I have ancestors who fought on both sides of the Civil War, and the relation about whom I know the most is Jacob W. Fees, my great-grandfather. Born in 1832, he was in his prime when the Civil War broke out. He enlisted in July 1861, joining Company H of the 4th Iowa Infantry, rising to the rank of Sergeant before he was mustered out at the end of the war. His regiment fought at Vicksburg, Chattanooga and during the siege of Atlanta as well as numerous other engagements. On the night of March 14, 1864, while on picket duty in Claysville, Alabama, Rebel forces captured him.
He and his fellow prisoners-of-war were hurried across the Tennessee River where they had their good clothes and money taken from them before being marched for two days without food. On the morning of March 18th, they were loaded into train cars and transported to Camp Sumter – the official name for the prison more commonly known as Andersonville. He arrived that night amidst a torrential downpour.
When the war started, both sides assumed it would end quickly, therefore little provision was made to deal with prisoners. Early in the war, prisoners were often paroled on the battlefield in exchange for a pledge to return home and not fight again, but this didn’t work. A prisoner exchange system was developed, but it too failed when the North realized it was to their advantage not to exchange prisoners. So prisons and the care of the inmates were an afterthought and cruelty prevailed on both sides of the conflict. But it must have been worse for Union prisoners in the South, because the Confederacy had little in the way of spare resources for their care. In an article he wrote that was published in The Corning Gazette on January 7, 1880, my great-grandfather recalled the policy of the Confederate government was “to reduce the prisoners so they never would be able for service again.”
Even though Andersonville was only in operation for 14 months, it housed 45,000 Union prisoners, of which 13,000 died of disease, exposure, malnutrition or cruelty. To call Andersonville a prison gives it credit for having some amenities. It was a stockade, encompassing about 25 acres that lacked barracks or other structures to protect the prisoners from the elements. Their beds were “the white sands of Georgia.” With so many men in such a small area, the lice and worms “became so numerous that the sand seemed almost alive with them.” The security system was a “dead line” drawn inside the stockade. Guards in the watchtowers shot any prisoner who crossed this line. Sgt. Fees witnessed incidents where men who couldn’t take it any longer simply crossed the line to end their misery.
Inside the stockade it was a daily struggle for survival. Rations were few, and my great-grandfather was among those selected to dole them out. He recalled getting a half pint of meal some days; other days nothing. Once or twice a week they received a piece of beef or bacon about one-inch square with a spoonful of peas. In July, the meal was made into mush by boiling it in large kettles, then letting it stand for hours, giving the flies time to spoil it. The flies and mush were stirred together for the men to eat. Another recollection: “Many a ham I have divided that the worms were much the larger portion and have seen men eat it as though it was good. Our drink was from a stream that came from the rebel camp and all their filth was thrown into it, and we were compelled to use it.”
Death was everywhere. My great-grandfather saw an average of 28 deaths per day, but this rate soared in July and August to as high as 204 per day. Many of these poor souls did not receive timely or proper burials. Some men were killed by the hounds kept by Captain Wirz, camp Commandant, who patrolled each morning with them to see if any prisoners had escaped during the night: “Several men were torn to pieces by these dogs while their cries could be distinctly heard in the camp.”
My great-grandfather’s story makes me ponder sanctioned, institutional cruelty and abuses of power. We expect this from oppressive regimes. But what about organizations founded for noble purposes? Apparently, a wholesome mission statement and great set of corporate values is not enough to keep them true to their purpose, because we’ve seen the wreckage.
I’ve concluded that people and institutions are not inherently good. For now, I’ll skip the theological treatise on individuals and focus on organizations. Companies and non-profits founded for some noble purpose may start well but are in danger of wrecking in the absence of accountability mechanisms. They need boards, auditors, regulators or shareholders to make sure they are fulfilling the purposes for which they exist. Without these guardrails, organizations can go over the cliff. The scandals involving Catholic Priests, the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison and the bankruptcy of Enron offer proof that the lack of accountability risks an organization’s reputation or even its existence.
Memory of these failures is another guardrail. Those who have seen the abuses and excesses serve as institutional early warning systems, if we’ll listen to them. In his later years, my great-grandfather seemed to understand this role: “God never gave me a mind to forget such hellish deeds, at least till I see some sign of repentance and they become civilized and law-abiding citizens.”