Confederate Veteran, Vol. VIII, No. 2 Nashville, Tenn., February, 1900.
THE PRISONER OF WAR
T. M. Page, St. Louis, Mo.
Much ill feeling has been harbored, North and South, because prisoners of war suffered and died cruelly behind both armies. That ulcer of war is not peculiar to this conflict or age. All warfare has left its aftermath of recrimination over cruel suffering of its prisoners. And so history will repeat itself until nations have become wise and humane enough to apply a simple and sure preventive.
The problem is one of human nature. In time of war the brave, who are also proverbially generous, and often gentle to helplessness, go to the front and there satiate natural hostility by killing and capturing at fairly equal hazard to themselves. Few and exceptional, even in ancient records, are instances of cruelty to prisoners from civilized men who captured them. And in modern times there would be no cruelty to captives if they were guarded by their captors. But as prisoners pass to the rear they fall into custody of inferior men, those who let others do the fighting and who have no opportunity to exercise the natural impulse of hostility to a foe, except upon the captives. And, as long as such refuse guard prisoners, the evil of prison cruelty -an evil as old as the war prison itself-will persist, causing innocent combatants to misunderstand and hate each other after the fight is ended.
What is true of the mass which shuns the battlefield is true of the Senate and Cabinet. Excepting only the few who perform higher and imperative duty in difficult places because of exceptional fitness, no man of courage and military age is in the rear in an emergent time of war. The simple remedy, therefore, for the ancient evil of cruelty to prisoners of war is to make guarding them a duty more important to the State and honor to the guard than service at the front. This duty should be intrusted to picked men.
The reader must understand that what follows does not refer to or concern the men who held the front and captured prisoners. It is not in the least degree censorious or critical of them. It refers only to the other breed of men-the shirkers and skulkers, high and low, who, in or out of uniform, kept far in the rear and satiated their natural impulse of hostility to foemen be, making things unpleasant to the only foes within their reach.
As North and South have united honestly in the large effort to make and maintain this the greatest, freest, and most exemplary country on earth! it is very important that the subject here in hand should be freed from the error, misunderstanding, and ignorance which have so long been stumbling-blocks in the path of sincere reconciliation. For until facts which have for almost a generation been unknown to many become familiar to all, by candid acceptance of official record as law to every American, candid cooperation must, in the nature of things, continue imperfect.
September 19, 1863, about one thousand veterans, most of them Longstreet's, fell into the hands of their enemies, on the front, near the spot where Gen. Preston Smith fell. "Take them to the rear!" shouted the man in authority, while the artilleryman with the bandaged head went into convulsions of enjoyment.
About noon the next day we reached the Chattanooga railway building, and lay at rest on its planked floor until disturbed by approaching din of battle and taker s of panic all around us. Our guards loaded and put us to bed again, commanding us to lie flat and be still. This displeased us, but did not stop the approaching tumult or stay its surrounding consequences, which by sunset became a dense multitude of stragglers and men on artillery horse in cut harness, all hurrying toward the pontoon bridges. It was to us a novel experience which partly soothed the first gnawings of a hunger that was to riot in us yet many other days. We crossed the Tennessee River nine meals behind our usual menu, and marched, unfed, to Stevenson, Ala., toward Forrest, who was behind the Federal army negotiating famine for Chattanooga. At Stevenson we got one light lunch of hard-tack and a parole covenanting that we would be exchanged within ten days. It was a faithless device to bind us if rescued by Forrest. As we did not meet him, we went to prison, and there pondered on that punic faith for weary months.
One of these paroles was sent to Attorney-General Bates, of President Lincoln's Cabinet, who handed it to Mr. Lincoln, who in turn sent the order to the prison for my immediate release, according to its stipulations. I was sought out, catechized, and told by the executive officer of the prison while he filled up my descriptive list that I would soon be a paroled prisoner en route to Dixie.
From Stevenson we were taken to the penitentiary in Nashville, and there fed so meagerly as to make it a saying that if ever age or ailing impaired our appetites we would return to Nashville and gaze over that stone wall. Thence we were sent to Louisville, where prisoners of war were being shot in retaliation for devilment of Kentucky bushwhackers. What more immediately interested us was the inexperience of the home guards who sentineled the barrack in which we ate and could be "flanked" by foragers of average experience.
During roll call for departure our blankets were taken from us on the plea that they were United States property stolen by us, red-handed, on the battlefield, from virtuous foemen. Many of these blankets had never been in Federal hands before. Mine were English, a blockade pair, extra heavy, and then urgently needful because I had stripped for battle to one cotton shirt, and the northwest wind was spitting sleet. They were taken, and that blizzard so upset me that three days after my arrival in prison the surgeon took my bunk mate aside and told him to telegraph any friends within reach that I could not live forty-eight hours. I overheard, and answered: "You are mistaken. I will capture another pair of blankets on the battlefield." For many years the surgeon who prophesied told it as a war item that by all the science of his profession I was then a dying man, saved only by the luck of overhearing him and mulish resolve to upset the diagnosis.
