Return to Dr. Bronsons St. Augustine History
St. Augustine's Civil War
Most Disgraceful Episode
As General Sherman would quote: "War is hell." However, in the case of prisoner exchanges
towards the end of the war much suffering was produced on both sides....since prisoner exchanges
became non-existant. Without all the details about prisoner exchanges this is the statement of
General J. D. Imboden CSA on an attempted prisoner "release" in March of 1865 at St. Augustine.
Unfortunately because a paper could not be signed by the U.S. St. Augustine Commander the
release was not made and all the Union prisoners made their way back to Andersonville.  Finally
they were released from Andersonville a month later to make their way to St. Augustine and
freedom again.

    It touches on points which we have already discussed, and anticipates some others which we
shall afterwards give more in detail. But it is a clear and very interesting narrative of an important
eyewitness; and we will not mutilate the paper, but will give it entire in its original form:
RICHMOND, VA., January 12th, 1876.
Chairman of the Executive Committee of the Southern Historical Society

Bad as was the physical condition of the prisoners, their mental depression was worse, and
perhaps more fatal. Thousands of them collected around me in the prison, and begged me to tell
them whether there was any hope of release by an exchange of prisoners Some time before that
President Davis had permitted three of the Andersonville prisoners to go to Washington to try and
change the determination of their Government and procure a resumption of exchanges. The
prisoners knew of the failure of this mission when I was at Andersonville, and the effect was to
plunge the great majority of them into the deepest melancholy, home sickness and despondency.
They believed their confinement would continue till the end of the war, and many of them looked
upon that as a period so indefinite and remote that they believed that they would die of their
sufferings before the day of release came. I explained to them the efforts we had made and were
still making to effect an exchange. A Federal captain at Andersonville, learning that I had a brother
of the same rank (Captain F. M. Imboden, of the Eighteenth Virginia Cavalry) incarcerated at
Johnson's Island, in Lake Erie, where he was in a fair way to die from harsh treatment and a lack of
food, represented to me that he had powerful connections at Washington, and thought that if I
would parole him he could effect his exchange for my brother, and perhaps influence a decision on
the general question of exchanges. He agreed to return in thirty days if he failed. I accepted his
terms, and with some difficulty got him through the lines. He failed, and returned within our lines, but
just in time to be set at liberty again, as will appear further on. I regret that I have forgotten his
name, and have no record of it.

    I have already alluded to Captain Wirz's recommendation to put up more shelter. I ordered it,
and thereafter daily a hundred or more prisoners were paroled and set to work in the neighboring
forest. In the course of a fortnight comfortable log houses, with floors and good chimneys for which
the prisoners made and burnt the brick were erected for twelve or fifteen hundred men, and were
occupied by those in feeble health, who were withdrawn from the large stockade and separated
from the mass of prisoners. This same man (Captain Wirz), who was tried and hung as a murderer
warmly urged the establishment of a tannery and shoemaker's shop, informing me that there were
many men amongst the prisoners skilled in these trades, and that some of them knew a process of
very rapidly converting hides into tolerably good leather. There were thousands of hides at
Andersonville, from the young cattle butchered during the previous summer and fall, whilst the
country yet contained such animals. I ordered this, too; and a few weeks later many of the
barefooted prisoners were supplied with rough, but comfortable shoes; one of them made and sent
to me a pair that surprised me, both by the quality of the leather and the style of the shoes. Another
suggestion came from the medical staff of the post that I ordered to be at once put into practice: it
was to brew corn beer for those suffering from scorbutic taint. The corn meal or even whole corn
being scalded in hot water and a mash made of it, a little yeast was added to promote fermentation,
and in a few days. a sharp acid beverage was produced, by no means unpalatable, and very
wholesome. Captain Wirz entered warmly into this enterprise. I mention these facts to show that he
was not the monster he was afterwards represented to be, when his blood was called for by
infuriate fanaticism. I would have proved these facts if I had been permitted to testify on his trial
after I was summoned before the court by the United States, and have substantiated them by the
records of the prison and of my own headquarters, if these records were not destroyed,
suppressed or mutilated at the time. But after being kept an hour in the court room, during an
earnest and whispered consultation between the President of the court and the Judge Advocate,
and their examination of a great mass of papers, the contents of which I could not see, I was politely
dismissed without examination, and told I would be called at another time; but I never was, and thus
Wirz was deprived of the benefit of my evidence. My personal acquaintance with Captain Wirz was
very slight, but the facts I have alluded to satisfied me that he was a humane man, and was
selected as a victim to the bloody moloch of 1865, because he was a foreigner and comparatively
friendless. I put these facts on record now to vindicate, as far as they go, his memory from the
monstrous crimes falsely charged against him. No such charges ever reached me, whilst I was in a
position to have made it a duty to investigate them, as those upon which he was tried and executed.
He may have committed grave offences, but if so, I never knew it, and do not believe it.

