Narrative of Prison Life Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Henry Shepherd’s narrative provides a portrait of both the experiences of Confederate prisoners of war and of the state of American public memory about the Civil War in the early twentieth century. A lieutenant from North Carolina, Shepherd was wounded during one of the most epochal and bloody events of the conflict, the Battle of Gettysburg, and then spent the rest of the war in Northern hospitals and prisons in Baltimore, Maryland and Sandusky, Ohio. His descriptions show us the state of battlefield medicine in the mid-1800s, the internal tensions among Southerners, and the harsh conditions of imprisonment. In addition, his narrative includes clear themes that were present in the Lost Cause interpretation of the Civil War, which had gained widespread acceptance among many Southerners and some Northerners by the time he published his work in 1917. Generated initially by former Southern generals during the Reconstruction era, the Lost Cause motif dismissed the role of African Americans as well as the fight against slavery and imagined the South as having fought a valiant and heroic, although ultimately doomed, struggle against overwhelming odds.

Summary Overview

Henry Shepherd’s narrative provides a portrait of both the experiences of Confederate prisoners of war and of the state of American public memory about the Civil War in the early twentieth century. A lieutenant from North Carolina, Shepherd was wounded during one of the most epochal and bloody events of the conflict, the Battle of Gettysburg, and then spent the rest of the war in Northern hospitals and prisons in Baltimore, Maryland and Sandusky, Ohio. His descriptions show us the state of battlefield medicine in the mid-1800s, the internal tensions among Southerners, and the harsh conditions of imprisonment. In addition, his narrative includes clear themes that were present in the Lost Cause interpretation of the Civil War, which had gained widespread acceptance among many Southerners and some Northerners by the time he published his work in 1917. Generated initially by former Southern generals during the Reconstruction era, the Lost Cause motif dismissed the role of African Americans as well as the fight against slavery and imagined the South as having fought a valiant and heroic, although ultimately doomed, struggle against overwhelming odds.

Defining Moment

While Shepherd’s experiences in Northern hospitals and prisons are interesting and certainly reveal much about the history of American medicine and internal Southern tensions, the year of publication is the most important indicator of his tone and aim in writing the document. By the 1910s, the image of a heroic Confederacy fighting against all odds had firmly taken root in many Americans’ memory of the Civil War. This Lost Cause vision, accompanied by a similar remembering that embraced the idea of a tragic fight between brothers and emphasized the common sacrifice of soldiers on both sides, had overshadowed explanations of the war that centered on the campaign to end the moral evil of slavery. African Americans of course remembered and sought to spread the latter interpretation of the war, but, as historian David Blight has shown, such emancipationist visions of the conflict had been sidelined and muted by the early 1900s. Indeed, Shepherd published his narrative only two years after director D.W. Griffith’s extremely racist 1915 movie, The Birth of a Nation, had been screened for President Woodrow Wilson at the White House. The film especially celebrated the Democratic “redemption” of the South that had ended Reconstruction. Thus while Shepherd emphasizes the ineptitude of Northern doctors and the harshness of prison guards, and therefore does not really follow the theme of soldierly brotherhood, his praising of the exploits of Southern officers who escaped Northern prisons clearly places him in line with Lost Cause thinking. He was therefore probably still writing for a generally Southern audience, although the victimization of Southern prisoners of war that he portrays in his writing was likely also designed to generate sympathy for the Southern plight among Northern readers. Overall, it is important to remember that while the events he described occurred between 1863 and 1865, he was writing after Reconstruction had failed, after the Democratic Party had retaken control of politics in the South, after Jim Crow had sunk its claws into African Americans in the South, and after the Lost Cause argument had formed and solidified over the course of five decades.

Author Biography

Henry Shepherd was born in 1844 and joined the 43rd North Carolina when the Civil War began. His narrative begins after his capture in the aftermath of Gettysburg. He fortunately survived his imprisonment and had a successful career until his death in 1929. In the post-Civil War era he taught at City College in Baltimore and at the College of Charleston. He also published several scholarly works, including one titled The Life of Robert E. Lee. In 1917, near the end of his career, he penned his memoir of his time in captivity between July 5, 1863 and the end of the war. Shepherd’s love of literature and poetry was evident even in his relatively short prison narrative and one of the subjects he later taught was English. Therefore, he was interested in maintaining the memory of one of the most important literary figures of Baltimore, Edgar Allen Poe. Although Poe died in 1849, in 1875 a monument was placed at his burial site in Baltimore. Shepherd was the superintendent of Baltimore’s public school system at that point and delivered a speech at the event. Indeed, his personal passion for learning was evident throughout his life, and he was among a number of school superintendents in Baltimore who worked to modernize and expand the public school system in that city.

