“Can Those Be Men?” – The Prisoner of War Experience in 1864 (Lecture)

“Can Those Be Men?” – The Prisoner of War Experience in 1864 (Lecture)


“Those little, livid brown, ash-streaked,
monkey-looking dwarfs. Are they really mumbled, dwindled corpses? They lay there, most of
them, quite still, but with a horrible look in their eyes and skinny lips, often without
enough flesh to cover their teeth. If they can be called living, many of them are mentally
imbecile and will never recuperate.” Uttering those words was Walt Whitman, perhaps one
of the most favorite and famous linguists to come out of the Civil War era. Walt Whitman
witnessed a number of Union soldiers returning from Belle Isle, a prisoner of war camp in
the Confederacy’s capital in Richmond, Virginia. I’d like to welcome you all here today to
our next Winter Lecture Series: “Can those be Men?” The Prisoner of War Experience in
1864. Over the last several years, as the National Park Service has been commemorating the sesquicentennial
events of 1861, 1862, and 1863, we’ve looked at a lot of battles, a lot of commanders,
we’ve looked at the casualty rates, and those who have been wounded or killed in these engagements,
but one of the stories that we have not talked about are those men that went missing. Those
that were captured, those who would sit out the rest of the war. For those men, their
experience would change drastically, 150 years ago in 1864. My name is Dan Welch, and I’m
the education programs coordinator for the Gettysburg Foundation, I recognize many familiar
faces here. You’re probably scratching your head and wondering, “Isn’t this the guy who
used to wear the hat with the green pants and the grey shirt,” and yes I did. For a
number of years I was here as a seasonal park ranger for Gettysburg National Military Park.
One afternoon, I was looking for something upstairs and ended up in a vacant office and
the Foundation just started giving me a paycheck, so now I work for them, and I’m happy to be
here full-time in Gettysburg. And so, with that, if you have any questions today, I ask
that you just hold them until the very end, I’ll be around as long as you’d like to talk, perhaps
if you’re looking for some further information on an individual ancestor that was a prisoner
or perhaps a good study, a good book to read as well, I can point you in that direction.
Before we get to 1864, what was the prisoner of war experience like in 1861, 1862, 1863?
When the fighting broke out at Fort Sumter in April of 1861, the war’s first land battle,
significant land battle at Manasass in July of 1861, the federal government adopted a
real tough attitude toward the Confederacy and the rebels in general. The Lincoln administration
wanted to avoid any recognition, official recognition, of the Confederate government
in Richmond. This includes dealing with prisoners of war, military captives. In the North, public
opinion during 1861 on prisoner exchanges began to soften, however, particularly after
that first major land battle, the Battle of First Bull Run or Manasass, when Confederate
soldiers ended up capturing about 1,000 Union soldiers. What do we do with them at this
point? Well prior to the cartel’s creation that we’re going to talk about in just a moment,
Union and Confederate forces throughout 1861 would exchange prisoners very sporadically,
usually as an act of humanity between opposing field commanders. It was not a regulated experience
for the prisoners of war, particularly amongst official channels. In some cases, a transfer
of only sick or wounded men may take place. Exchanges of just a couple prisoners between
sides could prove very time consuming to achieve, and so only a very few number of military
commanders in 1861 that were unfamiliar with the practice and reluctance to engage in these
exchanges would do so without the explicit, and I mean explicit approval and instruction
from their superiors. And most often it was not their military superiors, most often it
would be coming from the respective governments in Richmond and in Washington. But as 1861
began to dwindle into 1862, progress toward and agreement of how do we deal with these
prisoners of war, began to take hold. Throughout the initial months of the Civil War, as I
mentioned, the support for prisoner exchanges grew very small but incrementally in the North.
Petitions from prisoners in the South that had been captured in April, May, June, July
1861 and so on, as well as many articles written in popular newspapers in the North increased
pressure on the Lincoln administration to do something. What should we do with these
men? And as the year of 1861 is coming to a close, on December 11th, the United States
Congress finally acted, they’ll pass a joint resolution calling on President Lincoln to
“inaugurate a systematic set of measures for the exchange of prisoners in the present rebellion.”
Just months before in Missouri, in October and November of 1861, Union Major John C.
Fremont and Major General Sterling Price of the Missouri State Guard, approved an exchange
system of their own, exchanging prisoners and agreeing to terms for the transfer of future
captives. However, President Abraham Lincoln relieved
Fremont of his command on November 2nd
for his heavy-handed actions in Missouri and Major General David Hunter, Fremont’s
replacement, refused to recognize the agreement. So as 1861 comes to a close the prisoner
of war experience is very irregular. Those captured on the field may experience
only several hours as a prisoner of war, others may experience more time in a prisoner of
war camp, many of those camps temporary. But as the war moved on, significant meetings
that would take place on February 23rd and March 1st, 1862, respectively, would lead
to what is known as the Dix-Hill Cartel. Union Major General John E. Wool and Confederate
Brigadier General Howell Cobb met to reach an agreement regarding prisoner exchanges.
They discussed many of the provisions that would later be adopted in what will become
known as the Dix-Hill Agreement. An earlier cartel of arrangements used between the United
States and Great Britain during the War of 1812 provided a model for this agreement,
so they were not starting from scratch as they began to discuss the terms. Differences
over which side should cover the expense for prisoners’ transportation would stymie the
negotiations, however, between Wool and Cobb, respectively. Another issue arose during the agreement that
they were working on; how do you handle the surplus of prisoners held by one side, which
proved to be an insurmountable problem. Cobb would not agree to Wool’s proposal for an
even swap of prisoners at that time, while deferring resolution of the surplus issue
to later negotiations. As the months of 1862 continued to move forward, General Cobb would
meet with Union Colonel Thomas M. Key, an aide to Major General George B. McClellan
in another attempt to reach an agreement for prisoner exchanges. Key discussed other matters
with Cobb beyond the topic of prisoners, and in reply, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton fired
a sharp comment to McClellan that “It is not deemed proper for officers bearing flags of
truce, in respect to the exchange of prisoners, to hold any conference with the rebel officers
upon the general subject of the existing contest or upon any other subject than what relates
to the exchange of prisoners.” Even by June of 1862, the Lincoln administration is wary
of enacting or adopting any sort of resolution or agreement that gives credence or credibility
to the existence of a government in Richmond, and this will directly relate to the prisoner
of war experience. The negotiations were not done in 1862, the next round would begin on
July 8th, when Secretary of War Stanton would appoint Major General John A. Dix. By early
July General Cobb became ill and could no longer represent the Confederate authorities.
Cobb’s replacement would be an up and coming general by the name of Robert E. Lee. Lee
would find the campaigns of 1862 too arduous to carry out the negotiations himself and
he would thus name a subordinate general, D.H. Hill, just days after Malvern Hill on
July 14th, 1862. To prepare for his negotiations with his Confederate counterpart July 1862,
General Dix requested that War Secretary Stanton provide a copy of all of General Wool’s correspondence
with the rebels relating to the prior cartel discussions. Thus as 1862 moved further into
history and memory, the cartel agreement was established, and it was established on a scale
of equivalence to the management of the exchange of military officers and enlisted personnel.
