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‘We did this to ourselves': Death and despair at Civil War prisons

Civil War & Emancipation Day 20

MILLEN, Georgia (CNN) — John Charles Tarsney crossed the prisoner of war camp and spied an emaciated Union soldier to whom he had given a drink of water the evening before.

“He had died during the night and was little more than a dead skeleton,” Tarsney later recalled.

Tarsney, despairing of his own plight as a prisoner at Camp Lawton in Georgia, hatched a scheme.

He decided to trade identities with the lifeless man who was part of a group of ailing soldiers set to be exchanged for Confederate prisoners held up north.

Tarsney pinned his own name and regiment on the dead man’s clothing and gave his silver watch to a sergeant to keep him quiet. He affected a limp and, after “near being caught,” managed to walk out of the prison as John Frantz of the 54th Pennsylvania Infantry.

Tarsney boarded the train and soon gained his freedom — later serving four terms as a congressman from Missouri. He recalled his experience more than 25 years later in an interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Some may question Tarsney’s actions, but such desperate schemes were common among the more than 410,000 men held captive during the American Civil War. Prisoners were subject to hunger, overcrowding, violence and disease — conditions which claimed 56,000 lives from 1861 to 1865.

“I think (Tarsney) is honestly and bluntly recounting a moment when he faced an impossible choice for survival,” says Eric Leonard, chief of interpretation and education at Andersonville National Historic Site, located on the grounds of the notorious Andersonville prison. Camp Lawton was built to help ease overcrowding and other problems at Andersonville.

Thousands of Civil War POWs clawed for life. When not dreaming of home and freedom, they were obsessed with food, sometimes consuming rats or boiling grass to ward off scurvy.

At several prisons, soldiers were humiliated by civilians who paid to gawk and deride them. Some gave up hope of being freed or exchanged. Others blamed their own government for their predicaments, believing officials cared little about rescuing them.

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the peak year of suffering in Civil War prisons. At Andersonville alone, nearly 13,000 men died over 14 months — an average of more than 30 a day in that span. Overall, 30,000 Union and 26,000 Confederate soldiers died in captivity.

Remembrances over the next 16 months at Andersonville — the only National Park System area to serve as a memorial to all POWs — present a milepost to review the plight of POWs throughout American history. The park in Georgia is home to the National Prisoner of War Museum.

At the same time, archaeological digs and research at Camp Lawton, Camp Douglas in Chicago, Johnson’s Island in Ohio and Camp Asylum in Columbia, South Carolina, are opportunities to bring fresh insight into the story of Civil War prison life.

The work at Lawton, which operated in 1864, fascinates historians.

With the exception of plowing by farmers 100 years ago and construction by the Civilian Conservation Corps, the 42-acre prison site about 80 miles northwest of Savannah was largely untouched until about four years ago.

“The preservation is so ideal,” says Lance Greene, an assistant professor overseeing Georgia Southern University anthropology students doing excavations.

The area where prisoners lived is rich with artifacts.

Rick Kanaski, a regional archaeologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, says, “When you are looking at Lawton, we have an opportunity to delve into the daily details, daily life, from both the prisoner and Confederate guards’ perspectives.”

It’s not difficult to imagine why Tarsney, severely wounded and captured at Gettysburg, so desperately maneuvered for his freedom.

He had endured the horrors of Andersonville before he was shipped to Lawton, where deadly cold and rain in the late autumn of 1864 picked off hundreds who had managed to survive the suffocating heat and squalor at Andersonville. His time at Lawton came during the waning months of the Confederacy.

Issued few items by their Lawton captors, soldiers used anything they could get their hands on: broken spoons to dig holes, railroad spikes for the construction of shelter and even an Argentine coin used because of the dearth of U.S. money.

“This site is part of this ongoing debate of prisoner treatment,” says Greene, referring to Abu Ghraib, the site of a prisoner abuse scandal that took place during the Iraq war.

Since the end of the Civil War and the subsequent trial and execution of Andersonville’s commandant, historians have argued over whether appalling conditions at Civil War prisons — in the North and South — were the result of insufficient resources and mismanagement or included something more intentional: retaliation and deliberate cruelty.

Deaths at Andersonville, by far the most populous Civil War prison, represented a staggering 29% of the prison population. But the death rate was only slightly lower at the North’s prison in Elmira, New York, with a 24% death rate and 3,000 deaths, many due to illness.

