Southern Historical Society Papers/Volume 01/March/Statement of General J. D. Imboden

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Southern Historical Society Papers: Volume 1 Number 3  (1876) 
Statement of General J. D. Imboden by John Daniel Imboden
Southern Historical Society Papers, March 1876

We will next introduce the following

STATEMENT OF GENERAL J. D. IMBODEN.

It touches on points which we have already discussed, and anticipates some others which we shall afterwards give more in detail. But it is a clear and very interesting narrative of an important eyewitness; and we will not mutilate the paper, but will give it entire in its original form:

Richmond, Va., January 12th, 1876.

General D. H. Maury,

Chairman of the Executive Committee of the Southern Historical Society:

General—At your request I cheerfully reduce to writing the facts stated by me in our conversation this morning, for preservation in the archives of your society, and as bearing upon a historical question—the treatment of prisoners during our late civil war, which it seems certain politicians of the vindictive type in the North, led by a Presidential aspirant, have deemed it essential to their party success to thrust upon the country again in the beginning of this our centennial year.

It is to be hoped that after the lapse of ten years since we of the South grounded our arms, passion has so far yielded to patriotism, reason, and sentiments of a common humanity in the minds and hearts of the great mass of intelligent people at the North, that all the facts relating to the great struggle between the States of the North and South may be calmly presented, if not for final decision by this generation, at least to aid impartial mankind in the future to judge correctly between the conquering and the vanquished parties to the contest; and to fix the responsibility where it attaches, to the one side or the other, or to both, for sufferings inflicted that were not necessarily incident to a state of war between contending Christian powers.

I now proceed to give you a simple historical narrative of facts within my personal knowledge, that I believe have never been published, although at the request of Judge Robert Ould, of this city, who was the Confederate Commissioner for the Exchange of Prisoners, I wrote them out in 1866, and furnished the MS. to a reporter of the New York Herald. But the statement never appeared in that journal, for the reason assigned by the reporter, that the conductors of the Herald deemed the time inopportune for such a publication. My MS. was retained by them, and I have never heard of it since.

It is, perhaps, proper to state how I came to be connected with the prison service of the Confederate States. An almost fatal attack of typhoid fever, in the summer and fall of 1864, so impaired my physical condition that I was incapable of performing efficiently the arduous duties of my position as a cavalry officer on active service in the mountains of Virginia, and therefore I applied to the Confederate War Office for assignment to some light duty farther south till the milder weather of the ensuing spring would enable me to take my place at the head of the brave and hardy mountaineers of the Valley and western counties of Virginia I had the honor to command. General R. E. Lee kindly urged my application in person, and procured an order directing me to report to Brigadier-General J. H. Winder, then Commissary of Prisoners, whose headquarters were at Columbia, South Carolina. I left my camp in the Shenandoah Valley, late in December, 1864, and reached Columbia, I think, on the 6th of January, 1865. General Winder immediately ordered me to the command of all the prisons west of the Savannah river, with leave to establish my temporary headquarters at Aiken, South Carolina, on account of the salubrity of its climate. I cannot fix dates after this with absolute precision, because all my official papers fell into the hands of the United States military authorities after the surrender of General Joseph E. Johnston to General Sherman; but for all essential purposes my memory enables me to detail events in consecutive order, and approximately to assign each to its proper date.

A few days after receiving my orders from General Winder, I reached Aiken, and visited Augusta, Georgia, and established an office there in charge of a staff officer, Lieutenant George W. McPhail, for prompt and convenient communication with the prisons of the department.

