Southern Historical Society Papers/Volume 01/March/Official Statistics on relative mortality of Prisoners

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Southern Historical Society Papers, March 1876

We have thus given the other side the full benefit of about all they have been able in eleven years to garble from the Confederate records.


Yet after all that has been said on this subject, the stubborn fact remains that over three per cent. more Confederates perished in Northern prisons than of Federal prisoners in Southern prisons. The figures to prove this statement have been several times given in this discussion, but they are so significant that we give them again in the form in which they were presented by Honorable B. H. Hill in his masterly reply to Mr. Blaine. Mr. Hill said:

{{fine block|"Now, will the gentleman believe testimony from the dead? The Bible says, 'The tree is known by its fruits.' And, after all, what is the test of suffering of these prisoners, North and South? The test is the result. Now, I call the attention of gentlemen to this fact, that the report of Mr. Stanton, the Secretary of War—you will believe him will you not?—on the 19th of July, 1866—send to the library and get it—exhibits the fact that of the Federal prisoners in Confederate hands during the war, only 22,576 died, while of the Confederate prisoners in Federal hands 26,436 died. And Surgeon-General Barnes reports in an official report—I suppose you will believe him—that in round numbers the Confederate prisoners in Federal hands amounted to 220,000, while the Federal prisoners in Confederate hands amounted to 270,000. Out of the 270,000 in Confederate hands 22,000 died, while of the 220,000 Confederates in Federal hands over 26,000 died. The ratio is this: More than twelve per cent. of the Confederates in Federal hands died, and less than nine per cent. of the Federals in Confederate hands died. What is the logic of these facts according to the gentleman from Maine? I scorn to charge murder upon the officials of Northern prisons, as the gentleman has done upon Confederate prison officials. I labor to demonstrate that such miseries are inevitable in prison life, no matter how humane the regulations."}}

An effort has since been made by the Radical press to discredit these figures, and it has been charged that "Jeff. Davis manufactured them for Hill's use." But with ample time to prepare his rejoinder, and all of the authorities at hand, Mr. Blaine did not dare to deny them. He fully admitted their truth, and only endeavored to weaken their force by the following explanation, of which we give him the full benefit:

"Now, in regard to the relative number of prisoners that died in the North and the South respectively, the gentleman undertook to show that a great many more prisoners died in the hands of the Union authorities than in the hands of the Rebels. I have had conversations with surgeons of the army about that, and they say that there were a large number of deaths of Rebel prisoners, but that during the latter period of the war they came into our hands very much exhausted, ill-clad, ill-fed, diseased, so that they died in our prisons of diseases that they brought with them. And one eminent surgeon said, without wishing at all to be quoted in this debate, that the question was not only what was the condition of the prisoners when they came to us, but what it was when they were sent back. Our men were; taken in full health and strength; they came back wasted and worn—mere skeletons, The Rebel prisoners, in large numbers were, when taken, emaciated and reduced; and General Grant says that at the time such superhuman efforts were made for exchange there were 90,000 men that would have reinforced the Confederate armies the next day, prisoners in our hands who were in good health and ready for fight. This consideration sheds a great deal of light on what the gentleman states."

The substance of this extract is that Mr. Blaine does not deny the greater mortality of our prisoners in Northern prisons, but accounts for it on the supposition that our men were so much "exhausted, so ill-clad, ill-fed and diseased" that they "died of diseases that they brought with them"

Now, if this explanation were true it would contain a fatal stab to Mr. Blaine's whole argument to prove Confederate cruelty to prisoners. If our own soldiers were so ill-clad and ill-fed as to render them exhausted, and so diseased that when taken prisoners they died like sheep, despite the tender nursing and kind, watchful care which (according to Mr. Blaine) they received at the hands of their captors, how could a Government which had not the means of making better provision for its own soldiers provide any better than we did for the thousands of prisoners which were captured by these emaciated skeletons? And what shall we say of General Grant and his splendid army of two hundred thousand hale, hearty, well equipped men, who, in the campaign of 1864, were beaten on every field by forty thousand of these "emaciated and reduced" creatures, until, after losing over a third of their men, they were compelled to skulk behind their fortifications at Petersburg, and absolutely refused "the open field and fair fight," which Lee and his "ragamuffins" offered them at every point from the Wilderness to Petersburg?

But, of course, the whole thing is absurd. Our men were on half rations, and in rags, it is true; but a healthier, hardier set of fellows never marched or fought, and they died in Northern prisons (as we shall hereafter show) because of inexcusably harsh treatment.

These official figures of Mr. Stanton and Surgeon-General Barnes tell the whole story, and nail to the counter the base slander against the Confederate Government.