    After having given my sanction and orders to carry out every suggestion of others, or that
occurred to my own mind for the amelioration of the condition of the prisoners as far as we
possessed the means, and having issued stringent orders to preserve discipline amongst the
guarding troops, and subordination, quiet and good order amongst the prisoners, I went to Macon
to confer with General Howell Cobb and General Gideon J. Pillow as to the proper course for me to
pursue in the event of our situation in Georgia becoming more precarious, , or the chance of
communication with the Government at Richmond being entirely cut off, which appeared to be an
almost certain event in the very near future. After a full discussion of the situation, there was perfect
accord in our views. General Pillow was expecting to receive official notice of his appointment as
Commissary of Prisons, in which event he would become my commanding officer. General Cobb
commanded the State troops of Georgia, and I was dependent on him for a sufficient force to
discharge my duties and hold the prisoners in custody. There was eminent propriety, therefore, in
our conferring with each other, and acting harmoniously in whatever course might be adopted.
General Pillow took a leading part in the discussion, and in shaping the conclusions to which we
came. In the absence of official information or instructions from Richmond, we acted upon what the
newspapers announced as a recently established arrangement with General Grant, which was, in
effect, that either side might deliver to the other on parole, but without exchange, any prisoners
they chose, taking simply a receipt for them. We had no official information of any such agreement
from our Government, but it was regarded by us as very probably true, and we decided to act upon
it. The difficulty of supplying the prisoners with even a scanty ration of corn meal and bacon was
increasing daily. The cotton States had never been a grazing country, and therefore we had few or
no animals left there for food, except hogs. These States were not a large wheat producing region,
and for that reason we had to depend mainly on corn for bread. Salt was scarce and hard to obtain.
Vegetables we had none for army purposes. We were destitute of clothing, and of the materials and
machinery to manufacture it in sufficient quantities for our own soldiers and people. And the
Federal Government, remaining deaf to all appeals for exchange of prisoners, it was manifest that
the incarceration of their captured soldiers could no longer be of any possible advantage to us,
since to relieve their sufferings that government would take no step, if it involved a similar release of
our men in their hands. Indeed, it was manifest that they looked upon it as an advantage to them
and an injury to us to leave their prisoners prisoners in our hands to eat out our little remaining
substance. In view of all these facts and considerations, Generals Cobb and Pillow and I were of
one mind that the best thing that could be done was, without further efforts to get instructions from
Richmond to make arrangements to send off all the prisoners we had at Eufaula and Andersonville
to the nearest accessible Federal post and having paroled them not to bear arms till regularly
exchanged, to deliver them unconditionally, simply taking a receipt on descriptive rolls of the men
thus turned over.

    In pursuance of this determination, and as soon as the necessary arrangements could be made,
a detachment of about 1,500 men, made up from the two prisons, was sent to Jackson, Mississippi,
by rail and delivered to their friends. General "Dick" Taylor at that time commanded the department
through which these prisoners were sent to Jackson, and objected to any more being sent that way,
on the ground that they would pick up information on the route detrimental to our military interests.
The only remaining available outlet was at Saint Augustine, Florida, Sherman having destroyed
railway communication with Savannah. Finding that the prisoners could be sent from Andersonville
by rail to the Chattahoochie, thence down that river to Florida, near Quincy, and from Quincy by rail
to Jacksonville, within a day's march of Saint Augustine, it was resolved to open communication with
the Federal commander at the latter place. With that view, somewhere about the middle of March,
Captain Rutherford, an intelligent and energetic officer, was sent to Saint Augustine. A few days
after his departure for Florida, he telegraphed from Jacksonville, "Send on the prisoners." He had,
as he subsequently reported, arranged with the Federal authorities to receive them. At once all
were ordered to be sent forward who were able to bear the journey. Three days' cooked rations
were prepared, and so beneficial to health was the revival of the spirits of these men by the
prospect of once more being at liberty, that I believe all but twelve or fifteen reported themselves
able to go, and did go. The number sent was over 6,000. Only enough officers and men of the
guard went along to keep the prisoners together, preserve order, and facilitate their transportation.
To my amazement the officer commanding the escort telegraphed back from Jacksonville that the
Federal commandant at Saint Augustine refused to receive and receipt for the prisoners till he
could hear from General Grant, who was then in front of Petersburg, Virginia, and with whom he
could only communicate by sea along the coast, and asking my instructions under the
circumstances. Acting without the known sanction of the Government at Richmond, I was afraid to
let go the prisoners without some official acknowledgment of their delivery to the United States, and
knowing that two or three weeks must elapse before General Grant's will in the premises could be
made known and it being impossible to subsist our men and the prisoners at Jacksonville, I could
pursue but one course. I ordered their return to Andersonville, directing that return to
Andersonville, directing that the reason for this unexpected result should be fully explained to them.
Provisions were hastily collected and sent to meet them, and in a few days all were back in their old
quarters. I was not there on their return, but it was reported to me that their indignation against their
Government was intense, many declaring their readiness to renounce allegiance to it and take up
arms with us. The old routine was resumed at Andersonville, but it was not destined to continue

