Camp Chase Gazette

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Cruel, miserly prison chiefs

Posted on Saturday, November 4, 2017 at 7:55 pm

Col. William Hoffman, the Union officer in charge of prison food.

All Civil War prison camps had one thing in common: hunger, starvation, and malnutrition. At Andersonville, 13,000 men died. Post-war, Maj. Henry Wirz, Andersonville’s commander, was hanged for war crimes.

I have read the trial transcript, which contains many letters from Wirz to his superiors, begging for more food, emphasizing that his prisoners were starving to death. Wirz got no help.

His superior, Brig. Gen. John Henry Winder, on June 3, 1864, had been sent to Andersonville to oversee matters there. On July 20, 1864, Winder was appointed to command all Confederate prisons in Alabama and Georgia. Four months later, his duties and powers expanded: he was appointed Commissary of all prisons east of the Mississippi River. Winder had the authority to make the improvements requested by Wirz. It would seem that Winder was the ultimate authority responsible for the thousands of dead. He escaped post-war punishment by dying February 8, 1865 of a massive heart attack. Had not the Angel of Death visited him as he inspected the Florence Stockade in South Carolina, it might have been Winder, not Wirz, at the end of a rope. However, our study here is of northern prisons and malnutrition on those camps, and before that a digression onto a theme raised by generation of Lost Cause revisionists: “The northern prisons were just as bad as the southern prisons.”

An apt commentary upon this issue will be clear to readers literate enough to recall the story of Peter Pan and Tinker Bell. Eric Leonard, Chief of Interpretation and Education at Andersonville National Historic Site, writes: “We have a saying at the park that every time someone utters, ‘prisons in the north were just as bad as Andersonville,’ a historian loses her wings.” The use of death rates creates a sense of false equivalency. Comparing northern prisons with each other, and southern prisons with each other can yield some meaningful figures, but north-south comparisons are fraught with cultural and statistical errors. Nevertheless, any reader would wish to see the best estimates currently available and take their meaning with 30 milligrams (one grain) of salt.

As Gen. William T. Sherman’s forces approached Atlanta, the Confederate decided to close Andersonville and move its inmates north. Just why seems a mystery. If the men had been left at Andersonville, the Union forces would have had the burden of feeding and caring for them. The prisoners were far too weak to ever again be fighting men. The South could have used the many railroads involved to move their own troops. Did the South fear adverse publicity when the living skeletons would be discovered and exploited by the northern press? What is known is that half the Andersonville men were sent by train, under deplorable conditions, to a new facility at Florence, South Carolina, the so-called Florence Stockade. A very recent study of the Confederate Florence Stockade by the Rev. Dr. A. H. Ledoux, published under the title of The Florence Stockade: A Chronicle of Prison Life in the Waning Months of the Civil War gives previously unknown information on that facility. Fr. Ledoux, in a remarkable labor of diligence traced the path and military service records of every man known to been imprisoned at Florence. “Any estimate of the numbers interned at Florence must of necessity be highly tentative. No single list of prisoners exists.” The estimates are based on extant exchange rolls and on the estimated number of men on the last two trains to leave Florence. The list also includes the 543 Union soldiers who “galvanized” into Confederate service. Fr. Ledoux’s best estimate of the total number of Union men ever interned is 16,569. The Florence National Cemetery contains 2,746 Union dead, yielding a mortality of 16.57 percent. We will return to the issue of prison mortality after reviewing some of the factors involved.

Food in the Northern Prisons

Was there a Union equivalent of the Confederacy’s John Henry Winder? There most certainly was an equivalent, a direct equivalent, and his career is well-documented, but before we pass to the man himself we must examine the Old Army, which had rules, regulations, and traditions that, seen in today’s light, seem so penurious, narrow-minded, petty, and bone-headed that they might be mistaken for an episode of Monty Python or an unusually addled issue of Mad Magazine.

To begin with, there was no system of retirement. Not only did senior officers stay in office until senile, blocking any promotion for younger and more vigorous men, but stayed in office even when in a coma. Col. Thomas Lawson had been appointed army surgeon general in 1836. When the Civil War opened he was not only in his eighties but was literally unconscious. But he could not be replaced until he was actually dead. No pulse, no respiration. Stone cold dead. No doubt Lawson, during his twenty-five years in the post as surgeon general, had been familiar with the bizarre notion of the “hospital fund,” an army concept so illogical, so penny pinching, so mean and narrow that it vies with the “no retirement” concept for sheer idiocy.

Army policy decreed that each soldier was to receive daily rations worth thirty cents. If he was wounded or sick, and in hospital, he needed only thirteen cents worth of food. The seventeen cents “saved” was to go in the “hospital fund,” to be used for “delicacies,” such as chicken, milk, or vegetables.

