I normally take great pride in being an American, but there are passages in our history which all Americans should be ashamed of. During our Civil War in many prison camps, both North and South, prisoners of war (POWs) were treated wretchedly with inadequate shelter, clothing and food. The worst by far was Andersonville. The vast tragedy at Andersonville came about for a number of reasons.
First and foremost was the breakdown of the prisoner exchange system. From the summer of 1862 until the summer of 1863, captured Union and Confederate troops would be released within 10 days after being giving their parole. This was a promise not to fight until after they had properly been exchanged for a prisoner on the other side. The system operated by exchanging paroles from prisoners of equivalent ranks or of different ranks as follows: 1 general = 46 privates, 1 major general = 40 privates, 1 brigadier general = 20 privates, 1 colonel = 15 privates, 1 lieutenant colonel = 10 privates, 1 major = 8 privates, 1 captain = 6 privates, 1 lieutenant = 4 privates, 1 noncommissioned officer = 2 privates. The system worked reasonably well until the issue of the treatment of Black troops came up.
The Confederates refused to recognize Black soldiers as Union troops under the system and reduced many of them to slavery. The Union, as a result, refused to abide by the system. General Grant also had suspicions that the system wasn’t being completely honored in any case. After Vicksburg he had paroled the entire Confederate army that had been captured after the fall of that city. In the fighting around Chattanooga later that year he was dismayed to find among the captured Confederate troops men who had surrendered at Vicksburg and who had not been exchanged. Realizing that the Confederates needed their prisoners back in their ranks, and that the Union had an endless supply of manpower, he thought that it was a benefit for the Union that the system had broken down and adamantly refused Confederate attempts in 1864 to revive prisoner exchanges. A good article on the exchange of prisoners is here.
The second reason for the tragedy was the series of small POW camps in the vicinity of Richmond, which, with the breakdown in the prisoner exchange system, were soon overflowing with Union prisoners. In November 1863 Captain Richard Widner came to the hamlet (population 20) of Andersonville, Georgia to investigate the prospects of building a large POW camp there. He liked what he saw: plenty of water near at hand, located near a railhead and situated in the Deep South, far away from the Union armies. In December of 1863 he began construction of the Andersonville Prison (officially named Camp Sumter at a later time). In January 1864, local slaves were brought in to clear the land and to build the stockade. The Prison encompassed 16.5 acres, with a small creek flowing through the site to provide water. No barracks were built to shelter the prisoners. The capacity of prisoners that could be held there was estimated to be 10,000. The first Union prisoners were shipped to it in February 1864. With heavy fighting that began in May as Grant battled his way towards Richmond, the number of prisoners swelled to well beyond the capacity of the prison. By June the prison population had ballooned to 20,000. Using prison labor, the boundary of the prison was extended 610 feet to the north during June. By August 33,000 Union prisoners were held within the stockade of Andersonville.
Third, for security reasons, the prisoners were not given the materials to build barracks. Andersonville’s prison guards consisted of over-aged men and under-aged boys, and permanent barracks where the prisoners could live, and plot escape attempts unobserved, were thought by the authorities to be too much of a risk with prison guards of this caliber. The Union prisoners, except for what makeshift shelters they could improvise, were exposed to the elements at all times.
Fourth, the creek flowing through Andersonville served both as a source of water and as a latrine. The Union troops, with appropriate black humor, labeled the creek “Sweet Water Branch’.
Fifth, medical care at Andersonville was basically non-existent, with the small medical staff completely overwhelmed.
Sixth, the Union soldiers were in theory to get the same daily ration as a Confederate soldier. What they received, if they were lucky, was rancid grain and a spoonful or two of peas or beans. To be fair, the Confederates during this stage of the war had a great deal of difficulty providing rations to their own troops.
Seventh, incompetence on the part of the camp’s commander, Captain Heinrich “Henry” Wirz. Ironically, trained as a medical doctor in Europe prior to the Civil War, the Swiss born Wirz took command of Andersonville in March of 1864. Tried and executed after the war, the only Confederate to be executed following the war, Wirz has been called both an innocent scapegoat and a demon of cruelty incarnate. I will not venture into that battleground. I will note that in the face of the humanitarian disaster that developed at Andersonville, Wirz did little and seemed to spend most of his time trying to get promoted, eventually getting his wish and attaining the rank of Major shortly before the end of the War.
All of these factors led to the deaths of almost 13,000 of the approximately 45,000 Union soldiers who passed through Andersonville. Surgeon Joseph Jones of the Confederate Army on an inspection tour wrote a report to the Surgeon General of the Confederacy on October19, 1864 regarding conditions at Andersonville:
“Macon, Ga., October 19, 1864
Surgeon-General S. P. Moore,
Confederate States Army, War Department, Richmond, Virginia
Sir: I have the honor to give the following brief outline of my labors, conducted in accordance with the orders of the surgeon-general:
Immediately after the brief report upon hospital gangrene, forwarded to the surgeon-general, I repaired to Camp Sumter, Andersonville, Ga., and instituted a series of investigations upon the diseases of the Federal prisoners.
The field was of great extent and extraordinary interest. There were more than 5,000 seriously sick in the hospital and stockade, and the deaths ranged from 90 to 130 each day.
Since the establishment of this prison on 24th of February, 1864, to the present time, over 10,000 Federal prisoners have died; that is—near one-third of the entire number have perished in less than seven months.
