As the Northern armies spread across the Confederacy, newspaper reporters following them sent observations and stories northward. The result was predictable as they wrote of an evil land and emphasized any unfavorable aspects of Southern civilization. In the last year of war, the United States government refused prisoner exchanges while Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee pleaded in vain for the starving men in blue held in Southern prisoner of war camps to be saved by their own leaders.
Bernhard Thuersam, www.Circa1865.com
Shaping Northern Opinion Against the South
“[The] years from 1865 to 1880 were dreary years in which there was no peace. The war had only ended on the battlefield. In the minds of men it still persisted. Memories of the past and issues living in the present combined to perpetuate and perhaps enlarge the antagonism that victory and defeat created. One observer made the comment that “it was useless to preach forgiveness and good will to men still burning with the memory of their wrongs.”
Deeply [engraved] on the Northern heart was the conviction that the Confederacy had deliberately mistreated the prisoners of war captured by its armies. The Southern prisons . . . were at best what one Confederate surgeon described as a “gigantic mass of human misery.”
A war-crazed [Northern] public could not dissociate this suffering from deliberate intent of the enemy. Rather it fitted the purposes of propaganda to attribute the barest motives to the Confederates [that] “there was a fixed determination on the part of the rebels to kill the Union soldiers who fell into their hands.” The great non-governmental agencies of relief and propaganda contributed to the spread of similar impressions.
Northern opinion was thus rigidly shaped in the belief that “tens of thousands of national soldiers . . . were deliberately shot to death, as at Fort Pillow, or frozen to death as at Belle Island, or starved to death as at Andersonville, or sickened to death by swamp malaria, as in South Carolina.”
Horror passed into fury and fury into a demand for revenge. And the arch-fiend of iniquity, for so the North regarded him, Major Henry Wirz, was hanged as a murderer [in November 1865] . . . he was the scapegoat upon whom centered the full force of Northern wrath.
Meanwhile the South had no effective way of meeting these charges of brutality [though] it is not difficult to find, however, material in these years that the South received the Northern charge with sullen hatred.
Typical is an article contributed to the Southern Review in January 1867:
“The impartial times to come will hardly understand how a nation, which not only permitted but encouraged its government to declare medicines and surgical instruments contraband of war, and to destroy by fire and sword the habitations and food of noncombatants, as well as the fruits of the earth and the implements of tillage, should afterwards have clamored for the blood of captive enemies, because they did not feed their prisoners out of their own starvation and heal them in their succorless hospitals.
And when a final and accurate development shall have been made of the facts connected with the exchange of prisoners between the belligerents, and it shall have been demonstrated . . . that all the nameless horrors [of both sides] were the result of a deliberate and inexorable policy of non-exchange on the part of the United States, founded on an equally deliberate calculation of their ability to furnish a greater mass of humanity than the Confederacy could afford for starvation and the shambles, men will wonder how it was that a people, passing for civilized and Christian, should have consigned Jefferson Davis to a cell, while they tolerated Edwin M. Stanton as a cabinet minister.”
(The Road to Reunion, 1865-1900, Paul H. Buck, Little, Brown and Company, 1937, excerpts, pp. 45-48)