Document Analysis

Shepherd’s narrative not only reveals the harsh conditions in Northern prisons during the Civil War, but also touches on trends far larger than an individual soldier. Both the way he describes fellow officers and the inclusion of certain anecdotes help provide glimpses of the Lost Cause ideology of remembering the Civil War that was dominant at the time he wrote, of the state of medical history during the Civil War, and of the significant level of inter-Southern tension that played at least a role in eventual Southern defeat.

Shepherd’s description of his time in federal hospitals is, in short, horrific. Hot weather, bad food, water that was potentially very dangerous to his health, and a building that “was dark, gloomy, without adequate ventilation, devoid of sanitary or hygienic appliances or conveniences, and pervaded at all times by the pestilential exhalations which arose from the neighboring docks” all combined to challenge any physical and emotional strength he may have had left after being wounded and transported a long distance from the battlefield. While each hospital and prison on either side of the Civil War of course varied in condition based on the city it was located in, what resources were nearby, and the attitudes of those running the respective institution, Shepherd’s experience was a common one. With a war going on for the soul of the nation and with Northern troops usually wounded or sick in even larger numbers than Southern ones, the health of an enemy combatant was often deemed a secondary concern. Even when his friends and relatives tried to send him gifts and letters and tried to visit him, none were successful.

Interestingly, Shepherd mentions that a group of women attempted to visit the wounded Southerners, but the guards turned them away. The women were very likely part of a Christian voluntary association of the kind that began to flourish in the 1820s and continued to operate long after the Civil War. When the Second Great Awakening, a Protestant Christian revival movement, swept the United States in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, one of the central messages was that just as converted sinners were being made perfect in the process of sanctification, they should also help reform and make society better. Such thinking led to what became known as the Benevolent Empire, an explosion of voluntary movements aimed at improving society in diverse and numerous ways. Some of the most impactful associations to emerge from this atmosphere included the temperance movement, which would achieve temporary success a century later, as well as abolition organizations. The latter of course were extremely important owing to the fact that many in the Southern states perceived the Republican Party by 1860 to be unduly influenced by abolitionists, even if it wasn’t true in reality, and thus seceded. While this is only a minor part of Shepherd’s narrative, his mention of the Baltimore women sheds light on one of the key social trends in the United States before, during, and after the Civil War.

Shepherd also comments on the state of American medical history. Due to the danger of infection, especially gangrene, which would eventually kill a wounded soldier, amputation was by far the preferred method of treatment among Civil War doctors when possible. Shepherd provides vivid illustrations of the horrible amputation scenes he witnessed. While Shepherd himself seems to have avoided that fate, his description of how “the gangrene was cut from my wound, as a butcher would cut a chop or a steak in the Lexington market” indicates that he still suffered at the hands of Civil War surgeons. Revealingly, he also notes that he “was delivered from the anaesthetic [sic] blundering then in vogue.” By this he meant that even when anesthetics were available to put a patient down during surgery, their application, as he also noted, “was awkward, crude, and imperfect.” Soldiers could just as easily die from an accidental overdose of chloroform, the most common anesthetic at the time, as from the surgery itself.

Since he was writing decades after the Civil War, Shepherd was able to note one medical development that would have saved many limbs, and lives, during the conflict, had it been invented earlier. When Shepherd comments that “Lister had only recently promulgated his beneficent and far reaching discovery, aseptics [sic]” he is referring to the Scottish surgeon Joseph Lister’s move toward conducting surgery with the help of antiseptics, including carbolic acid, to prevent infections. According to The Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry, after Lister began using his methods regularly in 1867, his fatality rate dropped from over 45 percent to about 15 percent. Unfortunately for tens of thousands of Civil War soldiers, Lister only began to explore such methods in 1865, too late to save many lives and the limbs that had to be amputated since there would be no way to stop infection once it spread beyond a limb to the rest of the body. While battlefield health and surgery certainly did not become instantly perfect, Shepherd’s narrative reveals an interesting turn in the course of medical history that would, in the future, benefit many wounded soldiers.

