Shooting, Starving and Enlisting Prisoners
As a whip to encourage Southern prisoners to enlist in the Northern army, starvation was utilized, black soldiers appointed as guards and told to shoot prisoners at will, and officials gave notice that a “drawing for hostages in retaliation for the Fort Pillow massacre” was to take place at some early day. If a Southern soldier was prompted to enlist, he was destined to become an army laborer and if captured by Southern forces, was sure to be executed for desertion and treason. The following is related by a South Carolina soldier imprisoned at Point Lookout — the largest Northern prison camp and with the worst reputation as a “death camp.”
Bernhard Thuersam, www.Circa1865.org
Shooting, Starving, and Enlisting Prisoners
“About this time (January 1864) General B.F. Butler was made Commissary of Prisoners, and in the discharge of his duty he paid us a visit. He was welcomed in such a manner as a parcel of defiant “Rebels” could welcome him, with hisses, curses and groans; notwithstanding which, he made us some good promises. Among others, that we should be better treated, have more wood, more food and plenty of clothes. As we knew this to be so many empty words, it produced no effect upon us.
One of his first acts was to relieve one of the white regiments as a guard, and place in its stead the Thirty-sixth North Carolina colored regiment. They were quite a curiosity to many, as they had never, previous to this time, seen any colored troops. We knew their intense hatred for us, and we were well aware that the slightest demonstration on our part would be used as a pretext for firing into us.
A guard of Negroes was sent through the camp to search [for a missing knapsack], and the manner in which they performed it was observable in the number of bleeding heads among the prisoners. They had to beat them over the head to compel them to tell who did it. For this conduct, their [white] officers praised them, and told them to shoot whenever they felt like doing so, and right well they did obey this order . . . The shooting of a prisoner was looked upon as an everyday affair, especially when the shooting was done by a Negro.
In accordance with Gen. Butler’s promise, to give us more rations, our meagre supply of coffee was cut off. This was not so much of a deprivation to us as might be supposed, for the coffee was “slop water” in every respect.
As the United States officers used every means to induce the prisoners to take the oath [to the US government] it is fair to presume that the “best Government the sun ever shone upon” was now reduced to the policy of starving men into allegiance into it.
The water, which could be used in the winter in moderate quantities only, was now in such a condition as to be totally unfit for use. In May , large numbers of the wounded from Grant’s army were brought to the hospitals, situated on the point outside. This water was used to wash their wounds, and gangrene made its appearance.
The health of the [prisoners] began to fail rapidly, and soon the prisoners’ hospital was crowded. Fever in every shape abounded, and small pox was epidemic. Men who were seen in the morning, apparently in health, were taken to the “Dead House” in the afternoon . . . and die before they could be carried to the tents.
Fears of death, either by disease or the hands of the Negroes, forced many true Southern soldiers to think of taking the oath. This could be readily done, by application to the proper authorities, and a release obtained – only, however to be drafted into the United States army.”
Prison Experience, Sgt. James T., Wells, Southern Historical Society Papers, Volume VII, January to December 1879, excerpts pp. 393-396)