Southern Historical Society Papers/Volume 01/March/Letter from Honorable R. G. H. Kean

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Southern Historical Society Papers, March 1876

We may say (for the benefit of readers in other sections; it is entirely unnecessary in this latitude), that Mr. Kean is now Rector of the University of Virginia, and is an accomplished scholar and a high-toned Christian gentleman whose lightest word may be implicitly relied upon. Mr. Kean has sent us the following letter, which, though hastily written and not designed for publication, gives so clear a history of this report that we shall take the liberty of publishing it in full:

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Letter of Hon. R. G. H. Kean, Chief Clerk of the Confederate War Department.

Lynchburg, Va., March 22, 1876.

Rev. J. William Jones,
Secretary Southern Historical Society:

My Dear Sir—Yours of the 20th is received this A. M., and I snatch the time from the heart of a busy day to reply immediately, because I feel that there is no more imperious call on a Confederate than to do what he may to hurl back the vile official slanders of the Federal Government at Washington in 1865, when Holt, Conover & Co., with a pack of since convicted perjurers, were doing all in their power to blacken the fame of a people whose presence they have since found and acknowledged to be indispensable to any semblance of purity in their administration of affairs.

In September, 1865, I was required by the then commandant at Charlottesville to report immediately to him. The summons was brought to me in the field, where in my shirt sleeves I was assisting in the farming operations of my father-in-law, Colonel T. J. Randolph, and his eldest son, Major T. J. Randolph. I obeyed, and was sent by the next train to report to General Terry, then in command in Richmond. He informed me that I was wanted, and had long been sought for, to testify before the Commission engaged in trying Wirz, and I was sent to Washington by the next train. I attended promptly, but it was two or three days before I was examined as a witness. When I was, a paper taken from the records of our War Office was shown me—the report of Lieutenant-Colonel Chandler of his inspection of the post at Andersonville. I remembered the paper well. This writer in the Sauk Rapids Sentinel is in error when he says this report was "delivered in person to the Confederate Assistant Secretary of War." It had been sent through the usual channels, and reaching the hands of Colonel R. H. Chilton, Assistant Inspector-General, in charge of the inspection branch of the Adjutant and Inspector-General's bureau, was brought into the War Office by Colonel Chilton and placed in my hands, with the endorsement quoted by this writer, or something to that effect. Colonel Chilton explained to me that the report disclosed such a state of things at Andersonville, that he had brought it to me, in order that it might receive prompt attention, instead of sending it through the usual routine channel. I read it immediately, and was shocked at its contents. I do not remember the passage quoted by this writer, but I do remember that it showed that the 32,000 men herded in the stockade at Andersonville were dying of scurvy and other diseases engendered by their crowded condition and insufficient supplies of medicines, suitable food, and medical attendance, at the rate of ten per cent., or about 3,000 a month. Shocked at such a waste of human life, produced by the fraudulent refusal to observe the cartel for exchange of prisoners, whom we had neither the force to guard in a large enclosure, nor proper food for when sick, nor medicines, save such as we could smuggle into our ports or manufacture from the plants of Southern growth, I took the report to Judge Campbell, Assistant Secretary of War, and told him of the horrors it disclosed. He read it, and made on it an endorsement substantially the same quoted, and carried it to Mr. Seddon, then Secretary of War. My office was between that of the Assistant Secretary and the Secretary, and the latter passed through mine with the paper in his hand.

