Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344

Chapter 82

THE RESPONSIBILITY--WHO WAS TO BLAME FOR ALL THE MISERY--AN EXAMINATION
OF THE FLIMSY EXCUSES MADE FOR THE REBELS--ONE DOCUMENT THAT CONVICTS
THEM--WHAT IS DESIRED.

I have endeavored to tell the foregoing story as calmly, as
dispassionately, as free from vituperation and prejudice as possible.
How well I have succeeded the reader must judge. How difficult this
moderation has been at times only those know who, like myself, have seen,
from day to day, the treason-sharpened fangs of Starvation and Disease
gnaw nearer and nearer to the hearts of well-beloved friends and
comrades. Of the sixty-three of my company comrades who entered prison
with me, but eleven, or at most thirteen, emerged alive, and several of
these have since died from the effects of what they suffered. The
mortality in the other companies of our battalion was equally great,
as it was also with the prisoners generally. Not less than twenty-five
thousand gallant, noble-hearted boys died around me between the dates of
my capture and release. Nobler men than they never died for any cause.
For the most part they were simple-minded, honest-hearted boys; the
sterling products of our Northern home-life, and Northern Common Schools,
and that grand stalwart Northern blood, the yeoman blood of sturdy middle
class freemen--the blood of the race which has conquered on every field
since the Roman Empire went down under its sinewy blows. They prated
little of honor, and knew nothing of "chivalry" except in its repulsive
travesty in the South. As citizens at home, no honest labor had been
regarded by them as too humble to be followed with manly pride in its
success; as soldiers in the field, they did their duty with a calm
defiance of danger and death, that the world has not seen equaled in the
six thousand years that men have followed the trade of war. In the
prison their conduct was marked by the same unostentatious but
unflinching heroism. Death stared them in the face constantly. They
could read their own fate in that of the loathsome, unburied dead all
around them. Insolent enemies mocked their sufferings, and sneered at
their devotion to a Government which they asserted had abandoned them,
but the simple faith, the ingrained honesty of these plain-mannered,
plain-spoken boys rose superior to every trial. Brutus, the noblest
Roman of them all, says in his grandest flight:

Set honor in one eye and death in the other,
And I will look on both indifferently.

They did not say this: they did it. They never questioned their duty; no
repinings, no murmurings against their Government escaped their lips,
they took the dread fortunes brought to them as calmly, as unshrinkingly
as they had those in the field; they quailed not, nor wavered in their
faith before the worst the Rebels could do. The finest epitaph ever
inscribed above a soldier's grave was that graven on the stone which
marked the resting-place of the deathless three hundred who fell at
Thermopylae:

Go, stranger, to Lacedaemon,--
And tell Sparta that we lie here in obedience to her laws.

They who lie in the shallow graves of Andersonville, Belle Isle, Florence
and Salisbury, lie there in obedience to the precepts and maxims
inculcated into their minds in the churches and Common Schools of the
North; precepts which impressed upon them the duty of manliness and honor
in all the relations and exigencies of life; not the "chivalric" prate of
their enemies, but the calm steadfastness which endureth to the end. The
highest tribute that can be paid them is to say they did full credit to
their teachings, and they died as every American should when duty bids
him. No richer heritage was ever bequeathed to posterity.

It was in the year 1864, and the first three months of 1865 that these
twenty-five thousand youths mere cruelly and needlessly done to death.
In these fatal fifteen months more young men than to-day form the pride,
the hope, and the vigor of any one of our leading Cities, more than at
the beginning of the war were found in either of several States in the
Nation, were sent to their graves, "unknelled, uncoffined, and unknown,"
victims of the most barbarous and unnecessary cruelty recorded since the
Dark Ages. Barbarous, because the wit of man has not yet devised a more
savage method of destroying fellow-beings than by exposure and
starvation; unnecessary, because the destruction of these had not, and
could not have the slightest effect upon the result of the struggle.
The Rebel leaders have acknowledged that they knew the fate of the
Confederacy was sealed when the campaign of 1864 opened with the North
displaying an unflinching determination to prosecute the war to a
successful conclusion. All that they could hope for after that was some
fortuitous accident, or unexpected foreign recognition that would give
them peace with victory. The prisoners were non-important factors in the
military problem. Had they all been turned loose as soon as captured,
their efforts would not have hastened the Confederacy's fate a single
day.

