Title: The Prisoners
Creator: Walt Whitman
Date: December 27, 1864
Publication information: New-York Times 27 December 1864: 2.
Source: Our transcription is based on a digital image of a microfilm copy of an original issue.
Whitman Archive ID: per.00201
Contributors to digital file: Ashley Lawson, Janel Cayer, Sarah Walker, and Elizabeth Lorang
cropped image 1
What Stops the General Exchange of Prisoners of War—Three-fourths of Our Men Already Exchanged by Death, or Mental and Bodily Ruin, and the Rest will soon Follow.
To the Editor of the New-York Times:
The public mind is deeply excited, and most righteously so, at the starvation of the United States prisoners of war in the hands of the Secessionists. The dogged sullenness and scoundrelism prevailing everywhere among the prison guards and officials, (with, I think, the general exception of the surgeons,) the measureless torments of the forty or fifty thousand helpless young men, with all their humiliations, hunger, cold, filth, despair, hope utterly given out, and the more and more frequent mental imbecility, I have myself seen the proofs of in so many instances, that I know the facts well, and know that the half has not been told, nor the tithe either. But there is another and full as important side to the story. Whose fault is it at bottom that our men have not been exchanged?2 To my knowledge it is understood by Col. MULFORD,3 our capital Executive Officer of Exchange,4 and also by those among us who have had longest and nearest contact with the secession exchange officers, that the Government of the latter have been and are ready to exchange man for man as far as prisoners go, (certainly all the whites, and, as I understand it, a large proportion of the blacks also.)
Under the President (whose humane, conscientious and fatherly heart, I have abiding faith in,) the control of exchange has remained with the Secretary of War,5 and also with Major-Gen. BUTLER. In my opinion the Secretary has taken and obstinately held a position of cold-blooded policy, (that is, he thinks it policy,) in this matter, more cruel than anything done by the Secessionists. Ostensibly and officially saying he will not exchange at all, unless the Secession leaders will give us, on average terms, all the blacks they capture in military action, the Secretary has also said (and this is the basis of his course and policy,) that it is not for the benefit of the Government of the United States that the power of the Secessionists should be repleted by some 50,000 men in good condition now in our hands, besides getting relieved of the support of nearly the same number of human wrecks and ruins, of no advantage to us, now in theirs.
Maj.-Gen. BUTLER, in my opinion, has also incorporated in the question of exchange a needless amount of personal pique, and an unbecoming obstinacy. He, too, has taken his stand on the exchange of all black soldiers, has persisted in it without regard to consequences, and has made the whole of the large and complicated question of general exchange turn upon that one item alone, while it is but a drop in the bucket. Then he makes it too much a personal contest and matter of vanity, who shall conquer, and an occasion to revenge the bad temper and insults of the South toward himself.
This is the spirit in which the faith of the Government of the United States toward fifty thousand of its bravest young men—soldiers faithful to it in its hours of extremest peril—has been, for the past year, and is now, handled. Meantime, while the thing has been held in abeyance in this manner, considerably more than one-fourth of those helpless and most wretched men (their last hours passed in the thought that they were abandoned by their Government, and left to their fate), have indeed been exchanged by deaths of starvation, (Mr. Editor, or you, reader, do you know what a death by starvation actually is?) leaving half the remainder closely prepared to follow, from mental and physical atrophy; and even then the remnant cannot long tarry behind. So that the Secretary and the Major-General mentioned, may find their policy work out more even than they calculated.
In my opinion, the anguish and death of these ten to fifteen thousand American young men, with all the added and incalculable sorrow, long drawn out, amid families at home, rests mainly upon the heads of members of our own Government; and if they persist, the death of the remainder of the Union prisoners, and often worse than death, will be added.
1. Whitman wrote a virtually identical letter to the editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle entitled "What Stops the General Exchange of Prisoners of War?," published on the same day (December 27, 1864). [back]
2. In April 1864, General Ulysses S. Grant had put a halt to all prisoner exchanges. Whitman's letter was one of many appeals to resume these exchanges. [back]
3. Major John E. Mulford was the Assistant Agent for Exchange in 1864. [back]
4. The Executive Officer of Exchange was Benjamin F. Butler, later mentioned. [back]
5. The Secretary of War was Edwin M. Stanton. [back]