I testified to these facts before the Wirz Commission, and also to this further. As well as I remember, it was early in August that these endorsements were made. In October, Colonel Chandler, who was, I think a Mississippian, and with whom I had no previous acquaintance, presented himself in my office, and stated to me that he had been officially informed that General Winder, on being called on in August for a response to the parts of his report which reflected on or blamed him (Winder), had responded by making an issue of veracity with him (Chandler); that he (C.) had promptly demanded a court of inquiry, but that none had been ever ordered. He expressed himself as very unwilling to lie under such an imputation, and urgently desirous to have the subject investigated. His appearance and manner were very good—those of a gentleman and a man of honor; and, in sympathy with his feelings (though I told him that it was extremely improbable that officers of suitable rank could be spared from the service to conduct such an investigation at that time), I told him I would call the attention of the Secretary to the matter. Accordingly I got the report, and placing around it a slip of paper in the usual official manner, I endorsed to this effect; "Lieutenant-Colonel Chandler is here in person, urging that a court of inquiry be named to investigate the issues between him and General Winder touching this report. He seems to feel his position painfully"—addressed to the Secretary of War. Mr. Seddon told me afterwards that in the then state of things it was impossible to spare officers of suitable rank—so many were prisoners that the supply in the field was insufficient, or to that effect—and Colonel Chandler was so informed, either by me in person or by letter. This endorsement of mine, dated in October, 1864, was the thing which connected me with the report, and caused me to be summoned to Washington to trace it into the hands of the Secretary of War. The effort was assiduously made by Colonel L. R. Chipman, the Judge-Advocate of the Wirz Commission, to show by me that this report was seen by President Davis, but that effort failed, because I knew nothing on that subject. This was substantially all that I knew of my own knowledge, and so was competent to prove as a witness, in respect to the report. But very much more came to my knowledge as hearsay, not competent legally, yet as credible as what I knew directly.

My observations, during the several days I was in attendance and watching the proceedings of the Commission, convinced me—whether rightly or wrongly subsequent events have in some degree developed—that the destruction of Wirz was a very subordinate object of his so-called trial; that the main objects were to blacken the character of the Southern Government, and, as I thought, to compass the death of Mr. Davis and Mr. Seddon, who were not technically on trial, but were alleged to have "conspired" with Wirz and others to kill and murder the Federal prisoners, &c. One was immured in irons in a casemate of Fortress Monroe, the other was in a casemate in Fort Pulaski. Believing that their lives were in danger, I sought Mr. L. Q. Washington, who was then in Washington, and communicated to him the apprehensions I felt, and urged him to communicate, them to Mr. Seddon's friends, with whom I knew him to be intimate. I learned that he did so; and Mrs. Seddon sent Captain Philip Welford, a gentleman of great intelligence, to Washington to see what was best to be done to protect her helpless husband, who was being prosecuted while a prisoner six hundred miles away. The result of Captain Welford's investigations and conferences with friends in Washington, was that it was not deemed judicious for Mr. Seddon to be represented directly by counsel, but that he should place his materials of defence and explanation touching the Chandler report in the hands of Wirz's counsel; and this was done. The Government had gone into all this matter, and the response, therefore, on every principle of fair dealing or of law, was legitimate in that cause. Colonel Robert Ould and General J. E. Mulford, therefore, were summoned to show what the action of the Confederate Government on Colonel Chandler's report was. Judge Ould attended, and General Mulford was prepared to do so and to corroborate him. Judge Ould, as Mr. Welford informed me, unless my memory is at fault, was prepared to state that as soon as Colonel Chandler's report was presented to Mr. Seddon, the latter sent for him and showed the terrible mortality prevailing at Andersonville, instructed him to go down James river at once with his flag-of-truce boat, see General Mulford, inform him of the state of things there; that its causes, by reason of the blockade, were beyond our resources to prevent; but that we were unwilling that the breach of the cartel should entail such suffering; and to propose that the Federals might send as many medical officers to Andersonville and other prisons as they pleased, with such supplies, and funds, medicine, clothing, and whatever else would conduce to health and comfort, with power to organize their own methods of distribution, and without other restriction than a personal parole of honor not to convey information prejudicial to us, on condition that we, too, should be allowed to relieve the sufferings of our men in Northern prisons by sending medical officers with like powers, who should take cotton (the only exchange we possessed) to buy supplies necessary for our people; that this was immediately communicated early in August, 1864, to General Mulford, who was informed of the state of things at Andersonville; that he communicated this proposition to his immediate superiors, and had no answer for some two or three weeks, and when the answer came it was a simple refusal; that General Mulford promptly communicated this to Judge Ould, and he to Mr. Seddon; that immediately thereon Mr. Seddon directed Colonel Ould to return down the river (James), see General Mulford and say that in three days from the time we were notified that transportation would be at Savannah to receive them, the Federals should have delivered them ten thousand of the sick from Andersonville, whether we were allowed any equivalent in exchange for them or not, as a mere measure of humanity; that this was promptly done; and General Mulford, as I was informed, would have stated that, so impressed was he with the enormous suffering, which it was the desire of our Government to spare, that not content with an official letter through the usual channels, he went in person to Washington, into the office of Secretary Stanton, told him the whole story, and urged prompt action, but got no reply. Nor was a reply vouchsafed to this offer until the latter part of December, 1864; meanwhile some fifteen thousand men had died. If these be the facts, who is responsible?

