Thursday, May 14, 2015

Humanity and Hope in a Southern Prison

By Peter Cozzens, 4-24-14

For more than the obvious reasons, Civil War soldiers in both armies despised military prisons. Not only were the inmates held against their will, but the hunger, filth, vermin, rampant disease, overcrowding, brutal treatment and soul-crushing ennui made prison camps slaughterhouses of slow death. Andersonville, the infamous Georgia prison, was the ultimate abattoir; during the summer of 1864 nearly one in three Union inmates died. In other Confederate prisons, the average mortality rate was 15.5 percent; in Union prisons, 12 percent.

There was one remarkable exception: the virtually unknown Cahaba Federal Prison, 15 miles southwest of Selma, Ala. At Cahaba, the mortality rate was just 3 percent, a lower death rate than that among American prisoners in German stalags during World War II. According to federal figures, only 147 of the 5,000 prisoners interned at Cahaba died there.

What made Cahaba unique among Civil War prisons? Simple humanity. The prison commandant, Col. Henry A. M. Henderson of Kentucky, understood Northerners. He had graduated from Ohio Wesleyan University and the Cincinnati Law School. Shortly after graduation and finding his true calling in the church, Henderson became a Methodist minister. When he assumed command of Cahaba in July 1863, a month after it opened, he pledged to run the prison with as much compassion as discipline and good order permitted.

Henderson didn’t have a lot to work with. The prison was built around a partly completed, 15,000-square-foot cotton warehouse in the town of Cahaba on the west bank of the Alabama River. Within its brick walls, 250 rough-timber bunks, capable of sleeping two men each, were built one atop of the other. An unfinished roof left 1,600 square feet in the center exposed to the elements. Confederate prison authorities built a 12-foot-high wooden stockade around the warehouse, with allowance made for a small outdoor cooking yard. The prison’s official capacity was 500; by the time Henderson arrived, it already had climbed to 660, with latecomers compelled to sleep on the dirt floor of the warehouse.

The Kentuckian’s first order of business was to improve sanitary conditions. Drinking water came from an artesian well that emptied into an open gutter, which in turn flowed 200 yards through town before entering the northwest corner of the stockade. In his effort to depollute the water supply, Henderson had a willing ally in the prison surgeon R. H. Whitfield. Making his case to the Medical Department, Whitfield said the water, in its course from the well to the stockade, “has been subjected to the washings of the hands, feet, faces, and heads of soldiers, citizens, and negroes, buckets, tubs, and spittoons, of groceries, offices, and hospital, hogs, dogs, cows, and filth of all kinds from the streets and other sources.” Whitfield’s graphic plea did the trick; quartermasters installed pipes to replace the open ditch, and clean water flowed into the prison.

To ensure it remained that way, the latrines – closed outhouses, not open filth holes in the center of camp, as at Andersonville – were built at the southeastern corner of the prison, where the water exited. Consequently, dysentery was almost unknown at Cahaba; the majority of prisoners who died there seem to have entered the prison already in a weakened state.

Those who fell ill were well cared for at the prison hospital, located in a rambling, two-story hotel called Bell Tavern that the Confederacy had commandeered to serve both the guards and the prisoners. Whitfield treated Northerners and Southerners with equal consideration. Men died in the Bell Tavern hospital, but not for want of care.

Neither did they die for want of effort by Henderson, who in the autumn of 1864 found himself commandant of the most overcrowded of all Civil War prisons. That summer the Union’s commanding general, Ulysses S. Grant, halted prisoner-of-war exchanges. As a result, Cahaba’s population surged to 2,151 in October, a number 600 percent above the prison’s capacity (Andersonville ran 330 percent above capacity at its peak). Each man had only 7.5 square feet to call his own; those at Andersonville had 35 square feet of space, albeit squalid, per man.

Despite the ban on exchanges, Henderson bypassed his own chain of command and proposed to the Union district commander, Maj. Gen. Cadwallader C. Washburn, a special exchange of 350 of Cahaba’s most debilitated inmates. Cadwallader forwarded the request, along with a letter praising Henderson’s management, but General Grant denied the appeal.

Henderson persevered. With winter drawing near and the prisoners poorly clad, he suggested to Washburn that the federals send a truce ship up the Alabama River to Cahaba with supplies. Henderson and Washburn overcame the reservations of their superiors, and in December a Union steamboat offloaded 2,000 uniforms, 4,000 pairs of socks, 1,500 blankets, medicine and mess tins.

Henderson had done his best. But with overcrowding came a drop in rations, an inevitable course in a South scarcely able to feed its own troops by then. Prisoners wanted food more than supplies. Most of them bartered their new clothing to guards in exchange for victuals, and, reported Henderson sadly, the prisoners “were left with the same scanty clothing and ragged blankets in a climate particularly severe in winter.”

Homesickness and ennui could kill men as effectively as disease, so Henderson and his subordinates did what they could to keep the men’s minds occupied. “Every day on the arrival of the mail, one of them would bring in a late paper, stand up on a box and read the news,” recalled Sgt. Melvin Grigsby of Wisconsin. “In many other ways, such as procuring writing material and forwarding letters for us, they manifested such kindly feeling as one honorable soldier will always manifest toward brother soldier, enemy though he may be, in misfortune.”

