I’m facing another week of yo-yoing between states as I attempt to finalize a move, so my ideas, too, are probably somewhat wandering. The text I’ve long wished to review, published in 1910, is also a fairly complicated document. I think I can do no better than to offer several excerpts and then (in Part Two later this week—always assuming the presence of Internet) relate these to the current scene.
Have you ever heard about the dismal Confederate prisoner-of-war camps? I have… all my life. As a wee bairn, I recall (for instance) an episode of a briefly running series produced by National Geographic. I think it was called Great Adventures. James MacArthur was a young GI who was going deaf but died bravely charging a machine-gun nest… Lloyd Bridges was Wild Bill Hickok… and then there was an hour segment about Libby Prison. I can still hear the warden drawling “Lubby Pri-uson” in that fanciful Hollywood imitation of a Southern accent, y’awl—and pouring a syrupy sadism over it that left Burl Ives’ character in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof standing closer to Burl Ives’ rendition of “Here Comes Santa Claus”.
So, yes, I grew up simply accepting that the South operated death camps. At the near end of my life’s spectrum, I could recount hearing Glenn Beck discuss the death of some great-great uncle or other in one of these detention centers with a more seething fury in his voice than I’ve ever witnessed any Auschwitz survivor to evoke. (Glenn and that uncle would obviously have been very close if the latter hadn’t died young and been born almost a century and a half before his illustrious descendant.) I’ll have much more to say about the conservative commentary-class (most of whom hail from comfortably north of the Mason-Dixon Line) in Part Two.
For now… well, would it shock you to learn that the “Confederate death camp” chapter in our history books is a canard?
From The Confederate Cause and Conduct of the War Between the States, Item 1:
“‘It is hard on our men to be held in Southern prisons,’ said Grant, in an official communication, ‘not to exchange them; but it is humane to those left in the ranks to fight our battles. If we commence a system of exchanges which liberates all prisoners taken, we will have to fight on until the whole South is exterminated. If we hold those [Southerners] caught they are no more than dead men.’
Let’s be clear about what U.S. Grant is saying here: the North is consistently refusing to effect exchanges of prisoners with the South (as was the custom at that time) because his side has far easier access to replacement troops than does the other side. If prisoners on both sides rot in jail, then the North wins.
“This evidence (says Dana) [Charles A. Dana, U.S. Assistant Secretary of War] must be taken as conclusive. It proves that it was not the Confederate authorities who insisted on keeping our prisoners in distress, want and disease, but the commander of our own armies.”
Dana’s comment alludes to Grant’s decision, described just above.
Union internment camps contained approximately 220,000 prisoners of war in contrast to the 270,000 interned in Southern camps, yet 4,000 more men died in Northern detention centers.
I cast this item in my own words. The figures here are perhaps lowballing the truth, for earlier in the book I recall the approximate numbers 60,000 (for how many more Federals than Confederates were in detention) and 6,000 (for how many more Southerners died in detention). By any measure, the prospects of surviving as a prisoner-of-war were about fifty percent worse if you were in a Northern prison.
“I said,” says General Butler [in conferring with General Grant], “I doubted whether, if we stopped exchanging man for man, simply on the ground that our soldiers were more useful to us in Rebel prisons than they would be in our lines, however true that might be, or speciously stated to the country, the proposition could not be sustained against the clamor that would at once arise against the [Lincoln] administration.”
This ornately convoluted statement represents Butler’s tactful observation to Grant that President Lincoln would be excoriated in the court of public opinion if it became known that the North was deliberately keeping Southern jails crammed with captives.
“Thus it will be seen that 260 out of the 3,800 prisoners had died in twenty-one days, a rate of mortality which, if continued, would secure their total extermination in about 320 days.” Report of Dr. Van Buren’s Sanitary Commission from Albany, New York, about the state of a federal prison camp
The verdict rendered here issues from a distinguished health official of the Union. His dry observation (probably not intended to be taken fully at face value) is that every one of the Southern captives in the prison he surveyed would be dead within a year, given prevailing conditions.
After Mr. Lincoln’s emancipation proclamation went into effect, as we have said, on January 1st, the Federals enrolled a large number of slaves in their armies.
This seemingly neutral observation has far greater significance in the light of the decision—reached covertly in the upper echelons of the Union hierarchy—to decline exchanges. Union leadership wished to glut Southern prisons with inmates that couldn’t be fed or cared for. Who better to use in this glutting than the slaves freed by Sherman during his plundering expedition into the Southern heartland? Often thrust into the front lines, the freedmen were the ultimate pawns—and indeed, have remained so in many ways.
The authors of the study do not make the point explicitly—but a freeing and arming of slaves (many of whom knew little to nothing about handling firearms, by the way) would also throw Confederate enlistees into extreme anxiety about the security of their families back home, given the recent memories of John Brown’s sanguinary insurrection. This would be true even of the ninety-five percent of soldiers whose household included no slaves. As a means of undermining Southern morale, one might call the tactic brilliant. It’s something on the order of praying Allahu Akbar loudly on a crowded airplane in order to distract the passengers.
The Confederate Cause and Conduct of the War Between the States, as I say, was a century-old document authored by men of letters that protested how the Civil War was being presented to Southern schoolchildren. The excerpts above, drawn only from the chapter about prisons, should suffice to suggest how the history books were—and still are—playing a propagandistic game with the miserable conditions prevalent in Confederate prisoner-of-war camps. I have cited only a few items. I have insufficient time, for instance, to provide details of the persistent cold shoulder that Lincoln’s Union turned to ambassadors from Richmond who tried to arrange humane exchanges—and even, later in the war, to offer Northern doctors unencumbered access to their captive soldiers. (More deaths in Southern prisons meant more fuel for firing up public sentiment against the South.) There were also incidents involving the execution of Southern prisoners, and sometimes of non-combatants. Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee considered retaliating in kind, but decided that trading off barbaric acts would not ameliorate the situation.
Yet the statues we must tear down because they commemorate American Nazism represent, not Lincoln or Grant (or General Pope, who declared open season on non-combatant civilians), but… Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee. As we approach July 4 and contemplate nation-haters who parade our flag around upside-down, maybe we should consider whether we ourselves—or our most trusted standard-bearers—have not in the past foolishly or cynically inverted the most precious values represented by that flag.