A Civil, And Sometimes Uncivil, War

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The reality of the Civil W;ir prison camp has long .since gone from Ii u man knowledge, The camps themselves have vanished, although in a few places there are quiet parks to mark their sites, each with a cemetery: thousands of men died. North and South, in those camps, and the headstones are there as reminders. Rut the names that once were so terrible, Andersonville and Elmira, Libby and (lamp Douglas and the rest, are just Civil War names now, out of a past that no one really remembers.

 

The reality of the Civil W;ir prison camp has long .since gone from Ii u man knowledge, The camps themselves have vanished, although in a few places there are quiet parks to mark their sites, each with a cemetery: thousands of men died. North and South, in those camps, and the headstones are there as reminders. Rut the names that once were so terrible, Andersonville and Elmira, Libby and (lamp Douglas and the rest, are just Civil War names now, out of a past that no one really remembers.

Yet the living testimony remains in letters and memoirs written by men who had firsthand experience of the grimmest chapter in the story of that far-off war. and for a generation that looks back a century to America’s greatest time of troubles, these stories can be highly instructive. They help to take the romantic gloss off a war that has at times been made to look like a picturesque pageant: they pull a curtain aside and let us see that this fabled “war between brothers” was a matter of agony and death and bleak hopelessness for the people who were actually involved in it. They put the whole business back in focus, so to speak, and give us a better perspective on a vital hour in the American past.

Some thirty years after the war ended there was a man named I'.zra H. Ripple living in Scranton. Pennsylvania. He had served in the tjznd Pennsylvania Infantry: he had been a prisoner of war—first at Andersonville, Ccorgia, then in a camp at Florence, South Carolina—from July g, i8(i|, to Mardi i, iSOg: and in the postwar years he had prospered as a businessman and a civic leader, becoming mayor of Scranton and then postmaster. In the nineties he sat down to write the story of his prison-camp experiences in order that members of his family could know what he had been through: to make the account more vivid he retained a New York artist, James U. Taylor, who had done many illustrations of Civil War scenes, to do some color sketches to accompany his text. Ripple seems to have worked carefully with Taylor. going over the rough drafts of the sketches to make sure that they showed things accurately. Eventually the manuscript and the illustrations were given to the Lackawanna Historical Society at Scranton, where they now repose.

By arrangement with the Society, A MERICAN H ERIIACE herewith presents portions of Ripple’s story, together with some of Taylor’s drawings of the Florence camp.

Ripple did not feel that he had written anything especially unusual. In a foreword he confessed that “I had no data to refer to, nothing beyond a retentive memory on which the incidents had been indelibly impressed,” and hesaid lrankly: “Il all those who went through prison life in the South during the Civil War could relate their experiences this would be found to be very tame in comparison with many others.” He summed it up tersely: “We all suffered: some … suflered more than others.”

What makes his narrative memorable is not so much ils tale of suffering as its revelation of why the suffering took place. It was not willfully indicted by malignant men: it came, mostly, because the men who ran the camps had more prisoners than they could decently care for. Living conditions were atrocious, food and medical tare were incredibly bad, crowding was almost unendurable: but the worst of it was that the prisoners were isolated, cut oil from the comradeship that made army life bearable. Most of them, Rippleremarks, were captured in small detachments: except for a very lew old friends, the captive lived among total strangers who were in competition lor the bare necessities of life. Without friends, a man’s lot was desperate. If he fell ill, nobody would look alter him. Men could do little enough for their friends, and lhey would do nothing at all for strangers. Life in camp had made them callous. Ripple is blunt about it: “It is a desolate feeling to be alone in such a multitude, and such a hungry selfish multitude as this was.”

The villain in the piece, clearly, was war itself. Most of his guards Ripple saw as humane, kindly men. When he oigani/cd a camp orchestra it was able to leave prison frequently to play lor Confederate dances, occasions which herecalled with a nostalgic fondness. Camp life was bad, but mostly the captors did the best they could. In the North and in the South alike, men were simply helpless in the grip ol war, the creator ol misery. And perhaps that is the fact that most needs to be remembered today.