About my first official act was to dispatch Lieutenant-Colonel Bondurant on a tour of inspection of the prisons in my department, with instructions to report fully on their condition and management. Whilst Colonel Bondurant was on this service, I was forced to quit Aiken by the approach of Kilpatrick's cavalry, moving on the flank of Sherman's army. A detachment of this cavalry reached Aiken within four hours after I left it. I then made Augusta my permanent headquarters, residing, however a few miles out on the Georgia railroad at Berzelia. Colonel Bondurant promptly discharged the duty assigned to him, and on the state of facts presented in his reports, I resolved to keep up but two prisons, the one at Andersonville and the other at Eufaula. I did this for economical reasons, and because it was easier to supply two posts than four or five so widely scattered; and besides the whole number of prisoners in the department then did not exceed 8,000 or 9,000—the great majority, about 7,500, being at Andersonville.

Before I received Colonel Bondurant's report, General Winder died, when, having no superior in command, I reported directly to the Secretary of War at Richmond. Communication with the War Office was at that period very slow and difficult. Great military operations were in progress. General Sherman was moving through the Carolinas. The Federal cavalry under Kilpatrick, with Sherman and Stoneman co-operating from Tennessee, almost suspended mail facilities between Georgia and Virginia, and the telegraph was almost impracticable, because the line was taxed almost to its capacity in connection with active military operations. After the death of General Winder, I made repeated efforts to establish communication with the Secretary of War, and with Commissioner Ould, and obtain some instructions in regard to the prisons and prisoners under my charge. All these efforts failed, at least I received no reply by wire, mail or messenger to any of my inquiries. A newspaper fell into my hands in which, as an item of news, I saw it stated that Brigadier-General Gideon J. Pillow had been appointed General Winder's successor. General Pillow was then at Macon, but had received no official notification of his appointment, and I having none, could not, and did not, recognize him as entitled to command me, but cheerfully, as will appear further on, consulted him in regard to all important matters of administration.

Colonel Bondurant's report on the Andersonville prison, taken in connection with written applications from Captain Wirz which I had received, suggesting measures for the amelioration of the condition of the prisoners, strongly endorsed and approved by Colonel Gibbs, an old United States army officer, a cultivated, urbane and humane gentleman, commanding the post, made it apparent to my mind that I ought to make a personal examination into its condition. This was no easy undertaking, as I had to travel over almost impassible country roads through the desolated belt of country traversed by Sherman's army, in its march through Georgia, for a distance of over seventy miles, before I could reach a railroad to take me to Andersonville. I made the journey, however, in February.

On my arrival at Andersonville, unannounced and unexpected, I made an immediate personal inspection of everything—not only as then existing, but with the aid of the post and prison record, I went back several months, to the period when the mortality was so great, to ascertain, if possible, its cause.

The guard then on duty consisted of a brigade of Georgia State troops, under command of Brigadier-General Gartrell. The post was commanded by Colonel Gibbs, who, as before stated, was an old army officer; and the prison proper was under the immediate command of Captain Wirz, who was tried and executed at Washington, in 1865, most unjustly, as the verdict of impartial history will establish; just as will be the case in regard to Mrs. Surratt's horrible murder.

The officers first named, and all others on duty there, afforded me every facility to prosecute my investigations to the fullest extent, and were prompt to point out to me measures of relief that were practicable. I went within the stockade and conversed with many of the prisoners. I found the prison and its inmates in a bad condition; not as bad as our enemies have represented, yet unfortunately bad. The location of the stockade was good, and had been judiciously chosen for healthfulness. It occupied two gently sloping hillsides, with a clear flowing brook dividing them; and being in the sandy portion of the pine woods of Georgia, it was free from local malaria, and had the benefit of a genial and healthy climate. It was of sufficient capacity for from 8,000 to 9,000 prisoners, without uncomfortable crowding. The great mortality of the previous year, I have no doubt, resulted in part from an excess of prisoners over the fair capacity of the stockade, and from the lack of sufficient shelter from the sun and rain. Before my arrival at Andersonville, Captain Wirz had, by a communication forwarded through Colonel Gibbs, and approved by him, called my attention to the great deficiency of shelter in the stockade, and asked authority to supply it. He had made a similar application, I was informed, to General Winder some time before, but it had not been acted on before the General's death. In consequence of this want of buildings and shedding within the stockade, the prisoners had excavated a great many subterranean vaults and chambers in the hillsides, which many of them occupied, to the injury of their health, as these places were not sufficiently ventilated.

