The Holocaust Historiography Project

Atrocities, Then and Now


Most shocking barbarities begin to be reported as practiced … upon the wounded and prisoners … that fall into their hands,” read an editorial in the New York Times. “We are told of their slashing the throats of some from ear to ear; of their cutting off the heads of others and kicking them about as footballs; and of their setting up the wounded against trees and firing at them as targets or torturing them with plunges of bayonets into their bodies.”

The date was July 25, 1861, and the credulous editor, an ardent supporter of the Lincoln Administration, was commenting on the news which war correspondents were sending from the battle of Bull Run. A few weeks later, Harpers Weekly, the most popular illustrated paper of the day, carried a full page picture — presumably drawn by the artist on the spot — showing the Southerners bayonetting wounded Union soldiers on the battlefield.

The editorial, the correspondents' stories, and the illustrations might well have been published in the spring of 1945. Within recent weeks, the most popular illustrated weekly has carried elaborate spreads of border atrocities, correspondents have added solemn testimony, the State Department has promised adequate punishment for German war criminals, and Gen. Eisenhower invited a Congressional committee to visit scenes of German atrocities to gather authentic information. History — or as least the history of propaganda — would seem to be repeating itself.

In two important respects the propaganda aspects of the Civil War’s atrocity stories resemble the present. One is the demand for vengeful retaliation on prisoners of war, and the other is the use of high-placed officials to verify and authenticate the stories handed out for popular consumption.

During the Civil War, when stories of suffering in Southern prison camps in Richmond and Andersonville began to spread over the North, Secretary of War Stanton prepared to use the stories to “fire the Northern heart.” The Union armies were waging a relentless war upon the South’s transportation system, and the Confederates were unable to provide adequate housing, clothing, medicine, and food to the prisoners. Instead of exchanging the prisoners — the obviously humane solution — the Secretary of War preferred to allow Union soldiers to suffer from disease and privation in Southern prisons. Stanton knew that the very presence of the prisoners furnished a drain upon the Confederacy’s dwindling resources.

Cloaking Their Aims

Edward M. Stanton was the Cabinet representative of the “Radical,” or “Jacobin,” faction of the Republican Party. The Jacobins represented the interests of the North’s rising industrialists who wanted a protective tariff, of the railroad promoters who wanted subsidies from the Federal treasury, and of the financiers who were using the new national banking system to get a strangle hold on the country’s wealth.

Using the language of humanitarianism and freedom to cloak their predatory aims, the Jacobins wanted the war prolonged until the armies had crushed the South, destroyed its economic system, and enabled Northern exploiters to seize the South’s resources. In Congress, the Jacobins controlled the Joint Committee on the Conduct of War, which fomented propaganda and formulated Jacobin policies.

Neither Secretary Stanton nor the Congressional Jacobins were willing to relieve the suffering of Union prisoners of war by modifying military policy or exchanging the prisoners. Instead, the Secretary gave encouragement to popular demands that Confederate prisoners of war, confined in the North, be made to suffer in retaliation. Northern prison officials reduced the rations of prisoners of war, failed to provide heat, and refused to issue clothing to prisoners suffering the unaccustomed severities of a Northern climate. Surgeons of Northern prison camps officially reported that men were dying from exposure, overcrowding, lack of food and bad sanitary arrangements.

“The Secretary of War is not disposed at this time, in view of the treatment our prisoners of war are receiving at the hands of the enemy, to erect fine establishments for their prisoners in our hands,” replied Stanton to a suggestion that more prisons were needed. Moreover, he ordered that measures be taken to subject captured Confederates to “precisely similar treatment in respect to food, clothing, medical treatment and other necessities” as prevailed in Southern prisons.

Although the Jacobin press enthusiastically endorsed this venomous program, some prisoners of war, returning from the South, denied that Confederates were deliberately torturing prisoners. Such reports might well have caused a reaction against the policy of retaliation, and have given excuse for renewed demands for exchanges. To forestall such developments, Stanton sought “official confirmation of his policy. He asked the Committee on the Conduct of the War to visit a hospital at Annapolis and report on the condition of some sick and wounded ex-prisoners.

The enormity of the crime committed by the rebels toward our “prisoners,” Stanton told the Jacobin committee, “is not known or realized by our people, and cannot but fill with horror the civilized world with the deliberate system of savage and barbarous treatment.”

Thus instructed, the Congressional committee visited Annapolis. They emerged with a report which was a masterpiece of propaganda. In 30 pages of official print, they set forth a catalog of Confederate brutality. They told how the Southerners robbed their captives, how they beat them, starved them, and murdered them with fiendish glee. And, as evidence that could not be denied, the committee presented the pictures of 8 alleged victims of Confederate savagery. The 8 pictured men have hollow, unshaven cheeks, glassy eyes, protruding bones, and expressions of utter despondency.

