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Eyewitnesses Bring War's Cruelty to Light

By Bill Ward, Salisbury Post
June 2004

Usually in discussions of the Civil War and prisoners of that war, the first images to surface are those of the infamous Camp Sumter, Ga., better known as Andersonville. Historians also might recall Confederate prisons at Florence, S.C., or Salisbury. It must be hard for students to understand that Andersonville was not the only prison camp and that the Union Army maintained several prisoner-of-war camps, as well.

Until recent years, history has not been open to the brutal deprivation suffered by Confederate prisoners in Yankee camps. It's a story begging to be told about the 11 Civil War POW camps spread across the far reaches of the North. Places like Point Lookout, Md.; Johnson's Island, northern Ohio; Camp Douglas, Chicago; and Elmira, N.Y., whose nightmarish conditions earned it the name "Hellmira."

In "So Far From Dixie: Confederates in Yankee Prisons," Phillip Burnham paints a macabre scene of a mixture of events from the Civil War, or more accurately, The War Between the States. He stirs together a mess of humanity in the boiling cauldrons of Southern battlefields and Northern prison camps. His sources of eyewitness information remain alive through documents left by five men who experienced firsthand the horrors of being Northern POWs.

Oddly enough, one of those five prisoners was a Union soldier, Frank Wilkeson. A Union Army volunteer, only 16 years old at the time, Wilkeson saw the worst kinds of criminals released from Northern jails and transported south under guard for conscription into the Union Army.

Berry Benson focused all his energy on escaping from the New York hellhole, sometimes called Andersonville on ice. Constantly digging tunnels with other prisoners, Benson felt a dire urgency to gain his freedom, after having been transferred from other camps to Elmira.

Anthony Keiley of Petersburg, Va., the better educated of the prisoners, was a glib-tongue lawyer-politician who talked prison officials into giving him a job that he enjoyed, logging prisoners into Elmira. Then he had to start logging them out, up to 20 or 30 dead in a day. After the war, and always the politician, Keiley became mayor of Richmond.

In one of his prison observations, Keiley wrote: "The Northern people, and I speak from long acquaintance with them, care much less for Negroes than we. ... It is the free states that have made the most odiously discriminating laws against the Negroes as have characterized Chicago and New York." He referred to the New York City draft riots, a reminder that many of the white men who stood guard over him had serious doubts themselves about the fighting ability and intelligence of the black men who had joined the Union army by the thousands.

Then there was John King, a skilled craftsman who refused to build coffins for his fellow prisoners. And Marcus Toney refused to take the Union oath of loyalty to gain his freedom, nor would he take it until many years after the war's end.

Shocking images of gaunt figures with hollow eyes and protruding bones that were released from the Georgia prison at Andersonville have filled our history books. But little thought has been given to the fate of Southern prisoners held in the north. If lessons in morality are to be taught, it's that the South was starving due to the pillaging and destruction wrought by the marauding hordes of William T. Sherman in Georgia and Phillip Sheridan in the Shenandoah Valley. With scarcely any food to feed Southern armies and civilians, almost nothing was available for prisoners.

In locales such as Elmira, food and medicine was plentiful to the Union Army. Still, Confederate prisoners were subjected to starvation and death by diseases for which medicine was purposely withheld. A unique method of thinning out the prison population was to place inmates with smallpox in barracks or tents with "well" prisoners. Malnourishment, exposure to extreme heat in the summer, extreme cold in the winter, and water contaminated with sewage helped take its toll.

At Camp Douglas, in particular, prisoners wore lightweight clothes, even during the biting Chicago winters, to reduce escape attempts. Many Confederate prisoners froze to death.

Some of the Union prisons also became sources of entertainment. Enterprising businessmen built tall wooden towers near the prison fences. They charged civilians up to 10 cents a head to climb up and watch the prisoners in the stockades, on display like animals in a zoo.

The bathroom facilities often were no more than latrines -- trenches out in the open. Everything was sport for the spectators. This kind of unseemly entertainment was available for Northerners at Camp Douglas and Elmira.

But perhaps one of the most villainous individuals at the prison was a Union Army doctor, Major Eugene Francis Sanger, the hospital chief and a "brute" in Keiley's estimation. By some accounts, Sanger failed to provide even minimum attention to those under his care, and some of his activities rivaled those of Josef Mengele during a later war.

As Keiley wrote, Sanger's "systematic inhumanity to the sick" was apparently a response to the rumors of alleged Andersonville atrocities. "I do not doubt that many of those who died at Elmira perished from actual starvation," reflected Keiley with bitter irony, who believed himself to be "in a country where food was cheap and abundant." Union Army medical officers at Elmira and at Camp Douglas would likely have been brought up on war crimes charges had the South won the war.

On July 19, 1866, Edwin M. Stanton, Secretary of War for the Federal government, published a report about prisoners held during the war. Figures in Stanton's report belie the cruelty often associated with Confederate prison camps. From the first to the last, Confederate armies captured and held in prisons 270,000 men. The Federal armies held 220,000 men. Of the Federal prisoners in Confederate hands, 22,576 died. Conversely 26,576 Rebels died in "Yankee captivity" -- six times the number of Confederate dead at the battle of Gettysburg, and twice that for the Southern dead of Antietam, Chickamauga, Chancellorsville, Seven Days, Shiloh and Second Manassas combined.

The Confederates, with 50,000 more prisoners, had 4,000 fewer inmate deaths.

Bill Ward is a writer, historical researcher, and public speaker living in Salisbury. Contact him at wardwriters@bellsouth.net.

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