This article appeared in the August 2, 1866 edition of The Nation.
Andersonville prison wasn’t hell on earth; it was worse.
Two Recent Southern Books:
"Four Years in the Saddle"
Col. Harry Gilmor
New York: Harper Brothers
New York: Harper and Brother
Modesty, that sweetest grace of heroic spirits, is not, we should say, among this cavalry hero’s charms. Not in his book, at any rate, does he appear as a shamefaced person. Impudent, most people would call him, though some might say that his impudence and self-conceit are of the unconscious kind. It is true that autobiographies are seldom prepared with a view of covering up the writer’s merits. And the ex-colonel may plead that he was in a manner forced to tell his own story; that a majority of his countrymen believed him to be what he has been roundly called—a murderer and a thief; that a biography, satisfactory or otherwise, was hardly to be hoped for; that as for history, the severe muse, it is likely, will do no better for him than tell posterity that H. Gilmor was a rebel major whose command, one day in July, 1864, got between Baltimore and Havre de Grace, and, before retreating, stopped a train on the Philadelphia railroad and pillaged the passengers. And even, he might say, if the historian bestows on him a sentence more, he might, perhaps, expect a sentence that not the meekest, most self-depreciatory of men could rest content with; not improbably it would be to the effect that this Gilmor was one of those rebels whom their foes, their friends, and they themselves might all call traitors, as having not only waged war upon their country but also committed treason against their "sovereign" native State.
Whether or not he needs to brag, or knows that he is bragging, these three hundred pages are filled full with Gilmor’s tale of Gilmor’s prowess and exploits. Every Confederate general presses his hand warmly and thanks him for the abundance and accuracy of the information which he collects. He goes round and round the Yankee army and through it and back again. Every Confederate general congratulates him on the splendid dash and endurance of his cavalry. The Confederate rank and file, when he rides to the head of the column, break forth in a simultaneous cry, "All right, boys; there goes our Harry to the front." Therefore, no wonder that, with his long bright blade raised in tierce point, he rides exultingly into the battle, swearing never to be taken alive, and kills the Yankee incessantly. Sometimes he shoots the Vandal with a revolver as he rides at a gallop past telegraph posts he can put a ball into each of half a dozen posts. Sometimes the invader falls beneath his fist. But for choice he smites him with the sword. His gallant gray ranges alongside some federal; the colonel delivers a right cut at him; the foe defends by a tierce parry; with thought-like speed the colonel makes a moulinet, and the fight is won. If ever a blue-coat escapes death or captivity it is not by superior valor. Mounted on his bay mare, a splendid blooded animal, the colonel leaps two or three high fences and wide ditches; his men follow; they aid their leader, who has charged a fleeing squadron of the enemy; he rises in the stirrups and makes a cut in front at one undemoralized Yankee who shoots as he runs; but just previously he had made a rear cut and turned his sabre in tierce; it is but the flat of the blade which crashes upon the head of the Federal, therefore he is not cleft to the chin; nevertheless down he goes headlong to the earth.
