Sunday, February 28, 2010

Book Review: Andersonvilles of the North, by James M. Gillispie


Andersonvilles of the North: The Myths and Realities of Northern Treatment of Civil War Confederate Prisoners
Author: James M Gillispie
copyright 2009
University of North Texas Press

Andersonvilles of the North: The Myths and Realities of Northern Treatment of Civil War Confederate Prisoners was written by Dr. James M. Gillispie to show that the Union prisons' "difficult living conditions do not by themselves constitute proof of systematic negligence and cruelty and the the most reliable evidence available seriously undermines the widely held idea that Union officials conspired to make their prisons as horrible and deadly as possible." (page5).

Gillispie discusses the origins of the beliefs that Union officials had participated in such a conspiracy and that they showed little or no care for the welfare of the prisoners. He explores postwar writings, by Northerners held in Southern prisons and Southerners held in Northern prisons, to show the spread of such charges by both sides against their enemy. He makes the argument that these accounts are unreliable, due to the motivations the writers had, such as making themselves look brave, despite missing battles, by showing what terrible conditions they had to face in prisons, as well as some of the Lost Cause mythology, in which Southern writers tried to paint their wartime enemies as cruel, sadistic, non-Christian monsters. Both sides used what modern readers might recognize as "propaganda" to make their side look better and the enemy appear more cruel.  The two chapters covering this discussion are quite interesting and shows why he chose to rely more upon the War of the Rebellion: Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies,  The Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion  and various diaries and letters written during the war, when these actions were being taken, instead of postwar memoirs and books.

Gillispie then shows how modern writers cover the issue of prisoners of war, especially in Northern prisons, and how many of them continue using the same themes that post-war southern writers used, especially the thought that the North was a land of plenty but did not share its resources with its captives in an acceptable or generous fashion. He shows that many such writings still have some of the "Lost Cause" type of reasoning behind them, but that some writers have started to manage avoiding that, and started to look at more war-time evidence instead of post-war propaganda.

Chapter 4 looks at actual Union official policies regarding the treatment of captives and concludes "Ultimately the more objective wartiome evidence from Northern and Southern sources indicates that Union policies towards Confederate prisoners cannot be defined as vindictive or inhumane." (page 104)

The next four chapters - the heart of the book - discuss nine major Federal prisons, the treatment Confederates received at each and the actions of inspectors and Union officials at each. The nine prisons studied are (in alphabetical order, not the order discussed in the book): Alton, Camp Chase, Camp Douglas, Cam Morton, Elmira, Fort Delaware, Johnson's Island, Rock Island and Point Lookout.

Gillispie relies on inspector reports and communication from Union officials, especially Commissary-General of Prisoners, Colonel William Hoffman, to show that Northern officials did often recognize problems withe the camps and often tried to rectify them. Inspection reports by Union surgeons and officials may sound like biased sources, when they say prisoners had enough food or clothing, and that is a legitimate point, but these reports did provide many criticisms of the conditions of these camps, indicating that the actual inspectors took their duties seriously and performed them in good conscience.

Gillispie, despite  his intent to show that the Confederate prisoners were not intentionally mistreated by their captors, does not paint a  pretty picture of the camps, showing how even the best faced challenges of weather, crowded conditions, and, especially, sanitation, even when the Union tried to rectify such situations. There were situations, such as barracks at Camp Morton or Foster's Pond at Elmira, that Gillispies criticizes the Union leaders for not having them fixed more quickly and efficiently. His is not a book that tries to portray these prisons as being comfortable by modern standards, or Union officials as flawless in their performance.

The final chapter of the book is entitled "The Omnipresent Specter of Disease" and shows the challenges these soldiers faced, even within their own camps, much less in prisons. It is a good reminder of the shape medical science in this country was in at the time of the war, with knowledge of the causes of diseases and how they spread not yet understood. Even the best, most conscientious, doctors and officials simply did not have the knowledge that so many modern readers would find to be basic, in today's world. This is a subject that should be taken into consideration when discussing the subject of conditions of prisons. Disease simply could not be easily avoided during this era.

(One theme throughout the chapters covering the specific prisons was which diseases were most deadly at each prison, what medical science at the time knew about them, their causes and cures, and how surgeons, doctors and officials at each prison tried to combat these illnesses, usually smallpox, diarrhea/dysentery (as classified at the time), and pneumonia.)

Gillispie concludes his book by claiming "In the end, Northern officials appear to have done the best they could at the time for Confederate prisoners of war. Tragically, that was often not enough." (page 238)

I enjoyed this book and found it to be very readable and informative. Gillispie provides a lot of evidence to back up his statements and claims, and makes this a subject certainly worth further reflection. I do wish that he had addressed  accusations that Union officials shot or physically tortured prisoners (such as by hanging them by their thumbs), but given his decision to rely on war-time evidence and not post-war claims and propaganda, such accusations may not have held enough credibility to be worthy of discussion.

For anybody interested in Civil War prisons or prisoners, this book, and the evidence it contains, is certainly one to be read and considered.

(As usual, this review is my opinion only, and done without any form of compensation, other than personal enjoyment.)

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