As to the responsibility for this monstrous cataclysm of human misery and
death: That the great mass of the Southern people approved of these
outrages, or even knew of them, I do not, for an instant, believe. They
are as little capable of countenancing such a thing as any people in the
world. But the crowning blemish of Southern society has ever been the
dumb acquiescence of the many respectable, well-disposed, right-thinking
people in the acts of the turbulent and unscrupulous few. From this
direful spring has flowed an Iliad of unnumbered woes, not only to that
section but to our common country. It was this that kept the South
vibrating between patriotism and treason during the revolution, so that
it cost more lives and treasure to maintain the struggle there than in
all the rest of the country. It was this that threatened the
dismemberment of the Union in 1832. It was this that aggravated and
envenomed every wrong growing out of Slavery; that outraged liberty,
debauched citizenship, plundered the mails, gagged the press, stiffled
speech, made opinion a crime, polluted the free soil of God with the
unwilling step of the bondman, and at last crowned three-quarters of a
century of this unparalleled iniquity by dragging eleven millions of
people into a war from which their souls revolted, and against which they
had declared by overwhelming majorities in every State except South
Carolina, where the people had no voice. It may puzzle some to
understand how a relatively small band of political desperados in each
State could accomplish such a momentous wrong; that they did do it, no
one conversant with our history will deny, and that they--insignificant
as they were in numbers, in abilities, in character, in everything save
capacity and indomitable energy in mischief--could achieve such gigantic
wrongs in direct opposition to the better sense of their communities is a
fearful demonstration of the defects of the constitution of Southern
society.

Men capable of doing all that the Secession leaders were guilty of--both
before and during the war--were quite capable of revengefully destroying
twenty-five thousand of their enemies by the most hideous means at their
command. That they did so set about destroying their enemies, wilfully,
maliciously, and with malice prepense and aforethought, is susceptible of
proof as conclusive as that which in a criminal court sends murderers to
the gallows.

Let us examine some of these proofs:

1. The terrible mortality at Andersonville and elsewhere was a matter of
as much notoriety throughout the Southern Confederacy as the military
operations of Lee and Johnson. No intelligent man--much less the Rebel
leaders--was ignorant of it nor of its calamitous proportions.

2. Had the Rebel leaders within a reasonable time after this matter
became notorious made some show of inquiring into and alleviating the
deadly misery, there might be some excuse for them on the ground of lack
of information, and the plea that they did as well as they could would
have some validity. But this state of affairs was allowed to continue
over a year--in fact until the downfall of the Confederacy--without a
hand being raised to mitigate the horrors of those places--without even
an inquiry being made as to whether they were mitigable or not. Still
worse: every month saw the horrors thicken, and the condition of the
prisoners become more wretched.

The suffering in May, 1864, was more terrible than in April; June showed
a frightful increase over May, while words fail to paint the horrors of
July and August, and so the wretchedness waxed until the end, in April,
1865.

3. The main causes of suffering and death were so obviously preventible
that the Rebel leaders could not have been ignorant of the ease with
which a remedy could be applied. These main causes were three in number:

a. Improper and insufficient food.
b. Unheard-of crowding together.
c. Utter lack of shelter.

It is difficult to say which of these three was the most deadly. Let us
admit, for the sake of argument, that it was impossible for the Rebels to
supply sufficient and proper food. This admission, I know, will not
stand for an instant in the face of the revelations made by Sherman's
March to the Sea; and through the Carolinas, but let that pass, that we
may consider more easily demonstrable facts connected with the next two
propositions, the first of which is as to the crowding together. Was
land so scarce in the Southern Confederacy that no more than sixteen
acres could be spared for the use of thirty-five thousand prisoners?
The State of Georgia has a population of less than one-sixth that of New
York, scattered over a territory one-quarter greater than that State's,
and yet a pitiful little tract--less than the corn-patch "clearing" of
the laziest "cracker" in the State--was all that could be allotted to the
use of three-and-a-half times ten thousand young men! The average
population of the State does not exceed sixteen to the square mile, yet
Andersonville was peopled at the rate of one million four hundred
thousand to the square mile. With millions of acres of unsettled,
useless, worthless pine barrens all around them, the prisoners were
wedged together so closely that there was scarcely room to lie down at
night, and a few had space enough to have served as a grave. This, too,
in a country where the land was of so little worth that much of it had
never been entered from the Government.

Then, as to shelter and fire: Each of the prisons was situated in the
heart of a primeval forest, from which the first trees that had ever been
cut were those used in building the pens. Within a gun-shot of the
perishing men was an abundance of lumber and wood to have built every man
in prison a warm, comfortable hut, and enough fuel to supply all his
wants. Supposing even, that the Rebels did not have the labor at hand to
convert these forests into building material and fuel, the prisoners
themselves would have gladly undertaken the work, as a means of promoting
their own comfort, and for occupation and exercise. No tools would have
been too poor and clumsy for them to work with. When logs were
occasionally found or brought into prison, men tore them to pieces almost
with their naked fingers. Every prisoner will bear me out in the
assertion that there was probably not a root as large as a bit of
clothes-line in all the ground covered by the prisons, that eluded the
faithfully eager search of freezing men for fuel. What else than
deliberate design can account for this systematic withholding from the
prisoners of that which was so essential to their existence, and which it
was so easy to give them?