The Government promptly circulated thousands of copies of this official report. No one noticed that two of the pictured men had been dead when the committee visited Annapolis, and no one knew, of course, that the worst case was a soldier who had never been a prisoner at all! Nor did the Committee bother to mention that the Confederates had sent these prisoners home, at their own request, because there were no proper hospital facilities for their care in Richmond. Such an admission would have weakened the Jacobin argument that the rebels had a “predetermined plan” permanently to disable all Union prisoners of war.

Bolstered by this report bearing the solemn signatures of Congressmen, the War Department continued its policy of retaliation upon the helpless Confederate prisoners of war. Before long, disease ran riot and death stalked the Northern prison camps until more than 12 percent of the prisoners were dead. Secretary Stanton had almost succeeded in administering “precisely similar treatment.” In the South where the blockade prevented getting medicines, and the war on the transporation system prevented the Confederates from feeding their prisoners, 15.5 per cent of the captives died.

The end of the Civil War did not bring an end to official propaganda on the subject of Confederate atrocities on prisoners of war. After the war, the Jacobins continued their program of destroying the South’s economic system. As they proceeded to impose military government on the South in a drastic program of “Reconstruction,” they needed to keep the prison atrocity stories alive. Unless, so their argument ran, the Southerners were controlled at the point of a bayonet, they would reestablish slavery and rise again in an effort to destroy the Union.

Accordingly, in 1869, the Jacobins in the House of Representatives appointed a committee to report again on the prisoners. “Rebel cruelty,” duly reported the committee, “demands an enduring truthful record, stamped with the National Authority.” The committee took testimony, oral and written, from 3,000 witnesses, and they issued a heavily documented volume which stamped with the National Authority” all the horror stories of the Confederate prisoners and proved conclusively the Jacobin doctrine that the Confederates were fiends, Jefferson Davis was a beast, and no rebel could ever be trusted with a ballot. To the Jacobin it was clear that the whole South should be made to suffer forever for its sins.

Experience of World War I

Such was the history of one aspect of Civil War propaganda. To it might be added a footnote from the First World War. In that war, too, atrocity stories played a major role in “firing” the Allied heart. After the war, Sir Arthur Ponsonby and others examined the stories of the Belgian babies, of the cathedral monks tied to bell-clappers, and the famed corpse rendering factory. They found the stories interesting and ingenious, but untrue.

One set of stories, however, was debunked by officers of the American Army. In 1918, the American Third Army moved in to occupy a part of the Rhineland. As Colonel I.L. Hunts Officer in Charge of Civil Affairs, tells the story:

Hardly had the guns ceased firing on the morning of November 11, when Allied prisoners began to straggle over from the German lines. These returning prisoners were in a pitiful condition. They were all ravenously hungry, and most of them in rags and indescribable filth … The sight of the deplorable condition of the prisoners caused bitter resentment among the Allied troops. Some of these prisoners brought stories of terrible conditions of hunger in the prison camps from which they had been released.

Promptly, the Armistice Commission protested to the Germans against this brutality, and threatened reprisals. The Germans denied the charges, and said that the prisoners had muntinied in the camps and had made their way to the Allied lines without waiting for proper transportation.

Then came more stories — stories about the prisoners who were still in German camps and who were being “brutally treated by German guards after the signing of the Armistice.” Again the Armistice Commission protested, and prepared to use the stories to impart harsher retaliation on the Germans. But then the American representatives on the Commission investigated and, says Col. Hunt, it was “discovered that the statements made by the Germans were, in fact, true.”

The prisoners had revolted, and had made their way without rations to the Allied lines. This “was sufficient to account for the deplorable condition in which they arrived.” Moreover, the camps in the interior had been deprived of supplies by the Allied victory and by internal revolution.

“As a matter of fact,” concluded Col. Hunt, “it had been established that the American prisoners were, on the whole, well treated in the German internment camps. Their rations were not good, but, thanks to the Red Cross, 'they actually fared better than the German troops who were guarding them.'”

The memory of these cases from two previous wars should have a sobering effect at the present time. The current deluge of atrocity stories, vouched for by the State Department, and soon to be stamped with the national authority by visiting congressmen, may turn out, of course, to be true. They were not true in 1864 and in 1918, and even if they were true in 1945 they would have to furnish a rational basis for sadistic retaliation on prisoners of war or for enslaving the German people in a short-sighted surrender to the lust for revenge, that can only serve to wreck the hope for enduring peace.

Source: Reprinted from The Journal of Historical Review, vol. 9, no. 1, pp. 65-69.