The prisoners were very badly off for clothing, shoes and hats, and complained of this destitution, and of the quantity and kind of rations—corn bread and bacon chiefly—issued to them. I found, what I anticipated, that we had no clothing to give them. Many of the men on duty as guards were in rags, and either barefooted, or had their feet protected with wornout shoes held together with strings and thongs, and in lieu of overcoats many had to protect themselves against inclement weather with a tattered blanket drawn over the shoulders. Our own men being in this destitute condition, it can be well understood that we could not supply a large demand for clothing prisoners.

They also suffered greatly, and there had been great mortality, for want of suitable medicines to treat the diseases incident to their condition with any considerable success. From this cause, and this alone, I have no doubt thousands died at Andersonville in 1864, who would be living to-day if the United States Government had not declared medicines contraband of war, and by their close blockade of our coasts deprived us of an adequate supply of those remedial agents that therapeutic science and modern chemistry have produced for the amelioration of suffering humanity. The object of this barbarous decree against the Confederacy, it is now well understood, was to expose our soldiers, as well as our wives, children and families, without protection or relief, to the diseases common in our climate, and to make us an easy prey to death, approach us in what form he might; not foreseeing, perhaps, that when the grim monster stalked through our prisons he would find not alone Confederates for his victims, but stalwart soldiers of the Government which had invoked his aid against us. At the time of my inspection, there was a good deal of sickness amongst the prisoners, but not a large percentage of mortality. Our medical officers, even with their scanty pharmacopæ, gave equal attention to sick friends and enemies, to guard and to prisoners alike.

I investigated particularly the food question, and found that no discrimination was made in the issue of rations to guards and prisoners. In quantity, quality and kind the daily supply was exactly the same, man for man. It is true it was very scanty, consisting of a third or half a pound of meat a day, and usually a pint or pint and a half of corn meal, with salt. Occasionally there were small supplies of wheat flour, and sometimes a very few potatoes, but they were rarely to be had. Other vegetables we had none. General Lee's army in Virginia lived but little if any better. The food was sound and wholesome, but meagre in quantity, and not such in kind and variety as Federal soldiers had been accustomed to draw from their abundant commissariat. Our soldiers did very well on "hog and hominy," and rarely complained. The Federals thought it horrible to have nothing else, and but a scanty supply of this simple food. Great scoundrelism was detected amongst the prisoners in cheating each other. They were organized in companies of a hundred each in the stockade, and certain men of their own selection were permitted to come outside the stockade and draw rations for their fellows, and cook them. Many of these rascals would steal and secrete a part of the food, and, as opportunity offered, sell it at an exorbitant rate to their famished comrades. Shortly before I went to Andersonville six of these villains were detected, and, by permission of the prison authorities, the prisoners themselves organized a court of their own, tried them for the offence, found them guilty, and hung them inside the stockade. This event led to a change in the mode of issuing rations, which precluded the possibility of such a diabolical traffic in stolen food.

Bad as was the physical condition of the prisoners, their mental depression was worse, and perhaps more fatal. Thousands of them collected around me in the prison, and begged me to tell them whether there was any hope of release by an exchange of prisoners. Some time before that President Davis had permitted three of the Andersonville prisoners to go to Washington to try and change the determination of their Government and procure a resumption of exchanges. The prisoners knew of the failure of this mission when I was at Andersonville, and the effect was to plunge the great majority of them into the deepest melancholy, home-sickness and despondency. They believed their confinement would continue till the end of the war, and many of them looked upon that as a period so indefinite and remote that they believed that they would die of their sufferings before the day of release came. I explained to them the efforts we had made and were still making to effect an exchange. A Federal captain at Andersonville, learning that I had a brother of the same rank (Captain F. M. Imboden, of the Eighteenth Virginia cavalry) incarcerated at Johnson's Island, in Lake Erie, where he was in a fair way to die from harsh treatment and a lack of food, represented to me that he had powerful connections at Washington, and thought that if I would parole him he could effect his exchange for my brother, and perhaps influence a decision on the general question of exchanges. He agreed to return in thirty days if he failed. I accepted his terms, and with some difficulty got him through the lines. He failed, and returned within our lines, but just in time to be set at liberty again, as will appear further on. I regret that I have forgotten his name, and have no record of it.

