For more than the obvious reasons, Civil War soldiers in both armies despised military prisons. Not only were the inmates held against their will, but the hunger, filth, vermin, rampant disease, overcrowding, brutal treatment and soul-crushing ennui made prison camps slaughterhouses of slow death. Andersonville, the infamous Georgia prison, was the ultimate abattoir; during the summer of 1864 nearly one in three Union inmates died. In other Confederate prisons, the average mortality rate was 15.5 percent; in Union prisons, 12 percent.
There was one remarkable exception: the virtually unknown Cahaba Federal Prison, 15 miles southwest of Selma, Ala. At Cahaba, the mortality rate was just 3 percent, a lower death rate than that among American prisoners in German stalags during World War II. According to federal figures, only 147 of the 5,000 prisoners interned at Cahaba died there.
What made Cahaba unique among Civil War prisons? Simple humanity. The prison commandant, Col. Henry A. M. Henderson of Kentucky, understood Northerners. He had graduated from Ohio Wesleyan University and the Cincinnati Law School. Shortly after graduation and finding his true calling in the church, Henderson became a Methodist minister. When he assumed command of Cahaba in July 1863, a month after it opened, he pledged to run the prison with as much compassion as discipline and good order permitted.
Those who fell ill were well cared for at the prison hospital, located in a rambling, two-story hotel called Bell Tavern that the Confederacy had commandeered to serve both the guards and the prisoners. Whitfield treated Northerners and Southerners with equal consideration. Men died in the Bell Tavern hospital, but not for want of care.
Neither did they die for want of effort by Henderson, who in the autumn of 1864 found himself commandant of the most overcrowded of all Civil War prisons. That summer the Union’s commanding general, Ulysses S. Grant, halted prisoner-of-war exchanges. As a result, Cahaba’s population surged to 2,151 in October, a number 600 percent above the prison’s capacity (Andersonville ran 330 percent above capacity at its peak). Each man had only 7.5 square feet to call his own; those at Andersonville had 35 square feet of space, albeit squalid, per man.
Henderson died in Cincinnati in 1912. Obituaries incorrectly said he had been a Confederate general, omitting any reference to his duty at Cahaba. Not that it mattered. After the 1865 flood the county seat moved from Cahaba to Selma, and by the turn of the century Cahaba was a ghost town; the warehouse prison demolished for the bricks. The horrors of Andersonville and notoriety of its commandant Henry Wirz would forever remain etched in American memory; memories of Col. Henry A. M. Henderson’s humanity were buried with the good reverend.
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