The rescue of several escaped Federal prisoners in early August 1864, authorities in the Department of the South raised their concerns about the treatment of prisoners in Andersonville, Georgia. Reports of the horrible conditions had filtered back to Federal ears starting in the spring. But the first hand accounts from the escaped prisoners seemed to stir Major-General John Foster. But several constraints limited the actions Foster could make. Specifically concerned about the sanitary conditions of the prison, on August 21 Foster proposed to send supplies to the prison camp:
Being credibly informed that the U.S. soldiers prisoners of war at Andersonville, Ga., are dying rapidly for want of the comforts and necessaries of life, I feel anxious to send them such aid as we can. I therefore respectfully ask permission to send at once about ten wagonloads of sanitary stores, and that one or more of the U. S. officers now prisoners of war in your hands may be authorized to act as quartermaster in the reception and distribution of these stores to our prisoners. Owing to the lack of transportation from Port Royal Ferry to the railroad, I propose to send the supplies by the way of Savannah, meeting a steamer sent by you under flag of truce.
Foster addressed this request to Major-General Samuel Jones, his Confederate opposite number. On August 25 (150 years from this posting), Jones responded, “The U.S. soldiers, prisoners of war at Andersonville, Ga., are in no way whatever under my control, and I therefore cannot undertake to deliver them the sanitary stores you desire to send without the sanction of the officer having charge of prisoners.” And Jones did start the dialog with Brigadier-General John H. Winder at Andersonville that same day:
As the prisoners at Andersonville are not under my control I of course cannot undertake to send those stores to them without the sanction of the officer having charge of them. I refer the matter to you for such action as you may think proper and will inform General Foster that I have done so. A circular dated in Washington on the 10th instant, and signed by Colonel [William] Hoffman, Commissary-General of Prisoners, permits our prisoners to receive clothing and other articles, not contraband, from their relatives or friends residing beyond our (their) lines when forwarded by flag-of-truce boat or by any other authorized channel, so long as the prisoners of war held at Richmond and other Southern prisons are permitted to receive the same articles in the same manner from their relatives and friends in the loyal States.
The fine point here to consider – there was indeed an agreed upon mechanism for the Confederates to forward supplies to prisoners in the north. That is not to say it was used to the degree that would provide significant relief. That is to day the Federals would allow such. Jones, to his credit, was calling that to the attention of Winder as a means for the Federals to at least ameliorate the suffering at Andersonville. Winder’s response to Jones was not preserved in the official records.
One of the catches to Foster’s proposal was to have a Federal officer in the prison supervise the distribution of supplies. Jones, even before consulting with Winder, refused that stipulation. Jones preferred to have one of his officers, or one of those in Andersonville, manage distribution. With that contention, eventually the Confederates would agree to the delivery of stores for Andersonville… but not until mid-September was that word passed to Foster. By that time, the terrible, unhealthy summer weeks of 1864 were winding down.
So this brings us to the larger question, which must be considered with respect to Andersonville. Confederate authorities, and chiefly Winder, insisted that all which could be done to provide for the prisoners was done – and what was not done was outside the limited resources of the Confederacy at that time. So was that the case? I doubt ten wagons of sanitary supplies, alone, would have significantly changed conditions at Andersonville. But if that had turned into an established convention, it might have made a difference. The light then turns to Confederate authorities.
It’s what Brigadier-General Robert H. Chilton said of Andersonville that echoes here. “The condition of the prison at Andersonville is a reproach to us as a nation.”
(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part II, Serial 66, pages 257-8; Series II, Volume 7, Serial 120, 550, 662-3 and 678-9.)