The True Story of Andersonville Prison
by James Madison Page (1908)
paperback; 248 pages
Truth can often be a subjective matter, colored by one's perceptions and perspective, and these are important elements to consider whenever someone offers the "truth." James Madison Page's credibility, however, rises above suspicion when one considers what he had to lose by publishing his book on so controversial a topic as the events that unfolded in the notorious Confederate prison at Andersonville, Georgia.
Andersonville prison, or Camp Sumter as it was officially known, lives in eternal memory as the site where more than 13,000 of the Union's prisoner of war dead — almost fifty per cent of the total — suffered and died at the hands of system that was either overwhelmed by the numbers taken from the battlefields, or overruled by the callous and arbitrary cruelty of its commandant, Major Henry Wirz. Wirz was hanged for his part in a "conspiracy" to kill Union soldiers that was never proven, and for which alleged co-conspirators never stood trial. His trial is today acknowledged as having been a sham, and yet the "truth" of Andersonville is still meted out as an example of the illegitimacy of the Confederacy and the obvious moral turpitude of its cause.
Page challenges this notion. A former prisoner of the camp, he risked his political future and personal reputation when he published his book that documents the truth behind "the truth" of Andersonville. A second lieutenant in Company A of the Sixth Michigan Cavalry, Page was captured at the battle of Liberty Mills on the Rapidan in September of 1863, and was transferred in short order from the overcrowded Belle Island prison at Richmond to Andersonville.
A surveyor by trade, Page's description of the camp can be taken as accurate given his experienced eye for assessing details such as height, length and breadth. He paints a different picture of the dark stockade so often imagined and described in other works: "The camp was situated in what had been heavy pine timber, but the trees had been cut down. There was a stream of clear water running east through the prison grounds. The stockade was built of pine longs cut twenty feet long and hewed to the thickness of one foot and set in a trench five feet deep, making a wall fifteen feet high, on top of which were sentry boxes about thirty-five feet apart" (page 61).
Page was among the first 2,000 prisoners to arrive at the camp, and although the number swelled dramatically as Union forces failed to take the South as quickly as anticipated, and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton reneged on his promise to exchange prisoners, the young lieutenant found nothing dramatically unpleasant about the site. He noted wryly that no one taking a vacation would ever consider a prison camp! He also called later descriptions of the prison by popular Northern authors "free-lance recklessness." Page writes, "The selection of the site was an excellent one. I do not propose to dilate on the beauties of a prison. I never saw a beautiful jail yet.... Of course there was suffering, hunger, and misery among the prisoners at Andersonville, and I had my share of it there. There were also hunger, misery, and suffering at Salisbury and at Rock Island, and Elmira, the two latter places right in a 'land of plenty'" (page 63).
It is this kind of observation that marks the true courage of James Madison Page, for in 1908 he openly challenged what had become the "authorized" version of events, and threatened to open old wounds. By 1881, Page had set himself up as a surveyor in Montana, and had become a pillar of his pioneer community in the Beaverhead Valley community that bore the name of Madison. Perhaps because he had removed himself so far from the theatre that had become so much a part of the battlefield — and was still enflamed passions of what was then "the North" — he escaped some opprobrium, but there must surely have been some repercussions from those who refused his "truth."
Never at any point in his memoire does Page point fingers of accusation. Indeed, Wirz is treated most sympathetically as a soldier who may have had little choice but to follow the directions of his superiors. The camp's notorious surgeon, Dr. Richard Randolph Stevenson is also treated generously, enough to cast doubt upon the "official" version of his callous inhumanity to his patients:
Through the recommendation of Wirz an addition to the hospital was built, which was in charge of Dr. Josiah H. White, who, I will say, did everything in his power and at his command to alleviate the condition of the suffering patients. Sometime in April or the fore part of May, Dr. R.R. Stevenson superseded Dr. White as medical director.
Chief among the surgeons were Doctors J.H. White, W.J. W. Kerr, and R.R, Stevenson. I knew them and their surroundings sufficiently to testify that no medical men, North or South, performed their duty more laboriously or conscientiously than the above-named gentlemen. They were in constant attendance upon the sick, ministering to them and doing all in their power to heal and cure, but they were beset with all manner of difficulties — the want of medicine, the want of proper food, bedding clothing, shelter, and in fact everything need to make sick men comfortable.
From my observations the charge that has been so often made that these surgeons were in league with Captain Wirz to rob, and that they wilfully neglected the sick prisoners, is false (page 81).
There can be no doubt that conditions at Andersonville were both tragic and terrible, but Page's account offers an indication that this was not due to the wanton inhumanity of the Confederate officers and the guards. Risking greater unpopularity among the veterans of the country for which he had also willingly risked his life, Page would no doubt have been privately pilloried when he suggested, "For more than forty years we of the North have been acting unfairly. We charge the South with all the blame for all the horrors of the Civil War. We pensioners of the Union Army accept without thanks the assessments from the old Confederate taxpayer, but when he suggests the erection of a monument to the brave but unfortunate victims of the war, we raise our hands in holy horror and protest, while at the same time we are contemplating building a monument to John Brown at Harper's Ferry or at Washington" (page 245).
After criticizing Secretary Stanton for failing to follow through on the exchanges that could have spared Page his seven months in Andersonville, and advocating a pension for Confederate veterans of the war, Page closes his book with an observation that should be taught as a corollary to every lesson about the war offered in public schools today: "I love my country – my whole country, and was no more loyal to the perpetuity of the Union in 1861 than I am to-day, but I have come to the conclusion that after forty years we can at least afford to tell the truth" (page 245).
Truth, as history has correctly suggested, is the first casualty of war, and the writing of it is more often than not left the victor, who may not want people to know the truth, because — in the words of a popular Twentieth Century film — they might not be able to handle it!
- reviewed by Jay Underwood