“A Deep and Dark Blot.” During the Civil War, nothing outraged the Northern public more than the maltreatment of Union prisoners in the Confederate hellhole known as Andersonville. As its emaciated prisoners headed back North at the end of the war, scores of them passed through a processing facility outside Philadelphia that I’m currently researching. By 1905, as I’ve learned, more than 400 Pennsylvania vets who survived Andersonville were alive and fit enough to return to the site in southern Georgia for the dedication of a monument to the 1,849 Pennsylvanians who had died in misery there. Reports from 1905 say the hosts turned on the Southern charm, giving the arriving Yankees carriage rides and tours of the cotton warehouses and exchanging niceties. The unpleasant realities of Jim Crow and Southern lynchings (57 that year alone) were no doubt glossed over. The turn of the century was a time of superficial reconcilation, with many whites in the North willing to abide the South’s mythology that the Confederate cause had been honorable, even inspiring. During the big dedication ceremony, a Southern chaplain set the tone with an opening prayer of thanks “that the animosities of the past have been obliterated, that the blue and the gray now mingle in fraternal sympathy.” A few other speakers gave similarly benign remarks. But then came Col. James D. Walker of Pittsburgh, a leader of the monument commission, who stripped away the gloss. His message for the audience of 5,000 was, in sum: “That the Confederate authorities were guilty of perpetrating a most iniquitous method of exterminating a mass of helpless and powerless prisoners cannot be gainsaid or successfully controverted, and their action will ever remain a foul, deep and dark blot upon the humanity and civilization of an enlightened government.” Gen. Harry White of Indiana, Pa., who had survived a series of Confederate prisons, kept it up. His speech denounced the new crop of Southern history textbooks that depicted Northerners as aggressors and Southerners as noble victims. Don’t be fooled, he said. The rebel doctrines of nullification and secession had been unconstitutional and traitorous. “Let the youth of the land be instructed that while all, North and South, who fought in this war were brave men, there was a difference between the cause for which the men in blue fought and that for which the men in gray fought. One was eternally wrong and the other eternally right.” Their remarks are printed in full in the 1909 book Pennsylvania at Andersonville. They show that, there in the heart of Dixie, manners be damned, some Yankee vets felt dutybound to call out another outrage — this one rhetorical and political — being perpetrated by the South.
“They Tasted Death at Every Breath.” That’s the line that most sticks with me most from the Andersonville poem below. It reinforces a remark that a Gen. E.A. Carmen made at the 1905 ceremony. As he noted, the soldier in battle “faced death upon few occasions, but the battle here [in the prison pen] was constant, a daily and hourly struggle for life.” The poem was penned by John E. Barrett, publisher of the now-defunct newspaper The Scranton Truth. It is enscribed in bronze on the Pennsylvania monument at Andersonville.
Here sleep the loyal and the brave,
By kindly death from prison freed,
Who gave their precious lives to save,
The nation in its time of need.
This monument cannot disclose,
Nor can the skill of mortal make,
A record of the countless woes,
They suffered for their country’s sake.
To Him alone who knoweth all,
Is known the anguish they endured,
Awaiting the last bugle call,
With breaking hearts, while here immured.
Denied a soldier’s splendid death,
Where glory rolls her martial drum,
They tasted death at every breath,
And bravely met their martyrdom.
Enshrined in Pennsylvania’s heart,
To flag and freedom ever dear,
Are they who bore the patriot’s part,
And nobly served their country here.
And while the stars their vigil keep,
Across the silence of the sky,
The nation’s love for those who sleep,
At Andersonville shall not die.
Books News. I’ll be back on the author trail soon, making five appearances in support of Embattled Freedom: Chronicle of a Fugitive-Slave in the Wary North. Come if you can, and please spread the word:
- Sunday, Oct. 7, 1 p.m., Ryerss Museum,7370 Central Ave., Northeast Philadelphia
- Wednesday, Oct. 10, 7 p.m., Dennis Forum panelist, Brooks Theater at Keystone College, LaPlume, Pa.
- Thursday, Oct. 11, 10 a.m., Dennis Symposium, Brooks Theater at Keystone College, LaPlume, Pa.
- Saturday, Oct. 13, 10 a.m., Living History Festival, Allentown N.J.
- Sunday, Oct. 14, 3 p.m., Waverly Methodist Church, Waverly, Pa.