Southern Historical Society Papers/Volume 01/April/Efforts of a Northern gentleman to relieve our prisoners
We have a long
STATEMENT OF JOHN J. VAN-ALLEN,
of Watkins, Schuyler county, New York, from which we make the following extract:
Late in the fall of 1864, and when the bitter sleets and biting frosts of winter had commenced, a relief organization was improvised by some of the generous ladies and gentlemen of the city of Baltimore for the purpose of alleviating the wants of those confined in the Elmira Prison, where there were then several thousand prisoners.
I had the honor to be appointed by that organization to ascertain the needs of the prisoners, to distribute clothing, money, etc., as they might require. I had formerly lived at Elmira, where I studied my profession, but then (as now) I resided at this place, twenty miles distant from Elmira, where I have resided for nearly twenty-five years, and was well known at Elmira.
As soon as appointed I journeyed to that delightful paradise for Confederate prisoners (according to Walker, Tracy and Platt), and stated the object of my visit to the commanding officer, and asked to be permitted to go through the prison in order to ascertain the wants of the prisoners, with the request that I might distribute necessary blankets, clothing, money, medicines, etc.
He treated me with consideration and kindness, and informed me that they were very destitute of clothing and blankets; that not one-half of them had even a single blanket; and that many were nearly naked, the most of them having been captured during the hot summer months with no other than thin cotton clothes, which in most instances were in tatters. Yet he stated that he could not allow me to enter the prison gate or administer relief, as an order of the War Department rendered him powerless. I then asked him to telegraph the facts to the War Department and ask a revocation or modification of the order, which he did; and two or three days were thus consumed by me in a fruitless endeavor to procure the poor privilege of carrying out the designs of the good Samaritans at Baltimore who were seeking to alleviate in a measure the wants of the poor sufferers, who were there dying off like rotten sheep from cold and exposure. The officer in command was an army officer, and his heart nearly bled for those poor sufferers; and I know he did all in his power to aid me, but his efforts were fruitless to assist me to put a single coat on the back of a sufferer. The brutal Stanton was inexorable to all my entreaties, and turned a deaf ear to the tale of their sufferings. The only proposition that could be entertained was this: If I would fetch clothing only of a gray color (Confederate uniforms) I could place it in the hands of some under-strappers of the loyal persuasion, as well as such as I might wish to leave in the same hands, and they would distribute the same as they liked.
This could not be allowed to be done by the commanding officer, but must be done by one of the loyal (?) gentry, who I became satisfied would absorb it before any poor Confederate soldier would even catch aat its shadow; and I was actually forced to give the matter up in despair.
The nearest I could get to the poor skeletons confined in that prison, was a tower built by some speculator in an adjoining field across the way from the prison pen, for which privilege a money consideration was exacted and paid. On taking a position upon this tower what a sight of misery and squalor was presented! My heart was made sick, and I blushed for my country—more because of the inhumanity there depicted. Nearly all of the many thousands there were in dirty rags. The rain was pouring, and thousands were without shelter, standing in the mud in their bare feet, with clothes in tatters, of the most unsubstantial material, without blankets. I tell the truth, and Mr. Charles C. B. Watkins dare not deny it, when I say these men suffered bitterly for the want of clothing, blankets and other necessaries. I was denied the privilege of covering their nakedness.
The above statement needs no comment. The refusal of Mr. Stanton to allow this high-minded, Northern gentleman to distribute supplies among these destitute suffering prisoners, was of a piece with his insolent reply to Hon. A. J. Beresford Hope, who wrote for permission to use a sum of money raised by English gentlemen to alleviate the condition of Confederate prisoners at the North, and received for answer, that the United States Government was rich enough to provide for its prisoners, and needed no foreign help.
Yes! the United States Government was amply able to provide for its captives; but it chose to adopt a system of cold-blooded cruelty, and to seek to avoid the verdict of history by the most persistent slanders against the Confederate authorities.