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Treatment of Civil War prisoners repulsive

On this day (Dec. 3) in 1864, President Abraham Lincoln met, for the third straight day, with two nearly hysterical, persistent women who pleaded with the president to pardon and set free their husbands, who were among the some 214,000 Confederate soldiers imprisoned during the bloody Civil War.

As Lincoln later wrote, “at each of the interviews one of the ladies urged that her husband was a religious man.”

Finally, on the third day (i.e., Dec. 3), the president compassionately pardoned and set free the two husbands and then said to the grateful but weeping wives, in what the Washington Daily Chronicle characterized as “The President’s Last, Shortest and Best Speech,” ... “You say your husband is a religious man; tell him when you meet him ... that in my opinion, the religion that sets men to rebel and fight against their government, because, as they think, that government does not sufficiently help some men to eat their bread on the sweat of other men’s faces, is not the sort of religion upon which people can get to heaven.”

The treatment (all-too-often the ill-treatment) of military prisoners, which prompted these two Confederate wives to travel to Washington to plead in person with the president, was well beyond indifference; it was repulsive and shocking.

It is perhaps not too far-fetched, in some cases, to compare the mistreatment of Civil War prisoners (especially in the infamous Confederate prison at Andersonville, Ga.) with the inhuman treatment of Jews and Gypsies by the Nazis during World War II.

Altogether, Union soldiers died at an alarming rate of something more than 15 percent in Confederate prisons. It has been documented that of the more than 45,000 Union prisoners held at Andersonville, more than 13,000 (about 35 percent) died of unnecessary exposure, disease (often preventable or inadequately treated), and malnutrition.

However, unlike the Nazis’ “final solution,” the high mortality rate among Union prisoners at Andersonville was, in most cases, not the result of a premeditated plan to rid the country of “blue bellies,” but was due, in large part, to the lack of food, proper shelters, medical doctors, nurses and medical supplies and medicines.

Even so, the camp commandant, Capt. Henry Wirz, was one of the few Confederate officials or military officers to be tried at war’s end for, what would be called today, “crimes against humanity,” or simply the cold-hearted, barbaric killing of captured enemy soldiers.

Although probably innocent of actually or deliberately killing anyone himself, Wirz appears to have been the scapegoat for revenge-minded northerners who blamed the South for the bloodbath of the “War of the Rebellion.”

Wirz was found guilty of, in what was probably a kangaroo court trial, unnecessary cruelty and murder of military combatants and hanged on Nov. 10, 1865. His last words were reported to have been that he was innocent of all charges of cruelty and murder.

It should be remembered that conditions in northern military prisons were not much better than those of the Confederacy. In such Union prison camps as those in Alton, Rock Island, Springfield and Chicago in Illinois, and Johnson’s Island, Ohio (where the husbands of the two petitioning wives were held), Confederate prisoners died at a rate of 12 percent. At the notorious Elmira Prison in New York, the death rate was more than 20 percent.

The audacious petitioning of two devoted Confederate wives saved, from what might have been at least ill-treatment or even a lingering death as military prisoners, two Confederate soldiers who were spared the all-too-often inhumane treatment endured by military prisoners in both the North and the South.

• Crystal Lake resident Joseph C. Morton is professor emeritus at Northeastern Illinois University and author of “The American Revolution” and “Shapers of the Great Debate at the Constitutional Convention of 1787.” Email him at demjcm@com.cast.net.

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