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The Union Colonel Who Showed Mercy on Confederate POWs During the Civil War

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
May 23, 2024 3:05 am

The Union Colonel Who Showed Mercy on Confederate POWs During the Civil War

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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May 23, 2024 3:05 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, Boston’s Fort Warren housed Confederate POWs during the Civil War, but it was no Andersonville. Only 13 Confederate prisoners out of the more than 2,000 rebels who were imprisoned within its walls died during the Civil War. That was thanks in large part to the fort’s commander, Justin Dimick.

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I'm Katja Adler, host of The Global Story. Over the last 25 years I've covered conflicts in the Middle East, political and economic crises in Europe, drug cartels in Mexico. Now I'm covering the stories behind the news all over the world in conversation with those who break it. Join me Monday to Friday to find out what's happening, why and what it all means. Follow The Global Story from the BBC wherever you listen to podcasts.

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Hyundai, there's joy in every journey. And we continue with our American stories. Our next story comes from our regular contributor Christopher Klein.

Klein is the author of four books and is a frequent contributor to the History Channel. Here he is with the story of a forgotten Civil War hero. As the autumn dusk cloaked Boston's island-studded harbor, the beacon atop Boston Light started to glow. The beams radiating from the lighthouse sparkled in the eyes of the men huddled aboard the steamer State of Maine as it crept toward the military prison at Fort Warren, an island garrison near the harbor's outer edge. Just as it had been the generations of tempest toss mariners, the postcard perfect lighthouse was a welcome sight to the nearly 800 tired and hungry Confederate prisoners of war wedged together on the ship. Barely seaworthy to begin with, the State of Maine was lugging double its capacity on its journey from New York City on October 31, 1861. Food was sparse. The quarters were so tight that many prisoners had been forced to remain standing through the night.

The captives crowded the port side of the ship to catch their first glimpse of their new island home. Although the granite fortress on windswept Georges Island exuded rugged New England strength, it generated little enthusiasm among the Confederate soldiers. A more desolate place could not be imagined anywhere this side of the Arctic regions, one prisoner wrote. Awaiting a steamship on the pier stood the grizzled figure of Colonel Justin Dimmock, his white beard standing out amid the darkening skies. The Army veteran had been stationed at Virginia's fortress Monroe when the Civil War broke out, but the duties were too trying for the 61-year-old. Fort Warren promised to be a less demanding assignment, but the West Point graduate was about to face an unexpected challenge. The War Department had instructed Dimmock, who had only taken command of Fort Warren days earlier, to prepare for the transfer of some 100 political prisoners, including former Kentucky Governor Charles Moorhead and Baltimore Mayor George Brown. As the steamer inched closer to the island, however, Dimmock realized the Department had given him a much bigger task, because in addition to the political prisoners, more than 600 Confederate soldiers captured at Hatteras Inlet, North Carolina, were suddenly dumped upon the ill-prepared garrison, which was still under construction and barely provisioned for its Union volunteers. Except for four North Carolina companies, the prisoners were forced to spend another night on the crowded vessel without supper. Lucky captives slept in the stateroom beds in rotating three-hour shifts. Once they were brought ashore the following morning, the prisoners didn't find their lots much improved. The hospital, already facing the prospect of treating dozens of prisoners suffering from typhoid, was still unfinished and lacked critical supplies. Famished prisoners had to subsist on handfuls of dry crackers and morsels of raw ham.

There were no beds, no cots, no blankets, so most captives slept on the fort's cold bare floors. The fortunate received wooden boards on which to rest their heads. Boston newspapers printed sympathetic accounts of the conditions facing the prisoners and urged city residents to respond charitably to assist the newcomers. Our citizens should contribute liberally with things as are needed, the Boston Post implored. For the sake of humanity, the authorities should move at once to alleviate the condition of these unfortunate men, beseeched the Boston Daily Journal. Local residents responded by donating food, iron bedsteads, mattresses, blankets, medicine, clothing and other supplies.

They left care packages with the police chief to be transported on the Daily Harbor police boat route. The American Track Society delivered books and Mayor Joseph Whiteman even procured supplies from a charitable institution established to aid union servicemen. A decision that earned him the score of political opponents who accused him of aiding the traitors. Bostonians were inspired by charity, but they also hoped the proper treatment of the prisoners might generate equal compassion towards union prisoners of war. According to the Boston Daily Journal, the friends of our prisoners now languishing in the South will reach them by the shortest method if they set an example of magnanimity towards these rebels. The fact will soon become known in the South and their hardships will be lessened.