This much for the circumstantial evidence connecting the Rebel
authorities with the premeditated plan for destroying the prisoners.
Let us examine the direct evidence:

The first feature is the assignment to the command of the prisons of
"General" John H. Winder, the confidential friend of Mr. Jefferson Davis,
and a man so unscrupulous, cruel and bloody-thirsty that at the time of
his appointment he was the most hated and feared man in the Southern
Confederacy. His odious administration of the odious office of Provost
Marshal General showed him to be fittest of tools for their purpose.
Their selection--considering the end in view, was eminently wise. Baron
Haynau was made eternally infamous by a fraction of the wanton cruelties
which load the memory of Winder. But it can be said in extenuation of
Haynau's offenses that he was a brave, skilful and energetic soldier, who
overthrew on the field the enemies he maltreated. If Winder, at any time
during the war, was nearer the front than Richmond, history does not
mention it. Haynau was the bastard son of a German Elector and of the
daughter of a village, druggist. Winder was the son of a sham
aristocrat, whose cowardice and incompetence in the war of 1812 gave
Washington into the hands of the British ravagers.

It is sufficient indication of this man's character that he could look
unmoved upon the terrible suffering that prevailed in Andersonville in
June, July, and August; that he could see three thousand men die each
month in the most horrible manner, without lifting a finger in any way to
assist them; that he could call attention in a self-boastful way to the
fact that "I am killing off more Yankees than twenty regiments in Lee's
Army," and that he could respond to the suggestions of the horror-struck
visiting Inspector that the prisoners be given at least more room, with
the assertion that he intended to leave matters just as they were--the
operations of death would soon thin out the crowd so that the survivors
would have sufficient room.

It was Winder who issued this order to the Commander of the Artillery:

ORDER No. 13.

HEADQUARTERS MILITARY PRISON,
ANDERSONVILLE, Ga., July 27, 1864.

The officers on duty and in charge of the Battery of Florida Artillery at
the time will, upon receiving notice that the enemy has approached within
seven miles of this post, open upon the Stockade with grapeshot, without
reference to the situation beyond these lines of defense.

JOHN H. WINDER,
Brigadier General Commanding.


Diabolical is the only word that will come at all near fitly
characterizing such an infamous order. What must have been the nature of
a man who would calmly order twenty-five guns to be opened with grape and
canister at two hundred yards range, upon a mass of thirty thousand
prisoners, mostly sick and dying! All this, rather than suffer them to
be rescued by their friends. Can there be any terms of reprobation
sufficiently strong to properly denounce so malignant a monster? History
has no parallel to him, save among the blood-reveling kings of Dahomey,
or those sanguinary Asiatic chieftains who built pyramids of human
skulls, and paved roads with men's bones. How a man bred an American
came to display such a Timour-like thirst for human life, such an
Oriental contempt for the sufferings of others, is one of the mysteries
that perplexes me the more I study it.

If the Rebel leaders who appointed this man, to whom he reported direct,
without intervention of superior officers, and who were fully informed of
all his acts through other sources than himself, were not responsible for
him, who in Heaven's name was? How can there be a possibility that they
were not cognizant and approving of his acts?

The Rebels have attempted but one defense to the terrible charges against
them, and that is, that our Government persistently refused to exchange,
preferring to let its men rot in prison, to yielding up the Rebels it
held. This is so utterly false as to be absurd. Our Government made
overture after overture for exchange to the Rebels, and offered to yield
many of the points of difference. But it could not, with the least
consideration for its own honor, yield up the negro soldiers and their
officers to the unrestrained brutality of the Rebel authorities, nor
could it, consistent with military prudence, parole the one hundred
thousand well-fed, well-clothed, able-bodied Rebels held by it as
prisoners, and let them appear inside of a week in front of Grant or
Sherman. Until it would agree to do this the Rebels would not agree to
exchange, and the only motive--save revenge--which could have inspired
the Rebel maltreatment of the prisoners, was the expectation of raising
such a clamor in the North as would force the Government to consent to a
disadvantageous exchange, and to give back to the Confederacy, at its
most critical period one hundred thousand fresh, able-bodied soldiers.
It was for this purpose, probably, that our Government and the Sanitary
Commission were refused all permission to send us food and clothing.
For my part, and I know I echo the feelings of ninety-nine out of every
hundred of my comrades, I would rather have staid in prison till I
rotted, than that our Government should have yielded to the degrading
demands of insolent Rebels.

