The truth about Andersonville is not difficult to ascertain for anyone willing to search beyond the generally accepted story as perpetrated by the war’s victors, anxious to exculpate themselves for the guilt of the death of their countrymen who became prisoners. That story begins with a prison camp hastily established and quickly filled to overflowing and ends with the “trial” and death of its commandant, Henry Wirz. The truth begins with the Lincoln Administration’s suspension of prisoner exchange which necessitated the establishment of several prison camps and ends with a sham trial and the murder of the Federal government’s chosen scapegoat. Dr. Stevenson’s, A Southern Side; Or, Andersonville Prison fills in the facts with official records and reveals the truth for all legitimate historians. It is not enough for Southern historians to know only the basic facts associated with Andersonville, for that prison still represents a significant blot on the name of the Confederate States of America and the reputation of its leaders which can never be eradicated but can only be ameliorated by the repeated telling of the truth. In Dr. Stevenson’s words, he wants to “erase a dark stain unjustly cast upon the character of the Southern people…expiate Wirz, and put the burden of blame on the Federals who refused to exchange prisoners.” Though the original 1876 printed work is rare, a reprint as well as an e-book are readily available and should be consulted by all historians of the War to Prevent Southern Independence, especially Southern historians upon whose shoulders the burden of proof now rests.
Here then is the truth and let it begin with the fact that after the war, Southern historians labored under the disadvantage of having the CSA archives, “locked up in Washington.” Stevenson’s work is the result of research done as soon as those records became available. He includes countless reports on topography, climate, barracks, the hospital, diet, water, clothing, hygienic habits of the prisoners, the police system, crowding, and the mental status of inmates. Of primary importance are the investigations and reports of Dr. Joseph Jones, one of the Confederacy’s most outstanding medical officers who spent his service in the CSA studying diseases and injuries in Confederate hospitals and prisons, especially Andersonville. Dr. Jones researched everything from the site selection to the Wirz trial. Of course, Federal reports are also included in Dr. Stevenson’s work where applicable but most of what was written by the Federals pertaining to Andersonville is rife with accusations and charges of cruelty and neglect with only silence on actions that they might have taken to correct the problems at Andersonville and other prisons.
Most serious students of the war understand that Andersonville and several other prison camps were established as a direct result of the Lincoln Administration’s cessation of prisoner exchange, a system that had been in place until 1864 when Federal officials realized that the South’s manpower shortage could be capitalized on by this means. For the Confederate government, manpower shortage had been under discussion for some time but the more pressing issue was what to do with the tens of thousands of prisoners suddenly entrusted to their care. A site in central Georgia was chosen for humane reasons—a mild climate, better access to food supplies, a pure water supply, relative freedom from enemy raids, and ready access to lumber for the construction of barracks and other prison buildings. The twenty acre camp was constructed to accommodate 10,000 prisoners and was built with the help of 500 slaves. As work progressed, it was enlarged to thirty acres but even that soon proved inadequate. The first prisoners passed through the gates on March 1, 1864 and by May it was full to capacity with more arriving daily.
Problems developed quickly. Barracks were supplemented with sheds and when those were full, prisoners erected their own temporary shelters. Clothing was inadequate even in the mild climate. Prisoners en route to Georgia sold their clothes and blankets at train stations along the way in exchange for food, tobacco, and liquor and once at Andersonville, charged that “the Rebs stripped me”. The pure water stream that flowed through the center of the camp had been divided into areas for drinking, washing, and privies but the prisoners ignored this. Sanitation could not be enforced, even at gunpoint. Rations were the same in both quality and quantity for prisoners and Confederate soldiers on duty but they proved woefully inadequate due to blockaded ports and the destruction of railroad lines and other means of transportation by the Federals. Moreover, the prisoners’ digestive systems rebelled when they were given cornbread instead of the wheat bread to which they were accustomed. Crowding and boredom exacerbated the situation. Murders and robberies among prisoners were frequent and continued despite court-martials ending with the guilty being hanged. Despondency (or what we might call depression today) resulting from broken promises of exchange led to hopelessness and undoubtedly added to the mortality rate.
