EMERSON, Ralph Waldo. (1803-1882). Autograph letter signed ("R.W. Emerson") to General Ethan Allen Hitchcock, Union army Commissary of Prisoners in Washington, D.C.; Concord [Mass.], 20 November 1863. 8 pages, 8vo, with original stamped envelope with autograph panel.
EMERSON'S VIEW ON RETALIATION FOR THE TREATMENT OF UNION PRISONERS AT LIBBY PRISON
Emerson, writing the day after the dedication ceremonies at Gettysburg, clarifies his moral position on the controversial idea of retaliating against Confederate prisoners for the treatment of Union prisoners held in Richmond's notorious Libby prison. Recent revelations of the sufferings of Union prisoners there aroused vehement reactions in the Union, including proposals to deliberately starve rebel prisoners in return. Emerson is anxious to clarify his position on this proposal: "Mrs Mann [widow of the educator Horace Mann, Jr. (1796-1859)] tells me, that she has written you that I approved the views expressed by her to you in a note on the question of retaliating on rebel prisoners the starving, which our men prisoners at Richmond, suffer. I did not endorse her letter..."
"I read her opinion against retaliating in kind, and said 'Certainly that is right.' I read her proposition to shoot or hang a number of selected officers as a retaliation; I said 'that is better, certainly, than to starve all, or any part of them. But no, it will not do.' I read her suggestion of inviting Southern Commissioners, under a guard, to examine the condition of our prisons and prisoners, and we, at the same time, claiming to send commissioners of our own to inspect Richmond prisons. I said, 'Tis an excellent suggestion.' But I suppose this killing of our men by hunger was incidental, not designed. There was famine in Richmond...and the prisoners suffered first...Without clearest evidence of malicious purpose on their [the Confederates] part, it would be hideous to retaliate by killing prisoners even in the shortest way."
But, Emerson adds, publicizing the plight of the Union prisoners may prove "the most effective war cry that has yet been raised, and should send the larger levy [draft] that the President has ordered down to Richmond to open the doors of the Libby prison before Christmas. I hate to write so in haste, & inconsiderately...on so grave a condition...."
Libby Prison, formerly a chandler's warehouse on the Richmond river, housed as many as 30,000 Union officers in dark, dirty, unheated, and unsanitary conditions. In response to Union attempts to raid the prison and free its inmates, most of the prisoners were eventually transferred to the infamous Andersonville.