The Old Army was scattered across the west in isolated forts, usually just in single companies, with an entire regiment rarely gathered in one spot. A typical fort might have 100 men, a handful of officers and a surgeon. The doctor’s duties included more than healing the sick. He was to keep a strict accounting of the hospital funds, with regular reports to Washington, DC. In Godforsaken wastes like the Nevada desert it was not clear how to obtain the “delicacies” noted in many accounting-based courts-martial, but on a small post the actual bookkeeping was not too onerous. However, as the 70,000 men of the Army of the Potomac marched along, scattering wounded and sick in its wake, the concept of the “hospital fund” remained, in all its inane glory, in all its totally unworkable inflexibility.

When Col. Lawson gave up the ghost, the army got a new surgeon general. Would he be a breath of fresh air, a new broom to sweep away the cobwebs of hidebound, Scrooge-like bureaucracy? That new man was Clement A. Finley, a man who had been a toddler when George Washington was still alive. Finley entered military service in 1818. His pre-Civil War history reveals a tendency to hyper-sensitivity and petty jealousies. Army surgeon William Beaumont, the founder of modern gastroenterology, was stationed at Missouri’s Jefferson Barracks. Beaumont ordered Finley to report for duty. Finley refused and was court-martialed. In 1847, a Capt. Macrae ordered Finley, now a major, to attend a muster and inspection. Finley refused on grounds that he outranked the captain. Finley was again court-martialed for disobedience. In 1851, another court-martial, Brevet Lt. Col. Braxton Bragg had ordered a sick man to duty. Finley replied that he held a regular commission, while Bragg’s rank was by brevet only. After a bitter and contentious trial, Finley was booted out of the army but soon reinstated by President Millard Fillmore.

With the Civil War came Finley’s chance to be the fabled breath of fresh air, but instead he brought the dead and stifling miasma of the tomb, the nasty and narrow seeking of prerogative. In a series of seven-way administrative battles, Finley took on Dr. Charles S. Tripler, Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan, Secretary of War Simon Cameron, Dr. John Neill (a “prominent member of the medical profession”), Maj. John F. Lee, Judge Advocate of the Army, the Sanitary Commission, and the editors of the powerful New York Tribune. Finley lost out and was ordered “retired on disability” in April 1862.

All this discussion of the traditions of the Old Army is a preamble to the subject of the north’s equivalent of the south’s Brig. Gen. Winder. This man who would be in charge of feeding, clothing, and supplying the Confederate soldiers held in Union POW camps was William Hoffman. His career was very parallel with that of Lawson and Finley, with a long immersion in the customs, regulations, and mind sets of the Old Army.

He graduated from West Point in 1829, and was assigned to duty in Missouri and Kansas. In 1832, he fought in the Black Hawk War and in 1837-1842 in the Second Seminole War. During the Mexican War he fought at Vera Cruz, Cerro Gordo, San Antonio, Contreras, and Churubusco, where he was wounded. He was also involved in action at Chapultepec, Mexico City, and Molino del Rey. For his work at the latter place he was brevetted lieutenant colonel for “gallant and meritorious conduct.” Between the Mexican War and the Civil War he served mainly in the west: Missouri, Dakota Territory, California, and Texas. In Texas, he was captured and paroled by the traitorous Brig. Gen. David F. Twiggs, who seized all Federal property in Texas and handed it over to the Confederacy.

In June 1862, he was made Commissary-General of Prisoners, reporting directly to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. Hoffman then had direct access to the inner halls of power and the blessing of those power holders. He soon began to exercise these new powers. At the Point Lookout prison, Brig. Gen. Gilman Marston was in charge. He asked Hoffman for money to build barracks, since the tents provided little shelter in the bitter winters. Hoffman refused. Marston also requested additional money for food. Hoffman replied that the prisoners were “bountifully supplied with provisions” from food parcels sent by prisoner’s families in the south. There is scant evidence for such bounty.

A few vignettes from the Rock Island prison will add to understanding Hoffman. As this prison was being constructed its commandant received a telegram from Hoffman announcing the imminent arrival of 5,000 Confederate prisoners. In spite of the warning that the only water supply on the island was one well and that housing was unfinished, the prisoners arrived. They were already exhausted, having endured a long ride in boxcars provided with no food or water and as crowded and filthy as those carrying victims to Buchenwald and Dachau in a future century. It was winter with snow on the ground and the camp had no clothes or blankets.

