The pages of this volume tell little of war's pomp and
pageantry. Their subject is, and must be, grim and terrible. Though prisoners of
war were not criminals, but often men whose courage was their only fault, and
though their detention must not be considered as deserved punishment, but as a
military necessity, nevertheless all prisons are unlovely. The groans of men,
one moment vigorous, the next shattered and broken, or the sight of strength
visibly ebbing away from disease, are awful. It is the dark and cruel side of
war that must here be told.
The reader who finds nothing more than this is, however,
careless and superficial, seeing only the object immediately before his eyes,
and neglecting relations and perspective. One may hold a dime so that it shuts
out the sun. A fact out of its relations to other facts is no better than a lie.
Just so far as history enables us to see any particular epoch in its relation to
those be- fore, and as the portent of those coming after, to that extent history
is true. The failure of the sentimentalist and the social reformer often grows
out of myopia. They see only what is near their eyes.
That men must be judged by the standard of their times is a
platitude, but it is well to emphasize platitudes, for the obvious is often
forgotten. We are prone to judge the past by the standards of the present, and
some of our standards are rising.
Unpleasant as is the story of the prisons of the Civil War,
however great their shortcomings, the treatment of prisoners, taken as a whole,
marks a decided advance over the general practice of the world before that time.
Instances of theatrical generosity have always been plentiful, but never before
had the dictates of humanity so profoundly influenced the action of so many. We
must believe that the greatest horrors—for there were horrors— arose from
ignorance or apparent necessity, rather than from intention.
During our own Revolution, the treatment of prisoners is a
subject upon which both we and the English must prefer not to dwell. Less than
three score years separated the Civil War from the War of 1812 and from the
Napoleonic wars, which shook the foundations of Europe. The whole story of the
prisoners whom fortune threw at the mercy of the contending forces in the first
years of the nineteenth century has not been told—perhaps wisely —though even
here it was indifference or low standards rather than deliberate intent which
made life in Dartmoor a living death to the French and American captives
Never in history were money and effort so lavishly expended
upon the cure of disease and the care of the wounded as during the Civil War;
and never before was effort so well rewarded. A few years before, great captains
had repudiated any obligations to their sick or wounded. These were no more than
the dead on the field. Only the man able to carry a musket, a lance, or a saber
had their attention. That effort was misdirected during our great contest is
true. Only supernatural wisdom and more than mortal strength could have brought
the surgeon, the sufferer, and the relief together at precisely the right moment
on every occasion, but the effort to accomplish this impossible task was made.
The echoes of the guns in the Crimea had hardly died away
when the Civil War began. Yet during that terrible winter of 1854-55 the
mortality from sickness in the English camps, was so great that, had it
continued, the whole English army would have been wiped out in less than a year.
Compare this record with that of the United States army as told in the following
pages and see what advance a few years had brought. While the medical records of
the Confederate Armies do not exist, we know that in that service, also,
extraordinary results were accomplished.
The picture which introduces these paragraphs has a
significance which cannot be over-emphasized. It is a section of the line of
march of the grand review of the armies of the United States, held in Washington
May 83-24, 1865. Occupying a place of honor among the marching thousands are
ambulances. When before could an army have dared to boast of the pro- vision
made for those incapacitated by disease or wounds?
In the preparation of the prison sections, the author has
consulted a large number of the published accounts of experiences, has talked
with dozens of one-time prisoners, and has corresponded with many more. The
conflicting accounts have been checked by the contemporary documents contained
in the eight prison volumes of the "Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies," an invaluable mine of material, heretofore little worked.
His earnest effort has been to be absolutely just and impartial.
Whether or not he has succeeded, the pictures here
published, absolutely without change or retouching, must be accepted as
truthful. They have come from every section, and there has been no selection to
prove a theory. Many Confederate pictures, the very existence of which was
unknown, have been unearthed and are here given to the world. Here are the
prisoners, their prisons, and their guards, the hospitals, and the surgeons, the
whole machinery of relief.
The list of those who have given their time to answer the
almost numberless questions of the author regarding both facts and their
interpretation is so long that separate acknowledgment is impracticable.
Especial thanks for courtesies are due, however, to George Haven Putnam, Esq.,
Doctor John A. Wyeth, and Thomas Sturgis, Esq., of New York, John Read, Esq., of
Cambridge, Massachusetts, Doctor W. J. W. Kerr, of Corsicana, Texas, and the
late Doctor Stanford E. Chaille, of New Orleans. None of these, however, may be
held responsible for any sections not specifically quoted on his authority.
July 4, 1911.