The debate over what caused the misery continues today. One fact is inescapable: “We did this to ourselves,” says Andersonville’s Leonard.

The road to massive overcrowding

Motorists can drive around the grassy Andersonville site in middle Georgia in a few minutes. Long gone are the gaunt and dirty faces and the bare earth covered with makeshift tents and shelters.

A walk through the site, says Glen Robins, a history professor at Georgia Southwestern State University in Americus, is a primer on the travails of Civil War prisoners and the challenges facing their keepers.

“We try to get a sense of how you can get 33,000 people in that prison. We’ll talk about the rations and the insufficiency.”

Officials at the prison added 10 acres to the original 16.5-acre site, but the flood of POWs continued. Andersonville housed a total of 45,000 POWs over its lifespan.

Andersonville’s Stockade Creek shows just how little water there was for soldiers to drink, bathe and use as a latrine. Nearly 5 acres of the fetid ground was saturated with effluent and human waste, increasing incidents of disease, including dysentery.

“You are sort of at a point where it is hopeless,” says Robins. “You start wondering why more people did not die there. You talk about those who survived and how they did. Is it their mindset and value system, whether based in religious faith or trying to help a person who is sharing a hole in the ground with them? Or a belief in country?”

Historians caution against comparing Andersonville, also known as Camp Sumter, to other prisons.

“You cannot convey the horror of Andersonville through the written word,” says Paul Springer, an author who has written about treatment of POWs from the Revolutionary War forward. “Until you can bottle the stench … you cannot tell the story.”

When the Civil War began, there was virtually no such thing as a military prison system or a code of treatment for captives. Neither army expected the conflict to last as long as it did.

“The prison system of the South was less worthy of the name than that of the North,” wrote William Hesseltine in “Civil War Prisons.”

In the North, “the prisons came into being as a result of definite plans and were administered by officers experienced in military administration. In the South, on the other hand, the prison system was the result of a series of accidents. … Prisons came into existence, without definite plans, to meet the exigencies of the moment.”

POWs were often exchanged during the first two years, but that system largely broke down. There were disputes about the status of black soldiers captured by the South and the treatment of white officers who led them. As the prisons filled, Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant declined in 1864 to resume negotiations on the exchange, realizing that he had numbers on his side.

POWs constantly hoped they would be freed from the oft-hellish conditions, only to have their hopes dashed. Cpl. Charles H. Knox, held at Camp Lawton, was concerned about his wife and small child back home in upstate New York. He wrote a November 14, 1864, letter to them that reads in part:

“Now hopeing the scene may soon change, for we all look for an exchange of most if not all of the Prisinors that are here — God knows I hope so.. for I am tired of Cecesia (secession) I have been a Prisnor 6 months & 9 days & I think that will do for this time.”

Knox wasn’t paroled for another three and a half months, near the war’s end.

‘It would have been just survival’

Ilene Shuman, a junior at Georgia Southern University, stands near a partially excavated spot where a prison shelter, or “shebang” once stood along Main Street at Camp Lawton. During the prison’s operation, the busy avenue featured a barbershop and a merchant who sold goods to the few POWs who had money.

Below her, Greene, her professor, uses a trowel near a pile of bricks believed to have been pilfered by prisoners from one of several ovens used to prepare food. There’s also evidence of a fire built by prisoners to ward off the persistent cold.

“You get a sense of how people put their society together,” says Shuman. “It would have been just survival, day to day. They were probably huddled together for warmth.”

Open for only six weeks, Lawton was largely “lost” to history after it was hurriedly evacuated as federal forces approached Savannah, the prize of Maj. Gen. William Sherman’s famous March to the Sea. About 10,000 men were held at Lawton during its brief existence. At least 750 died, and some estimates put the number at more than 1,000.

Would-be liberators were outraged to find unburied bodies in the camp. They set fire to large portions of the square 15-foot-high stockade wall. Nature and time later brought down the rest of the timbers.

The site straddles a federal fish hatchery and Magnolia Springs State Park, a few miles north of the small town of Millen. Prisoners congregated on what is now the hatchery area. In 2010, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service erected a tall fence to ward off relic collectors.

Not far from Shuman, other students expose bricks that may be from one of the large ovens put in by Confederate troops. A third crew works along a section of the now-gone stockade wall.

Greene says crews have found the locations of three sides of the stockade and one corner. They also have excavated part of a Confederate officers’ barracks. They want to find quarters for enlisted guards, which may make some comparisons to the prisoners’ existence possible.