I instituted careful investigations into the condition of the sick and well and performed numerous post-mortem examinations. The medical topography of Andersonville and the surrounding country was examined, and the waters of the streams, springs, and wells around and within the stockade and hospital carefully analyzed.
Diarrhoea, dysentery, scurvy, and hospital gangrene were the diseases which have been the main cause of this extraordinary mortality. The origin and character of the hospital gangrene which prevailed to so remarkable a degree and with such fatal effects amongst the Federal prisoners, engaged my most serious and earnest consideration. More than 30,000 men, crowded upon twenty-seven acres of land, with little or no shelter from the intense heat of a Southern summer, or from the rain and from the dew of night, with coarse corn bread from which the husk had not been removed, with but scant supplies of fresh meat and vegetables, with little or no attention to hygiene, with festering masses of filth at the very doors of their rude dens and tents, with the greater portion of the banks of the stream flowing through the stockade a filthy quagmire of human excrements alive with working maggots, generated by their own filthy exhalations and excretions, an atmosphere that so deteriorated and contaminated their solids and fluids that the slightest scratch and even the bites of small insects were in some eases followed by such rapid and extensive gangrene as to destroy extremities and even life itself.
A large number of operations have been performed in the hospital on account of gangrene following slight injuries and mere abrasion of the surface. In almost every case of amputation for gangrene the disease returned, and a large proportion of the cases have terminated fatally.
I recorded careful observations upon the origin and progress of these cases of gangrene, and examined the bodies after death and noted the pathological changes of the organs and tissues. The results of these observations will be forwarded to the surgeon-general at the earliest practicable moment.”
Into this man made Hell on Earth on June 16, 1864 came Father Peter Whelan. In May of 1864 Father William J. Hamilton, a mission priest in Georgia, had visited Andersonville and had been revolted by the conditions there. He urgently asked his Bishop, Augustin Verot, to assign a priest to the prison full time. The Bishop sent Father Whelan.
Father Whelan had been born in County Wexford in Ireland. On November 21, 1830 he was ordained a priest of the Benedictine Order in Charleston, South Carolina. In 1854 he was assigned to the diocese of Savannah, Georgia. Prior to the war he served as the director of the Savannah Catholic Boy’s Asylum. In September 1861 he was sent by his Bishop to be a chaplain for the First Georgia volunteers, a predominantly Catholic company, the Montgomery Guards, in the regiment having requested a Catholic chaplain. On April 10, 1862 Father Whelan and the rest of his regiment were captured when Union forces took Fort Pulaski, a fort on the Savannah River guarding the outskirts of Savannah.
Transported to Governor’s Island New York, Father Whelan entered captivity. As an officer he was placed in relative comfort in Fort Columbus Barracks. However, he spent virtually none of his time there; rather spending all of his waking hours in damp and dark Castle William where the enlisted men were lodged in poor conditions. He appealed to the priest of Saint Peter’s on Barclay in Lower Manhattan for help. The priest responded with food and clothes for the Confederates and arranged for Father Whelan to be paroled. He could have gone home immediately, but he stayed with his men until August 1863 when all of them had been paroled and returned to the Confederacy.
Back in Georgia, Chaplain Whelan was named Chaplain for all Confederate forces in Georgia, and then the Bishop told him to go to Andersonville.
Father Whelan was shocked and horrified by what he saw at Andersonville. From dawn to dusk he heard confessions, ministered to the sick, and gave comfort and the Final Sacrament to the many dying. The men he ministered to, those who survived, never forgot him.
“By coming here he exposed himself to great danger of infection… His services were sought by all, for, in his kind and sympathizing looks, his meek but earnest appearance, the despairing prisoners read that all humanity had not forsaken mankind.”
~ Pvt. Henry M. Davidson, 1st Ohio Light Artillery.
Father Whelan was helped in his labors by other volunteer priests and Bishop Verot who visited Andersonville twice. Protestant Union soldiers noted wryly in their diaries that the ministers of their own denominations were put to shame by the Christian love and charity shown by Father Whelan and the other priests. Hearing of the work of Father Whelan, Protestant ministers did eventually begin to come to Andersonville to assist the prisoners.
At some point at Andersonville Father Whelan contracted a lung infection, probably tuberculosis, which would eventually kill him in 1871. In spite of this, he continued his long labors in the most appalling of conditions until October 1, 1864. By that time, most of the Union prisoners had been transported to other camps due to Confederate fears of the camp being overrun by Sherman’s cavalry. His health broken, Father Whelan finally had to leave, but in one great last act of charity he borrowed sixteen thousand Confederate States paper-notes, purchased 10,000 pounds of flour, had it baked into bread and distributed to the Union prisoners. The bread, called “Whelan Bread” by the prisoners, lasted several months and saved many lives.
At the trial of Major Wirz, Father Whelan was called as a witness for the defense and his testimony is here. His testimony gives a good overview of his work in Andersonville.
After the war, Father Whelan returned to Savannah and his peace time duties as a priest. When he died in 1871 his funeral procession was the longest ever seen in Savannah, and the news of his death caused mourning among his admirers, in both the North and the South. The marker to the memory of Father Whelan at Andersonville and the Father Peter Whelan Assembly of the Knights of Columbus in Albany, Georgia attest to the fact that he is not forgotten. In a time of bitter civil war Father Whelan ministered to both imprisoned friend and foe as his brothers in Christ. His memory deserves to be cherished by every American.