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“Since August there have been 2,011 patients admitted to the hospital and 775 deaths. . . . Have averaged daily 451 in hospital and 601 in quarters, and aggregate of 1,052 per day sick. At this rate the entire command will be admitted to hospital in less than a year and thirty-six percent die… Dr. Eugene F. Sanger, camp surgeon and commandant at Elmira Prison

There has always been an effort to compare the American Civil War with the English Civil War with the north being Cromwell’s forces and the South being the Cavaliers. While this comparison may satisfy the psychological needs of both sides and be supported by anglophiles arguing for a commonality that never existed it breaks down quickly under critical analysis and what becomes apparent is that while militarily it was a dress rehearsal for the opening of WWI idealistically it was the dress rehearsal for the Russian Revolution with Lincoln as the Bolshevik.

No where did he come closer to Lenin’s and then Stalin’s tactics than in the prison camps.   No matter which reference you use, there were over 400,000 prisoners during the Civil War. Although precise figures may never be known, an estimated 56,000 men perished in union prisons, a casualty rate far greater than any battle during the war’s bloody tenure. The conditions under which the prisoners wasted and died would make the perpetrators of the Holocaust or the Gulag smile.

Not long after my arrival I heard a cry “Rat call! Rat call!” I went out to see what this meant. A number of prisoners were moving and some running up near the partition, over which a sergeant (sic) was standing and presently he began throwing rats down. The prisoners scrambled for the rats like school boys for apples, none but some of the most needy prisoners, and the needy were the large majority, would scramble for these rats. Of course but few were lucky enough to get a rat. The rats were cleaned, put in salt water a while and fried. Their flesh was tender and not unpleasant to the taste… from Swann’s, Prison life at Fort Delaware

In the very beginning of the Civil War, prisoners of war were exchanged right on the battlefield, a private for a private, a sergeant for a sergeant and a captain for a captain. In 1862 this system broke down but on July 18, 1862, Major General John A. Dix of the union met with the Confederate Major General Daniel H. Hill, and an agreement was drafted providing for the parole and exchange of prisoners. This draft was submitted to and approved by their superiors and afterwards was formally signed and ratified.

Alas, the federal government was anxious to avoid in any way a recognition of the Confederate Government, and therefore whatever exchanges followed these for several months were made by the commanding officers on both sides, unofficially, though with the knowledge and tacit consent of the Government at Washington. Then, on October 23, 1862, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton directed that all commanders of union prisons be notified that there would be no more exchanges. Radical republican speaker of the house James Gillespie Blaine’s words, “And I here, before God, measuring my words, knowing their full extent and import, declare that neither the deeds of the Duke of Alva in the Low countries nor the massacre of Saint Bartholomew, nor the thumb screws and engines of torture of the Spanish Inquisition begin to compare in atrocity with the hideous crimes…,” are the intemperate but accurate description of Lincoln’s policies.

War of vengeance : acts of retaliation against Civil War Prisoners of War Mechanicsburg, PA : Stackpole Books, c 2002  Lonnie R. Speer United States History Civil War, 1861-1865 Prisoners and prisons Hardcover. 1st. ed. and printing. xvii, 190 p. : ill. ; 23 cm. Includes bibliographical references (p. 169-184) and index. Clean, tight and strong binding with clean dust jacket. No highlighting, underlining or marginalia in text. VG/VG  

The American Civil War was a vicious conflict that developed an intense hatred between opposing sides. Despite some historians’ assertions that this was history’s last great “gentleman’s war,” the conflict was anything but civil. There is ample evidence to suggest that the union quite com­monly retaliated against the South throughout the war, often in chillingly inhumane ways.

Violent retaliation was most apparent within Federal penitentiaries. Prisoners of war were frequently subjected to both physical and mental abuse. This sort of mistreatment was employed to obtain information, recruit prisoners for military service, or to force prisoners to sign oaths of allegiance.

In addition to the torture and neglect that were carried out on a regular basis, even more unbeliev­able — and less known — was the actual killing of these unarmed men in retribution for their army’s actions on the battlefield. Sometimes it happened as the prisoners threw down their weapons and raised their hands to surrender. More often, how­ever, the killings took place at the prisons, where guards carried out cold-blooded executions, their victims chosen by lottery.

These acts were frequently sanctioned by the highest levels of authority in Washington and at times the conflict devolved into a “war of retaliation.” These acts of revenge were seldom directed at men found guilty by any tribunal; most often, soldiers targeted innocent prisoners who had the misfortune to be in the wrong place at thee wrong time.

Speer explores this little known practice of reciprocal wartime violence, focusing on the most notorious and well-documented of the war. The author illustrates his claims the first-hand accounts of numerous prisoners, painting a chilling picture of Civil War military and political policy.


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