By June 1864, just three months after the first prisoners had arrived, gangrene and scurvy were so bad that Provost Marshal General John H. Winder, in charge of all prison hospitals in Georgia and Alabama, looked to send excess prisoners elsewhere and while that was accomplished to a certain degree, transportation difficulties and the presence of the enemy in other locations limited the actual number transferred. Eventually, most men at Andersonville were either sick or recovering. These men were victims not only of illness, but also of their healthy comrades who preyed on their helplessness. A five acre, 2,000 bed hospital was moved outside the walls of the stockade for sanitary and isolation reasons but the 500 healthy prisoners chosen to help nurse the sick stole food and bedding from their charges and then often violated their paroles and left their brethren to die.
As Dr. Jones and others soon discovered, gangrene, scurvy, diarrhea, and dysentery were the main causes of death at Andersonville. All but gangrene were caused by unfamiliar diets, malnutrition, drinking contaminated water, and poor hygiene. The term “filthy habits” to describe the prisoners appears in most reports, both Confederate and Federal. Gangrene, although not directly due to diet, is a result of wounds that become contaminated and infected—not just battle wounds but even a scratch. In pre-germ theory days, it was only understood that gangrene patients needed to be isolated. But it was scurvy that Dr. Jones determined was the cause of 90% of the deaths at Andersonville. A simple dose of vitamin C could have saved them and while medical science had not yet identified nutritional components, they did know that fresh fruits and vegetables could cure the disease. As much produce as could be procured or grown was provided and even and “acid beer” made from cornmeal and molasses was produced and given to the prisoners but the supply simply could not meet the demand. Confederates at Andersonville were not immune. The mortality rate among the guards was the same as the prisoners and Captain Wirz, Andersonville’s commandant, was on sick leave for a month in late summer of 1864 while he battled gangrene.
Medicines, declared as contraband of war by the Federals, were as scarce as fresh vegetables. Dr. Josiah H. White, surgeon-in-charge at the Andersonville hospital, did his best with what he was able to get but the situation was so severe that Col. Robert Ould, Confederate Agent of Exchange, offered to buy medicines from the Union with cotton, tobacco, and even gold, allowing Northern doctors to bring them and administer them only to their own men but his offer was ignored. The Federals knew that by refusing to supply their own prisoners with food, clothing, and medicine, it would decrease the amount of those commodities in the Confederacy as a whole so that their own men would be permitted to starve as long as that fate awaited Confederate soldiers and civilians.
A comparison of Andersonville with Northern prisons is included in this work. Camp Douglas near Chicago, Pt. Lookout in Maryland, Ft. Delaware, Elmira in New York, Camp Chase in Ohio, and Johnson’s Island in Lake Erie are documented from letters of Southern prisoners held in those camps. One need not be an expert in geography to realize that these locations were not chosen for their hospitable climate, escape-deterrent excuses aside. Andersonville’s “mean annual range of the thermometer” was reported as 60 degrees Fahrenheit. Temperatures at Northern prisons regularly dipped below freezing and sometimes even below zero. Johnson’s Island once reported -20 degrees, not accounting for wind chill of course. Camp Douglas inmates were issued 6-7 blankets for every 120-160 men and lived in barracks with no floors, holes in the walls, and no glass in the windows. The water was bad and the food so inadequate that prisoners ate rats and dogs. Scurvy and other malnutrition diseases were prevalent in all Northern prison camps. And this, in a land of plenty. When Confederate officials complained about their men freezing to death, Federals retaliated by charging that their prisoners froze at Belle Island in the James River near Richmond but in fact, every tent at Belle Island had a fire in it and the only prisoner who ever froze was one whose fellow prisoners put him out because he “was infested with vermin”.
