An anonymous wit once proclaimed that “All generalizations are false, including this one.” The continuous, often contentious, letters debating the 1861-1865 unpleasantness are rife with generalities that contain a kernel of truth but are far from uniformly accurate or true. Such is the case with Jim Sandefur’s latest letter, especially his final sentence denying that Andersonville prison had no counterpart in the North.
Combined, there were more than 150 POW camps holding over 400,000 prisoners during the war. Overall, the mortality rate in Northern prisons was 12 percent while in Southern prisons it was 15.5 percent, according to a 1908 report by the adjutant-general of the United States. The highest reported rate of mortality for any single month of the war was reached at Chicago’s Camp Douglas in February, 1863, when 10 percent of all Confederate prisoners there died. It was said that the unsanitary conditions caused the prisoners to “drop like flies.” Estimates of total prisoner deaths at New York’s Elmira prison range from 24 percent 27 percent while Andersonville is estimated at 29 percent. Elmira could be viewed as the Union’s Andersonville, but that dubious honor likely goes to Point Lookout, Maryland, where the Union claimed just over 3,300 deaths or an 8 percent mortality rate. Research by Professor Bart Talbert of the University of Salisbury, Maryland, and others show that as many as 14,000 Confederate POWs died there, a higher rate of mortality than Andersonville. No amount of revised history will change that fact. A great-great-uncle, James Giles, 51st Virginia Volunteer Infantry, lost a leg when wounded and captured at Smithfield, Virginia. He was exchanged through Point Lookout and returned at Venus Point on the Savannah River. He survived until age 67 and died in 1903.
Arguably, the most famous POW camp is Andersonville resulting from the publicity surrounding the trial of Henry Wirz. Actually, other Southern camps had mortality rates as high, or higher, than Andersonville. Much less press has been given to the inhuman conditions of Northern POW camps such as Douglas, Elmira and Fort Delaware. Alexander Hunter, a Confederate private sent to Fort Warren in Boston Harbor, the same place where my great great grandfather was earlier confined by President Lincoln as a “Southern sympathizer,” was well treated. Conversely, upon landing at Aiken’s Landing on the James River after an exchange of prisoners, he observed prisoners returning from Fort Delaware. He described them as looking like “the vanguard of the Resurrection,” many ill and suffering from scurvy while bearing marks of severe treatment in their thin faces and wasted forms. That was in 1862 and well before any outbreak of smallpox as claimed by Sandefur. My great-great-uncle Henry Giles, a sergeant in the 51st Virginia Volunteer Infantry, was incarcerated at Fort Delaware and fortunately survived. He died at age 86 in 1925.
Henry Wirz was clearly a scapegoat. Had the same standards been applied, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, by all accounts a vindictive man, and Point Lookout Camp Commander Major A.G. Brady would have shared the gallows with Wirz. Stanton, in May 1864, ordered a severe reduction of rations to Confederate prisoners with the result that many more died than should have. The Union was in a far better position to care for its prisoners than the South but intentionally ignored their needs. Brady personally amassed $1,000,000 taken from funds to be used for feeding, clothing and sheltering prisoners. Furthermore, Brady would not allow the citizens of Maryland to provide for the prisoners. Laughably, Sandefur claims that Wirz’ attempt to reinstate prisoner exchanges were not for humanitarian reasons but then claims that earlier Union efforts were.
On the subject of traitors, Sandefur conveniently ignores the fact that secession was not illegal under the United States Constitution of 1861. Once the 11 Southern states left the Union, they were no longer bound by the Constitution of the United States. Robert E. Lee resigned his commission in the U.S. Army honorably. He then left the United States and retired to his native state of Virginia as a resident there and a resident of the Confederacy where the U.S. Constitution no longer applied and to which he no longer owed allegiance. He was a citizen of a different country. Furthermore, none of the Confederate soldiers who were citizens of the 11 secessionist states can be considered traitors.
My sources include “The Photographic History of the Civil War,” an original 10 volume set published in 1912. Volume seven deals with prisons and hospitals. It’s made clear that conditions in prisons on both sides were often horrible and frequently made more so by those charged with caring for the prisoners. The Union certainly had it’s equivalent of Andersonville; more than one, in fact.
Walker Smith is a resident of Byron.