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Prison Life Among The Rebels

March 2023
1min read

Recollections of a Union Chaplain

Edited by Edward D. Jervey; Kent State University Press; 94 pages.

The Reverend Henry S. White of Providence was a fervent abolitionist. Appointed chaplain of the 5th Rhode Island Artillery in 1863, he endeared himself to the men with his energy and passionate devotion to the Union cause. His zeal underwent a severe test, however, when Rebels took him prisoner in North Carolina the following spring.

As a chaplain White was spared the worst horrors of Confederate prison life, but his experiences in Rebel custody (written up for a church paper after his release and collected here) were harrowing enough. Teen-aged sentries gleefully shot prisoners on the slightest provocation, or none at all, as the quickest way to earn a promotion. Half-naked men driven insane by hunger, lack of shelter, and atrocious sanitary conditions pleaded with guards to put them out of their misery. White spent only a day at Andersonville, yet his description of that earthly hell is thorough, concise, and very chilling.

Through it all the chaplain’s faith in God and the cause of emancipation was unshaken. In the officers’ prison at Macon he busied himself by holding services, ministering to the sick, and invoking divine assistance on the Union side, much to the displeasure of the Rebels. He also functioned as a sort of walking theological seminary, disputing the alleged scriptural basis for slavery with anyone who would listen. (Like Socrates, who had a similarly friendly narrator, he never loses an argument.)

The famous ingenuity of Civil War soldiers is in evidence: half a canteen, perforated with tiny holes, serves as a sieve for coarse, infested cornmeal; the larger bits, inedible, are burnt and used to brew ersatz coffee. And White’s fierce anti-Confederate bias always shows. Except for the women of Dixie, with whom he seems to have been quite smitten, he has nothing but scorn for everything Southern, from architecture and military ethics down to the peaches of Georgia (“much inferior ... to the New Jersey fruit”).

White is an engaging character, and if his narrative contains little new for someone acquainted with Civil War prison life, it very seldom drags.

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