For example, how would the cartel work? A naval captain or a colonel in the army would
exchange for 15 privates or common seamen, while personnel of equal ranks would transfer
man to man. The agreement named two locations throughout the country in which these exchanges
would occur. One would take place at Aiken’s Landing below Dutch Gap, Virginia; the other
at Vicksburg, Mississippi. Each government would appoint an agent to handle the exchange
and parole of prisoners. The agreement also allowed the exchange or parole of captains
between the commanders of two opposing forces. In addition, the agreement permitted each
side to exchange non-combatants. By 1862, a number of civilian and political dissidents
had been take as prisoners. These citizens were also accused of disloyalty, civilian
employees or contractors of the military such as teamsters and sutlers. Authorities were
to parole any prisoners not formally exchanged within 10 days of capture. So according to
the new agreement, your duration as a prisoner of war in the middle part of 1862 would not
last more than 10 days. The terms of the cartel prohibited police or guard or constable duty
as well as the performance of field, garrison, or other type duties. Thus in the first week
of August 1862, the cartel’s newly appointed agents Confederate Robert Ould and Union Brigadier
General Lorenzo Thomas conducted their first official prisoner exchange under the agreement’s
terms with a transfer of 3,021 Union personnel for 3,000 Confederates at Aiken’s Landing.
The prisoner exchanges functioned well for the next several months, the next quarter
of the year exactly, until December of 1862 when Confederate President Jefferson Davis
suspended the parole and exchanges of Union officers following the execution of William
Mumford, a New Orleans citizen, by Union General Benjamin “Beast” Butler earlier that year.
In reaction, Union Secretary of War Edwin Stanton ordered a halt to all exchanges of
commissioned officers. And thus, this cartel that worked so grandly for 4 months, was coming
to a screeching halt. Further difficulties developed when the Confederate government
refused to parole and exchange any African American soldiers taken captive who might
have escaped from slavery. Confederate authorities decided instead to treat this prisoners as
runaways, suitable only for return to their former owners. As 1862 drew to a close and
the spring campaigns were about to begin in the spring of 1863, the Confederate exchange
agent Robert Ould sent a letter to Confederate President Jefferson Davis with these complaints
about the Union’s exchange efforts. He said, “I
am more and more satisfied every day that the Federal government
does not intend to keep faith with us in the matter of prisoners
or exchanges. I believe its officials are taxing their ingenuity to find out the most
available methods of deceit and fraud. I received yesterday official evidence that some 40 officers
entitled long ago to their release and who, in fact, are exchanged under existing agreements
are now imprisoned at Camp Chase, and yet the federal agent with an earnestness intended
to be peculiarly impressive, assured me 3 days ago that not one of these officers was
confined in that place. Not one day passes that some evidence does not come to the hand
of Yankee fraud and mediocrity. Four weeks ago the federal agent informed me in writing
that it was not the intention of his government to make any more arrests of non-combatants
in our territory and yet more have been made since that declaration than during any previous
equal space of time.” As the Battle of Gettysburg and the Gettysburg Campaign grew ever closer,
by early June of 1863, with the Battle of Chancellorsville a month behind them, and
numerous war prisoners taken in to prisoner of war camps, the exchanges had effectively
stopped. The prisoner of war experience in 1863 was growing in length. And as that length
increased, so did the challenges that they would face. On June 12th, 1863 Confederate Vice President
Alexander Stevens wrote to President Jefferson Davis offering
his services to travel to Washington D.C. in order to renegotiate
a new agreement over prisoner exchange, as well as some larger diplomatic issues between the
Confederate and Union governments. Davis accepted the
offer and in July of 1863, he appointed Stevens
as “a military commissioner under flag of truce to approach
the authorities in Washington.” His primary mission was this:
“To establish the cartel for the exchange of prisoners on such a basis as to avoid the
constant difficulties and complaints which arise, and to prevent for the future what
we deem the unfair conduct of our enemies in evading the delivery of prisoners who fall
into their hands, and retarding it by sending them on circuitous routes, and by detaining
them sometimes for months in camps and prisons, and in persisting in taking captive non-combatants.”
By the summer of 1863, just one year after that Dix-Hill Cartel was being initiated and
working so well, and when you as a prisoner were only held in captive hands for 10 days,
your prison stay now had grown, not to days, but to months. As Vice President Alexander
Stevens of the Confederate government approached Washington, Federal authorities refused to
accept him and his request to negotiate. As Abraham Lincoln was traveling to Gettysburg
to deliver those now immortal words, Union General Benjamin Butler requested permission
from Secretary of War Edwin Stanton to negotiate
for the resumption of prisoner exchanges. Keep in
mind, in 1862, you were on average a prisoner of war for
about 10 days. These holding facilities for thousands of
prisoners were meant as a temporary stop-over on your
way to Aiken’s Landing or Vicksburg, Mississippi
to be exchanged. But now these temporary facilities were housing men for months at a time. More battles, more
campaigns were taking place in the intervening weeks
and months and the Confederate and Union prisoner of
war populations began to balloon. After reviewing correspondences from the
Confederates, Major General Ben Butler had an idea that the rebels would exchange captives without
regard to their color, caste, or condition. Since the Federals held twice, twice as many
prisoners as their opponent in November of 1863, Butler proposed that a renewal of the exchanges
would deplete the number of prisoners held by the Confederates. If “the colored prisoners and their officers
were not handed over, then the Union’s remaining
surplus of rebel prisoners would serve as hostages
for possible retaliation and reprisal.” On December 17th, Major General Ethan Allen Hitchcock appointed
Butler as a special agent for the exchange of prisoners. While conducting these new exchanges, the
protection of the government would remain for “colored
soldiers of the United States and their officers commanding
them.” Butler was to avoid the question of parole
in excess now pending between the two sides, and within
days, Butler started exchanging prisoners with the
Confederates and continued the transfers into the early
months of 1864. Despite his original mandate, however, Butler
tried to resolve the outstanding cartel issues with
the rebel authorities while facing General Hitchcock’s
growing opposition over the scope and conduct of his
activities. As 1864 began to dawn 150 years ago,
Union General Ulysses S. Grant was tasked to review the situation of prisoner exchange. Grant
ordered the halt of all exchanges, all exchanges, until the Confederates recognized “the validity
of the paroles of prisoners captured at Vicksburg and Port Hudson, and stopped discrimination
against colored soldiers.” By 1863 and 1864, the prisoner of war experience was not one
on an average scale; officers treated differently than enlisted men, and men of African American
heritage treated different than their fellow white prisoners of war. In August of 1864, Robert Ould accepted a
Union proposal to make equal exchanges, officer for officer and man for man, with the first
releases going to these longest in captivity. While Ould’s offer circulated through the
Federal government, Ben Butler wrote to Ould in September posing a special exchange of
all sick and invalid officers and men unfit for duty and likely to remain so for 60 days.
To make the transfer easier, he proposed that the exchange occur at Fort Pulaski outside
of Savannah, Georgia, and by the end of November, the belligerents had transferred several thousand
prisoners near Savannah and conducted a second transfer under similar terms in Charleston,
South Carolina. What was taking place for the prisoners of war in 1864? As 1864 began,
as we just noted, authorities on both sides privately confided a number of concerns that
the previous lack of organization and planning were taking a toll within the military prisons.
