This Day (The Horrors! Edition)

Published:November 28, 2011 by Brendan Wolfe

On this day in 1863, the New York Times published a story headlined “Horrors of the Richmond Prisons; An Average of Fifty Victims Every Day; Disease Starvation and Death,” etc. This was not the work of reporters but a statement “by Surgeons just released from the Libby Prison, of the treatment received by our prisoner at Richmond,” published a day before the same report was to be presented to the War Department.

According to the surgeons, prisoners at Libby were dying left and right—of disease, certainly, but also of “that depression of spirits brought on so often by long confinement.” There was nothing obviously false about this assessment, although it was propaganda just the same. If Union prisoners during the war suffered about a 15 percent mortality rate, then Confederate prisoners suffered a 12 percent mortality rate, despite the United States suffering no serious shortages of food or supplies. The Union prison at Rock Island, Illinois, just across the river from my hometown, was no B&B, in other words.

Anyway, these claims about Libby were not only used for propaganda purposes, they were used against Lincoln to boot. Critics charged the president of abandoning the prisoners, so that the War Department was forced to send provisions to Libby. In the next week, we’ll see how that particular feast turned out.