Thanks to the donations, the crisis quickly abated. In fact, the city's largest made life inside Fort Warren relatively luxurious, particularly for the political prisoners and Confederate officers who were able to supply themselves with nearly anything they could afford to be shipped across the harbor, including furniture, bedding, food, cigars, newspapers, and even alcohol. Not only did the Confederate political prisoners live better than the military prisoners, they ate and drank more sumptuously than union privates. When weather permitted, they were allowed outside their quarters to congregate, walk, pitch quites, or have a smoke.

The Boston Daily Traveler reported that the political prisoners were, quote, smoking and conversing like a party of do-nothings in front of a fashionable hotel, unquote. Such lax regulation was largely due to the character and humanitarian impulse of Colonel Dimmock, who was widely admired by both Union and Confederate troops for his years of military service and his strong Christian convictions. Dimmock diligently complied with the initial order that the prisoners were to be treated with all kindness, and his humane tone was largely echoed by the Union troops.

The rank and file had it pretty good too. Private Alexander Hunter of the 17th Virginia Infantry, who would later pen Johnny Reb and Billy Yank wrote of Dimmock, in that large heart of his, no bitterness, no malice, no sectional hate could find an abiding place. There was not a prisoner under his charge who did not learn to respect and love him before a week had rolled over their heads.

While doing his duty as a soldier, he did not sacrifice his humanity as a man. When Dimmock received orders in March 1862 to direct General Simon Bolivar Buckner, an old acquaintance from the Mexican-American War, to solitary confinement, Fort Warren's commander was so distressed that he wept while conveying the order, and ultimately had to be consoled by Buckner himself. Buckner wasn't the only Confederate general with whom the Union colonel had deep bonds however. A devout Episcopalian, Dimmock was one of Stonewall Jackson's baptismal sponsors when the pair served together in the U.S. Army in 1849. Little could Dimmock have known that fourteen years later, both Jackson and his own son would meet similar fates during the Battle of Chancellorsville. Moments after Jackson was accidentally shot by his own troops, a battery led by 23-year-old Lieutenant Justin Dimmock Jr. unleashed a firestorm upon the Confederate troops desperately trying to carry the wounded general out of harm's way. Hours later, rebels crying, remember Jackson, shot the son of Fort Warren's commander in the spine.

Within days, both the younger Dimmock and Jackson were dead from their wounds. By some accounts, Lieutenant Dimmock went to his death carrying a letter from Fort Warren's prisoners requesting humane treatment for him should he be captured by the South. And yet, even after losing his only son on the battlefield, Dimmock did not retaliate against the Confederate prisoners inside Fort Warren.

It couldn't last forever though. The colonel left his command in November 1863 for health reasons, and Confederate prisoners inside Fort Warren enjoyed fewer freedoms under his successors, in part due to tightening federal regulations. When Dimmock passed away in 1871, both Union and Confederate officers served as his pallbearers. But perhaps a greater testament to Dimmock and the relatively humane conditions of Fort Warren is that only thirteen Confederate prisoners out of the more than two thousand rebels who were imprisoned within its walls died during the Civil War, or just over half of one percent, compared to the twelve percent mortality rate for Confederates in all Union prisons combined. And a terrific job on the storytelling and production by Greg Hengler, and a special thanks to Christopher Klein, who contributes regularly here at Our American Stories and is also a frequent contributor to the History Channel.

And what a record and legacy Justin Dimmock left. My goodness, the fact that officers from the Confederates and Union armies were pallbearers at his funeral is testimony enough. But that only half of one percent of the prisoners of war at his camp, Camp Warren, died when the standard was twelve percent across Union ranks. Well, that's just a testimony to his kindness and his decency.

I love what Klein said about Dimmock. While doing his job as a soldier, he did not sacrifice his humanity as a man. And at the age of sixty-one, a West Point grad, he was responding to the call of duty when the Union went to war. And he wanted to serve in battle, but it just, well, it wasn't possible at his age.

But there he was, doing his job for the cause and serving both Union and Confederate soldiers as human beings and political dissidents as well. The story of Justin Dimmock here on Our American Stories. I'm Katja Adler, host of The Global Story. Over the last twenty-five years, I've covered conflicts in the Middle East, political and economic crises in Europe, drug cartels in Mexico. Now, I'm covering the stories behind the news all over the world in conversation with those who break it. Join me Monday to Friday to find out what's happening, why and what it all means. Follow The Global Story from the BBC wherever you listen to podcasts.

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