In and Out of Rebel Prisons

This is a book by Alonzo Cooper on his experience in being captured and a prisoner of war during the Civil War.  You can download and read it for free here or here.

Born April 30, 1830 in Victory, New York, Cooper lost his father when he was only 18 months old.  His mother was left with nine children to raise by herself.  She died when Cooper was fourteen, and Cooper farmed until he was nineteen, when he became a store clerk.  Cooper was the owner of his own store, a fruit, confectionery, and oyster store in Oswego, New York, when he enlisted in 1862 in the 12th New York Cavalry and served as a lieutenant in the regiment.  He was captured after the Battle of Plymouth, North Carolina in 1864 and was held as a prisoner in Macon, Georgia, Savannah, Georgia, and Charleston, South Carolina, from where he escaped and tried to make his way to Union lines, but he was recaptured and returned to Charleston, and from there taken to Salisbury, North Carolina, Danville, Virginia, and then Richmond, Virginia, and then he was finally exchanged.  His book was published in 1888.

Cooper has no sympathy for the confederate prisoner of war camp system.  “I have often heard it said, even here in the North, that our men who were prisoners, were cared for as well as the limited means of the Confederacy would admit; but the falsity of this is seen when you remember that Andersonville is situated in a densely wooded country, and that much of the suffering endured was for the want of fuel with which to cook their scanty rations, and for the want of shelter, which they would have cheerfully constructed had the opportunity been afforded them.  The evidence all goes to show that instead of trying to save the lives or alleviate the sufferings of those whom the fortunes of war had thrown into their hands, they practiced a systematic course of starvation and cruelty, that in this nineteenth century, seems scarcely believable.” [p. vi]

US Colored Troops also participated in the battle at Plymouth, and some USCTs were captured.  Cooper relates their fate:  “While at the Johnson farm we could hear the crack, crack, crack of muskets, down in the swamp where the negroes had fled to escape capture, and were being hunted like squirrels or rabbits, I can think of no better comparison, and the Johnnies themselves laughingly said (when questioned about where they had been after their return), ‘They’d been out gunning for [n-words].’ ” [p. 33] He also tells us, “The negro soldiers who had surrendered, were drawn up in line at the breastwork, and shot down as they stood.  This I plainly saw from where we were held under guard, not over five hundred yards distance. There were but few who saw this piece of atrocity, but my attention was attracted to it and I watched the whole brutal transaction. When the company of rebs fired, every negro dropped at once, as one man.” [p. 34]

The first stop for the prisoners was at Andersonville, where enlisted men were separated from officers and sent into the prison while the officers moved on.  “On the plateau in front of the pen the officers and enlisted men were separated, as no officers were held in Andersonville, except a few who commanded colored troops, whose rank would not be recognized by such gentlemen (?) as Wirz and his aids [sic].” [p. 42]

Cooper and the other officers with him were placed in Camp Oglethorp in Macon, Georgia.  “There was a stream that ran through the camp grounds, in which it was my daily habit to bathe. In fact, during all my prison life, I never neglected an opportunity to take a bath whenever I could get a chance to do so. To this I attribute, more than anything else, the good health I enjoyed during nearly all the time spent in Southern prisons.  I do not mean to say by this, that bathing would have saved the lives of all, or any great proportion of those who died in prison, but I do say that when the facilities of cleanliness were afforded us, there was a notable decrease in the mortality. Hence the difference in the mortality of the officers’ prisons and those of the enlisted men, where bathing was impossible. Had our men in Andersonville been placed in good, roomy, clean quarters, through which flowed a good stream of pure running water, thousands who now sleep in that densely populated city of the Union dead, would now be here to relate the sufferings and privations they endured. It was not altogether the insufficiency of food that killed off those true-hearted patriots, but the need of wholesome quarters, and the facilities for cleanliness as well.” [pp. 45-46]

Cooper also gives us an insight into guard treatment of prisoners: “We always found that our treatment was fair whenever we were guarded by old soldiers who had seen service at the front; but when the new issue, who were a cowardly lot of home guards, were placed over us, there was no extremity of cruelty and meanness that they would not resort to, to render our condition more miserable and unbearable, even to shooting an officer who was quietly attending to his own business. A case of this kind occurred on the 11th of June, when Lieut. Gerson of the 45th New York Volunteers, who was returning from the sink about 8 o’clock in the evening, was shot and killed by one of the guards named Belger, of the 27th Georgia Battalion (Co. E). This was a brutal and deliberate murder, as the officer was not within ten feet of the dead line and was coming from it towards his quarters, besides the full moon was shining brightly, and the sentry could not have thought he was trying to escape. The truth is, he had told his girl when he left home, that he would shoot a Yankee before he returned, and was too cowardly to attempt to kill one who was armed. This fellow was promoted to a Sergeant and given thirty days’ leave for his cowardly act.” [p. 63]

After he escaped, he made his way across rebel territory.  Along the way he was helped by African-Americans who were all too happy to assist him when they learned he was a Union officer, and also by Unionist whites, who seemed to be fairly numerous among the people he encountered, even a guard at a prison camp and some confederate soldiers along the way.  He was eventually recaptured, though, and returned to prison.