Overcrowding, which doubled and tripled the original set capacities, were becoming the
norm, while smallpox spread through the Northern camps chronic diarrhea and dysentery hit prisons
in the South. Again, as I noted, in 1862 and even the first half of 1863, prisoner of war
camps were temporary; they were supposed to house these men for several weeks at most,
and now the duration for a prisoner of war would be months, perhaps years. And so, their
original design, these original camps set up to house 500-1,000, are now beginning to
house 3,000-5,000 men, with no increase into the camp’s size of facilities. Many prisoners
in 1864 were worn down by disease, fatigue, and hardship and these conditions were being
aggravated by the confinement and hardships inseparable from prison life, the cause of
death for many, and others, to be totally unfit for the duties of a soldier. One soldier
noted that he respectfully suggested that “all such Federal prisoners be paroled and
offered to the Federal agent of exchange for return to the North, and that at the same
time an application be made for similar privileges for our own soldiers held as prisoners of
war in the United States.” This coming from Confederate Medical Director William A. Carrington
on January 15th, 1864. General Winder, in charge of Confederate prisoners in Richmond,
Virginia, the capital of the Confederacy noted this. He said: “the mortality rate is incident
to prison life. I do not contend that the quarters, fuel, and rations of the prisoners
have been such as were most conducive to their comfort. The deficiency in the commissary
supplies, which has not been confined to this department, and for which I am not responsible,
has prevented the supply of rations necessary to the health of the prisoners.” Colonel Hoffman
talking about a new facility that was going to be opening up in the North in 1864 wrote
this. He advised Secretary Stanton on the problems emerging in the Union’s prisons.
He said: “It would facilitate the management of the affairs of prisoners of war and lead
them to more direct responsibility if the commanders of the stations where prisoners
are held could be placed under the immediate control of the Commissary General of Prisoners.
Through frequent change of commanders, it is impossible to establish a uniform and permanent
system of administration.” So as 1864 is moving further forward into the historical future,
the situation for the prisoners of war has drastically changed. No longer are they in
captivity for several days, weeks, or months, many have been in captivity for almost a year
at this point in time. The Union and Confederate governments are grasping to create some sort
of system to deal with the prisoners they currently have under their charge. Again,
according to the old agreements, these men were paroled or exchanged very quickly; now
that they’re being held in captivity for weeks, months, and years, who’s in charge of them?
Who’s in charge of the prison sites? Who’s in charge of ordering supplies such as clothing,
blankets, food? Where do those supplies come from? Do the come out of the quartermaster
department? Should those supplies be stripped from field armies to be able to equip and
better serve prisoners of war behind the lines of opposing armies. The prisoner of war experience
in 1864 was not only felt by the prisoners themselves, but also with the military and
political institutions that are trying to grapple with the situation as well. And so,
today, we are going to explore two prisons to get a better understanding of what the
prisoner of war experience was truly like 150 years ago. We will begin our journey focusing
on Elmira Prison, in New York. One of the hardest parts about studying this topic is
getting a clear view of what it truly was like 150 years ago. Many of the accounts of
the prisoner of war experience of Union and Confederate soldiers happened 20, 30, 40,
even 50 years after they were a prisoner of war, and by that point it seemed that every
prisoner during the American Civil War was naked and unfed. If they were fed it was generally dogs
and rats, so finding contemporaneous accounts, accounts written by men that were actually
living the conditions day by day in 1864 is a challenge. And so the accounts that you
will hear of our two prisons today, that of Elmira and that of Libby Prison in Richmond,
Virginia, will be contemporaneous accounts, accounts written in letters and diaries 150
years ago without the luxury of historical hindsight and the “Lost Cause” mythology of
the High Victorian Era. Now what about Elmira Prison? Historian Lonnie Speer noted that
“The tragic period of Civil War concentration camps was inaugurated with Elmira Prison in
the North. The most remarkable aspect about Elmira Prison is that unlike the other POW
facilities around the country up to that time, it didn’t start out as a fairly acceptable
place of confinement and then denigrate into a concentration camp, Elmira prison was one
from the very day it began.” Colonel Seth Eastman, associated with Elmira Prison, recommended
at most no more than 5,000 prisoners could be accommodated. Quartermaster General Montgomery
Meigs declared accommodation of 10,000. A military bureaucrat in Washington D.C. decided
that twice the suggested prisoner population of a man on the ground, Colonel Seth Eastman,
was appropriate, and here was the start of a massive problem. The maximum capacity that
could be accommodated at Elmira Prison, according to Colonel Seth Eastman, was 4,000 men. The
other 1,000 would be housed in tents, 4,000 in wooden constructed barracks. You see, in
1861 and 1862, Elmira was a training facility as well as an enlistment depot, and so they
were going to re-appropriate its use. Meanwhile, however, in many reports in D.C., Quartermaster
General Montgomery Meigs continued to declare that at the opening of Elmira prison in July
of 1864, it could hold a capacity of 8-10,000 men. By the end of July 1864, 4,424 prisoners
were confined there with 2 escapes and 11 dead. By the end of August, there were more
than 9,600 POWs confined at Elmira. The initial arrivals had filled the barracks and A-tents,
as you see in this photo from 1864, were now in use. By August 7th, the tent supply was
exhausted, and by the end of August, there were 115 more deaths; in September, another
385 perished. What did Elmira look like 150 years ago? As I noted, at the beginning of
the war, it was a general recruiting depot, but in July of 1864 it became Division No.
3 of the barracks, called afterwards as Camp Chemung, noted for the nearby river and was
converted into a prisoner camp. This division was situated on the riverbank a mile and a
quarter west of the town and the sight was believed to be healthy; it was very level,
as you can see in the photographs pictured in front of you. It was level, but it had
a little sandy soil resting throughout the imprisonment itself, and to help deal with
some of the sandy soil gravel was mixed in several feet below the sandy soil’s surface.
But overall, the camp provided good drainage. At the date mentioned, 20 of the old barrack
buildings were considered fit for the occupation of prisoners, the 4,000 men, and 10 new ones
were to be constructed. Those barracks that you saw previously
measured 88 by 18 by 8 feet. They were intended
to accommodate, each, 100 men. The barracks to be constructed later were going to be 80
by 25 by 12 feet and were each fitted with bunks for 148 men. “Mess halls and kitchens
were situated and suitably furnished. The barracks were built of pine, they were well-lit,
warmed by stoves, and provided with ridge ventilation,” noted the U.S. Surgeon General
in later reports. The bakery could turn out 6 or 7,000 rations per day, that was built
on site, good water was obtained from 2 wells and any deficiency was supplied from the river
itself. Lavatories and baths were not at first specially provided, drainage by means of pits
dug into the porous subsoil. These sinks were covered pits which were filled up when necessary.
The grounds itself consisted of about 35 acres. They were surrounded by a 12 foot high fence
that you’ll be able to see a little bit better in this image. The fence itself had a platform
4 feet from the top. In August, over 1,000 tents were pitched each to accommodate 5 persons.
In one inspection report the drainage, again, is said to be into an open pond within the
camp. This pond is going to be another problem, thus forming what was called a “perfect pest-hole”
but on the recommendation of the inspector this pond was afterwards drained and an underground
sewer constructed, while defects in the surface drainage were remedied from time to time.
Nevertheless, the grounds were frequently reported as in a muddy condition during wet
seasons. One prisoner that experienced Elmira in the very early phases was a man by the
name of Berry Benson. Berry Benson may be one of those prisoners formed for morning
roll call at Elmira, in 1864. Benson was not quite 18 years old when he left his home in
Augusta, Georgia to join the Army. He would witness the first shots fired on Fort Sumter
and was soon singled out for his abilities that would serve him well as a scout. Not
only was he a crack shot, a natural leader, and a fierce Southern partisan, but he had
a kind, restless energy and curiosity. He loved to take risks, the risks of an 18-year-old
and was an instant and infallible judge of human nature. He would go on to fight at such
battles as Cold Harbor, Seven Days, Manassas, Sharpsburg, and Fredericksburg, leading up
to his capture in 1864. He was captured not many days after the fighting at the Wilderness
and Spotsylvania Courthouse on May 16th, 1864 and would spend some time both at Point Lookout
and Old Capitol Prison in Washington D.C. before being transferred to Elmira. When he
arrived, he noted this: “The prison was said to be a mile in circumference. In the rear
of it ran a river some 20 yards distance. Through the middle of the prison, paralleling the
river lay a pool of water probably 3-6 feet deep and about 40 feet wide.” Benson’s attitude
would change drastically during the next several weeks of his stay at Elmira. For G.T. Taylor
of the 1st Alabama Heavy Artillery though, he had a different opinion of the time at
Elmira. He said: “Elmira was nearer Hades than I thought any place could be.” F.S. Wade,
a Texas Scout wrote this upon his arrival: “If there was ever a Hell on Earth, Elmira
was it.” As these men were becoming acclimated to prison life at Elmira Prison, in Richmond,
Virginia, many prisoners at a prison that had become known as Libby Prison had been
there for quite some time and had already become quite acclimated. Libby Prison was
located in a 3-story brick warehouse on 2 levels on Tobacco Row at the waterfront of
the James River. Prior to use as a jail, the warehouse had been leased by Captain Luther
Libby and his son George W. Libby. They operated a shipping and grocery business on the James
River. Now the Confederate government started to use this facility as a hospital and prison
in 1861, reserving it for Union officers in 1862, because of the influx of prisoners.
