Saturday, April 12, 2008

Six Hundred suffer North's POW cruelty

By Peter Bridges


The Civil War took the lives of 600,000 American soldiers from North and South. Many died not on the battlefield, but later, from wounds, disease — and imprisonment. The horrors of Civil War prison camps were forgotten as veterans died but then were dramatized by MacKinlay Kantor's 1955 novel "Andersonville," which described the largest and worst Confederate prison camp, in southern Georgia. There have been far greater horrors than Andersonville. Anne Applebaum estimates in her recent book, "Gulag: A History," that 28 million people were sent to Soviet labor camps, where as many as half died. The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum tells us that up to 6 million Jews, two-thirds of Europe's Jewish population, were killed by Adolf Hitler. However, if cruel mistreatment of prisoners never occurred on such a huge scale in the American Civil War, it still occurred. During the 14 months that the Andersonville camp existed, more than 45,000 Union soldiers were confined there; 13,000 of them died from disease and starvation. Andersonville's commander, Capt. Henry Wirz, was the only Confederate officer executed as a war criminal at war's end; his trial was dramatized by a 1959 Broadway play and a 1970 PBS film. In large part because of this publicity, Andersonville has been made a National Historic Site, a memorial to all Americans held as prisoners of war throughout our history. The North had terrible prison camps, too. Few know of Camp Douglas, on the South Side of Chicago, where 26,000 Confederates were held as prisoners. There, soldiers starved to death when rations were withheld; in the near-arctic winter of 1864, many froze to death. The largest mass grave in the Western Hemisphere, at Oak Woods Cemetery in Chicago, holds the remains of 6,000 men who died at Douglas. One group of 600 Confederate officers who were held prisoner — and deliberately mistreated by Union commanders — later gained fame in the South, especially after publication in 1905 of "The Immortal Six Hundred" by one of their number, John Ogden Murray. Most of them survived, despite cruel treatment that lasted many months. In postwar decades, a number of them played important roles in a reunited America as editors, teachers, merchants, bankers and officials. Six served in the U.S. Congress; one, Charles Frederick Crisp, was speaker of the House of Representatives from 1891 to 1895, and his son also became a member of the House. The ordeal of the Six Hundred began in the summer of 1864. That June, Sam Jones, the Confederate general in command of the Department of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, wrote his Union opposite number, Maj. Gen. John G. Foster, that five Union brigadier generals and 45 other officers were being held prisoner in Charleston. Jones wrote that they were in a part of the city occupied by noncombatants but that it was only proper "that I should inform you that it is part of the city which has been for many months exposed day and night to the fire of your guns." Foster replied that Charleston, containing military depots, arsenals and shipyards, was a legitimate target. Because Jones was placing Union officers in harm's way, Foster would do the same with an equal number of Confederate officers. Top officials in Washington agreed with Foster. Thus, 50 Confederate officer prisoners were sent down to South Carolina. Soon Foster heard that not 50, but 600 Union officers had been sent to Charleston, to keep them from being freed by Gen. William T. Sherman on his march into Georgia. Foster immediately requested that 600 Confederate officer prisoners be sent to him. The Six Hundred were sent in August 1864. Mauriel Joslyn reported in her 1992 Biographical Roster of the Six Hundred that their average age was 25; most were junior officers, but there were 30 majors and colonels. A quarter of them had been farmers before the war; just 17 were listed as "planters." Some were professional men. Three dozen had been born in the North or abroad; almost a third were from Virginia. They were sent south from Fort Delaware, an old fortress on a marshy island south of Wilmington, today a Delaware state park. At Fort Delaware, there were, at times, 10,000 Southern prisoners. They got two meals a day. Breakfast was 4 ounces of bread and, usually, 5 ounces of pork; dinner was a small ration of bread and beef and a pint of bean soup. Men who still had money could buy more food from Union sutlers at exorbitant prices. A number of prisoners died from smallpox and chronic diarrhea. Worse was to come. Many of the Six Hundred went south from Delaware believing they soon would be exchanged; a Union guard had said so. Yet a canny captain from Louisiana, Leon Jastremski, wrote to his brother that he believed they would be placed under what a later generation would call friendly fire, in retaliation for 600 Union officers having been placed inside Charleston. (Jastremski was another of the Six Hundred who enjoyed success after the war, as a prominent Louisiana journalist, mayor of Baton Rouge and American consul general in Peru.) The Six Hundred were packed for two weeks in the sweltering hold of an old side-wheel steamer during the journey south. At one point, they went 40 hours without a water ration. Finally they were landed on Morris Island, on the south side of the mouth of Charleston harbor. They would be guarded by the black troops of the 54th Massachusetts, which had been on the island since its heroic attack a year earlier on Battery Wagner. As we recall from Edward Zwick's 1989 film "Glory," the 54th's white commander, Col. Robert G. Shaw, had died with many of his men in the assault. Only later was the battery taken by the Union troops. Now the 54th was commanded by Col. Edward N. Hallowell, who, in contrast to the fallen Shaw, treated his black soldiers badly — and the Southern officers worse. One Virginia captain, George Washington Nelson, recalled later that when Hallowell was dissatisfied with his soldiers, "He would rise at them, knock and beat them over the head with his sabre, or draw his pistol and shoot at them." For the prisoners, Hallowell instituted strict rules. They were housed in tents in a wooden stockade lined by a parapet for their guards. The area, no more than 11/2 acres, was decreased by a rope strung along the ground inside, 20 feet from the wall, to demarcate the "dead zone." Any prisoner touching or going beyond the rope was to be shot. At night, guards were to fire into any tent where a light showed. Blankets, issued to the prisoners at Fort Delaware, were taken away. Soon the prisoners were put on what Hallowell called "retaliation rations." Each day they got several wormy army crackers, half a pint of soup, a little rice, sometimes 2 ounces of bacon. At least no friendly fire hit inside the pen, although guards were killed on the parapet. In late October 1864, after six weeks on Morris Island, the Six Hundred (by then 549 after some deaths and the transfer of others) were moved to Fort Pulaski, another prewar coastal fortress, where they were guarded by a different unit, the 157th New York, which treated them better. However, they were soon put back on retaliation rations, this time amounting to a little bread, 10 ounces of cornmeal and unlimited pickles, supposed to prevent scurvy. Fortunately, they could augment their diet by catching a few rats and cats. Scurvy broke out despite the pickles. Men lost a third or more of their weight. Most kept up their morale. Nelson, later an Episcopal priest, led church services. Just 17 succumbed to pressures to take the oath of allegiance to the Union. A number, including John Ogden Murray, escaped; all but seven were recaptured. In March 1865, many of the Six Hundred were sent north again — back to Fort Delaware. The next month, the Confederacy collapsed. By summer, all were home and could begin to rebuild their health and their fortunes. As Mauriel Joslyn pointed out, death would have claimed more of them if they had not been captured. Ninety percent of the Six Hundred had survived their harsh imprisonment; almost a quarter of the field officers in Lee's Army of Northern Virginia died in combat. Those were years of honors and of horrors. Peter Bridges' most recent book is "Pen of Fire: John Moncure Daniel." He is grateful to retired Coast Guard Vice Adm. Robert H. Scarborough, a relative of Speaker of the House Charles Crisp's, for bringing the story of the Six Hundred to his attention.

No comments: