Haunted by Atrocity: Civil War Prisons in American Memory (Making the Modern South)
Benjamin G. Cloyd
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During the Civil War, approximately 56,000 Union and Confederate soldiers died in enemy military prison camps. Even in the midst of the war's shocking violence, the intensity of the prisoners' suffering and the brutal manner of their deaths provoked outrage, and both the Lincoln and Davis administrations manipulated the prison controversy to serve the exigencies of war. As both sides distributed propaganda designed to convince citizens of each section of the relative virtue of their own prison system -- in contrast to the cruel inhumanity of the opponent -- they etched hardened and divisive memories of the prison controversy into the American psyche, memories that would prove difficult to uproot. In Haunted by Atrocity, Benjamin G. Cloyd deftly analyzes how Americans have remembered the military prisons of the Civil War from the war itself to the present, making a strong case for the continued importance of the great conflict in contemporary America.
Throughout Reconstruction and well into the twentieth century, Cloyd shows, competing sectional memories of the prisons prolonged the process of national reconciliation. Events such as the trial and execution of CSA Captain Henry Wirz -- commander of the notorious Andersonville prison -- along with political campaigns, the publication of prison memoirs, and even the construction of monuments to the prison dead all revived the painful accusations of deliberate cruelty. As northerners, white southerners, and African Americans contested the meaning of the war, these divisive memories tore at the scars of the conflict and ensured that the subject of Civil War prisons remained controversial.
By the 1920s, the death of the Civil War generation removed much of the emotional connection to the war, and the devastation of the first two world wars provided new contexts in which to reassess the meaning of atrocity. As a result, Cloyd explains, a more objective opinion of Civil War prisons emerged -- one that condemned both the Union and the Confederacy for their callous handling of captives while it deemed the mistreatment of prisoners an inevitable consequence of modern war. But, Cloyd argues, these seductive arguments also deflected a closer examination of the precise responsibility for the tragedy of Civil War prisons and allowed Americans to believe in a comforting but ahistorical memory of the controversy. Both the recasting of the town of Andersonville as a Civil War village in the 1970s and the 1998 opening of the National Prisoner of War Museum at Andersonville National Historic Site reveal the continued American preference for myth over history -- a preference, Cloyd asserts, that inhibits a candid assessment of the evils committed during the Civil War.
The first study of Civil War memory to focus exclusively on the military prison camps, Haunted by Atrocity offers a cautionary tale of how Americans, for generations, have unconsciously constructed their recollections of painful events in ways that protect cherished ideals of myth, meaning, identity, and, ultimately, a deeply rooted faith in American exceptionalism.
these southern defenders succeeded in creating their own deflective memory of Civil War prisons. Their version contained several components that not only excused the Confederacy’s prison record but placed the burden of responsibility for the dead prisoners back on the Union. According to Stephens, Davis, Craven, and Schade, the Confederacy strove to fulfill its obligations to its prisoners even in the midst of total collapse. If the North had fought a more civilized war, refraining from
opportunity. Andersonville survivors like McElroy wrote that as soon as they established their shelter, escape became “the burden of our thoughts, day and night.”19 William B. McCreery spoke about the hardships of Libby Prison and his attempt at freedom, emphasizing that he was no braver than the rest of his fellow inmates, of whom “nearly everyone 64â•… Haunted by Atrocity was projecting some plan for escape.”20 And the public responded to the idea of escape, as the publishing of seven
demonstrating “patient bravery” and suffering “untold agonies” out of an unwavering sense of “loyalty and honor.” Descriptions of the martyrdom and heroism displayed by the Andersonville prisoners had been heard before. But as Greene continued, the importance of the Spanish-American War in finally starting to heal the wounds kept raw by the power of memory became clear. “Out of the carnage of war has come these days of peace,” Greene declared, and “the animosities of the past have been
components of the story of Civil War prisons was the scrambling of “both belligerents” to create proper “organization for the care of prisoners of war.” Union and Confederate prisons operated on an impromptu basis throughout the war, he argued, first in 1861 as prisoners began arriving behind the lines, and then all over again in late 1863 and 1864 as the war reached its destructive peak just as the exchange agreement collapsed. Despite the lack of foresight on both sides, Hesseltine credited the
Winslow and Moore’s focus on the managerial and bureaucratic nature of the problems that led to prisoner misery at Camp Morton once again reflected the growing acceptance of Hesseltine’s organizational explanation for the tragedy of Civil War prisons. The honesty of their assessment led to favorable reviews in both the Journal of Southern History and the American Historical Review. Anyone interested in the subject of “man’s inhumanity to man,” reviewer Edgar Stewart declared, would find Winslow