I have already alluded to Captain Wirz's recommendation to put up more shelter. I ordered it, and thereafter daily a hundred or more prisoners were paroled and set to work in the neighboring forest. In the course of a fortnight comfortable log houses, with floors and good chimneys—for which the prisoners made and burnt the brick—were erected for twelve or fifteen hundred men, and were occupied by those in feeble health, who were withdrawn from the large stockade and separated from the mass of prisoners. This same man (Captain Wirz), who was tried and hung as a murderer, warmly urged the establishment of a tannery and shoemaker's shop, informing me that there were many men amongst the prisoners skilled in these trades, and that some of them knew a process of very rapidly converting hides into tolerably good leather. There were thousands of hides at Andersonville, from the young cattle butchered during the previous summer and fall, whilst the country yet contained such animals. I ordered this, too; and a few weeks later many of the barefooted prisoners were supplied with rough, but comfortable shoes; one of them made and sent to me a pair that surprised me, both by the quality of the leather and the style of the shoes. Another suggestion came from the medical staff of the post that I ordered to be at once put into practice: it was to brew corn beer for those suffering from scorbutic taint. The corn meal—or even whole corn—being scalded in hot water and a mash made of it, a little yeast was added to promote fermentation, and in a few days a sharp, acid beverage was produced, by no means unpalatable, and very wholesome. Captain Wirz entered warmly into this enterprise. I mention these facts to show that he was not the monster he was afterwards represented to be, when his blood was called for by infuriate fanaticism. I would have proved these facts if I had been permitted to testify on his trial after I was summoned before the court by the United States, and have substantiated them by the records of the prison and of my own headquarters, if these records were not destroyed, suppressed or mutilated at the time. But after being kept an hour in the court-room, during an earnest and whispered consultation between the President of the court and the Judge-Advocate, and their examination of a great mass of papers, the contents of which I could not see, I was politely dismissed without examination, and told I would be called at another time; but I never was, and thus Wirz was deprived of the benefit of my evidence. My personal acquaintance with Captain Wirz was very slight, but the facts I have alluded to satisfied me that he was a humane man, and was selected as a victim to the bloody moloch of 1865, because he was a foreigner and comparatively friendless. I put these facts on record now to vindicate, as far as they go, his memory from the monstrous crimes falsely charged against him. No such charges ever reached me, whilst I was in a position to have made it a duty to investigate them, as those upon which he was tried and executed. He may have committed grave offences, but if so, I never knew it and do not believe it.