    Before any further communication reached me from Saint Augustine, General Wilson, with a
large body of cavalry, approached Georgia from the West. It was evident that his first objective
point was Andersonville. Again conferring with Generals Cobb and Pillow, and finding we were
powerless to prevent Wilson's reaching Andersonville, where he would release the prisoners and
capture all our officers and troops there, it was decided without hesitation again to send the
prisoners to Jacksonville and turn them loose, to make the best of their way to their friends at Saint
Augustine. This was accomplished in a few days, the post at Andersonville was broken up, the
Georgia State troops were sent to General Cobb at Macon, and in a short time the surrender of
General Johnston to Sherman, embracing all that section of country, the Confederate prisons
ceased to exist, and on the 3d of May, 1865, I was myself a prisoner of war on parole at Augusta,
Georgia. A few days later I was sent with other paroled Confederates to Hilton Head, South
Carolina, where I met about 2,000 of the Andersonville prisoners who had been sent up from Saint
Augustine, to be thence shipped North. Their condition was much improved. Many of them were
glad to see me, and four days later I embarked with several hundred of them on the steam transport
"Thetis" for Fortress Monroe, and have reason to believe that every man of them felt himself my
friend rather than an enemy.

    It has been charged that Mr. Davis, as President of the Confederate States, was responsible for
the sufferings of prisoners held in the South. During my four months' connection with this
disagreeable branch of Confederate military service, no communication direct or indirect, was ever
received by me from Mr. Davis, and, so far as I remember, the records of the prison contained
nothing to implicate him in any way with its management or administration. I have briefly alluded to
the causes of complaint on the part of prisoners, and even where these were well founded, I am at
a loss to see how Mr. Davis is to be held responsible before the world for their existence, till it is
proved that he knew of them and failed to remove delinquent officers.

    The real cause of all the protracted sufferings of prisoners North and South is directly due to the
inhuman refusal of the Federal Government to exchange prisoners of war, a policy that we see from
the facts herein stated was carried so far as to induce a commanding officer, at Saint Augustine, to
refuse even to receive, and acknowledge that he had received, over 6,000 men of his own side,
tendered to him unconditionally, from that prison in the South which, above all others, they charged
to have been the scene of unusual suffering. The inference is irresistible that this officer felt that it
would be dangerous to his official character to relieve the Confederacy of the burden of supporting
these prisoners, although he and his countrymen affected to believe that we were slowly starving
them to death. The policy at Washington was to let Federal prisoners starve, if the process involved
the Confederates in a similar catastrophe and "fired the Northern heart." I have introduced more of
my personal movements and actions into this recital than is agreeable or apparently in good taste,
but it has been unavoidable in making the narrative consecutive and intelligible, and I trust will be
pardoned, even if appearing to transcend the bounds of becoming modesty. In the absence of all
my official papers relating to these subjects (which I presume were taken to Washington after I
surrendered them, and are still there, unless it was deemed policy to destroy them when Captain
Wirz was on trial), I have not been able to go into many minute details that might add interest to the
statement, but nothing, I think, to the leading fact that the United States refused an unconditional
delivery of so many of its own men, inmates of that prison (Andersonville), which they professed
then to regard as a Confederate slaughter pen and place of intentional diabolical cruelties inflicted
on the sick and helpless. Was this course not a part of a policy of deception for "firing the Northern
heart"? Impartial history will one day investigate and answer this question. And there we may safely
leave it, with a simple record of the facts.
Very truly, your friend,