Camp Douglas then contained the most of Morgan's Command, the Chickamauga and Cumberland Gap prisoners, and a few score Missourians; the morning report of October 31, 1863, accounted for 5,625 present. The total number present October 4 was 6,204. The roll compiled a few days before October 4 called for 6,291. These official figures reveal that in the month of October about ten per cent of the prisoners disappeared. Some escaped; but most of that 539 missing died in that month of exposure, hardship, and debility resulting from hunger.
Col. C. V. DeLand was commandant and Capt. L. C. Rhines executive officer. The latter saw fit to establish a medical corps of ten Confederates who had left home and practice of medicine to fight in line for Dixie; and these gentlemen were put in charge of the prison sick, first in the barracks and later in a hospital established for the prisoners. It chanced that chief control of both appointments was assigned to the one who had given me over to the grave, and although a new acquaintance, perhaps in apology for his prophecy, he chose me as his secretary in both positions. It thus became my daily duty to fill out reports of sick, tickets of admission to the "dead house," requisitions for hospital rations, and superintend all writing in the office of the prison hospital. This involved familiarity with matters then and afterwards known to very few, most of whom are now dead. Understanding at the time the importance and exceptional nature of the insight into what was happening, I preserved records which are yet in my possession, and do not trust to memory.
Most efficient among the ten surgeons were Drs. Brunson, Holloway, and Cook, of Eddyville, Lexington, and Henderson, Ky. The second yet lives, and, in common with all other survivors of that imprisonment, can verify the careful accuracy of this digest of a contemporary record.
The exceptional duty began October 23, from which time, being on parole as Surgeon Brunson's private secretary, I had free access to all prison records not only of the prison hospital but also of the Federal headquarters office. During that winter the death rate did not vary much from that of October, but in the following summer bowel disorders culminating in flux increased the average to twenty deaths each day, and scurvy became virulent. Mrs. Morris and other ladies of Chicago sent in seed, and prevailed on the commandant to allow the prisoners to cultivate vegetables in the ground between the fence and the dead line as an antidote to the latter scourge. When this crop was ripening, almost ready for harvest, it was confiscated as contraband of war and eaten by the Federal officers and guards. The prisoners, rotting with scurvy, could not even raid and rob their own garden.
Throughout that summer there were no drugs remedial to bowel disorders accessible to the prison surgeons; consequently simple diarrhea, in the reduced stamina of the prisoners, ran quickly into dysentery, flux, and death. After many applications for medicine the ten surgeons signed a memorial and delivered it to the commandment. As secretary the writer prepared all these applications, the last of which briefly and simply prayed for permission to write one letter to a single person, either in Baltimore, Louisville, or St. Louis, this letter to be read and mailed by the commandant, same to be a brief request to buy and forward certain drugs. This petition guaranteed receipt, within ten days, of supply sufficient to last the prisoners one year, prepaid, involving the Government in no expense of any kind. This memorial was returned by Dr. Whitehill the post surgeon, indorsed "Respectfully disapproved, as all medicine is strictly contraband of war, excepting only such as is supplied by and through these headquarters."
To the helpless agony of this situation smallpox added its own horror. The victim was removed to an isolated hospital miles away out in a sandy waste, a removal which was a bleak, fatal journey to many men when the phenomenally cold winter of 1863-64 came on. Those who survived both this journey and the pestilence were brought back into the prison while yet infectious, imperiled by the exposure of the transfer.
When the time comes for the critical historian to impartially use his materials he will place the annals of Camp Douglas side by side with those of Andersonville, and immortalize the eloquent contrast. In the first men died of pestilence and famine in a land of plenty, refused the succor of friends at hand eager to supply everything; in the last; according to their own sworn evidence, men sickened upon the same corn meal and bit of other food on which the Confederate soldier then marched and fought; and for the same reason because the war policy at Washington was one of starvation to all, whether foe or friend, in that beleaguered Southland. When that day of posterity's judgment dawns the world will know that noncombatants of the stronger people blocked exchange of prisoners because they preferred that their defenders should die in prison rather than be exchanged for difficult enemies full of fight, and so elected at the same time when the weaker sent the forsaken sick to their homes without cartel or equivalent, a free gift of pity to misfortune. This fact is of record in the files at Washington, and has been printed history for almost a generation. But how many Northern men know it? And there also, in the archives at Washington, must be the books of record of Camp Douglas, in the two principal volumes of which the hand that now writes this page recorded the daily annals of that prison.