The suffering of Southern prisoners was “intensely aggravated by the inhumanity of the negro guards” who meted out punishments repeatedly referred to as “torture”—being forced to carry a guard on one’s back while going to the privies, being hung up by the thumbs, having hands manacled behind the back and hung up by the elbows, and having guards fire on the prisoners without warning for crossing the unmarked “dead lines”.
Sympathetic civilians in Maryland and Kentucky sent countless donations but the packages were confiscated by the guards and prisoners rarely saw them. By contrast, the sick in Southern prisons were provided with special articles such as milk and eggs from the hospital funds but Confederate sick in Northern prisons had to pay for these luxuries. Still, the Federal government proposed resolutions advocating the practice of retaliation in prisons. Sherman also practiced this in the field. General Order #100 stated that “military necessity does not admit of cruelty” but this was ignored. The final insult was the sale of corpses from Northern prisons to medical colleges.
Dr. Stevenson devotes a good deal of his study to the miscarriage of justice known as the Wirz trial. He states that “revenge, not justice, was what the military court and the Northern people craved”; facts that did not call for Wirz’s execution were simply ignored. Each paragraph of the official charges begins, “And the said Henry Wirz, still pursuing his evil/wicked/cruel purposes…” His attorneys acknowledged the biased nature of the court and stated that the judge suppressed all information in favor of Wirz or only admitted “garbled extracts”. Most of the witnesses were those that had violated their paroles while tending the sick and one of them claimed that he saw Wirz murder some prisoners in August 1864. Wirz’s attorneys pointed out that their client was on sick leave at the time but his fact too, was ignored. One witness who was not asked to testify, an officer on Sheridan’s staff, wrote a letter published in the New York Daily News in August 1865 in which he stated that the deaths at Andersonville were not Wirz’s fault.
Students and teachers of history, note well the truth behind Andersonville prison:
• Andersonville was established to house prisoners that the Federal government refused to exchange.
• Confederate officials offered to return the sick and wounded without any Confederate prisoners in exchange but were first ignored and finally refused.
• Confederate officials offered to buy medicine for sick prisoners but were ignored.
• Confederate officials asked the Federals to send food and medicine but were ignored and finally refused.
• A Congressional committee report in February 1865 on conditions in prisons on both sides revealed overwhelming evidence that the illness of Federal prisoners was not the result of ill-treatment or neglect.
• The percentage of Federal deaths in Southern prisons was < 9% while Confederate deaths in Northern prisons was > 12%.
• The mortality rate of the guards at Andersonville was the same as the prisoners.
• Rations for prisoners and Confederate soldiers in the field were the same in quality and quantity.
• The destruction of railroads and other means of transportation by the Federals contributed greatly to the mortality rate at Southern prisons.
According to Stevenson, “These villanies summed up, find no equal amongst civilized nations” and that the Federals who refused to send food and medicine, are “the real authors of most of the misery and death” at Andersonville. He goes on to note that for 10 years the South had borne the taunts and insults of its conquerors over what was referred to as the “crime of Andersonville” but he hopes that “another tribunal will fix the penalty upon those responsible for the violation of the cartel of exchange and the consequent sufferings and mortality at Andersonville prison.” Let us hope that that tribunal is not the supposedly pro-Southern periodical, written and edited by Southerners, Southern Living magazine which, some years ago, printed a short article on Andersonville entitled, “A Debt We Can Never Repay”. This author promptly cancelled her subscription and lodged a complaint, complete with facts. It was ignored.
Notes Concerning the Author
R. Randolph Stevenson was the Chief Surgeon of Confederate Military Hospitals. After the War Between the States he did extraordinary research on Confederate efforts to care for imprisoned Federal soldiers, with a focus on the large prison at Andersonville and with appropriate comparisons to the care given to imprisoned Confederate soldiers in prisons operated by Federals. The result was the 506-page book of the title presented above, which was published in 1876, at the point in time that the Republican’s Political Reconstruction of the conquered southern states drew to a close.