Prisoners at Cahaba also were blessed with their own angel of mercy: Amanda Gardner, whose well-appointed home stood just outside the prison compound. There was no doubting her pro-Confederate convictions; Ms. Gardner had lost one of her two sons to Yankee bullets at the First Battle of Bull Run. But she had a reputation, a prison guard told Sergeant Grigsby, “of being one of the kindest-hearted and most intelligent women in town.” Soon after Cahaba opened, she began sending gifts of food that her young daughter slipped through cracks in the stockade walls with the connivance of friendly guards. When winter came, she cut every carpet in her home into blankets to “relieve the suffering of those poor prisoners.”

Most beneficial to prisoner morale was the generous use she made of a superb book collection her uncle had bequeathed her. Prisoners had only to send a note by a guard to Gardner or her daughter to borrow a book from library. At Andersonville prisoners scuffled over dog-eared back issues of Harper’s Weekly to alleviate the tedium. At Cahaba inmates enjoyed finely bound copies of the classics and a wide assortment of recent novels, as well as works of history, philosophy, science and poetry. Word of Gardner’s kindness spread beyond the prison walls to the Union lines; when a federal cavalry detachment realized they had captured her remaining son, they paroled him through the lines to her care.

Despite the best intentions of Henderson and Gardner, life at Cahaba was not easy. By late 1864 the average daily issue of rations fell to 12 ounces of cornmeal, 8 ounces of often-rancid beef and occasionally some bug-infested peas. Prisoners were not starved, but they were hungry enough that thoughts of food permeated their dreams. “The same experience was often repeated,” remembered an Illinois cavalryman, Jesse Hawes. “Go to the bed of sand at 9:00 p.m., dream of food till 1:00 or 2:00 a.m., awake, go to the water barrel, drink, and return to sleep again if the rats would permit sleep.”

The rat population grew apace with that of the prisoners until they became a plague. They burrowed through the warehouse and swarmed over the cooking yard. “At first they made me nervous, lest they should do me serious injury before I should awake,” said Hawes. “But after several nights’ experience that feeling was supplanted by one of irritation that they should keep waking me up so many times that at length became nearly unbearable.”

Harder yet to bear were lice, from which no prisoner was free. An Illinois private said that after his first night at Cahaba his uniform was so infested that it “looked more like pepper and salt than blue.” Hawes agreed. Lice “crawled upon our clothing by day, crawled over our bodies, into the ears, even into the nostrils and mouths by night.”

To compound the prisoners’ misery, in early March 1865 the inmates of Cahaba faced a natural disaster of the first order. For several days rain had pounded the prison and inundated the surrounding countryside. On March 1 the Cahaba River, north of town, overflowed its banks. Water raced through Cahaba and swept into the stockade. Latrines backed up, and by nightfall prisoners found themselves waist-deep in ice-cold, fetid water.

Unfortunately for them, Colonel Henderson was no longer at Cahaba. With the war winding down, General Grant had relented on prisoner exchanges. Confederate authorities detailed Henderson to organize exchanges at a neutral site in Vicksburg, leaving the prison under the command of Lt. Col. Samuel Jones, a mean-spirited martinet who once threatened to run Ms. Gardner out of town because of her “sympathy for the damned Yankees.” Refusing an appeal from his own guards to permit the prisoners to seek refuge on high ground outside the stockade until the waters receded, Jones left the federals shivering in the water for three days. Then, as the water finally drained from the stockade, he told the incredulous inmates that they were to be paroled immediately. The war was all but over.

For four weeks steamboats plied the Alabama River with prisoners. Most were taken to Vicksburg, where they mingled with the skeletons in blue from Andersonville. Some 4,700 Union prisoners awaited transportation home. Some 1,100 were sick, nearly all of whom were from Andersonville. The Cahaba men, reported Union department commander Napoleon T. Dana, were in “excellent health.”

But not for long. On April 24, the long months of humane work by Henderson ended in unspeakable tragedy. The Union paddle steamer Sultana left Vicksburg crammed with 2,000 Union prisoners, more than half of them Cahaba men. The Sultana had faulty boilers and a legal capacity of 376 passengers. Three days after setting off up the Mississippi three of the four boilers exploded, and the Sultana sank. Three-quarters of the men onboard died.

General Dana took care to see that no harm came to Henderson while he was at Vicksburg, assigning a detachment of Indiana cavalry to act as the colonel’s personal bodyguard. After the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, not even a well-meaning Confederate like Henderson was safe within Union lines. So Dana spirited him across the Mississippi River into a camp of Texas Rangers.

Henderson went on to live a long and productive life. He served two terms as superintendent of public schools in Kentucky before returning to the clergy. The Reverend Doctor Henderson was pastor of the Jersey City, N.J., Methodist Church when on May 11, 1883 its most prominent member, Mrs. Hannah Simpson Grant, passed away. Her son, Ulysses S. Grant, entrusted funeral arrangements to Henderson and asked him to prepare an appropriate eulogy. It was a high tribute to Henderson’s character indeed that the former commanding general of the Union army would place such trust in the one-time commandant of a Confederate prisoner-of-war camp.

Henderson died in Cincinnati in 1912. Obituaries incorrectly said he had been a Confederate general, omitting any reference to his duty at Cahaba. Not that it mattered. After the 1865 flood the county seat moved from Cahaba to Selma, and by the turn of the century Cahaba was a ghost town; the warehouse prison demolished for the bricks. The horrors of Andersonville and notoriety of its commandant Henry Wirz would forever remain etched in American memory; memories of Col. Henry A. M. Henderson’s humanity were buried with the good reverend.

Peter Cozzens is the author of 16 books on the American Civil War and the Indian Wars of the American West, including “The Shipwreck of Their Hopes: The Battles for Chattanooga.”

Image: Cahaba Federal Prison



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