Southern Historical Society Papers/Volume 01/April/Letter from a U. S. Medical Officer

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Southern Historical Society Papers, April 1876

We give in full the following statement of a medical officer of the United States army, who was on duty at the Elmira prison. His letter was originally published in the New York World, and dated from Brooklyn, New York:


{{fine block|To the Editor of the World:

Sir—I beg herewith (after having carefully gone through the various documents in my possession pertaining to the matter) to forward you the following statistics and facts of the mortality of the Rebel prisoners in the Northern prisons, more particularly at that of Elmira, New York, where I served as one of the medical officers for many months. I found, on commencement of my duties at Elmira, about 11,000 Rebel prisoners, fully one-third of whom were under medical treatment for diseases principally owing to an improper diet, a want of clothing, necessary shelter and bad surrounding; the diseases were consequently of the following nature: Scurvy, diarrhœa, pneumonia, and the various branches of typhoid, all superinduced by the causes, more or less, aforementioned.

The winter of 1864-5 was an unusually severe and rigid one, and the prisoners arriving from the Southern States during this season were mostly old men and lads, clothed in attire suitable only to the genial climate of the South. I need not state to you that this alone was ample cause for an unusual mortality amongst them. The surroundings were of the following nature, viz: narrow, confined limits, but a few acres of ground in extent, and through which slowly flowed a turbid stream of water, carrying along with it all the excremental filth and debris of the camp; this stream of water, horrible to relate, was the only source of supply, for an extended period, that the prisoners could possibly use for the purpose of ablution, and to slake their thirst from day to day; the tents and other shelter allotted to the camp at Elmira were insufficient, and crowded to the utmost extent—hence, small pox and other skin diseases raged through the camp.

Here I may note that, owing to a general order from the Government to vaccinate the prisoners, my opportunities were ample to observe the effects of spurious and diseased matter, and there is no doubt in my mind but that syphilis was engrafted in many instances; ugly and horrible ulcers and eruptions of a characteristic nature were, alas, too frequent and obvious to be mistaken. Small-pox cases were crowded in such a manner that it was a matter of impossibility for the surgeon to treat his patients individually; they actually laid so adjacent that the simple movement of one of them would cause his neighbor to cry out in agony of pain. The confluent and malignant type prevailed to such an extent, and of such a nature, that the body would frequently be found one continuous scab.

The diet and other allowances by the Government for the use of the prisoners were ample, yet the poor unfortunates were allowed to starve; but why, is a query which I will allow your readers to infer, and to draw conclusions therefrom. Out of the number of prisoners, as before mentioned, over three thousand of them now lay buried in the cemetery located near the camp for that purpose; a mortality equal, if not greater than that of any prison in the South. At Andersonville, as I am well informed by brother officers who endured confinement there, as well as by the records at Washington, the mortality was twelve thousand out of say about forty thousand prisoners. Hence it is readily to be seen that range of mortality was no less at Elmira than at Andersonville.

At Andersonville there was actually nothing to feed or clothe the prisoners with, their own soldiers faring but little better than their prisoners; this, together with a torrid sun and an impossibility of exchange, was abundant cause for their mortality. With our prisoners at Elmira, no such necessity should honestly have existed, as our Government had actually, as I have stated, most bountifully made provision for the wants of all detained, both of officers and men. Soldiers who have been prisoners at Andersonville, and have done duty at Elmira, confirm this statement, and which is in nowise in one particular exaggerated; also, the same may be told of other prisons managed in a similarly terrible manner. I allude to Sandusky, Delaware and others. I do not say that all prisoners at the North suffered and endured the terrors and the cupidity of venal sub-officials; on the contrary, at the camps in the harbor of New York, and at Point Lookout, and at other camps where my official duties from time to time have called me, the prisoners in all respects have fared as our Government intended and designated they should. Throughout Texas, where food and the necessaries of life were plentiful, I found our own soldiers faring well, and to a certain extent contented, so far, at least, as prisoners of war could reasonably expect to be.

Our Government allowed the prisoners of war the following rations: Twelve ounces of pork or bacon, or one pound of salt or fresh beef; one pound six ounces of soft bread or flour, or one pound of corn meal; and to every one hundred rations, fifteen pounds of beans or peas and ten pounds of rice or hominy, ten pounds of green coffee or five pounds of roasted ditto, or one pound eight ounces of tea, fifteen pounds of sugar, four quarts of vinegar, thirty pounds of potatoes, and if fresh potatoes could not be obtained, canned vegetables were allowed. Prisoners of war will receive for subsistence one ration each, without regard to rank; their private property shall be duly respected, and each shall be treated with regard to his rank, and the wounded are to be treated with the same care as the wounded of our army.

How faithfully these regulations were carried out at Elmira is shown by the following statement of facts: The sick in hospitals were curtailed in every respect (fresh vegetables and other antiscorbutics were dropped from the list), the food scant, crude and unfit; medicine so badly dispensed that it was a farce for the medical man to prescribe. At large in the camp the prisoner fared still worse; a slice of bread and salt meat was given him for his breakfast, a poor hatched-up, concocted cup of soup, so called, and a slice of miserable bread, was all he could obtain for his coming meal; and hundreds of sick, who could in nowise obtain medical aid died, "unknelled, uncoffined and unknown." I have in nowise drawn on the imagination, and the facts as stated can be attested by the staff of medical officers who labored at the Elmira prison for the Rebel soldiers.

Ex-Medical Officer United States Army.


We could multiply such statements as are given above almost indefinitely.

We have the diary of the prison experience of Rev. L. W. Allen (a prominent Baptist minister of Virginia), the diary of Captain Robert E. Park, of Georgia, the narrative of Benjamin Dashiels, of Colonel Snowden Andrews' Maryland Artillery, who was most inhumanly punished at Fort Delaware for refusing to give the names of friends in Maryland who were secretly ministering to the suffering prisoners, and a number of other MSS., which all go to prove the points we have made. Indeed, it would be a very easy task to compile from MSS. in our possession several large volumes on the cruelties of Federal prisons. But we cannot now go into this subject more fully. Nor can we now even touch upon the cruelties practiced towards civil prisoners who were arrested by the United States authorities on mere suspicion, and treated with the utmost rigor without even the forms of a trial.

We have on our shelves no less than eight volumes giving detailed accounts of these false imprisonments, besides a number of MS. accounts, and we may at some future time let our readers hear "the tinkle of Mr. Seward's little bell."

But we cannot now give more space to the treatment received by Confederates in Northern prisons. We think we have fairly met Mr. Blaine's "issue," and that we have shown by incontrovertible testimony that Confederate prisoners were cruelly treated in Northern prisons, and that they did not "receive the same rations and clothing as Union soldiers." And we have traced this cruel treatment directly to the Federal authorities who were constantly slandering the Confederate Government.