After having given my sanction and orders to carry out every suggestion of others, or that occurred to my own mind for the amelioration of the condition of the prisoners as far as we possessed the means, and having issued stringent orders to preserve discipline amongst the guarding troops, and subordination, quiet and good order amongst the prisoners, I went to Macon to confer with General Howell Cobb and General Gideon J. Pillow as to the proper course for me to pursue in the event of our situation in Georgia becoming more precarious, or the chance of communication with the Government at Richmond being entirely cut off, which appeared to be an almost certain event in the very near future. After a full discussion of the situation, there was perfect accord in our views. General Pillow was expecting to receive official notice of his appointment as Commissary of Prisons, in which event he would become my commanding officer. General Cobb commanded the State troops of Georgia, and I was dependent on him for a sufficient force to discharge my duties and hold the prisoners in custody. There was eminent propriety, therefore, in our conferring with each other, and acting harmoniously in whatever course might be adopted. General Pillow took a leading part in the discussion, and in shaping the conclusions to which we came. In the absence of official information or instructions from Richmond, we acted upon what the newspapers announced as a recently established arrangement with General Grant, which was, in effect, that either side might deliver to the other on parole, but without exchange, any prisoners they chose, taking simply a receipt for them. We had no official information of any such agreement from our Government, but it was regarded by us as very probably true, and we decided to act upon it. The difficulty of supplying the prisoners with even a scanty ration of corn meal and bacon was increasing daily. The cotton States had never been a grazing country, and therefore we had few or no animals left there for food, except hogs. These States were not a large wheat producing region, and for that reason we had to depend mainly on corn for bread. Salt was scarce and hard to obtain. Vegetables we had none for army purposes. We were destitute of clothing, and of the materials and machinery to manufacture it in sufficient quantities for our own soldiers and people. And the Federal Government, remaining deaf to all appeals for exchange of prisoners, it was manifest that the incarceration of their captured soldiers could no longer be of any possible advantage to us, since to relieve their sufferings that Government would take no step, if it involved a similar release of our men in their hands. Indeed, it was manifest that they looked upon it as an advantage to them and an injury to us to leave their prisoners in our hands to eat out our little remaining substance. In view of all these facts and considerations, Generals Cobb and Pillow and I were of one mind that the best thing that could be done was, without further efforts to get instructions from Richmond, to make arrangements to send off all the prisoners we had at Eufaula and Andersonville to the nearest accessible Federal post, and having paroled them not to bear arms till regularly exchanged, to deliver them unconditionally, simply taking a receipt on descriptive rolls of the men thus turned over.

In pursuance of this determination, and as soon as the necessary arrangements could be made, a detachment of about 1,500 men, made up from the two prisons, was sent to Jackson, Mississippi, by rail and delivered to their friends. General "Dick" Taylor at that time commanded the department through which these prisoners were sent to Jackson, and objected to any more being sent that way, on the ground that they would pick up information on the route detrimental to our military interests. The only remaining available outlet was at Saint Augustine, Florida, Sherman having destroyed railway communication with Savannah. Finding that the prisoners could be sent from Andersonville by rail to the Chattahoochie, thence down that river to Florida, near Quincy, and from Quincy by rail to Jacksonville, within a day's march of Saint Augustine, it was resolved to open communication with the Federal commander at the latter place. With that view, somewhere about the middle of March, Captain Rutherford, an intelligent and energetic officer, was sent to Saint Augustine. A few days after his departure for Florida, he telegraphed from Jacksonville, "Send on the prisoners." He had, as he subsequently reported, arranged with the Federal authorities to receive them. At once all were ordered to be sent forward who were able to bear the journey. Three days' cooked rations were prepared, and so beneficial to health was the revival of the spirits of these men by the prospect of once more being at liberty, that I believe all but twelve or fifteen reported themselves able to go, and did go. The number sent was over 6,000. Only enough officers and men of the guard went along to keep the prisoners together, preserve order, and facilitate their transportation. To my amazement the officer commanding the escort telegraphed back from Jacksonville that the Federal commandant at Saint Augustine refused to receive and receipt for the prisoners till he could hear from General Grant, who was then in front of Petersburg, Virginia, and with whom he could only communicate by sea along the coast, and asking my instructions under the circumstances. Acting without the known sanction of the Government at Richmond, I was afraid to let go the prisoners without some official acknowledgment of their delivery to the United States, and knowing that two or three weeks must elapse before General Grant's will in the premises could be made known, and it being impossible to subsist our men and the prisoners at Jacksonville, I could pursue but one course. I ordered their return to Andersonville, directing that the reason for this unexpected result should be fully explained to them. Provisions were hastily collected and sent to meet them, and in a few days all were back in their old quarters. I was not there on their return, but it was reported to me that their indignation against their Government was intense, many declaring their readiness to renounce allegiance to it and take up arms with us. The old routine was resumed at Andersonville, but it was not destined to continue long.

