In the course of the American Civil War, 1861-65, some 200,000 Union and roughly as many Confederate soldiers became prisoners of war. Union troops captured by the Confederates (called ‘Rebels’ in this report) fared particularly poorly as the war turned against the Confederacy, with 30,000 dying – about 15% of those held, mainly after prisoner exchange arrangements broke down from 1863.
The United States Sanitary Commission, established in 1861 to assist sick, wounded and captured Union soldiers, made heroic efforts to succour Union prisoners of war. As the engravings based photographs at the beginning of the report show, they often suffered terribly from starvation and its effects, while held in huge, poorly run Confederate prison camps.
This account, which was based on eye-witness reports and the testimonies of liberated prisoners, deals in detail with the malnutrition, sickness, neglect and abuse which Union prisoners faced, comparing it with the better organised and more amply supplied Union camps (in which nevertheless about 12% of Confederate prisoners died, mainly of communicable diseases). One of the most notorious Confederate prisons was Andersonville, in Georgia, where nearly a third of its 45,000 Union prisoners died, an ordeal amply documented in this report.
The Sanitary Commission’s report is certainly not impartial (it opens ‘every returned [Union] prisoner has brought his tale of suffering, astonishing his neighbourhood with an account of cruelty and barbarity’) but it does contain first-hand evidence invaluable to anyone seeking to understand how Americans could treat fellow captured combatants so badly.
Digital Collections | Library (20th May 2020). Prisoners of war : narrative of privations and sufferings of United States officers and soldiers while prisoners of war in the hands of the Rebel authorities.. In Website Digital Collections | Library. Retrieved 18th Oct 2021 05:21, from https://digitalcollections.library.unsw.edu.au/nodes/view/3084