So Libby Prison by 1862 was not for your general enlisted man, it was going to be for Union
officers exclusively. The building itself contained 8 low-ceilinged rooms, each 103
by 42 feet in length. The second and third floors were used to house prisoners, windows
were barred and open to the elements, increasing the discomfort. Lack of sanitation and overcrowding
caused diseases. From 700 prisoners in 1862, the facility totaled over 1,000 by 1863. And
now the breakdown of prisoner exchange is beginning to be seen. Mortality rates were
high in 1863 and 1864, aggravated by shortages of food and supplies. By the winter of 1864,
the prison was well-protected against escape, however. One soldier noted that, “Through
the cellar floor which Colonel Thomas Rose and his associates had dug their tunnel had
been masoned over,” reported one prisoner, “and other later arrangements of the guards
it would have been impracticable to secure admission to this floor without observation.”
In response to having this ballooning prison in the capital of the Confederacy citizens
of Richmond began to place a demand for tighter security, worried about these types of tunnels
being dug out of Libby itself, so a system of ropes and pulleys were installed at the
prison staircases which could then be raised or lowered at the discretion of prison officials.
The prisoners were now confined to upstairs rooms only. By the winter of 1864, the interior
of the prison was still damp and the walls were spotted with lichen. Half of the prison’s
76 windows were without glass, wood rations were limited to only 2 or 3 armloads for each
room which had 2 stoves to accommodate up to 400 men. Eventually the overcrowded conditions
at Libby in 1864, along with lack of sufficient sleep, food, and heat, led to an increase
in illness. Among them: scurvy, chronic diarrhea, dysentery, and typhoid pneumonia became the
most prevalent diseases and before long, 2 or 3 deaths per day were not uncommon. One
soldier captured in July of 1863 on this very battlefield, Lieutenant Colonel F.F. Cavada
of the 114th Pennsylvania, would find his was to Libby Prison. This is how described
it upon his arrival. He said: “The prison stands close by to the Lynchburg Canal and in
full view from the river. It is a capacious warehouse built of brick and roofed with tin.
The building has a front of about 140 feet with a depth of about 105. There are 9 rooms,
each one 102 feet long by 45 feet wide. The height of the ceiling to the floor is about
7 feet, except in the upper story which is better ventilated, owing to the pitch of the
roof. At each end of these rooms are 5 windows.” Following these men’s experiences, we will
begin with their arrival. What was the first thing that happened when you arrived at a
prison camp? What were your expectations? How did that process occur? First Lieutenant
Lewis Bisbee of the 16th Maine recalled his arrival at Libby Prison. He said, “I passed
through the office where we were searched and registered, all money and contraband articles
being taken from us. The money was placed to our credit and later it’s equivalent in
Confederate money was issued. The prison officials did not like the prisoners to have much money.
They were afraid that on some night, dismal and dreary, a guard might recognize a greenback
even if it was dark.” Already we begin to see an experience for prisoners arriving to
these camps; personal possessions would be taken from you. Money would be taken from
you. Haversack, knapsack, extra clothing, blankets, rations would be taken. In a letter
of July 18th, 1863, a man by the name of Tattenhall Paldy of the 6th United States Cavalry wrote
home from Libby, captured during the Gettysburg Campaign. He said: “All of us were marched
into the lower room of the building and then out on the street again by a rank, and thorough
search being made of each of our canteens, haversacks, blankets, stationery, knives,
and amounts of money exceeding $20 were taken away, and the name, date, and place of capture
entered on the books as each passed out. The whole party were then confined in a large
room on the second floor of the building and locked up.” Not only were your personal possessions
taken upon arrival, you were entered into the roll. Roll would be taken daily to make
sure no one had escaped. Lieutenant Colonel F.F. Cavada also captured at Gettysburg as
we previously learned said this: “Had we known that we were entering this loathsome prison
house not to leave it again for many, many weary days and months, more than one heart
would have grown faint with a mournful presentiment, for there were among us some who were doomed
never to recross its threshold as a living man.” This was the experience of Union officers
in Richmond. Berry Benson would recall his arrival at Elmira, a camp for Confederates
enlisted. He said, “Reaching Elmira on Sunday, July 24th as we were marched through the streets
to the outer edge of town where stood the prison with a wooden fence around it.” He
said, “Inside we were drawn up in the roll call, then assigned to our quarters, Baxter,
Atkinson, and I being assigned to the same long room with bunks fitted up on both sides
in two tiers. The bunks were made of unplaned pine boards, and as we had no blankets, they
were left bare during the day and at night occupied simply by ourselves. Later, Baxter
was given a blanket and a piece of cloth by a friend and these he shared with me.” T.C. Davis of the 40th North Carolina wrote
this about his arrival. He said, “We arrived at Elmira at about 8 o’clock in the evening
in 4 feet of snow and many prisoners had neither blankets nor coats. We were kept standing
in ranks in the street for half an hour before starting for the prison. We were halted in
an old warehouse and robbed of all of our valuables. Then, we were sent to the barracks.
Board shanties about 50 yards long containing one stove.” It was not just for Union officers
that personal possessions would be taken, but for enlisted Confederates as well. Once
going through the shock of arriving at one of these camps, a bit of a routine would be
established. Berry Benson of the 1st South Carolina, as we’ve heard from before, talked
about the routine at Elmira itself. He said, “Meanwhile, daily life at Elmira followed
a routine regular as clockwork. Roll call came first, then breakfast at 8. The menu
too followed a regular routine – so many days we had pork, so many days beef, so many days
bean soup for dinner, so many days vegetable soup. The vegetable soup was made of a compound
of several kinds of vegetables, dried and pressed together in cakes resembling a plug
of tobacco, not much liked by our men, the bean soup being much more popular.” So the
men will arrive at these camps, they’ll begin to establish some sort of routine by the camp’s
commandants, and the routine would generally consist of roll call, sick call, several meals
a day, 1 to 2 meals a day, several servings of perhaps other things throughout and in
between those meals, and the rest of the time was up to the men to occupy. One of the challenges
they faced during this time was simply surviving. Here you see a contemporary sketch of Libby
Prison. What were the conditions like in these camps? Looking through some of the data of
the “Medical and Surgical History of the Civil War” one officer wrote this: “Here will be
shown on the general subject of the sickness and mortality among prisoners of war, that
the treatment of the prisoners by the United States authorities was very different from
which the prisoners in the hands of the Confederates received. As a general rule, they were housed
in wooden barracks provided with ridge ventilation, quite as good as those used by the United
States troops in permanent camps.” Would that hold true to Libby? Well contemporaneous accounts
from Libby Prison said this of the living conditions. First Lieutenant Lewis Bisbee of the 16th
Maine said that: “Mice were abundant in Libby. They amused themselves during the silent watches
of the night by promenading over us as we lay on the floor and they were not particular
about avoiding our faces. In the morning the taste and odor of mouse was sickening.” A
letter to Harper’s Weekly on February 20th, 1864 said this of the conditions in Libby:
“There were put up bare wooden bunks for about half of us, the rest must sleep on the floor.
