Monday, April 7, 2014

Just Finished Reading - While in the Hands of the Enemy

If the hundreds of thousands of deaths and terrible wounds caused by the Civil War was not enough to make it "America's greatest tragedy," the physical and mental suffering inflicted on those that became military captives surely confirmed that label.

Ever since the Civil War ended in 1865 North and South have each had their fair share of apologists explaining why almost 56,000 soldiers died in the war's military prisons. Much of that past interpretation was given based on half truths and sustained by biased perspectives. In While in the Hands of the Enemy: Military Prisons of the Civil War, author Charles W. Sanders, Jr., goes a long way toward putting those old interpretations to rest with solid research from a wealth of sources. Sanders proves that there was plenty of blame to go around for all of those thousands of deaths.

I appreciated Sanders opening While in the Hands of the Enemy by providing a brief history of military prisons in America. His examination of prisoner camps in the Revolutionary War, War of 1812, and Mexican-American War gave a better understanding for the situation entering and during the Civil War. Those lessons learned from previous conflicts were seemingly ignored or quickly forgotten though.

In hindsight it seems quite obvious that the conflict between the sections would not only produce death and wounds, but prisoners as well. And while many on both sides thought it would be a short war, little proactive thinking concerning prisoners of war was made. Early battles such as First Manassas and Balls Bluff opened both belligerents' eyes wide to the realities of holding captives.

On the surface and in the present it may not be that difficult to see how deep the animosity ran between the Union and Confederacy (they were after all at war), but the hatred especially comes through in the politics and motivations behind the establishment and then operation of Civil War prisons in both the North and South.

Sanders concedes that "difficulties such as organizational incompetence, inexperience, and chronic shortages of essential resources certainly contributed to the horrors," but he strongly argues that "Union and Confederate leaders . . .knew full well the horrific toll of misery and death their decisions and actions would exact in the camps." Using official reports as well as private correspondence Sanders implicates many big wigs on both sides.

Notorious prison camps such as Andersonville, Elmira, Libby, Camp Douglass, Rock Island, Cahaba, and Danville come in for the greatest amount of coverage.  And Sanders implicates men such as Union commissary general of prisoners Lt. Col. William Hoffman and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, and Confederate Secretary of War James Seddon and Commissary General of Subsistence Lucius B. Northrop for decisions that produced willful neglect and were designed to be harmful to those incarcerated.

One of the decisions that Sanders explores is the long held understanding that general prisoner exchanges were stopped by the Union due to the Confederacy's unwillingness to exchange African American soldiers. While the Union brass provided this explanation to the press, Sanders claims that the refusal to continue exchanges had more to do with keeping those captured Southerners off the field of battle and thus increasing the Union's manpower advantage. Simply, the Union could find more men to be soldiers while the Confederacy had a limited amount.  In addition, those Union soldiers that "bounty jumped" were less likely to do so knowing that prisoner exchanges were halted.

Sanders ends the book with a very insightful paragraph that succinctly summarized the work. "It is impossible to know the number of deaths that could have been prevented. What is clear, however, is that tens of thousands of captives would not have suffered and died as they did if the men who directed the prison systems of the North and South had cared for them as their own regulations and basic humanity required. Yet this was something that they very deliberately chose not to do. The failure to treat prisoners humanely, young Sabina Dismukes had warned back in 1864, would 'most surely draw down some awful judgement'; and at long last, that verdict must be rendered. For both the Union and the Confederacy, the treatment of prisoners during the American Civil War can only be judged 'a most horrible national sin.'

While in the Hands of the Enemy: Military Prisons of the Civil War is a revisionist work of art. Sanders' arguments are difficult to dismiss with the analysis and evidence he provides. I highly recommend this book about a too often overlooked and marginalized subject. On a scale of 1 to 5, I give it a 4.75.      

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