Of course the bold dragoon is successful among the fair. He rides into a town, and the Confederate maids wave handkerchiefs at him. White fingers dress his wounds. Not seldmo is he embraced. Like a dashing cavalier, who courts as he fights, he loves and he rides away, but kisses not a few are bestowed upon him, if we may credit his own story. For with him it is the same in love as in war; he kisses and tells as he kills and tells, although, we are bound to say, he always conceals the names, and often conceals even the initials, of those who grant him favors. In short, our partisan ranger appears to to be not a little of a puppy. W ewishhe was no worse; for he has an engaging frankness about him which conciliates one’s liking, and though it is he himself who tells us of his daring, his determination, his indefatigable activity, we incline to think he really has plenty of courage, and was a brave and vigilant scout and marauder—a hero of the type most admired by the brave, frank, gasconading, card-playing, tobacco-chewing, whisky-drinking, good-looking, half-educated, empty-headed, horse-racing, negro-hating, negress-loving young slaveholders of the South. That he was a murderer we will not say. His ancestors, one would think, might have been murderers for several generations before their descendant could have committed some of the hard-hearted cruelties here recorded. And these are doubly odious and disgusting when done by a pretender to chivalric honor; by a man who cries out in lofty indignation against Federal severities in the Shenandoah Valley, where the inhabitants, "farmers by day and guerrilas by night," had for the most part richly earned a halter. Imagine half-a-dozen chivalrous young gentlemen assembled in Richmond. One high-toned knight is from Snicker’s Gap say; one is a cavalier from Hinesville, Georgia; another has ridden to the sacred soil from near Andersonville, Sumter County, in the same State; one or two are from South Carolina; and Gilmor is another. They belong to the class which finnds Yanks too low down for their use, who, despising mudsills, dress magnificently in bombazine armor and go to tournaments. And imagine,
"If any care for what is there, Survive in spirits rendered free,"
that some Sidney or Raleigh visits the Spottswood and listens while the hightoned Gilmor relates this incident. It ocurred in Maryland. Gilmor is endeavoring to take a barrack which is held by a party of Federal troops. He captures some prisoners, and thus he utilizes one of them:
"Four of my men were killed in the door of the barracks, and, for a time, it was doubtful whether we could take it. Just then I caught a soldier, pushed him before me to the barrack door, and demanded a surrender, threatening to show no quarter if they did not immediately throw down their arms. All complied but three who deliberately fired; but, instead of hitting me, a ball struck the poor fellow I used as a shield, mortally wounding him."
Any ordinary pirate of the seventeenth century might have licked his lips over that atrocity, and claimed pomotion for it. Had any of those defenders of the barracks been present when Gilmor was made prisoner, either the first or the second time, we have our doubts if that sacred oath of his would not have been kepts. He would hardly have been taken alive.
As to his being a thief, we have his word that he was not, except, perhaps, on one or two unimportant occasions when his theft may pass for foraging. His men, he does not deny, may have frequently been thieves, but not because of his orders; and if they robbed the passengers at Havre de Grace they did it in direct disobedience of orders. The writer’s hard swearing and hard drinking, of which he candidly allows us an occasional glimpse, are not matters that concern us, they are natural to theh trooper. In taking leave of him we revert to that quality of his which we have already mentioned—his brazen impudence. He has the effrontery, the mingled assurance and wilful ignorance, to speak in this way of the Confederate States military prisons of Salisbury and Andersonville and their unhappy occupants:
"It will come out before long that the large mortality in the Southern prisons must be attributed to other causes than the want of food—"
That, we may say, has pretty well come out already. Sherman found food enough.
—"chiefly to the uncleanly habits of the prisoners themselves."
Certainly the Yankees at Andersonville were not clean. That much may be learned from a narrative which lies before us, prepared by a Southern eye-witness, Mr. Ambrose Spencer, of Americus, Georgia.
—"When taken sick they made up their minds they should die"—
So did Wirz and Winder.
—"and in such cases they seldom recovered. Here in our prison (Fort Warren) the word was, every man must be clean and wash himself from head to foot constantly, and not a night passed but you mights see five or six men bathing and scrubbing."
At Andersonville no Yankee was ever seen washing himself from head to foot. Spencer says:
"Dr. John E. Bates, who was on duty there, says that when he first entered a ward of the hospital he was shocked. Men were lying partially naked, dirty and lousy in the sand, wasting under gangrene, putrid from fever-sores, and literally dying from starvation. Crowded together in small unserviceable tents, they asked for a teaspoonful of salt; they begged fro some of the siftings of meal; they even entreated to be allowed to gnaw a bone as they lay in their filth, destitute of medical attendance as of everything else…..The effluvium from the hospitals was sickeningly offensive."
