Title Reviewed:
Andersonvilles of the North: The Myths and Realities of Northern Treatment of Civil War Confederate Prisoners

Author Reviewed:
James M. Gillispie

Stephen E. Towne


Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 105, Issue 4, pp 407-409

Article Type:
Book Review

Download Source:

Andersonvilles of the North
The Myths and Realitites of Northern Treatment of Civil War Confederate Prisoners

By James M. Gillispie
(Denton: University of North Texas Press, 2008. Pp. vii, 278. Illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. $24.95.)

James M. Gillispie's study of federal government's treatment of Confederate prisoners in prisoner-of-war camps in the North aims to dispel the hoary myths and misconceptions of intentional cruelty and retaliation that arose from the postwar Southern Lost Cause ideology. Rejecting post-war Southern accounts of sadistic treatment at the hands of vengeful Northern captors as unreliable, Gillispie instead argues that wartime records of the administration of prison camps and diaries of Southern prisoners not only provide the best sources, but clearly demonstrate that Union Army administrators endeavored to provide ample food, clothing, medical care, and shelter to the tens of thousands of rebel prisoners in Northern prison camps. In a series of "mini studies" (p. 5) of nine of the major prisons scattered throughout the North, Gillispie shows that at each prison, army officers made conscientious efforts to feed, clothe, and care for their prisoners under the watchful eyes of inspectors sent by the commissary general of prisoners, Colonel William Hoffman. He argues that although many prisoners died while in custody, the deaths were largely due to overcrowding after the breakdown of prisoner exchanges; rampant disease (such as pneumonia, dysentery, smallpox, malaria, typhoid, and other maladies) which was easily communicated in the crowded camps; and the lack of medical knowledge necessary to diagnose and treat these diseases.

Gillispie's mini-study of Camp Morton in Indianapolis, Indiana will serve here as a representative for all nine prisons under examination. Established as a volunteer rendezvous camp at the beginning of the war, it became a prison camp in early 1862 in order to accommodate the thousands of Confederate prisoners captured after the battle of Fort Donelson. Though the prison camp was initially emptied later that year by exchanges, it rapidly refilled to overcrowding again. Gillispie notes that Camp Morton's commanders came in for sharp criticism at times by Hoffman's medical inspectors for deficient medical care (owing to an inexperienced medical staff) and for poor sewage drainage from the camp. Inspectors reported that prisoners' waste collected in insufficiently drained ditches and created health hazards. After Hoffman forced the replacement of medical staff and commanders, conditions improved. However, the prison barracks buildings lacked wooden floors, and became muddy in wet weather. Gillispie reviews the mortality statistics for each prison, and at Camp Morton pneumonia was the chief reported killer, followed by diarrhea/dysentery and malaria. Though Camp Morton's death rates were worse that most of the other Northern prisons, Gillispie demonstrates that camp officials -- under the watchful eyes of Hoffman's inspectors -- provided ample rations, clothing, and shelter, belying the postwar image of negligence and abuse promoted by Lost Cause apologists.

Gillispie handles each prison separately, following the same pattern (reviewing first the postwar accounts, then the secondary literature, and finally any records and surviving prisoner diaries written during the war). Though tediously repetitious, the argument that federal authorities took great pains to provide ample food, clothing, medical care, and shelter to the rebel prisoners is ultimately hammered home. Gillispie's concluding chapter on "the omnipresent specter of disease" is most effective in showing the problems of communicable diseases and prison camps in the nineteenth century, and medical practitioners' lack of understanding and inability to deal with them. Gillispie's focus on wartime records and Confederate prisoners' wartime diaries is important; however, his reliance on the published Official Records and Medical and Surgical History of the War of Rebellion is unfortunate. The Official Records represents a mere sample of the mass of records found in the National Archives. Extensive records, far more than those selected for publication in the Official Records, exist for each of the various prison camps. Gillispie's argument would have been stronger had he consulted the originals. Still, his book serves as a useful corrective to the distorted picture produced by reliance on postwar Lost Cause narratives.

STEPHEN E. TOWNE is Associate University Archivist at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. He is editor of A Fierce, Wild Joy: The Civil War Letters of Colonel EdwardJ. Wood, 48th Indiana Volunteer Infantry Regiment (2007), and co-editor with Richard E Nation of Indiana's War: The Civil War in Documents (2009).

Published by theĀ Indiana University Department of History.