There is one document in the possession of the Government which seems to
me to be unanswerable proof, both of the settled policy of the Richmond
Government towards the Union prisoners, and of the relative merits of
Northern and Southern treatment of captives. The document is a letter
reading as follows:

CITY POINT, Va., March 17, 1863.

SIR:--A flag-of-truce boat has arrived with three hundred and fifty
political prisoners, General Barrow and several other prominent men among
them.

I wish you to send me on four o'clock Wednesday morning, all the military
prisoners (except officers), and all the political prisoners you have.
If any of the political prisoners have on hand proof enough to convict
them of being spies, or of having committed other offenses which should
subject them to punishment, so state opposite their names. Also, state
whether you think, under all the circumstances, they should be released.
The arrangement I have made works largely in our favor. WE GET RID OF A
SET OF MISERABLE WRETCHES, AND RECEIVE SOME OF THE BEST MATERIAL I EVER
SAW.

Tell Captain Turner to put down on the list of political prisoners the
names of Edward P. Eggling, and Eugenia Hammermister. The President is
anxious that they should get off. They are here now. This, of course,
is between ourselves. If you have any political prisoners whom you can
send off safely to keep her company, I would like you to send her.

Two hundred and odd more political prisoners are on their way.

I would be more full in my communication if I had time. Yours truly,

ROBERT OULD, Commissioner of Exchange.

To Brigadier general John H. Winder.


But, supposing that our Government, for good military reasons, or for no
reason at all, declined to exchange prisoners, what possible excuse is
that for slaughtering them by exquisite tortures? Every Government has
ap unquestioned right to decline exchanging when its military policy
suggests such a course; and such declination conveys no right whatever to
the enemy to slay those prisoners, either outright with the edge of the
sword, or more slowly by inhuman treatment. The Rebels' attempts to
justify their conduct, by the claim that our Government refused to accede
to their wishes in a certain respect, is too preposterous to be made or
listened to by intelligent men.

The whole affair is simply inexcusable, and stands out a foul blot on the
memory of every Rebel in high place in the Confederate Government.

"Vengeance is mine," saith the Lord, and by Him must this great crime be
avenged, if it ever is avenged. It certainly transcends all human power.
I have seen little indication of any Divine interposition to mete out, at
least on this earth, adequate punishment to those who were the principal
agents in that iniquity. Howell Cobb died as peacefully in his bed as
any Christian in the land, and with as few apparent twinges of remorse as
if he had spent his life in good deeds and prayer. The arch-fiend Winder
died in equal tranquility, murmuring some cheerful hope as to his soul's
future. Not one of the ghosts of his hunger-slain hovered around to
embitter his dying moments, as he had theirs. Jefferson Davis "still
lives, a prosperous gentleman," the idol of a large circle of adherents,
the recipient of real estate favors from elderly females of morbid
sympathies, and a man whose mouth is full of plaints of his wrongs,
and misappreciation. The rest of the leading conspirators have either
departed this life in the odor of sanctity, surrounded by sorrowing
friends, or are gliding serenely down the mellow autumnal vale of a
benign old age.

Only Wirz--small, insignificant, miserable Wirz, the underling, the tool,
the servile, brainless, little fetcher-and-carrier of these men, was
punished--was hanged, and upon the narrow shoulders of this pitiful
scapegoat was packed the entire sin of Jefferson Davis and his crew.
What a farce!

A petty little Captain made to expiate the crimes of Generals, Cabinet
Officers, and a President. How absurd!

But I do not ask for vengeance. I do not ask for retribution for one of
those thousands of dead comrades, the glitter of whose sightless eyes
will follow me through life. I do not desire even justice on the still
living authors and accomplices in the deep damnation of their taking off.
I simply ask that the great sacrifices of my dead comrades shall not be
suffered to pass unregarded to irrevocable oblivion; that the example of
their heroic self-abnegation shall not be lost, but the lesson it teaches
be preserved and inculcated into the minds of their fellow-countrymen,
that future generations may profit by it, and others be as ready to die
for right and honor and good government as they were. And it seems to me
that if we are to appreciate their virtues, we must loathe and hold up to
opprobrium those evil men whose malignity made all their sacrifices
necessary. I cannot understand what good self-sacrifice and heroic
example are to serve in this world, if they are to be followed by such a
maudlin confusion of ideas as now threatens to obliterate all distinction
between the men who fought and died for the Right and those who resisted
them for the Wrong.


John McElroy