While Confederate commanders may have had ceramic plates and kitchenware, there are no such resources for prisoners, says Greene.

“They have very limited material. They are very savvy in reusing and modifying anything they can get their hands on.”

The South tried to ease overcrowding and lessen sanitary problems at the prison, but it’s not surprising that Confederate officers and guards would get better provisions, says Kanaski, the federal archaeologist.

He hopes that Confederate and other documentary records — which have been tough to find — will supplement the archaeological efforts. The August 26 episode of PBS’ “Time Team America” will detail the mapping of the stockade and the search for items covered by sand and clay.

“You can get wowed by an individual artifact, but it may not make a lot of sense until more analysis (is done),” says Kanaski.

Consumed with thoughts of food

Greene and his students are looking for food remnants to gain insight into the diets of captives, guards and the estimated 500 slaves who built Camp Lawton.

Even today, while a prisoner may dream of home and freedom, waking hours are consumed with thoughts of food.

“I spent 6, 8, 10 hours a day thinking about what meal I was going to cook when I got home,” says Michael Berryman, who was captured by Iraqi troops during Operation Desert Storm in 1991.

A traveling Andersonville exhibit, entitled “Victory From Within: The American Prisoner of War Experience,” includes comments from Berryman and others about prison life.

John K. Derden, in his book, “The World’s Largest Prison: The Story of Camp Lawton,” quotes a Union prisoner as saying he and his ravenous comrades ate the heads of butchered cattle and boiled bones for any form of nutrition. They also ate grease that would rise to the surface.

Adelbert Knight of Belfast, Maine, each day noted the food he received at Andersonville, Lawton and other prisons in the South. Cornbread and bacon, beef and molasses were common fare.

Sometimes, he documented other notable occurrences:

“June 22: wether fine all day. the first fair day here this month. Rat. one pint of mush & Bacon 2 oz. one man died of our mess this evening with a Soar throat.”

On July 11, 1864, Knight noted the execution of six Union soldiers who had terrorized, robbed and killed fellow inmates at Andersonville.

His great-grandson, Larry Knight, of Hudson, New Hampshire, says he marvels at his ancestor’s resilience, especially through illness that included scurvy and diarrhea.

“He had a very strong will to live,” says Knight.

Adelbert later farmed and did carpentry work before dying in 1913 at age 72.

Sgt. David Kennedy, an Ohio cavalryman held at Andersonville, provided a powerful image of the horrors of the camp and its collection of shattered humanity: “It takes 7 of its ocupiants to make a Shadow.”

John Brunsan, a POW at Elmira, wrote to his sister: “For breakfast I get one-third of a pound of bread and a small piece of meat; for supper the same quantity of bread and not any meat, but a small plate of warm water called soup.”

An estimated two-thirds of soldier deaths during the Civil War were the result of disease, in part because of limited medical knowledge in the mid-19th century. Antibiotics did not yet exist.

Dora Costa, a UCLA economics professor, studied the life histories of 41,000 white and black Union soldiers. She found that men who entered prison camps with friends and comrades were more likely to survive, especially those with similar ethnicity.

“What we find is, basically, it did help to have men who were like you in there. From the same company or men to whom you are closely tied,” says Costa.

Being tall was a negative for a captured soldier because it meant you needed more than the customary ration.

“Those with (certain) skills might be put to work,” thereby receiving more rations, says Costa, co-author of “Heroes and Villains: The Social Face of War.”

Those skills might include bookkeeping, accounting and carpentry, she says.

Retaliation against the other side

If war is hell, a phrase credited to Gen. Sherman, then war also means demonizing the enemy and expressing outrage over the other side’s treatment of POWs.

William Hesseltine made the case for “war psychosis” in his seminal book on Civil War prisons. Overcrowding and “poverty” in the South were responsible for the suffering of Union soldiers, he wrote.

Reports of soldiers suffering at Lawton, Andersonville and other Southern prisons “created the belief the prisoners were ill-treated through a deliberate purpose; the inevitable hatred engendered by the war made such a belief readily credible. The result of this psychosis was that prisoners in the Northern prisons were forced to suffer in retaliation for the alleged Southern cruelty.”

The Confederacy believed “as firmly as did the citizens of the United States that their soldiers in prison were the victims of barbarous treatment,” Hesseltine argued.