Pillows and mattresses there were none. A blanket you might have if you were fortunate
enough to have brought one with you, otherwise, none.” Lieutenant Colonel F.F. Cavada wrote
of the living conditions at the time. He said: “The prison is crowded to its utmost capacity,”
again a symptom of the overcrowding and the breakdown of the prisoner exchange. He said,
“every nook and corner is occupied. We jostle each other at the hydrants on the stairs,
around the cooking stoves. At night, we must calculate the horizontal space required on
the floor for the proper distribution of our recumbent anatomy. Everywhere there is overcrowding,
wrangling, and confusion.” The symptoms that the Union officers experienced in Richmond,
Virginia would be the same in Elmira, New York. Again, an officer wrote in the “Medical
and Surgical History of the Civil War,” “that Elmira was unduly crowded and the influence
this caused was exaggerated at Elmira by the existence in the camp grounds of a stagnant
pond, into which the drainage of the camp flowed for 6 months of the year, represented
by the reports.” The name of the pond inside Elmira became known as Foster’s Pond, and at first,
according to contemporary prisoner accounts, men used to fish. There were actually fish
in the pond itself, but the pond not only began to serve its purpose for fishing and
drinking water, it also became a purposeful place for trash, leftover meal waste would
be thrown in there. Then it became a place to both urinate and defecate. Then it also
became a place in which to wash what little clothing and blankets they have. Certainly
the overcrowding around Foster’s Pond would be an issue for Elmira. G.T. Taylor of the 1st
Alabama Heavy Artillery wrote this of the conditions at Elmira. He said: “We were in
shacks some 70 or 80 feet long and they were very open, but with one stove in the house.
We had bunks 3 tiers high with only two men to a bunk, while we were allowed only one blanket to the man.
Our quarters were searched every day, and any extra blankets were taken from us.” F.S.
Wade, a Texas Scout said that: “There were about 6,000 Confederate prisoners, mostly
from Georgia and Carolina, when I arrived. We were housed in long prison buildings, say
120 feet long by 40 feet wide, 3 tiers of bunks against each wall. A big coal stove,
every 30 feet was always kept red hot. But for these stoves the most of us would have
frozen. Around each stove was a chalk mark, 5 feet from the stove, marking the distance
we should keep so that all could be warm. We were thinly clad and not half of us had
even one blanket.” Finally, T.C. Davis of the 40th North Carolina wrote this of Elmira. He said:
“Our beds were planks without blankets. There were about 7,000 prisoners confined there
and those who had preceded us were in much want. They were dirty, pale, emaciated, and scantily
clothed.” As 1864 continued to push on and prisons grew by leaps and bounds, 2,3,4 times
than what they were able to accommodate, the living conditions would only decrease. Part
of the living conditions that the men would have to face as well was the weather. Weather
would be a very different condition, depending on what camp you went to. Perhaps out at Camp
Douglas or Camp Chase, Elmira in the North, Andersonville, Libby Prison in Virginia and
Georgia respectively. Some prisoner of war camps in Alabama. What did they face in terms
of the weather? Well for those arriving at Elmira, the weather would be a challenge in
early 1864 as many of the men would be housed in tents. For those arriving at Libby, it
would also be quite a bit of a challenge as mentioned earlier, most of the windows in
Libby had been knocked out, broken out. In addition to that the Confederate officials
would make the Union officers at Libby scrub the floors and walls quite consistently. The
problem with that is that the floors and walls never dried, and so there would be a consistent,
damp, musty, and in some cases as the one account told us, lichen actually growing inside
the prison. Getting more into the conditions at Libby itself is Captain Robert T. Cornwell
of the 67th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry. Cornwell is another face of a prisoner of
war in 1864. He was college educated, he was a prep school teacher and college instructor
before the war. He had been captured at Winchester in June of 1863 as the Gettysburg Campaign
was making its way northward towards Pennsylvania, and then was imprisoned at Libby for 9 months.
His diary and letters have the advantage of as I noted being contemporaneous eyewitness
accounts at Libby and to the peak of its overcrowding. He was 26 years of age when he volunteered
in 1861. He had been married just for two years and was the father of an infant son.
On February 16th, 1864, he had now been imprisoned for 8 months. He wrote this in his diary regarding
the challenges of facing the weather. He said, “The weather is still colder, too cold to sit
down, to write even for a few minutes. We cannot resist cold here as we can when out,
for our systems have in great measure lost the power of reacting against it. Neither
does the food enable us to resist the cold. Hundreds here are obliged to eat nothing but
the worst of cornbread and a little rice.” Two days later he wrote this: “Still colder,
it is hardly possible to keep warm, even wrapping oneself with all the clothing he has. We have
a stove, but for the great portion of time, no wood.” A month later on March 23rd, he
wrote this in his diary: “I think last night was the most disagreeable I have ever spent
in Libby. The floor was wet and the howling wind drove the snow into my face all night.
My covering was insufficient to keep me warm. So busy was I fighting the cold all night
that I slept but very little. This morning the snow was then 11 inches deep, much drifted.
We have had another very uncomfortable day, many a poor soul has suffered their last night.
I am glad to know that very few of our men about 300, are now on the island,” referring to Belle Isle, “and
are tolerably comfortable.” Another soldier at Libby Prison that discussed the weather
wrote to Harper’s Weekly on February 20th, 1864. He said: “And there we were, huddled
together in the street, the most merciless sun beating down upon us, scorching out our
very lives as we stood there. The air was stifling loaded with so many breaths. The
hot, glaring sun beat inpiteously as the broken unshaded windows added to which at that moment
were the fumes of the single stove allowed for cooking the rations.” That same unidentified
soldier wrote to Harper’s Weekly and said that: “The weather was growing colder and
the wind whistled most unpromisingly through our broken windows. Stoves were put up but
no fuel was given to burn in them and sleeping on bare planks without mattress or covering
was getting to be a problem.” Clearly the weather in Richmond was not consistent in
1864 as the winter dried out and the spring developed. Periods of snow, blowing snow,
blinding and cold, drifting snow, with hot sun beat into the brick building that housed
the prisoners of war at Libby. This person that wrote Harper’s Weekly said this though.