In September, Cooper was one of the officers who was moved to Charleston to be used by the rebels as human shields.  “On the 13th of September we were placed on board the cars and arrived at Charleston the same evening, where we were placed in the jail yard, to be knocked out by General Gilmore’s batteries on Morris Island. This was without exception the most filthy, lousy, dirty place I ever saw. There were only fifty A tents for six hundred prisoners, and scarcely any wood with which to cook our rations. At Charleston occurred the first death by starvation that I had witnessed, the deceased being a member of my company.  Soon after we entered the jail yard Capt. Hock and myself were greeted by two skeletons, whom we never would have recognized had they not made themselves known to us. They were reduced to mere skin and bone, and neither could walk, being on the very verge of death from starvation.” [p. 115]

When Cooper was finally exchanged, he noted the difference in condition between the Union men held by the rebels and the confederates held by the Union: “The contrast in the looks and appearances of these gray-backs and our poor boys, was painfully apparent. They were in robust health, full of life and vitality, and fit to at once take the field again, while our boys were scarcely able, many of them, to climb up the bank at the landing, without assistance. While they showed the effects of rest and plenty of wholesome food, our poor comrades showed equally the terrible effects of starvation and disease. They were in excellent condition to again at once go into active service, while we would need months of careful nursing, before any of us could again endure the hardships of camp life; and a large proportion, were forever broken in health, and would never again be able to perform the duties of a soldier.” [pp. 247-248]

Cooper also tells us how he and his fellow prisoners felt about the ending of the exchanges that led to the prison camps in which they suffered: “To show how the large majority of officers confined in Macon felt about how the affairs of the government had been conducted under the administration of President Lincoln, I quote from my diary of June 7th, 1864:

“ ‘This being the day upon which the Convention is to meet at Baltimore to nominate a candidate for President, our camp went into convention and nominated Abraham Lincoln by a vote of 533 out of a total vote cast of 625.’

“This was considered not only an endorsement of the policy pursued by the President in the prosecution of the war, but also our approval of his exchange policy. We well understood that the cartel was suspended, because the South refused to exchange the negroes taken in arms, but proposed to return such soldiers to servitude, and we believed that as they were taken while bearing arms in defence of the government, that government was in duty bound to protect them in their rights and it was our duty as good soldiers to suffer and even die, if need be, in prison or in field, to maintain the dignity of the nation. This is why such indignation was manifested when we were asked to lend ourselves to the scheme of Jeff. Davis, to even impliedly stigmatize the authorities at Washington, as being derelict in their duties towards us, by demanding an immediate resumption of the exchange cartel, unless all who wore the blue could be classed in the category of United States soldiers. We believed that all whose loyalty to the flag, had led them to risk their lives in its defence, whether their skin was white or black, were entitled to protection beneath its folds.” [pp. 270-271]

Though he remained bitter about the treatment he and other Union soldiers endured, he didn’t blame the people who lived in the confederacy.  “I have endeavored to speak of the Southern prisons and of the treatment meted out to those whom the fortunes of war compelled to endure and suffer the hardships, tortures and privations of a lingering confinement in those loathsome pens of starvation, provided by the self-styled Southern Confederacy, as a punishment for loyalty to country and the flag, just as I found them. Not to the people of the South do I lay the blame of the frightful mortality among prisoners, in those pens of starvation, but to Jeff. Davis and the infamous Winder; who boasted that they were doing more execution among the prisoners, than Lee’s whole army was doing in the field; to them I say that the blood of thirty-five thousand loyal hearted patriots, cry from the ground of Andersonville, Salisbury, Florence and Belle Island, unto a just God, for vengeance upon those who so cruelly, heartlessly and fiendishly murdered them.” [pp. 285-286]

This book was a really good read.  It gives us an insight into the experiences of officers who were prisoners of war.  While he does say he wrote the book with his journal at his side, a journal he kept while he was a prisoner, we still have to take it as one man’s observations, though–one man’s viewpoint.  Nevertheless, I can confidently recommend this book.

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