Review: While In The Hands Of The Enemy: Military Prisons Of The Civil War

While In The Hands Of The Enemy: Military Prisons Of The Civil War
(Conflicting Worlds: New Dimensions of the American Civil War Series)

by Charles W. Sanders

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 390 pages
  • Publisher: Louisiana State University Press (October 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN: 0807130613

WhileInTheHandsOfTheEnemyMilitaryPrisonsOfTheCivilWarSandersCivil War Prisoner of War history is a very simple four-note song requiring little or no thought to answer almost all the questions.

#1 The South was unable to care for the Union Prisoner of War due to lack of resources.

#2 Exchanges ended when the South refused to treat members of the United States Colored Troops as solders.

#3 The South had a history of parole violations.

#4 The North reduced rations out of sheer meanness

A possible fifth note makes Grant responsible for stopping the exchange of Prisoner of War.  This note plays best with the anti-Grant factions and many refuse to consider it part of the POW song.

How is it possible to write a full symphony with such a limited set of notes?

You can start by including a chapter on the American POW experience up to 1861.  I considered this filler.  Working my way through it, I starting to question if this purchase was a clunker.  The “work” paid huge dividends by allowing me to appreciate the foundation of the prison systems, establishing the American mind set on prisoners at the start of the war.  The second advantage is an understanding of the pre-war Army financial system.  An officer did not to spend government money but supplemented post rations by extra-legal methods.  An elaborate system of withholding, selling and buying rations developed during this time.  Designed to provide a varied and healthier diet for the post it became a procedure for abuse during the war.

Parole and exchange are the foundation of the POW system going into the war.  Prisoners are to be paroled at the time of capture or shortly there after.  Parole involves agreeing not to perform military duties until exchanged.  Exchange is the swapping of prisoners freeing them to rejoin the army.  Values had been set during the War of 1812 for cases where a one to one match was not possible.  Imprisonment is expected to be temporary, of short duration and requires no extra preparation of facilities.

It was a nice idea that failed almost at once.  One of the first questions was; did parole and exchange agreement grant recognition to the Confederacy?  This was a major problem for Washington and it took time to resolve.  During this time, prisoners accumulated.  Each side was pushed to find or build prison space and to spend money to maintain the prisoners.   Richmond was designated the Confederacy’s collection point and scrambled to lease buildings.  Washington tried to use existing prison space but soon is forced into building prisons.  Nether side ever came caught up with demand or made real provision for the men’s needs.  Why should they, this was a temporary state until they were exchanged.

An unexpected but major problem is the duties of a paroled solider.  The government and the individual often have very different ideas on this subject.  As the number of paroled soldiers grew so did the problem.  After a number of attempts to use these men in non-combat roles or as Indian fighters and facing a riot or near mutiny in the process, both governments gave up.  Men who wanted to be on active service were those who did not go home.  This created a problem from the idea that some men had surrendered to escape service.  The quick parole and long exchange process would honorably keep a man out of the field allowing him to escape the hardship and danger.  It did not matter if this was true or false, both governments accepted the idea adding an additional burden to the process.

In 1861 and 1862, the parole/exchange system managed to stay in place.  Frequent halts would fill up the prisons but each time an exchange would reduce the numbers to a more manageable level.  These two years are critical as both sides established their policies and procedures for treatment of the prisoners of war.  The book does an excellent job of explaining this complicated process while placing politics, the press and needs of the service in the picture.  We come to understand what is coming while not inevitable is the logical outcome based on history and current experiences.

By 1863, the “hard hand of war” was falling on both sides.  Military logic tells the North that exchanging prisoners is more beneficial to the South.  The South is facing the question of Negro soldiers, many of whom were ex-slaves and the white officers that lead them.  The parole/exchange system, never stable, collapses and what follows is a national disaster.

Neither side is prepared to house, feed and care for tens of thousands of long-term prisoners.  Not being prepared is one thing but being unwilling is another.  Here the book truly gives real value as the author avoids moralizing and sensationalism in favor of a straightforward historical account of the tragedy.  Andersonville and Elmira are the best-known camps.  This book introduces a host of camps that may not have been as bad but were terrible in the same way.  The North’s motivation for treating prisoners the way they did is covered and at this point, with our historical background, has an awful logic.  It is impossible to find as much logic in the South’s policy of deliberate neglect.  The book details the specific failures of both will and policy that create and expand problems.  Andersonville shows us all that is wrong with the Confederacy’s policies.  We follow the prison from inception to the death camp it became, tracing the warnings, pleas and multiple attempts at improvements that Richmond refuses to consider.  Under political pressure and trying to avoid the advancing Union armies, prisoners move from location to location with no consideration of facilitates or supplies.  At the time when “no food” was available, the commissary department is accumulating over a million rations for Lee’s army.

The war’s aftermath and the finger pointing are well covered too.  The book gives us a good understanding of how the majority escaped commendation.  The era of reconciliation ends the inquires as both North & South struggle to forget what they did.

This is an outstanding book on a “hot topic”.  The author provides a balanced coverage that is accurate without moralizing.  However, he is unsparing in fixing responsibility for what happened.  This combination gives the reader the background and information to make an intelligent assessment.


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