He said: “The weather was growing colder and the wind whistled most unpromisingly through
our broken windows. Stoves were put up but no fuel was given to burn in them and sleeping
on bare planks without mattress or covering was getting to be a problem.” Lieutenant Colonel
Cavada of the 114th Pennsylvania said that: “In this unusually hot weather,” in the spring
of 1864, “the prison is heated into huge oven in which several hundred human beings are
thoroughly baked in the most approved style of first-class steam bakery.” Weather was
also a challenge for prisoners in the North. At Elmira Prison, Anthony Keely of the 12th
Virginia said that: “For at least 4 months of every year, anything here short of a polar
bear would find locomotion impracticable.” F.S. Wade, a Texas scout, can you imagine
coming from Texas and experiencing winter in Elmira, New York? He said: “If there was
a Hell on Earth, Elmira Prison was that Hell, but it was not a hot one for the thermometer
was often 40 degrees below 0.” Trying to stay warm without proper clothing, proper blankets,
enough fuel for burning stoves, fires, was a challenge, but what proved a harder challenge
for these men in 1864 to fight the cold, as one of our eyewitnesses testified, was enough
food. Food to provide nutrition to fight off infection, disease, and other complications
of health. Prison fare, no matter if you were enlisted or an officer, if you were in the
North or the South was widely varied. In addition to that was it widely varied on how much or
how little you would receive. You’re seeing a contemporary sketch of a mess in Libby Prison
in front of you. Captain Robert T. Cornwell, that 26-year-old officer, father of an infant
son from Pennsylvania, the 67th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry wrote, on January 22nd
in his diary about the food that he had been receiving in Libby Prison. He said: “We have
become today the victims of a new grief. Heretofore we had been permitted to pass through all
the six rooms of this building in which prisoners are confined but today with no other apparent
motive than to render us more uncomfortable the doors communicating between the 3 departments
have been nailed up and this small gratification denied us. No rations have been issued for
the past 8 days except a half a loaf of cornbread, very coarse and as hard and heavy as lead,
once in a while, a handful of rice to a man.” First Lieutenant Lewis Bisbee of the 16th
Maine said: “For a while our rations consisted principally of soup and cornbread cooked and
brought in to us. I do not know what the soup was made of but it had the appearance of swill
and was brought in swill pails. Sometimes maggots would be found in it. The bread was
made of coarse cornmeal mixed with water and baked in large sheets about 3 inches thick.
Cut in square pieces, they would weigh about three-quarters of a pound and issued one a
day to a person.” He continued, “In addition to the rations already mentioned, fresh beef
and bacon were occasionally issued. The bacon was of the shoulder variety. It had the appearance
of having been thrown about in the mud and dirt. The shoulder was about the thickness
of two hands and had a long leg attached. After washing off the mud and digging the
maggots from the crack and crevices the meat was sweet and good.” Tattenhall Paldy of the
6th U.S. Cavalry wrote a letter to his mother from Libby Prison. He said: ” There is no
doubt but that the rebels are in great straits for provisions from the mixture of mutton,
beef, and bacon which are brought here in small quantities for us. Sometimes we get
no meat at all and the ration consists of half a small loaf of cornbread and a little
rice.” The unidentified soldier that wrote Harper’s Weekly in February of 1864 said this:
“The rations were scanty but the water, the muddy, brackish water of the James River was
even more sparingly dealt out.” And still further, Lieutenant Cavada, captured in July
of 1863 noted this of the food in Libby Prison: “Nothing but bread has as yet been issued
to us half a loaf twice a day per man. This must be washed down with James River water
drawn from a hydrant over the wash trough. Tomorrow we are to be indulged with the luxury
of bacon soup. We have tasted of the promised soup. It is boiled water sprinkled with rice
and seasoned with rank juices of stale bacon. We must shut our eyes to eat. The bacon I
have no doubt may have walked into the pot of its own accord. It is brought up to us
in wooden buckets and we eat it in most cases without spoons out of tin cups.” But what
the Union officers at Libby Prison had that many other soldiers in other prison camps
in 1864 did not have was boxes and packages of food being shipped from loved ones at home.
For a while at Libby Prison these packages would be delivered. They would come up the
James River, the name would be on the package, brought in to the prisoner, and usually it
was many non-perishable type items, in addition to that stationery, candles, and things of
other nature. But as 1864 continued on the Confederates stopped issuing them. Many times
the ships bringing these boxes and rations and things shipped from home, including from
organizations such as the Sanitary Commission and Christian Commission were either left
on the boats on the James River to be seen by the officers out the windows of Libby Prison,
or to be unloaded in the prison yard, not to be touched, to simply stand and go to waste.
There was also many an occasion when the men, during the day would see the boat unloaded,
see the boxes and packages unloaded with their names on it stacked in the prison yard, would
go to bed that evening and wake up the next morning to see the boxes and packages opened,
rifled, and gone through, never to receive those items. But what they did receive from
these packages and boxes is far more than what many other prisoners would be supplemented
with by relatives and commissions from home at other prison camps. As we move back northward,
to Elmira, in “The Medical and Surgical History of the American Civil War” one officer in
particluar described the rations at Elmira as this. He said: “The rations were quite
liberal and the difference in money value between the ration issued and that allowed
to the United States soldiers was credited to a prison fund on which the surgeon in charge
was authorized to draw for the purchase of vegetables and antiscorbutics for the use
of the sick.” Berry Benson, however, of the 1st South Carolina noted this about the food.
He said, “Another item of fare which was not on the list furnished by the government was
rat. The prison swarmed with them. Big rusty fellows which lived about the cookhouse as
the kitchen was always called and also under the houses used as quarters.” He said, “Our
drinking water came from wells into which the rats used to fall down. The water becoming
so unbearable that somebody would have to go down in and clean it out. It seemed to
me that they we always cleaning out the wells.” F.S. Wade of Texas wrote this: “Our rations
were 10 ounces of bread and 2 ounces of meat per day. My weight fell from 100-160 pounds
in a month. We invented all kinds of traps and deadfalls to catch rats. Every day, Northern
ladies came into the prison and some of them followed by dogs or cats which the boys would
slip aside and choke to death. The ribs of a stewed dog were delicious but a broiled
rat was superb.” G.T. Taylor of the 1st Alabama Heavy Artillery said: “Our rations were very
scant. About 8 or 9 in the morning we were furnished a small piece of loaf bread and
a small piece of salt pork or pickled beef each and in the afternoon a small piece of
bread and a tin plate of soup with sometimes a little rice or Irish potato in the soup
where the pork or beef had been broiled.” T.C. Davis of the 40th North Carolina noted
that: “Our rations consisted of loaves of stale bread an inch thick though pieces of
steak and occasionally broth could be found.” So as you can see, from the accounts at both
Libby and Elmira, prison food varied. It varied in quantity, having none for several days
to an abundance, at times, of things. It varied from broth soups to stale bread to fresh bread,
meat with maggots or without maggots, some things the prisoners enjoyed, others
they didn’t, some exotic fare such rats, dogs, and cats. It truly, truly varied. And like
the variance at Libby with the boxes, there was a variance at Elmira as well. As the Federal
government was beginning to organize a systematic operations to prisons and prisoners of war
in 1864, they finally established a pretty secure command chain. But what they began
to find out as 1864 moved into the fall is that that command chain was not efficient.
Men in Washington D.C. were trying to make decisions for Federal prison camps in Illinois,
in New York, in Ohio; they weren’t on the ground to see what was actually needed, what
was site-specific. So eventually, some of those command responsibilities were taken
out of Washington D.C. and given to those respective commanders at their prison sites.
Unfortunately, there was one prison official at Elmira that was responsible for the issuing
of beef. There was a large cattle area just outside of Elmira where the supply of beef,
the live animals, were brought in and pastured. And every day the prison official had the
authority to determine whether that cattle, that individual cow was good enough for the
prisoners’ food. 9 times out of 10, as the saying goes, that prison official would walk
down the streets of Elmira, out to that pasture outside of town, he would look at many of
those heads of cattle and determine them not fit, not up to standards for the U.S. Army.
And so, the men housed at Elmira would not have meat that day, or the next, or the next.
You’re fighting the weather, you’re fighting living conditions, you’re fighting food. Indeed,
you’re fighting many battles on many fronts as a prisoner of war in 1864, but when you’re
not fighting those things perhaps your biggest challenge is fighting boredom. What do you
do with all of the time when you’re not at roll call, sick call, you’re not standing
in line at the mess halls. What do you do? You’re personal possessions have been taken.
