Testimony of Joseph B. Abbott, Special Relief Agent United States Sanitary Commission, taken at Washington, D. C., June 3rd, 1864.
COMMISSIONERS PRESENT.—Mr. Wilkins, Dr. Wallace, Mr. Walden.
Joseph B. Abbott, aged twenty-eight years, Agent of Special Relief Department, United States Sanitary Commission. Holds his commission as Chief Assistant, Special Relief Department, United States Sanitary Commission. Is a native of New Hampshire, has been a resident of North Carolina, resided in North Carolina nearly four years, prior to the war. Has been engaged with the United States Sanitary Commission since March 12th, 1862.
During the past Spring, since February, my position has given me means of observation of returned prisoners from Richmond, Belle Island, Danville, Salisbury, and Columbia, but directly from Richmond. I first came in contact at Fortress Monroe with prisoners on flag-of-truce boats, from City Point to Annapolis. The men had no blankets, but what were said to have been furnished them at City Point by the United States Government. Very few had coats; many had no shirts; pants, poor, ragged and dirty; clothing all dirty; skin very filthy, and covered with vermin. One man had convulsions all the time during the trip. Assistant Surgeon Dr. Fry told me that they were caused by vermin. The man was much emaciated; vermin very thick upon his body — common body lice. He was scratching as at lice, and throwing them off him and slapping them with his blanket.
This is a general statement of all my observation.
My experience extended over three boat loads. No difference in the condition of the prisoners’ clothing. The condition of the men on the last boat as to physical state, was worse than all previous. Two or three boat loads have arrived since my services ceased. Mr. Thompson, one of the United States Sanitary Commission Agents, accompanied the men on these boats. Mr. Thompson is now at White House, Virginia, on the Pamunky river. Cannot communicate with him by telegraph.
In general aspect and condition of returned prisoners, all were more or less emaciated. Of the first boat load, three-fifths very much so. Of second and third boats, four-fifths very much so. The condition of some of those who were less emaciated than others was owing to their having money with which they purchased provisions. I believe the fact from statements made by them on my inquiry. My attention was drawn to the fact by the Assistant Surgeon. I could pick out the men that had money by their physical condition.
Clothing was usually taken from them by their captors before their arrival at Richmond. Money was taken from them officially just before entering prison, except those that had succeeded in secreting it. I believe these facts from statements made by the men. They were also credited with the amounts, and were told that when released the amounts would be returned. I heard of no soldier who had it returned to him. In case of officers it was sometimes returned in Confederate currency,
On the first boat load there was about one hundred and fifty on cots sick,— with diarrhœa generally. Many of these one hundred and fifty men had the scurvy; great many suffering from pneumonia. Often heard the physician say that these disorders were due to confinement, exposure, and bad food. In all I saw some ten or twelve dying on the boats. From the last boat I saw five come off on shore in a dying state. I saw one man die on the boat; the Doctor said his death was caused by starvation. Saw one already dead on the boat at Fortress Monroe. The Doctor said his death was caused by eating. He died from eating too much after he had been starved, he obtained this over amount of food after having come into our hands.
The Doctor said that he had to be very cautious in giving them their rations, or they would injure themselves by getting too much; that several had died in consequence of eating too much, which they obtained from their comrades, who were too feeble and too far gone to eat the rations which were given them. Some would secrete their rations and try to get a second ration. The Assistant Surgeon told me that the one I had seen dead had eaten three rations which he had obtained from his comrades.
The prisoners on board the boats stated that their diseases and sufferings, such as I witnessed, were caused by want of protection from wet and cold, and by insufficient and bad food; this was their invariable statement.
The Union prisoners were not at all vindictive, and expressed a desire to have the rebel prisoners well clothed and fed; this was the case with all the men I spoke to on the subject on the three boats.
My reason for making this inquiry was the remark of the Union prisoners in regard to the healthy condition of the rebel prisoners who were exchanged. Some of them remarked that it would make the condition of the Union prisoners worse if they attempted to retaliate, and would do no good. The general idea as expressed by the men was, that they did not wish to see the rebel prisoners treated as they had been.
I have been on the battle-field and in hospitals and witnessed much suffering, but never did I experience so sad and deplorable a condition of human beings, as that of the paroled Union prisoners just from Belle Island, and the rebel prisons of the South, emaciated by starvation, with impaired minds, vision, powers of speech and hearing, occasioned by want of sufficiency of wholesome food, exposure to the cold and inclement storms of wind and rain. I believe from what I have seen and experienced among our unfortunate prisoners on board the flag of-truce boats, that their barbarous treatment and sufferings which they endured while confined in the military prisons of the South can hardly be exaggerated.
J. B. ABBOTT.
Sworn and subscribed before me, at
Washington D. C., this 3d day of
June, A. D. 1864.
M. H. KENDIG,