On Christmas Eve 1863, Hoffman reduced prisoners’ molasses ration from four quarts per 100 men to one quart per 100 men. Things grew worse in March 1864, when a large number of exchanged Union prisoners arrived in the Washington DC area. Both government and civilian officials were horrified at the condition of the men: walking skeletons, blank-eyed, listless, utterly demoralized, shattered husks of men. The cries for retribution were endorsed by Stanton, the blessing that Hoffman needed. On a day that pork was available the new ration was 10 ounces; beef was reduced to 14 ounces per man. Following Hoffman’s Old Army fixation on “hospital funds” and “savings,” the commandant at Rock Island “saved” $6,500 by selling 24 tons of bread and ten tons of beef back to the commissary. At Rock Island, men who took the Oath of Allegiance were simply put on the Iowa shore in the same ragged clothes in which they had been captured, without food or transportation. The Iowa citizens, who had profited by selling goods and services to the prison, were now horrified to find dozens of Confederates entering the County Poorhouse, to be fed at Iowa’s expense. The prison commandant asked Hoffman’s permission to give these indigent and starving men some hardtack. The answer was “no.”

One prison commandant requested money to clothe his prisoners. Hoffman replied, “So long as a prisoner has clothing upon him, however much torn, issue nothing to him,” cold comfort indeed as the winter winds whistled down out of Canada. Hoffman inspected New York’s Fort Lafayette and concluded, “The fort itself furnishes no room for prisoners … but some 500 prisoners may be accommodated.” Fort Lafayette’s new commandant wrote,” “The prisoners are entirely destitute of bedding and, in great measure, of the necessary clothing to insure cleanliness and comfort.” In brief, men in rags slept on the cold stone floor.

Was there a national food shortage to justify Hoffman’s policies? In 1840 the north produced 631 million bushels of grains (wheat, corn, oats, barley, rye, and buckwheat). In 1850, this figure had jumped to 867 million bushels. At the opening of the Civil War the new crop estimates were for 1.4 billion bushels. During the war, with new agricultural machinery coming into use, grain production rose even more, with enough national surplus to create a huge trade to Europe, via New York’s harbors.

The Old Army’s “hospital fund” lived on in Hoffman’s “prison fund.” The “savings” from shorting the prisoners on things like hardtack was supposed to be for buying vegetables, but at the end of the war, Hoffman proudly returned $1.8 million to the government. He had not spent the money, roughly $54 million in today’s money! What would $54 million buy today? The 2015 USDA figures for wholesale carrots suggest that Hoffman could have purchased at least 54 million pounds of carrots, enough to prevent or cure scurvy and night blindness in every soldier in every army. Whether Hoffman did right in starving prisoners in retaliation for conditions in the Confederate prisons is a matter for moralists and ethicists, but it cannot be argued that the north was short of food.

Compared With What?

One of the oldest dialogues in vaudeville involved two comedians. One asked, “How’s your wife?” The other replies, “Compared with what?” Here the question is: How was life on active duty, compared with life as a prisoner of war?

Exact figures for the Confederacy are a problem. The pre-eminent student of the armies of the Confederacy and especially the Army of Northern Virginia, Robert K. Krick, makes this analysis. Broadfoot Publishing has computerized all the available compiled military service records of the Confederacy, a total of 1,240,000 records. Because many men served in several units, thus generating several set of records, the number of actual men must be adjusted. Based on a literal life-time of studying these records, Krick estimates that 25 percent of the 1,240,000 records represent the same man, concluding that roughly 90,000 individuals served in the southern armies. An educated guess as to total casualties from disease and wounds is 275,000, yielding a mortality rate of 30.6 percent.

How does this compare with the mortality as a prisoner of war? Exact numbers from the Union POW camps are hard to find, but using the highest figures from a variety of sources, the largest camps had these mortality rates: Elmira (25%); Camp Douglas (23%); Rock Island (17%); Point Lookout (8%). The combined experience of these four large camps suggests an overall mortality rate of 18.3%. On a statistical basis, it was safer to be in a Union POW camp than to serve on active duty.

True, life in the prison camps was miserable and the survivors were often in shattered physical and mental condition, but years on active service with long marches, bad food, poor clothing, often shoeless, with at least one episode of severe dysentery each year would also yield a much-depleted man.

The Union figures are derived from Frederick M. Dyer’s Compendium of the War of the Rebellion. All Federal military men, including white troops, colored troops, Indian troops, and Navy personnel, totaled 2,778,304. Union dead, from all causes, totaled 359,528, a mortality of 12.9 percent. How did Union men fare in Confederate captivity? This question is made difficult by gaps in the Confederate records. Best estimates of mortality rates for three major Confederate facilities are: Andersonville (30%); Camp Lawton (22%); and the Florence Stockade (17%), with an overall rate of 23%.

Granted the great difficulties in drawing meaningful conclusions from these figures, three findings seem likely. (1) By a small margin, a prisoner was more likely to die in a Confederate camp than in a Union camp; (2) A Union prisoner was twice as likely to die as a prisoner than serving on active duty; and (3) a Confederate soldier was more likely to die on active service than in a Union prison camp.

A general conclusion is easy to make: neither north nor south was prepared to house, feed, and clothe large numbers of prisoners, nor was either side willing to make much effort to alleviate the well-documented and often-fatal deprivations.

-By Thomas P. Lowry