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  • While in the Hands of the Enemy: Military Prisons of the Civil War
  • Stuart McConnell
While in the Hands of the Enemy: Military Prisons of the Civil War. By Charles W. Sanders Jr. ( Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2005. Pp. 390. Cloth $44.95.)

In the long and contentious history of writing about Civil War prisons, there is universal agreement that they were places of horror. Prisoners went naked or in rags, starved to death, broiled in summer and shivered without blankets in winter, suffered from smallpox and other epidemic diseases, and received little or no medical care. Although Andersonville, with a mortality rate of 29 percent, was clearly the worst, Union camps at Elmira, Point Lookout, [End Page 427] and elsewhere witnessed dreadful scenes. Altogether, more than 56,000 men died in Union and Confederate prisons.

Where writers have disagreed is in placing blame for the disaster. Southerners, including Jefferson Davis, have pointed to the shortages of food and medicines caused by the Union blockade, to deficiencies in Southern transportation and administration (unlike the Union, the Confederacy did not appoint a single administrator of prisons until the last months of the war), and especially to Union Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton's unilateral decision to suspend general exchanges of prisoners in 1863. Northerners have pointed to the significantly higher death rates in Southern prisons, to Confederate cheating during the prisoner exchange cartel of 1862–63, to bad apples such as Andersonville commandant Henry Wirz (the only Southern officer executed by the victors), and to the Confederate government's refusal to include black Union soldiers in prisoner exchanges.

Charles W. Sanders Jr. effectively demolishes these explanations with evidence that mistreatment of prisoners on both sides was avoidable, often intentional, and authorized by leaders at the highest levels of both governments. The Confederacy had thousands of blankets and rations in warehouses near Libby and Andersonville; it simply did not distribute them. The same railroad cars supposedly unavailable to haul food and supplies to the camps had no trouble transporting Union prisoners by the thousands right up to war's end, even as Wirz and other commanders pleaded with their superiors to stop sending new captives. The Union had plenty of resources to administer healthful prisons; it simply chose not to do so. Indeed, quite the reverse: the parsimonious Col. William C. Hoffman ordered prisons built as cheaply as possible (sometimes without hospitals), systematically reduced prisoners' rations, and executed Stanton's orders for retaliation against Confederate prisoners.

As for the cartel, Sanders argues that Stanton and Ulysses S. Grant were not primarily interested in the welfare of black Union prisoners and simply used the South's refusal to exchange blacks as an excuse to terminate a cartel that was returning far too much manpower to the South. This argument misses the moral aspect of the dispute, since Grant was asking that black and white captives be treated alike—that he knew the Confederacy would refuse this demand tells more about the Confederacy than about Grant. Still, Sanders's sympathies are clearly with the prisoners, not with political leaders on either side. Lincoln, Stanton, and their Confederate counterparts, Davis and James A. Seddon, were more concerned with denying troops to the enemy and responding to popular cries for vengeance than with humane [End Page 428] treatment of prisoners. They knew exactly what was happening, and they let it happen.

William Hesseltine's Civil War Prisons, which relied primarily on the Official Records, has long been the standard work. Although Sanders employs a much wider source base, his interpretation follows Hesseltine's at many points, from his harsh criticism of the Radical Republicans to his relative neglect of race. Sanders forcefully accuses individual leaders of failing to care for prisoners "as their own regulations and basic humanity required" (315–16). Hesseltine, by contrast, blamed what he called "war psychosis," a kind of deranged cultural climate that limited leaders' options. Without endorsing Hesseltine's dubious theory of mass psychosis, one must wonder whether the cruelties Sanders lays out in such impressive and shocking detail did not have roots beyond the individual failings of Seddon or Stanton.

Sanders could not have known...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1533-6271
Print ISSN
0009-8078
Pages
pp. 427-429
Launched on MUSE
2007-12-03
Open Access
No
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