Shepherd’s description of his time in Baltimore also provides a portrait of the considerable amount of inter-Southern tension that went on during the war. He mentions an incident in which Thomas Swann, who had been the mayor of Baltimore before the war and would be Governor of Maryland as well as a Congressman during the postwar years, attempted “to prevail upon his nephew, then in the Confederate service, to forswear himself and become a recreant to the cause of the South.” Shepherd’s use of the term “recreant” clearly indicates his disapproval of what happened, especially since Swann was apparently successful, and his use of the phrase “cause of the South” further revealed that he adhered to the Lost Cause view of the Civil War that was very popular during the early twentieth century, and which will be discussed a bit more in depth below. Regarding the event itself, Shepherd witnessed one of the many men from the South who either joined the Union Army or who at least refused to keep fighting. While some men from the border slave states of Kentucky, Missouri, Delaware, and Maryland certainly fought for the South even though their states remained in the Union, far more Southerners fought for the North. In fact, in addition to border state whites who fought for the Union and, of course, black Southern slaves who enlisted, at times entire Union regiments were created from white unionists in the upcountry areas of eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina where slaveholding had been scarce and pro-union sentiment remained strong. Historian William Freehling has pointed out that over 450,000 black and white men from both the border slave states and the Confederacy fought for the North, not counting additional laborers. Therefore, the 360,000 or so military deaths suffered by Northern forces were more than made up for alone by men from slave states fighting for the Union. Therefore, Shepherd witnessed one part of a far larger trend that played a significant role in the outcome of the Civil War.

While Shepherd spends much of the second half of his narrative on the bad conditions of his imprisonment on the shores of Lake Erie, most interesting is his description of the few Confederate officers who returned to combat. He notes that by various means, including both escape and the “intercession of friends,” some individuals were able to fight again on behalf of the South. Shepherd then describes the fate of two men in a way that reinforces the Lost Cause motif that was very prevalent when he was writing in the early twentieth century. He writes of “Captain George Bryan, who fell in the forefront of the fray, charging a battery near Richmond (1864), dying only a few moments ere it passed into our hands; and Colonel Brable who, at Spottsylvania, refused to surrender, and accepted death as an alternative to be preferred to a renewal of the tortures involved in captivity.” The way Shepherd describes the death of both men in heroic and unyielding terms as well as the simple fact that he includes these anecdotes in his memoir show that Shepherd was at the very least influenced by the Lost Cause ideology then in vogue, if not actively attempting to perpetuate such thinking. By the turn of the twentieth century the image of the Civil War as a tragic mistake among white brothers in which the South fought a heroic, gentlemanly, and principled, yet ultimately doomed, struggle against overwhelming odds had won out over other versions of remembering the conflict that emphasized the fight to end slavery and the role of African Americans. For instance, at the fifty year reunion of Confederate and Union soldiers at Gettysburg in 1913, not a single black man was allowed to appear in uniform. Indeed, Shepherd’s invocation of the “’ the crack of doom’” and “a melancholy of fate” that accompanied some of those who returned to the ranks clearly placed him in the line of thinking that emphasized the fated nature of the Lost Cause of the South. The long list of Confederate officers that Shepherd lists as acquaintances near the end of his narrative also indicates that he was very likely aware of and approved the Lost Cause viewpoint, since such thinking originated with former Confederate generals as early as the late 1860s. Even his claim that “there was no lack of cultured gentleman in our community” during the literary discussions he engaged in while in prison also supports the Lost Cause portrayal of Southern leaders and generals as representatives of an upright society led by principled gentlemen. Again, it must be remembered that the collapse of Reconstruction, the onset of Jim Crow, and significantly high levels of racism all across the country contributed to the environment in which Shepherd penned his memoir. While millions of African Americans had indeed participated in the conflict and while black leaders sought to remind the nation that the Civil War could not be remembered apart from the struggle to end slavery, other interpretations of the war dominated for nearly a century after the conflict ended.

