motions of the wasted, skeleton-like forms, but also in such lethargy,
listlessness, and torpor of the mental faculties as rendered these
unfortunate men oblivious and indifferent to their afflicted condition.
In many cases, even of the greatest apparent suffering and distress,
instead of showing any anxiety to communicate the causes of their
distress, or to relate their privations, and their longings for their
homes and their friends and relatives, they lay in a listless,
lethargic, uncomplaining state, taking no notice either of their own
distressed condition, or of the gigantic mass of human misery by which
they were surrounded. Nothing appalled and depressed me so much as this
silent, uncomplaining misery. It is a fact of great interest, that
notwithstanding this defective nutrition in men subjected to crowding
and filth, contagious fevers were rare; and typhus fever, which is
supposed to be generated in just such a state of things as existed at
Andersonville, was unknown. These facts, established by my
investigations, stand in striking contrast with such a statement as the
following by a recent English writer:

"A deficiency of food, especially of the nitrogenous part, quickly leads
to the breaking up of the animal frame. Plague, pestilence and famine
are associated with each other in the public mind, and the records of
every country show how closely they are related. The medical history of
Ireland is remarkable for the illustrations of how much mischief may be
occasioned by a general deficiency of food. Always the habitat of fever,
it every now and then becomes the very hot-bed of its propagation and
development. Let there be but a small failure in the usual imperfect
supply of food, and the lurking seeds of pestilence are ready to burst
into frightful activity. The famine of the present century is but too
forcible and illustrative of this. It fostered epidemics which have not
been witnessed in this generation, and gave rise to scenes of devastation
and misery which are not surpassed by the most appalling epidemics of the
Middle Ages. The principal form of the scourge was known as the
contagious famine fever (typhus), and it spread, not merely from end to
end of the country in which it had originated, but, breaking through all
boundaries, it crossed the broad ocean, and made itself painfully
manifest in localities where it was previously unknown. Thousands fell
under the virulence of its action, for wherever it came it struck down a
seventh of the people, and of those whom it attacked, one out of nine
perished. Even those who escaped the fatal influence of it, were left
the miserable victims of scurvy and low fever."

While we readily admit that famine induces that state of the system which
is the most susceptible to the action of fever poisons, and thus induces
the state of the entire population which is most favorable for the rapid
and destructive spread of all contagious fevers, at the same time we are
forced by the facts established by the present war, as well as by a host
of others, both old and new, to admit that we are still ignorant of the
causes necessary for the origin of typhus fever. Added to the imperfect
nature of the rations issued to the Federal prisoners, the difficulties
of their situation were at times greatly increased by the sudden and
desolating Federal raids in Virginia, Georgia, and other States, which
necessitated the sudden transportation from Richmond and other points
threatened of large bodies of prisoners, without the possibility of much
previous preparation; and not only did these men suffer in transition
upon the dilapidated and overburdened line of railroad communication,
but after arriving at Andersonville, the rations were frequently
insufficient to supply the sudden addition of several thousand men.
And as the Confederacy became more and more pressed, and when powerful
hostile armies were plunging through her bosom, the Federal prisoners of
Andersonville suffered incredibly during the hasty removal to Millen,
Savannah, Charleston, and other points, supposed at the time to be secure
from the enemy. Each one of these causes must be weighed when an attempt
is made to estimate the unusual mortality among these prisoners of war.

VII. Scurvy, arising from sameness of food and imperfect nutrition,
caused, either directly or indirectly, nine-tenths of the deaths among
the Federal prisoners at Andersonville.

Not only were the deaths referred to unknown causes, to apoplexy, to
anasarca, and to debility, traceable to scurvy and its effects; and not
only was the mortality in small-pox, pneumonia, and typhoid fever, and in
all acute diseases, more than doubled by the scorbutic taint, but even
those all but universal and deadly bowel affections arose from the same
causes, and derived their fatal character from the same conditions which
produced the scurvy. In truth, these men at Andersonville were in the
condition of a crew at sea, confined in a foul ship upon salt meat and
unvarying food, and without fresh vegetables. Not only so, but these
unfortunate prisoners were men forcibly confined and crowded upon a ship
tossed about on a stormy ocean, without a rudder, without a compass,
without a guiding-star, and without any apparent boundary or to their
voyage; and they reflected in their steadily increasing miseries the
distressed condition and waning fortunes of devastated and bleeding
country, which was compelled, in justice to her own unfortunate sons, to
hold these men in the most distressing captivity.

I saw nothing in the scurvy which prevailed so universally at
Andersonville, at all different from this disease as described by various
standard writers. The mortality was no greater than that which has
afflicted a hundred ships upon long voyages, and it did not exceed the
mortality which has, upon me than one occasion, and in a much shorter
period of time, annihilated large armies and desolated beleaguered
cities. The general results of my investigations upon the chronic
diarrhea and dysentery of the Federal prisoners of Andersonville were
similar to those of the English surgeons during the war against Russia.