Most of the time someone in the prison will probably have some stationery, something to
write with, maybe a pack of cards. What do you do to occupy the time, to keep your mind
busy? It’s yet another challenge prisoners of war in 1864 would face as their confinements
would extend beyond months and into years. There were many different things that prisoners
of war in 1864 found as sources of entertainment: debating clubs, they would do mock trials,
there were all sorts of different forms of musicals, productions, plays, operas, some places even
had instruments, believe it or not, and formed bands and orchestras within the prison itself.
As you can see here on the left-hand side, some men singing and violin playing. On the
right in the image in the far corner, another popular, just behind the tent, source of entertainment,
games: dice, cards, things of that nature. In addition to those things men became quite,
quite skilled in crafts, if you will. On the right is a wooden spoon carved at Elmira,
housed here in our museum in this building. And on your left is a chain of all the Union
corps symbols that was carved at Libby Prison. So men found multiple different ways, things
to keep their mind busy and to entertain themselves as the weeks and months began to tick by.
I’d like to share with you now some of those things that the men did at both Libby Prison
and Elmira in 1864. Captain Robert T. Cornwell of the 67th Pennsylvania wrote this on January
10th of 1864. He said: “Sunday in Libby so far as any observances are concerned is not to be
distinguished from any other day of the week. Chess, checkers, and cards with various other
devices, as on any other day, are resorted to pass away the time. I have spent the day
reading the ‘Loiterings of Arthur O’Leary.’ Exchange is the prevalent topic of discussion
this evening.” Let me repeat: “exchange is the prevalent topic of discussion this evening.”
“The night before last, 3 fresh fish came in, they were lieutenants and were very hungry,
had suffered much from cold on their way here.” 10 days later on January 20th, he wrote this:
“I received another letter this morning of an earlier date than the one received yesterday.
These letters do me so much good and though they remind me forcibly of my dear little
family at home and make me long to be in their midst once more yet they in some way impart
strength to me to bear against my thronged yet solitary condition.” First Lieutenant
Lewis Bisbee of the 16th Maine wrote of many other different activities occurring in Libby
Prison on the 3 different floors next to the James River. He said: “There were schools
of several kinds established. One officer taught a new system of grammar, I took this
up for a while, also geometry. It was not long before the mind was in such condition
that it seemed impossible to fix the attention on any study, however. We had some fine musicians
both vocal and instrumental, some of the German officers organized a brass band. There were
splendid singers among the Germans as well as the Americans. We had at times what may
be called congregational singing.” Bisbee continued: “Chaplain McCabe who died recently
used to sing, preach, and lecture. There were other chaplains who used to sing and preach.
A theater company was one of the unique amusements to be found within the prison. They had a
stage and a curtain. The entertainment served to enliven prison life and were given without
money or price. I read everything I could find. Reading matter was not plenty however,
I played chess and checkers and watched others playing.” Bisbee went on: “There were many
of a mechanical turn who made themselves busy making ornamental articles. From beef bones:
crosses, napkin rings, and spoons. I made a Masonic emblem, also a cross, napkin ring,
and a book. I made a bone paper knife. I had no tools except a pocket knife and a file.
It was very slow work but there was no other work pressing and it kept me from rusting.
I also whittled out a set of chess men. Many of the prisoners pass the time card playing
and gambling,” he wrote, “using beans for stakes.” Tattenhall Paldy of the 6th United
States Cavalry wrote a letter on August 26th of 1864 to his father. He said: “I joined
a class in Spanish and another in French which have been commenced here within a day or two
so you see we are preparing to spend the time of our confinement as usefully as possible.
I regret to say study does not progress very fast. As much time as there is, the atmosphere
is not good for it however I learned some Spanish and phonography and a little French.
The debating society, the Libby Chronicle, seems to have been too heavy and has been
abandoned. In their place a negro minstrel band has come into existence and it is a little
annoying to me to see with what proficiency some of our officers take to the role of the
negro. The performance was amusing at first but has played out.” Lieutenant Cavada of
the 114th Pennsylvania of the entertainment in Libby noted that: “In order to while away,
to some extent, the tedium of our monotonous life, we have among other past times organized
a lyceum or debating club the scenes which, at times present are worthy of the graphic
pencil of an artist. The debates are very spirited and grave questions involving the
destinies of the whole human race and the future destiny of our great country are discussed
with intense enthusiasm sometimes even with political violence and not seldom with very
bad grammar. Unwearable finger rings and sacrilegious-looking crosses are sawed and filed out of ration
bones, handles of brushes and the backs of combs are carved with touching mottos. The
passion for music is quite general in the prison, a tolerable orchestra has been organized
consisting of a violin, banjo, guitar, tambourine, and the bones. They have done much to enliven
the gloom of the prison and invariably attract a large crowd of prisoners.” Perhaps one of
the biggest forms of entertainment was talking, debating; in particular was the discussion
of exchange. When will I get to go home? First Lieutenant Lewis Bisbee of the 16th Maine
wrote in his diary of exchange. He said: “I think that the prospect for exchange is good.
This of itself is very well but reports heretofore have been found to be very unreliable. Such
is the suspense that the usual foolish rumors started in the House have not found circulation
today.” These men in their prison camps were anxious for any bit of news regarding exchange.
Had a new agreement been reached? What are the new details of the agreement? Will we
begin exchanges immediately if the new agreement has been passed by both governments? This
was perhaps the most time-consuming part of their entertainment and as our one eyewitness
said, making sure that they do not rust. Lieutenant Colonel Cavada of the 114th Pennsylvania wrote
this of 1864. He said: “The last days of summer, all the hopes of being exchanged or paroled
have been dissipated one after another and our captivity is passing with rapid strides
from the last green of summer to the sere yellow of autumn. From faint hope to settled
despair.” He also wrote this regarding the exchange. He said: “The extinction of the
last hope of an exchange of prisoners, at least within a reasonable time, has had the
effect of depressing our spirits to an extent truly deplorable. The usual gams and pastimes
are abandoned, have sunk into a condition of despondency which would be almost gratifying
were it only limited to their own number.” Also in Libby hoping for exchange was Captain Cornwell
of the 67th Pennsylvania. He wrote in his diary in February of 1864: “We are all coming to
the conclusion and many of us writing to our friends that exchange is hopeless. Except
for a few favored men who have friends near the throne, whatever may be said for the no exchange
policy it cannot be denied that it is barbarously inhuman.” Two months later, he wrote this:
“All interest here is now swallowed up in this one monumentous note of exchange. Should
we be doomed to disappoint despair would overwhelm every heart. The harrowing suspense is scarcely
less destructive to our peace of mind and health than the actual hardships of close
confinement on rations only sufficient to prolong the agonies of starvation.” Starvation
indeed was happening in prison camps all across the North and South. At Elmira, a majority
of the deaths were from diarrhea and dysentery, men eating food that was not good for them,
not good for their condition, or a scant amount of food was obviously one of the factors.
Exposure was no doubt another contributing factor. Scurvy broke out in epidemic proportions.
The colonel of Elmira, Colonel Eastman, also complained that the pond inside the camp had
become a cesspool. It was causing illness and something had to be done to remedy the
situation. Further discussing the pond at Elmira and its causing death and illness and
disease, one soldier wrote this. He said: “This pond received the contents of the sinks
and garbage of the camp until it became so offensive that vaults were dug on the banks
of the pond for sinks and the hole left a festering mass of corruption, impregnating
the entire atmosphere of the camp with its pestilential odors night and day. The pond
remains green with putrescence, filling the air with its messengers of disease and death,
the vaults giving off their sickly odors and the hospitals are crowded with victims for
the graves.” Berry Benson in regards to illness and disease, wrote this of Elmira, as you
look at one of the tally sheets from total deaths from malarial fevers at Elmira. Benson
said: “The prison kept growing in population until there was said to be 10,000, quite a
little city in itself. Tents were set up on the far side of the pool and occupied as quarters.