Therefore, while Shepherd’s narrative may appear on the surface largely to discuss the harsh conditions of prison life, which was certainly a valid enough reason alone to pen a memoir, he also provides windows onto important aspects of American history during the Civil War era and beyond. His discussion of the state of medical practice during the conflict reveals the sad reality that, had certain sterilization techniques been developed only a few year earlier than they were, many lives and limbs could have been saved. His anecdote about the conversion of a Southern soldier to the Union cause illustrates the internal struggle among Southerners over loyalty. He thus portrays one small part of one of the reasons, which are varied and still debated of course, that the South faced a severe disadvantage in the Civil War, which was the fact that so many thousands of Southerners, white and black, fought for the North. Finally, the language Shepherd uses when describing the fellow officers imprisoned with him, his inclusion of some of their later battlefield exploits, and the context in which he actually wrote his narrative in the early twentieth century all indicate that he was either consciously advancing, or was at least influenced by, the Southern Lost Cause ideology. He therefore likely viewed the Civil War as a heroic, although tragic, struggle by a brave civilization against overwhelming odds. While numerous scholars have since debunked such thinking, especially starting in the 1960s, historian Gary Gallagher has shown how similar remembrances of the Civil War still linger in portrayals of the conflict in art, movies, and other media. Overall, Shepherd’s narrative clearly shows how the decades after the Civil War, marked by the collapse of Reconstruction and the onset of Jim Crow segregation, helped create a specific type of memory about the nation’s greatest conflict. Sadly, it was a memory that for a century masked the cause of emancipation as a central goal in the war and dismissed the role of hundreds of thousands of African Americans.

Essential Themes

Although Henry Shepherd’s narrative appears on the surface to chronicle his hardships in Northern hospitals and prisons, and would still be enlightening to read if that was all it contained, he also sheds light, both purposefully and unwittingly, on other major trends in American history both at the time of the Civil War and decades later. Through his anecdotes there appears the traumatic experience of wounded soldiers who suffered just as a medical advancement would soon develop, albeit too late to be used in the war, that could have helped them. Shepherd also provides a small portrait of internal tensions that plagued the South from the start and which some historians have argued helped play an important role in the outcome of the war. Finally, the central theme in Shepherd’s narrative is the Lost Cause ideology, a Southern-generated and pro-Southern interpretation of the war. Shepherd wrote at a time when this viewpoint was widely accepted, even in some Northern circles, and both the language he uses to describe the exploits of Southern officers and the very inclusion of their stories indicate that he subscribed to the Lost Cause idea. While largely defunct now in academic circles, the Lost Cause interpretation for decades played a significant role in the unfortunate suppression of African American voting and civil rights as it helped to sideline other remembrances of the Civil War in American public memory that sought to define the conflict around the fight for black emancipation and freedom.

Bibliography
  • Blight, David W. Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2001. Print.
  • Freehling, William W. The South vs. The South: How Anti-Confederate Southerners Shaped the Course of the Civil War. New York: Oxford UP, 2001. Print.
  • Gallagher, Gary W. Causes Won, Lost, and Forgotten: How Hollywood & Popular Art Shape What We Know About the Civil War. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2008. Print.
  • Hall, Clayton Colman, ed. Baltimore: Its History and Its People, Volume 1. New York: Lewis Historical Publishing Co., 1912, on Google Books (Google, 2012). Web. Hoganson, Kristin L. Fighting for American Manhood: How Gender Politics Provoked the Spanish-American and Philippine American Wars. New Haven: Yale UP, 1998. Print.
  • Shepherd, Henry E. Narrative of Prison Life at Baltimore and Johnson’s Island, Ohio. Baltimore: Commercial Ptg. & Sta. Co., 1917. Print.
Websites
  • “Ether and Chloroform.” History. A&E Television Networks, LLC, 1996–2013. Web.
  • Larson, Jennifer L. “Henry E. Shepherd (Henry Elliot), 1844–1929,” Documenting the American South. University Library, U of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, 2004. Web.
  • “Swann, Thomas, (1809–1883),” Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, 1774–Present. Office of the Historian. Web.
  • “Joseph Lister and Antiseptic Surgery.” ABPI: Resources for Schools: Infections Diseases – Timeline. Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry, 2013. Web.
Additional Reading
  • McPherson, James M. Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. New York: Oxford UP, 1988. Print.
  • McPherson, James M. For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War. New York: Oxford UP, 1998. Print.
  • Simpson, Brooks D. America’s Civil War. Wheeling, IL: Harlan Davidson, 1996. Print.
Categories: History Content