My deliberate conviction at the time, and ever since, has been that the authorities at Washington considered thirty thousand men, just in the rear of General Johnston's army in Georgia, drawing their rations from the same stores from which his army had to be fed, would be better used up there than in the Federal ranks, in view of the fact that they could recruit their armies, while we had exhausted our material; that the refusal to exchange prisoners, and the denial of our offers in regard to the sick at Andersonville, was part of the plan of attrition. It will be remembered that the friends of Federal soldiers in prison at the South had become clamorous about the stopage of exchanges. The Northern press had taken the matter up, and the authorities had been arraigned as responsible. I have never doubted that one collateral object of the Wirz trial was by a perfectly unilateral trial (?), in which the prosecutor had everything his own way to manufacture an answer to these just complaints. And I feel a conviction that the truth will one day be vindicated; that, having reference to relative resources, Federal prisoners were more humanely dealt with in Confederate hands than Confederate prisoners were in Federal hands. It was their interest, on a cold-blooded calculation, to stop exchanges when they did it—and as soon as it was their interest, they did it without scruple or mercy. The responsibility of the lives lost at Andersonville rests, since July, 1864, on General Meredith, Commissary-General of Prisoners, and (chiefly) on Edwin M. Stanton, Secretary of War. No one of sound head or heart would now hold the Northern people responsible for these things. The blood is on the skirts of their then rulers; and neither Mr. Garfield nor Mr. Blaine can change the record.

I never heard that there was any particular "suffering" at Libby or Belle Isle, and do not believe there was. Crowded prisons are not comfortable places, as our poor fellows found at Fort Delaware, Johnson's Island, &c.

I have at this late day no means of refreshing my memory in regard to the general orders on the subject of prison treatment, but this as a general fact I do know, that Mr. Davis' humanity was considered to be a stronger sentiment with him than public justice, and it was a common remark that no soldier capitally convicted was ever executed, if the President reviewed the record of his conviction. He was always slow to adopt the policy of retaliation for the barbarities inflicted by local commanders on the other side. The controversy between General Winder and Colonel Chandler was never brought to an investigation, for the reasons mentioned above. What the result of that investigation would have been no one can now tell; but I will say in reference to this true old patriot and soldier—a genial man, whose zeal was sometimes ahead of his discretion—that if he was, at Andersonville, the fiend pretended by the "bloody shirt" shriekers, he had in his old age changed his nature very suddenly. I never saw any reason to consider Colonel Chandler's report wilfully injurious to General Winder, and supposed that it was the result of those misunderstandings which not unfrequently spring up between an inspecting officer and a post commander when the former begins to find fault.

I have written hastily. In minor details, the lapse of twelve years may render my memory inaccurate, but of the general accuracy of the narrative I have given, as lying in my own knowledge or reported to me by those whose names I have mentioned, I vouch without hesitation.

Respectfully, yours truly,
R. G. H. Kean.