When prisoners who had been stripped of their blankets soon after capture were freezing to death in their bunks every cold night, it was a serious question with the ten surgeons how to fill dead admits. The safest and usual diagnosis was "debilitas." But when a boyhood friend of Dr. Brunson so perished that surgeon resolved to report truly once, regardless of consequences. At his dictation his secretary wrote, in his roundest, plainest hand: "Frozen to death." It fell like dynamite in the headquarters office. The assistant post surgeon came down in heat and asked what that meant. Brunson, a reliable Confederate soldier, was prepared to answer. He said it meant that the man, reduced by hunger and hardship until his stamina was low, had frozen in his bunk for lack of blankets and fire, it meant that the truth was written for once. The official stormed; but Brunson well known to friend and foe as an able surgeon, challenged him to summon an request of reputable Chicago surgeons to meet him in a post-mortem investigation and show any other cause of death. This made the Federal surgeon more calm. He presently retired to his quarters, and there was no post-mortem investigation. But an order was issued permitting fires to burn in the barrack stoves on the coldest nights, which more than compensated Brunson for the ordeal he gallantly met.
The new generation of this republic should know two facts about its greatest war, which were concealed for years by political policy, exactly as the same policy concealed the proposal of the Confederacy to send cotton to New York to Federal commissioners, who should sell it, buy food and medicine, take them to the Southern prisons, and issue them to Federal prisoners. This proposal, suppressed at the time, was made public soon after the war; yet how many Northern people to this day know of the offer?
The two facts referred to are: First, that Benjamin F. Butler, in the heat of party dissension, made public his orders from superiors to prevent exchange of prisoners when posing as commissioner for exchange. Secondly, that the official records on file in Washington testify that out of each thousand prisoners fewer died in the South, notwithstanding the blockade and impoverishment which overwhelmed both its army and inhabitants, than perished in the North, where all things necessary to health and survival existed abundantly. These two facts will one day be familiar to the world, and balance the scale of humanity in prison treatment justly between the two sections. For that day the Southern people can, afford to wait. Their present duty is to collect and preserve the evidence.
Space here remains for only a few glimpses of the less gloomy side of experience in Camp Douglas. The prison sutler was a brother-in-law of Gen. Sweet, the second commandant. When food became so scant that all the cats and all the rats and one stray dog had been eaten this sutler began to smuggle in eatables and sell them to the prisoners. The camp guards were then smuggling in five-cent baker's loaves and selling them for fifty cents greenback. The suffer sold flour costing $6 for 20 by the barrel. One of Morgan's men then wrote: "My Dear Dad: Please send at once $100 or a coffin." This letter came back to its writer, indorsed by the examiner: "Do you think we are all damn fools up here?"
To test this very question crucially, a Kentucky gentleman called on Gen. DeLand with two boxes. They contained cigars, and the Colonel was asked to smoke one box and send the other to the son of the visitor. On examining, the Colonel found one box contained prime Havanas, and the other a much inferior domestic smoke. To officially settle the question as to profane folly, he wisely smiled and kept the first and sent the other to the son of a Solomon-for the son found a greenback bill inside each wrapper of the lower layer of his "stogies." and bribed a guard to let him out of prison with one of them.
Several escaped in empty barrels. More burrowed out under the fence in tunnels. Others organized parties, attacked the sentinels on the parapet of the fence with missiles, and so fought their way out. A dungeon was constructed for escapers who were retaken. One sunset it contained nine such. Next morning it was empty and ventilated by a tunnel.
The stray dog above mentioned was the subject of festive invitations to a chosen few. Next day its owner posted a reward for it. During the night an unknown poet wrote, large, under the notice:
For want of meat
That dog was eat.
A large volume could be filled with incidents and inflictions experienced in Camp Douglas. The survivors of that imprisonment will identify the incidents at sight and with thrills of unwonted emotion. Some of them may wonder why these details are so incomplete. Nothing is here written about the severe punishment of the men because they were so hungry that they ate cats, rats, and dog with zest of the many murders and brutalities wrought by guards of the rank and file-not even of the midnight frolic of the drunken, dastardly brutes who dragged a score of prisoners from bed and flogged them with cartridge belts. Against the urgent warning of many comrades that it would be certain death to so enrage such creatures, I laid the facts before the commandant in such shape as to compel official investigation. All such incidents are omitted, because relating to men of no authority or responsibility.
The survivors of that imprisonment ought to arrange for a general meeting in some Confederate reunion, for no body of men was ever more tried in any ordeal which tests human nature and proves it creditable to mankind.
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