IX. Drugs exercised but little influence over the progress and fatal
termination of chronic diarrhea and dysentery in the Military Prison and
Hospital at Andersonville, chiefly because the proper form of nourishment
(milk, rice, vegetables, anti-scorbutics, and nourishing animal and
vegetable soups) was not issued, and could not be procured in sufficient
quantities for the sick prisoners.

Opium allayed pain and checked the bowels temporarily, but the frail dam
was soon swept away, and the patient appears to be but little better,
if not the worse, for this merely palliative treatment. The root of the
difficulty could not be reached by drugs; nothing short of the wanting
elements of nutrition would have tended in any manner to restore the tone
of the digestive system, and of all the wasted and degenerated organs and
tissues. My opinion to this effect was expressed most decidedly to the
medical officers in charge of these unfortunate men. The correctness of
this view was sustained by the healthy and robust condition of the
paroled prisoners, who received an extra ration, and who were able to
make considerable sums by trading, and who supplied themselves with a
liberal and varied diet.

X. The fact that hospital gangrene appeared in the Stockade first, and
originated spontaneously, without any previous contagion, and occurred
sporadically all over the Stockade and Prison Hospital, was proof
positive that this disease will arise whenever the conditions of
crowding, filth, foul air, and bad diet are present.

The exhalations from the Hospital and Stockade appeared to exert their
effects to a considerable distance outside of these localities.
The origin of gangrene among these prisoners appeared clearly to depend
in great measure upon the state of the general system, induced by diet,
exposure, neglect of personal cleanliness; and by various external
noxious influences. The rapidity of the appearance and action of the
gangrene depended upon the powers and state of the constitution, as well
as upon the intensity of the poison in the atmosphere, or upon the direct
application of poisonous matter to the wounded surface. This was further
illustrated by the important fact, that hospital gangrene, or a disease
resembling this form of gangrene, attacked the intestinal canal of
patients laboring under ulceration of the bowels, although there were no
local manifestations of gangrene upon the surface of the body. This mode
of termination in cases of dysentery was quite common in the foul
atmosphere of the Confederate States Military Prison Hospital; and in the
depressed, depraved condition of the system of these Federal prisoners,
death ensued very rapidly after the gangrenous state of the intestines
was established.

XI. A scorbutic condition of the system appeared to favor the origin of
foul ulcers, which frequently took on true hospital gangrene.

Scurvy and gangrene frequently existed in the same individual. In such
cases, vegetable diet with vegetable acids would remove the scorbutic
condition without curing the hospital gangrene. . . Scurvy consists
not only in an alteration in the constitution of the blood, which leads
to passive hemorrhages from the bowels, and the effusion into the various
tissues of a deeply-colored fibrinous exudation; but, as we have
conclusively shown by postmortem examination, this state is attended with
consistence of the muscles of the heart, and the mucous membrane of the
alimentary canal, and of solid parts generally. We have, according to
the extent of the deficiency of certain articles of food, every degree of
scorbutic derangement, from the most fearful depravation of the blood
and the perversion of every function subserved by the blood to those
slight derangements which are scarcely distinguishable from a state of
health. We are as yet ignorant of the true nature of the changes of the
blood and tissues in scurvy, and wide field for investigation is open for
the determination the characteristic changes--physical, chemical, and
physiological--of the blood and tissues, and of the secretions and
excretions of scurvy. Such inquiries would be of great value in their
bearing upon the origin of hospital gangrene. Up to the present war,
the results of chemical investigations upon the pathology of the blood in
scurvy were not only contradictory, but meager, and wanting in that
careful detail of the cases from which the blood was abstracted which
would enable us to explain the cause of the apparent discrepancies in
different analyses. Thus it is not yet settled whether the fibrin is
increased or diminished in this disease; and the differences which exist
in the statements of different writers appear to be referable to the
neglect of a critical examination and record of all the symptoms of the
cases from which the blood was abstracted. The true nature of the
changes of the blood in scurvy can be established only by numerous
analyses during different stages of the disease, and followed up by
carefully performed and recorded postmortem examinations. With such data
we could settle such important questions as whether the increase of
fibrin in scurvy was invariably dependent upon some local inflammation.