And here is a soldier who does, undeniably, seem to have been home-sick, as Mr. Gilmor says, and his uncleanliness is disgraceful. He also is a patient of Dr. Bates’s,
"A prisoner of but sixteen years of age, down with both gangrene and scurvy. He talked of and cried for his absent mother, and prayed forr her tender hands and gentle care to soothe his anguish or dress his sores, and, as he moved his restless, emaciated body, seeking a repose that was denied him, the sand, would rub into his sores and disfigure the very pollution that was destroying him. Although it was against specific orders to give the patients any food or what might help their condition, yet the doctor now and then smuggled into his little patient’s hand a potato or a biscuit to appease his ravenous hunger; but, notwithstanding, to use the witness’s simple but heartrending words, ‘his sores gangrened, and, what with the scurvy and want of food and from lice, he died.’"
"Each of us," says Gilmor, "had but a straw mattress and one blanket, which were frequently aired and shaken and every effort made to keep the bunks clean and floors well swept."
Here is where the Abolitionists lived at Andersonville:
"Meanwhile the crowds within the stockade attained the highest limits as to numbers which were reached during its continuance, there being in the month of September36,480 in all. With this increase there was a corresponding augmentation of their sufferings. The rains of the autumn season, together with the constant tread of so many men, converted the interior at times into one vast bed of muddy slush nearly a foot deep—an aggregation fo the semi-liquid filth through which the miserable prisoners unceasingly tramped in their unvarying round of pointless existence. Then for some days the hot sun would pour down upon this quagmire, feculent with putrification, and draw from its depths vapors saturated with the fetid stench which it exhaled, and which corrupted the air they had to inhale."
And here is where most of them slept:
"No box or coffin was permitted; no decent shrouding even in the ragged blanket was allowed…When about twenty feet of mortality was huddled side to side, lime was scattered upon the bodies and the earth carelessly thrown over all. A few days of rain, or the depredations of animals, would here and there leave exposed some luckless leg or arm or head of dead ones, and, as the torrid beats of summer suns poured down their decaying powers, a taint of effluvium and corruption would pervade the atmosphere for miles around, Here, over this ghastly spot, could be seen at almost any time countless hosts of sluggish buzzards." "I had been at Fort Warren but a few days," says Gilmor, "before numerous letters from kind sympathizing friends in Boston and elsewhere brought me offers of money, clothing, provisions, and whatever else I might need, but, as I was within reach of relatives in Baltimore, I had to decline. … Thanks to our fair guardians in Boston, the time latterly was made to pass more pleasantly by frequent presents of strawberries, currats, and other delicacies to us."
General and Church-warden Winder says to a man, who sought permission to carry food to the sick within the stockade at Andersonville;
"G—d d—n your ‘mission of mercy.’ I wish that you and every other d—d Yankee sympathizer and every G—d d—d Yankee too were all in hell together."
So the provisions were carried back, and the unfortunate wretches starved in agony by the thousand, or kept themselves alive by resorting to means of subsistence which do not bear recital.
Mr. Spencer’s book is the work of a loyal Georgian, who, during all the war, lived but a little way from the dreadful prison pen. He gives us, in the form of a brief narrative, a digest of the evidence given at the trial of Wirz, and this he supplements by what he himself learned in his many visits to the place. His work is very ill written; but skill and eloquence can add nothing to, and the want of skill and eloquence detract nothing from, the horrible impressiveness of the naked facts which form his subject matter. It is a book which will overwhelm with fresh sorrow many women and men who read it, and most men and women, besides those mourners, it will rouse to anger. Yet it ought to be read. It is the very truth, we firmly believe. Also, we believe that the same social system which produced young men like this Gilmor—courageous, wilful, cruel, boastful, ignorant, cunning, and thoughtless— was also responsible for Andersonville, and in every county through all the South could have laid its hand on a Wirz whom itself had made. From this book it is possible to learn something of what there is to be done down there.