The Enemy in Our Hands: America's Treatment of Enemy Prisoners of War, from the Revolution to the War on Terror

By Robert C. Doyle | Go to book overview

FIVE
Prisoners of Politics
A Very Uncivil War

The increase in sickness, the horrors of the prison, the oily atmo-
sphere, the ignominious carnage of the dead, the useless flight of
time, the fear of being incarcerated for years, which so affected my
spirits that I felt a few more days of these scenes would drive me
mad.

—Sir Henry Morton Stanley

The Civil War (1861–1865) initially continued the tradition of paroles in the field established during the Revolution, the War of 1812, and the Mexican War, but in time, each side realized that the parole system was a failure. Honor meant very little, especially to troop-hungry armies; they wanted their soldiers returned to their units as quickly as possible. Most certainly, the Union possessed all the advantages: a large population, an established navy, most of the industrial power of the nation, and the political will expressed by President Abraham Lincoln to hold the Union together. The Confederacy had believed strongly, albeit naively, that it could leave the Union if forced into the untenable position of being oppressed by the northern states in terms of culture, traditions, and politics.

Beginning in 1860, when South Carolina seceded after Lincoln’s election to the presidency, the unthinkable became a reality: the Union split in two. The old theories of states’ rights, nullification, and interposition prevailed throughout the agrarian South, and eleven states formed a confederacy much like the American confederacy that had been formed in 1777 under the Articles of Confederation. In response, Lincoln called up 75,000 ninety-day volunteers to secure federal forts and armories in the South; the Confederates considered the move to be a call for invasion. The war was on.

Depending on whose version of events and experiences one accepts, the war veterans on both sides believed that their captivities became scandalous exercises in prisoner mistreatment. Both Union and Confederate veterans wrote extensively about their experiences in Northern and Southern prison camps, and their narratives are universally nega-

-89-

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