Southern men held captive and starving in cold Northern prisons were surrounded by bountiful harvests and plentiful medicines while Northern prisoners shared the meager rations of their guards. Though the South had little medicine and scarce foodstuffs, a lower percentage of Northern prisoners died in the South than the reverse. Below are excerpts from the Joint Select Committee of the Confederate States Congress, investigating the conditions of prisoners after the US Congress issued a report condemning alleged Confederate mistreatment of Northern prisoners.
Bernhard Thuersam, www.Circa1865.com
The Responsibility for Suffering Prisoners
“[We] deem it proper at this time to make a preliminary report, founded on evidence recently taken, relating to the treatment of prisoners of war by both belligerents. This report is rendered especially important, by reason of persistent efforts lately made by the Government of the United States . . . to asperse the honor of the Confederate authorities, and to charge them with deliberate and willful cruelty to prisoners of war.
The candid reader of [Northern publications claiming Southern cruelties] will not fail to discover that, whether the statements they make are true or not, their spirit is not adapted to promote better feelings between the hostile powers. They are not intended for the humane purpose of ameliorating the condition of the unhappy prisoners held in captivity.
They are designed to inflame the evil passions of the North; to keep up the war spirit among their own people; to present the South as acting under the dominion of a spirit of cruelty, inhumanity and interested malice, and thus to vilify her people in the eyes of all on whom these publications can work.
They are justly characterized by the Hon. James M. Mason as belonging to that class of literature called the “sensational” – a style of writing prevalent for many years at the North, and which, beginning with the writers of newspaper narratives and cheap fiction, has gradually extended itself, until it is now the favored mode adopted by medical professors, judges of courts and reverend clergymen, and is even chosen as the proper style for a report by a committee of [the Northern] Congress.
The intent and spirit of this [Northern congressional] report may be gathered from the following extract: “The evidence proves, beyond all manner of doubt, a determination on the part of rebel authorities, deliberately and persistently practiced for a long time past, to subject those of our soldiers who have been so unfortunate to fall into their hands, to a system of treatment which has resulted in reducing many of those who have survived and been permitted to return to us, to a condition both physically and mentally, which no language we can use can adequately describe.”
The evidence proves that the rations furnished to prisoners of war in Richmond and on Belle Isle, have been never less than those furnished to the Confederate soldiers who guarded them, and have at some seasons been larger in quantity and better in quality than those furnished to Confederate troops in the field. How often the gallant men composing the Confederate army have been without meat, for even long intervals, your [US Congressional] committee does not deem it necessary to say.
Once and only once, for a few weeks, the prisoners were without meat, but a larger quantity of bread and vegetable food was in consequence supplied to them.
The scarcity of meat and of bread stuffs in the South in certain places has been the result of the savage policy of our enemies in burning barns, filled with wheat or corn, destroying agricultural implements, and driving off or wantonly butchering hogs or cattle. Yet amid all these privations, we have given to their prisoners the rations above mentioned.
But the question forces itself upon us why have these sufferings been so long continued? Why have not the prisoners of war been exchanged, and thus some of the darkest pages of history spared to the world. In the answer to this question must be found the test of responsibility for all the sufferings, sickness and heart-broken sorrow that have visited more than eighty thousand prisoners within the past two years. On this question, your committee can only say that that the Confederate authorities have always desired a prompt and fair exchange of prisoners.
Soon after [a] cartel was established, the policy of the enemy in seducing Negro slaves from their masters, arming them and putting white officers over them to lead them against us, gave rise to a few cases in which questions of crime under the internal laws of the Confederate States appeared. Whether men who encouraged insurrection and murder could be held entitled to the privileges of prisoners of war under the cartel, was a grave question.
But these cases were few in number, and ought not to have interrupted the general exchange. We were always ready and anxious to carry out the cartel in its true meaning . . . but the fortunes of war threw the larger number into the hands of our enemies. Then they refused further exchanges – and for twenty-two months this policy has continued.
Secretary Stanton, who has unjustly charged the Confederate authorities with inhumanity, is open to the charge of having done all in his power to prevent a fair exchange and thus prolong the sufferings [of Northern prisoners in the South]. [Gen. Benjamin Butler] has declared that in April 1864, the Federal Lieut. General Grant forbade him to deliver to the Rebels a single able-bodied man” . . .
These facts abundantly show that the responsibility of refusing to exchange prisoners of war rests with the Government of the United States, and the people who have sustained that government; and every sigh of captivity, every groan of suffering, every heart broken by hope deferred among these eighty thousand prisoners, will accuse them in the judgement of the just.
Their own savage warfare has wrought all the evil. They have blockaded our ports; have excluded from us food, clothing and medicines; have even declared medicines contraband of war, and have repeatedly destroyed the contents of drug stores and the supplies of private physicians in the country; have ravaged our country, burned our houses, and destroyed the growing crops and farming implements. These desolations have been repeated again and again in different parts of the South. Thousands of our families have been driven from their homes as helpless and destitute refugees.
While thus desolating our country, in violation of the usages of civilized warfare, they have refused to exchange prisoners; have forced us to keep fifty thousand of their men in captivity, and yet have attempted to attribute to us the sufferings and privations caused by their own acts. We cannot doubt that, in the view of civilization, we shall stand acquitted, while they must be condemned.”
(The Treatment of Prisoners During the War Between the States, compiled by the Secretary of the Southern Historical Society, Southern Historical Society Papers, Volume One, excerpts, pp. 132- 148)