Before any further communication reached me from Saint Augustine, General Wilson, with a large body of cavalry, approached Georgia from the West. It was evident that his first objective point was Andersonville. Again conferring with Generals Cobb and Pillow, and finding we were powerless to prevent Wilson's reaching Andersonville, where he would release the prisoners and capture all our officers and troops there, it was decided without hesitation again to send the prisoners to Jacksonville and turn them loose, to make the best of their way to their friends at Saint Augustine. This was accomplished in a few days, the post at Andersonville was broken up, the Georgia State troops were sent to General Cobb at Macon, and in a short time the surrender of General Johnston to Sherman, embracing all that section of country, the Confederate prisons ceased to exist, and on the 3d of May, 1865, I was myself a prisoner of war on parole at Augusta, Georgia. A few days later I was sent with other paroled Confederates to Hilton Head, South Carolina, where I met about 2,000 of the Andersonville prisoners, who had been sent up from Saint Augustine, to be thence shipped North. Their condition was much improved. Many of them were glad to see me, and four days later I embarked with several hundred of them on the steam transport "Thetis" for Fortress Monroe, and have reason to believe that every man of them felt himself my friend rather than an enemy.

It has been charged that Mr. Davis, as President of the Confederate States, was responsible for the sufferings of prisoners held in the South. During my four months' connection with this disagreeable branch of the Confederate military service, no communication, direct or indirect, was ever received by me from Mr. Davis, and, so far as I remember, the records of the prison contained nothing to implicate him in any way with its management or administration. I have briefly alluded to the causes of complaint on the part of prisoners, and even where these were well founded, I am at a loss to see how Mr. Davis is to be held responsible before the world for their existence, till it is proved that he knew of them and failed to remove delinquent officers.

The real cause of all the protracted sufferings of prisoners North and South is directly due to the inhuman refusal of the Federal Government to exchange prisoners of war, a policy that we see from the facts herein stated was carried so far as to induce a commanding officer, at Saint Augustine, to refuse even to receive, and acknowledge that he had received, over 6,000 men of his own side, tendered to him unconditionally, from that prison in the South which, above all others, they charged to have been the scene of unusual suffering. The inference is irresistible that this officer felt that it would be dangerous to his official character to relieve the Confederacy of the Wikt:burthen of supporting these prisoners, although he and his countrymen affected to believe that we were slowly starving them to death. The policy at Washington was to let Federal prisoners starve, if the process involved the Confederates in a similar catastrophe—and "fired the Northern heart."

I have introduced more of my personal movements and actions into this recital than is agreeable or apparently in good taste, but it has been unavoidable in making the narrative consecutive and intelligible, and I trust will be pardoned, even if appearing to transcend the bounds of becoming modesty. In the absence of all my official papers relating to these subjects (which I presume were taken to Washington after I surrendered them, and are still there, unless it was deemed policy to destroy them when Captain Wirz was on trial), I have not been able to go into many minute details that might add interest to the statement, but nothing, I think, to the leading fact—that the United States refused an unconditional delivery of so many of its own men, inmates of that prison (Andersonville), which they professed then to regard as a Confederate slaughter-pen and place of intentional diabolical cruelties inflicted on the sick and helpless. Was this course not a part of a policy of deception for "firing the Northern heart?" Impartial history will one day investigate and answer this question. And there we may safely leave it, with a simple record of the facts.

Very truly, your friend,

J. D. Imboden.

The above documents seem to us to show beyond all controversy that whatever suffering existed at Andersonville (and it is freely admitted that the suffering was terrible), resulted from causes which were beyond the control of the Confederate Government, and were directly due to the cold-blooded, cruel policy of the Federal authorities, which not only refused to exchange prisoners, but rejected every overture to mitigate their sufferings.