Amongst so many prisoners deaths were necessarily frequent and at one time the mortality rate
was pretty bad. It was reported amongst us that one of the Federal surgeons said this
excessive mortality rate was the result of insufficient food, that we got enough to sustain
life, but not enough to resist disease. Personally, I never believed that a Federal surgeon said
this.” But Berry Benson would not be one of those casualties from starvation, illness,
or disease at Elmira. Neither would Tattenhall Paldy of the 6th U.S. Cavalry imprisoned at
Libby. But he did note that: “The physical weariness is something we know but little
of nowadays but not much exertion is necessary to bring it on.” To give you an idea of the
conditions in Libby Prison, Private George W. Willis of the 5th West Virginia, when released
on March 13th, 1865 from Libby Prison, was immediately examined by a Federal surgeon.
This is what the surgeon wrote. He said: “He is extremely emaciated, pulse 92 and weak,
tongue moist and coated, gums scorbutic, throat inflamed, extremities disastrous. There are
large blisters on the ankle joints which discharge a considerable quantity of serum. Has loose
stools every half hour, urine scanty and of a deep red color. Had been fed on cob- and
cornmeal bread while a prisoner.” Private George Willis died 8 days after his release
on March 21st. When the doctor completed an autopsy 22 hours after his death, he found:
“Rigor mortis moderate, body extremely emaciated, abdomen concave. The lungs were very pale,
otherwise normal, the heart pale and soft. The peritoneal cavity contained a quantity
of serum. The liver was small, pale, and presented the hobnail appearance, the gall bladder was
pale and empty, the kidneys pale and soft.” All of this noted just 22 hours after his
death. But for those that could find not enough to do in that free time, who had been battling
the elements successfully or not, had accepted the living conditions, talked of exchange,
there were those that sought to do something about it and perhaps were healthy enough to
do it as well; escape. Perhaps the most famous escape during the American Civil War from
any Civil War prisoner of war camp was that from Libby Prison itself. Captain Cornwell
of the 67th Pennsylvania talked about that famous escape in February of 1864. He said:
“The first news that greeted my ears this morning when I awoke was the startling intelligence
that on last night, Libby had sprung a very big leak. And so it was 102 officers made
their escape through an underground passage from the dining hall in the first floor by
cutting with knives a hole through a brick chimney and descending through the chimney
with a latter they obtained access to the basement. Through the eastern basement a wall
and a hole was cut neatly to mother earth and a hole burrowed for another 50 feet under
the sentinel’s post to an adjoining lot where their exit was secluded by a board fence.
Fifty-one days the work has been in progress, the guard all under arrest this morning and
undergoing an examination.” Truly this escape would be talked about in 1864 and in 1865
and for many, many years following. Lieutenant Colonel Cavada also talked about that escape
that night from Libby Prison. He said: “This youth has a hobby and that hobby is to make
his escape from the prison. He dreams of impracticable rope ladders to be manufactured out of blankets
and to be ingeniously concealed from the keen eye of the inspector. These escapes have been
productive of much merriment in the prison and of the joy at the liberation of these
our fellow sufferers. To be sure, they have still to reach the Federal lines and safety,
an undertaking by no means easy when we consider that the whole Confederacy is indeed a sort
of huge military penitentiary.” But escapes were not just common to Southern prisons,
they were also common to Northern prisons as well. And one of those that found his way
to freedom was Berry Benson, the hard-scrabble 18-year-old as a member of the 1st South Carolina.
He noted: “It was now early in October and on Wednesday, October 5th we knew by measurement
that we were close to the fence and our ears confirmed this for we could hear the guards
tramp right over our heads as they walked their beat just inside the fence. We worked
steadily on the 5th and 6th fixing the time for our escape at 10 o’clock the night of
the 6th. I ran until exhausted then stopped and I looked back. There lay the prison under
its bright lights, white with tents, populace with the sleeping multitude and there were
the pickets, the blind pickets, calmly walking their beats. As I made my way to the point
of woods where we had engaged to meet it was all I could do to keep from shouting ‘The
Bonnie Blue Flag’ at the top of my voice.” Benson would be one of the few that went unnoticed
in his early escape, giving him a head start, and would not be recaptured. So as you can
see, throughout the program today, the prisoner of war experience varied. We took two prisons,
one North, one South, and focused on some of the challenges that these prisoners faced,
what they experienced, living conditions, their arrival, the weather, the food, what
did they do to fight boredom, illness, disease, exchange, escape. But overall, it’s the true,
staggering cost of the prisoner of war experience that will strike home hardest. Throughout
the American Civil War the United States prisoners held by the Confederacy numbered 270,000 men.
Confederate States prisoners held by the United States: 220,000 men. United States prisoners
that died in Confederate hands: 22,000. Confederate States prisoners died in the United States’
hands: 26,000. Of those who died at Libby Prison, almost 6,300, were buried in the cemetery
at Henrico County, just southeast of Richmond. This also includes another 800 men that had
died at Belle Isle, Hollywood, Oakwood, and Poorhouse Cemeteries in Richmond. At Elmira
during its very brief existence of just 15 months; it had opened in July of 1864 and
had ended with the close of the war, the site housed more than 12,100 Confederate soldiers.
Of these, nearly 25%, 2,900 died from a combination of malnutrition, continued exposure to harsh
winter weather, and diseases from poor sanitary conditions on Foster’s Pond, also a lack of
medical care. They were laid to rest nearby at ground purchased by camp officials and
commanders by none other than an ex-slave named John W. Jones which you see pictured
in front of you today. I think perhaps the words of Eric Leonard, he’s the director of
interpretation and education at Andersonville National Historic Site, says it best when
we talk about the prisoner of war experience. Many of you may have seen in the newspapers
last week that a previously undiscovered, if you will, prisoner of war camp outside
of Charleston, South Carolina had been discovered. And the problem is that a developer bought
it. He’s been nice enough to give archaeologists 6 months to learn what they can, get from
the ground what they can, before it will become a housing community. But many reporters turned
to Eric Leonard of Georgia this week to ask him his thoughts on it, and Leonard said this.
He said that: “It is important to uncover the histories of prisoners even if it is an
unpleasant topic.” He said: “Prisoners of war are an example of the extraordinary cost
of war. It is not an easy story to tell and it’s not a happy story, but it delves into
the consequences of the war.” I’d like to leave you today with one final quote of the
prisoner of war experience in 1864 from T.C. Davis of the 40th North Carolina. He had been
a prisoner of war for nearly 15 months at Elmira. He said: “I arrived at home on June
1st, 1865, and while memory lasts, I shall not forget the great war and that cruel prison.”
I hope you enjoyed the program today, if you have any questions and you’d like to stick
around, please come on down, I’d love to chat with you and we hope to see you next weekend
for another installment of our lecture series. Thank you.

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About the Author: Sam Caldwell

5 Comments

  1. I do not believe that prisoner camps should be comfortable.  The people should gradually be starved to death and killed off by diseases.

  2. the confederates were terrorists they fired the first shot they should be treated as such even today. They did not deserve any prisoner of war rights they were lucky they were not torured and hung especially that coward lee.

  3. People who post horrible comments about prisoners of war, no matter what army they served (or serve or will serve with) should just stop. What is wrong with you?

  4. You should also use your own name. Ashamed of your horrible thoughts and don't anyone to know who you are?

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