Southern Historical Society Papers/Volume 01/March/Extract from Central Presbyterian

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Southern Historical Society Papers: Volume 1 Number 3  (1876)  by Charles Anderson Dana
Extract from Central Presbyterian
Southern Historical Society Papers, March 1876

But we will now introduce the

TESTIMONY OF THE ASSISTANT SECRETARY OF WAR OF THE UNITED STATES, MR. CHARLES A. DANA.

In an editorial in his paper, the New York Sun, Mr. Dana, after speaking of the bitterness of feeling towards Mr. Davis at the North, thus comments on his recent letter to Mr. Lyons:

This letter shows clearly, we think, that the Confederate authorities, and especially Mr. Davis, ought not to be held responsible for the terrible privations, sufferings and injuries which our men had to endure while they were kept in the Confederate military prisons. The fact is unquestionable that while the Confederates desired to exchange prisoners, to send our men home and to get back their own, General Grant steadily and strenuously resisted such an exchange. While, in his opinion, the prisoners in our hands were well fed, and were in better condition than when they were captured, our prisoners in the South were ill fed, and would be restored to us too much exhausted by famine and disease to form a fair set-off against the comparative vigorous men who would be given in exchange. "It is hard on our men held in Southern prisons," said Grant in an official communication, "not to exchange them; but it is humane to those left in the ranks to fight our battles. If we commence a system of exchanges which liberates all prisoners taken, we will have to fight on until the whole South is exterminated. If we hold those caught, they count for no more than dead men." "I did not," he said on another occasion, "deem it justifiable or just to reinforce the enemy; and an immediate resumption of exchanges would have had that effect without any corresponding benefit."

This evidence must be taken as conclusive. It proves that it was not the Confederate authorities who insisted on keeping our prisoners in distress, want and disease, but the commander of our own armies. We do not say that his reason for this course was not valid; but it was not Jefferson Davis, or any subordinate or associate of his, who should now be condemned for it. We were responsible ourselves for the continued detention of our captives in misery, starvation and sickness in the South.

Moreover, there is no evidence whatever that it was practicable for the Confederate authorities to feed our prisoners any better than they were fed, or to give them better care and attention than they received. The food was insufficient; the care and attention were insufficient, no doubt; and yet the condition of our prisoners was not worse than that of the Confederate soldiers in the field, except in so far as the condition of those in prison must of necessity be worse than that of men who are free and active outside.

Again, in reference to those cases of extreme suffering and disease, the photographs of whose victims were so extensively circulated among us toward the end of the war, Mr. Davis makes, it seems to us, a good answer. Those very unfortunate men were not taken from prisons, but from Confederate hospitals, where they had received the same medical treatment as was given to sick and wounded Confederate soldiers. The fact mentioned by Mr. Davis that while they had 60,000 more prisoners of ours than we had of theirs, the number of Confederates who died in our prisons exceeded by 6,000 the whole number of Union soldiers who died in Southern prisons, though not entirely conclusive, since our men were generally better fed and in better health than theirs, still furnishes a strong support to the position that, upon the whole, our men were not used with greater severity or subjected to greater privations than were inevitable in the nature of the case. Of this charge, therefore, of cruelty to prisoners, so often brought against Mr. Davis, and reiterated by Mr. Blaine in his speech, we think he must be held altogether acquitted.

There are other things in his letter not essential to this question, expressions of political opinions and intimations of views upon larger subjects, which it is not necessary that we should discuss. We are bound, however, to say that in elevation of spirit in a sincere desire for the total restoration of fraternal feeling and unity between the once warring parts of the Republic, Mr. Davis' letter is infinitely superior and infinitely more creditable to him, both as a statesman and a man, than anything that has recently fallen from such antagonists and critics of his as Mr. Blaine.