Monday, October 30, 2006
Once in a while a book comes along that smashes what has passed for “the truth” right in the mouth. Sanders, through carefully documented and balanced research, has destroyed all previous efforts to excuse Union and Confederate treatment of prisoners. If you haven’t read the book, buy it. It will turn your existing notions and opinions upside down, while making you sad, angry and ashamed all at the same time.
Very simply, this book should be considered the gospel when discussing the treatment of P.O.W’s during the war.
Friday, October 06, 2006
Yet, While in the hands of the enemy: Military Prisons of the Civil War by Charles W. Sanders Jr., - Louisiana State University Press - shows just how bad both sides were and what is worse, that either side could have easily changed their path and saved thousands of soldier’s lives. And because of this gross disregard of the basic concepts of humanity this book is unsettling.
How does one describe the insane cruelty that the prisoners of both sides went through during the Civil War? Quite frankly, the word that came to my mind was atrocity, which according to Merriam-Webster is the act or quality of being atrocious, which in itself is defined as
1. extremely wicked, brutal, or cruel
2. appalling, horrifying
3. utterly revolting
The sad thing is that you could use any of the above definitions to describe what happened during the war and would still not be telling the whole story.
Before opening the book up, take a good look at the cover and you will see how “atrocious” one human can be to another. Yes, that is a human being, a Union soldier who was a prisoner of war and exchanged in April, 1864. The picture was taken upon his return to the Union side, and he would die shortly after his release.
The book starts off with providing background in the use of Prisoner of War camps in the United States’ previous three major conflicts – The Revolutionary War, War of 1812 and the US-Mexican war. Even as a young nation, the government was able to come to grasp with its responsibilities of housing enemy soldiers and although had a few missteps, overall did well. Yet as the Civil War starts, a POW system was far from anyone’s mind and ended up being an afterthought brought upon by necessity rather than any proactive planning.
As the book proceeds, the reader finds himself surrounded by politics and how this above all else kept the prisoners from first being exchanged and later getting basic needs to keep a soul alive. The author goes into great detail showing that the leaders (militarily and politically) knew what was going on and allowed it to for the perceived gain of their country. This is not to say that there was no one that tried to make things better, those in charge of the systems themselves were caught in a no win situation, not listened to and often had orders overturned when they did get something pushed through.
The book also goes into the politics of exchanging prisoners, something that traditionally has the Union – Lincoln and later Grant in particular- not wanting to do it for various reasons but Sanders is able to show that the Confederacy was also at fault, not wanting to acknowledge African-American soldiers in any form and refusing to budge when the Union made it a condition. One of the saddest parts of the book is the ever so brief time where the Union and Confederacy agrees upon exchanging prisoners and how both sides were able to work together for the greater good. Unfortunately politics on both sides get in the way and exchanges stop and prisoners suffer again.
Sanders takes the time to walk through the creation of the first prisons from old warehouses, forts and hospitals, the overcrowding that later is produced which is followed by cramped, soiled conditions which lead to sickness and death. As both sides try to find ways around this by building new prisons, they find the same thing happening as too many prisoners are sent to the new facilities, facilities often built without proper hospitals.
We also see how both sides tried to save more and more money and how it affected the quality of life the prisoners dealt with. As proof that the Union could have easily done something, Sanders shows how $1.8 million was returned to the US Treasury – money that could have spent at each Union prison but never was. On the Confederate side, a look at the Quartermaster stocks in warehouses during the war shows that there was more than enough food, medical supplies, clothing and equipment as long as you were not a prisoner.
Sanders then explains the rational and facts behind the defense of each sides POW system that occurred after the war. While many of the “facts” have been held up as unshakable, he has provided a strong foundation that easily contradicts them.
In the end, shows that both sides were at fault and all should be ashamed and concluding “ For both the Union and Confederacy, the treatment of prisoners during the American Civil War can only be judged ‘a most horrible national sin.’”
This is an excellent book that quite frankly will not make either side happy. It can get a bit deep into the weeds as it drives home point after point, which can make for a long read. The beauty though is that Sanders uses all of these details to prove his conclusion - we are all wrong – it was our side’s fault and we need to acknowledge it.
While in the hands of the enemy: Military Prisons of the Civil War by Charles W. Sanders Jr.
Published 2005 by Louisiana State University Press
390 pages including photographs, extensive footnotes, bibliography and index