XII. Gangrenous spots, followed by rapid destruction of tissue, appeared
in some cases in which there had been no previous or existing wound or
abrasion; and without such well established facts, it might be assumed
that the disease was propagated from one patient to another in every
case, either by exhalations from the gangrenous surface or by direct

In such a filthy and crowded hospital as that of the Confederate, States
Military Prison of Camp Sumter, Andersonville, it was impossible to
isolate the wounded from the sources of actual contact of the gangrenous
matter. The flies swarming over the wounds and over filth of every
description; the filthy, imperfectly washed, and scanty rags; the limited
number of sponges and wash-bowls (the same wash-bowl and sponge serving
for a score or more of patients), were one and all sources of such
constant circulation of the gangrenous matter, that the disease might
rapidly be propagated from a single gangrenous wound. While the fact
already considered, that a form of moist gangrene, resembling hospital
gangrene, was quite common in this foul atmosphere in cases of dysentery,
both with and without the existence of hospital gangrene upon the
surface, demonstrates the dependence of the disease upon the state of the
constitution, and proves in a clear manner that neither the contact of
the poisonous matter of gangrene, nor the direct action of the poisoned
atmosphere upon the ulcerated surface, is necessary to the development of
the disease; on the other hand, it is equally well-established that the
disease may be communicated by the various ways just mentioned. It is
impossible to determine the length of time which rags and clothing
saturated with gangrenous matter will retain the power of reproducing the
disease when applied to healthy wounds. Professor Brugmans, as quoted by
Guthrie in his commentaries on the surgery of the war in Portugal, Spain,
France, and the Netherlands, says that in 1797, in Holland, 'charpie,'
composed of linen threads cut of different lengths, which, on inquiry, it
was found had been already used in the great hospitals in France, and had
been subsequently washed and bleached, caused every ulcer to which it was
applied to be affected by hospital gangrene. Guthrie affirms in the same
work, that the fact that this disease was readily communicated by the
application of instruments, lint, or bandages which had been in contact
with infected parts, was too firmly established by the experience of
every one in Portugal and Spain to be a matter of doubt. There are facts
to show that flies may be the means of communicating malignant pustules.
Dr. Wagner, who has related several cases of malignant pustule produced
in man and beasts, both by contact and by eating the flesh of diseased
animals, which happened in the village of Striessa in Saxony, in 1834,
gives two very remarkable cases which occurred eight days after any beast
had been affected with the disease. Both were women, one of twenty-six
and the other of fifty years, and in them the pustules were well marked,
and the general symptoms similar to the other cases. The latter patient
said she had been bitten by a fly upon the back d the neck, at which part
the carbuncle appeared; and the former, that she had also been bitten
upon the right upper arm by a gnat. Upon inquiry, Wagner found that the
skin of one of the infected beasts had been hung on a neighboring wall,
and thought it very possible that the insects might have been attracted
to them by the smell, and had thence conveyed the poison.

[End of Dr. Stevenson's Statement]


The old adage says that "Hunger is the best sauce for poor food," but
hunger failed to render this detestable stuff palatable, and it became so
loathsome that very many actually starved to death because unable to
force their organs of deglutition to receive the nauseous dose and pass
it to the stomach. I was always much healthier than the average of the
boys, and my appetite consequently much better, yet for the last month
that I was in Andersonville, it required all my determination to crowd
the bread down my throat, and, as I have stated before, I could only do
this by breaking off small bits at a time, and forcing each down as I
would a pill.

A large part of this repulsiveness was due to the coarseness and foulness
of the meal, the wretched cooking, and the lack of salt, but there was a
still more potent reason than all these. Nature does not intend that man
shall live by bread alone, nor by any one kind of food. She indicates
this by the varying tastes and longings that she gives him. If his body
needs one kind of constituents, his tastes lead him to desire the food
that is richest in those constituents. When he has taken as much as his
system requires, the sense of satiety supervenes, and he "becomes tired"
of that particular food. If tastes are not perverted, but allowed a free
but temperate exercise, they are the surest indicators of the way to
preserve health and strength by a judicious selection of alimentation.

In this case Nature was protesting by a rebellion of the tastes against
any further use of that species of food. She was saying, as plainly as
she ever spoke, that death could only be averted by a change of diet,
which would supply our bodies with the constituents they so sadly needed,
and which could not be supplied by corn meal.

How needless was this confinement of our rations to corn meal, and
especially to such wretchedly prepared meal, is conclusively shown by the
Rebel testimony heretofore given. It would have been very little extra
trouble to the Rebels to have had our meal sifted; we would gladly have
done it ourselves if allowed the utensils and opportunity. It would have
been as little trouble to have varied our rations with green corn and
sweet potatos, of which the country was then full.

A few wagon loads of roasting ears and sweet potatos would have banished
every trace of scurvy from the camp, healed up the wasting dysentery,
and saved thousands of lives. Any day that the Rebels had chosen they
could have gotten a thousand volunteers who would have given their solemn
parole not to escape, and gone any distance into the country, to gather
the potatos and corn, and such other vegetables as were readily
obtainable, and bring, them into the camp.

Whatever else may be said in defense of the Southern management of
military prisons, the permitting seven thousand men to die of the scurvy
in the Summer time, in the midst of an agricultural region, filled with
all manner of green vegetation, must forever remain impossible of

John McElroy