Michael P. Gray, associate professor of history at East Stroudsburg University in Pennsylvania, says Confederates held at Elmira in New York believed a surgeon was deliberately killing some of their comrades. It may have been more neglect than murder, Gray says.

Hunger and malnutrition were prevalent, too, in the North, where some historians say there was retribution for treatment — real or perceived — of Yankees held in Southern prisons.

President Lincoln and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton cut rations for Northern prisons, says Gray, author of “The Business of Captivity: Elmira and Its Civil War Prison.”

Despite their ordeal, there were ways for prisoners to ward off persistent victimization and boost morale.

POWs at Elmira, desperate for extra rations and supplies, made rings, jewelry and other items that were sold by others outside the prison walls, says Gray.

Camp Lawton’s POWs held a mock presidential election in November 1864, choosing Lincoln over George B. McClellan, a former Union general.

At Andersonville, prisoner Dorence Atwater kept a copy of the voluminous death registry, ensuring that nearly all of the 13,000 dead would receive headstones. He kept the list a secret from Confederate surgeons with whom he worked as a parolee.

On July 4, 1864, a group of prisoners briefly displayed the U.S. flag.

“The crowd goes wild,” says Andersonville’s Leonard. “Then it disappears because they do not want it taken away from them.”

Complexity of assigning blame

Springer, the author, is also an associate professor of comparative military studies at the Air Command and Staff College at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama. He points out that today, as during the Civil War, the military necessarily puts its best soldiers at the front.

Those who staffed Civil War camps often were invalids, home guards or unfit for other service.

“Because they are not veterans, they don’t have that empathy for the guy on the other side of the line,” says Springer, author of “America’s Captives: Treatment of POWs from the Revolutionary War to the War on Terror.”

The U.S. military generally has treated POWS more humanely than has its enemies, Springer says.

More recently, the U.S. Army has “outsourced” the care of some POWs, Springer says. South Korea provided guards during the Korean War; the Saudis did the same in the first Gulf War.

That particular arrangement did not occur in the Iraq war, when Army reservists infamously abused prisoners at the Abu Ghraib facility. Springer terms them a “handful of bad apples.”

Springer references the prosecution of Andersonville’s commandant, Maj. Henry Wirz, as an example of the complexity of assigning blame.

Wirz was convicted of murder and conspiracy charges and executed. Some POWs testified he personally shot some of their comrades, although the veracity of some testimony is debated today.

The officer was a “scapegoat in a lot of ways,” says Springer, because he was incapable of stopping the massive flow of prisoners from Virginia and elsewhere. The professor suggests Wirz probably was more guilty of barbarous indifference than conspiracy.

“Places like Andersonville remind us that humans have a remarkable capacity for cruelty, indifference and immunity to the suffering of others.”

Having your buddy’s back

Andersonville National Historic Site is sponsoring several sesquicentennial events, including living history weekends in October and in March 2015, followed by a memorial candle illumination on September 18-19, 2015, coinciding with National POW/MIA Recognition Day.

A funeral to remember the nearly 13,000 Union soldiers who died there will be held that same weekend at the national cemetery.

“This service will be the funeral they never received,” the site says.

Historians point out that mortality rates at most prisons were much lower than at Elmira and Andersonville. And there were attempts to improve conditions.

Some 150 years ago, civilians and generals grappled with a crisis over the care of POWs, Leonard says.

“I view military prisons as the overlooked campaign of 1864; prisons, their management and questions of exchange are taking up a massive part of the bureaucratic part of the war.”

In the end, most Civil War POWs survived. Their stories are of resilience and loyalty to comrades who endured a crushing loss of freedom.

There has been a transformation of the public’s perception of POWs, says Leonard. Whereas those captured during the Civil War were sometimes seen as less than honorable, Americans held during the Vietnam War and the Iran hostage crisis became symbols of resolve and strength.

On Memorial Day in 1994, former vice presidential candidate and Vice Adm. James Stockdale spoke at Andersonville about his POW experience during the Vietnam War and pressures his generation faced — including enemy attempts at using prisoners as propaganda tools.

Regardless of their sacrifice and suffering, American POWs share common virtues, Stockdale said at the time.

“Being loyal to our fellow American prison mate, making sacrifices in his behalf if he is down; if tempted, being strong to resist; if missing the mark, having the courage to try again; and so living that you can stand unashamed and unafraid before your prison mates, your loved ones, and the Almighty.”

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