“Let Us Clasp Hands Over the Bloody Chasm”

September 21, 1872

Thomas Nast

“Let Us Clasp Hands Over the Bloody Chasm”

Civil War, Prisoners of War Policy; Civil War, Remembrance; Presidential Election 1872; Wars, American Civil War;

Greeley, Horace;

American South; Georgia;

No caption

This cartoon by Thomas Nast essentially characterizes Horace Greeley, the 1872 presidential nominee of the Liberal Republican and Democratic Parties, as a traitor.  The candidate and editor of the New York Tribune reaches across the remains of 13,000 Union servicemen who died at the notorious Confederate prison camp at Andersonville, Georgia, to embrace the South.  

Such a harsh judgment against Greeley, a former abolitionist, sprang from his postwar push for sectional reconciliation, particularly as manifested in bailing Jefferson Davis, the former Confederate president, out of jail, and endorsing amnesty for all former Confederates.  Although not anticipated by Nast, his post-dated cartoon, “Let Us Clasp Hands Over the Bloody Chasm,” appeared in print (on September 11) shortly before Greeley embarked on a campaign tour through the Upper South.

Throughout the summer and fall of 1872, Nast made continuing use of a key slogan in Greeley’s letter accepting the Liberal Republican nomination on May 20. Emphasizing the amnesty plank in the party platform, Greeley concluded the letter with a plea for the North and South “to clasp hands across the bloody chasm which has too long divided them...”  (Greeley had used a similar phrase as early as April 1865 while calling for sectional reconciliation.)  In various “clasping hands” cartoons, Nast incorporated the Ku Klux Klan, John Wilkes Booth over the grave of Lincoln, a “shoulder-hitter” (i.e., a strongman for an urban political boss), and former Confederate soldiers, all symbolically underscoring the Democratic Party's supposed commitment to the Confederate "Lost Cause" and Greeley's treachery in associating with them.

Although it operated for only 14 months, the Confederate prison camp (officially called Camp Sumter) at Andersonville, Georgia, housed 45,000 Union servicemen, of whom nearly 13,000 died from diseases caused by exposure, malnutrition, overcrowding, and poor sanitation.  Constructed in the winter of 1863-1864, the nearly 16 acres of prison grounds were designed to hold about 10,000 prisoners of war.  The first prisoners arrived in February 1864, and by June they numbered 20,000, forcing the Confederates to extend the grounds by 10 acres.  

By the end of the summer, there were 30,000 POWs in the Andersonville compound.  Exposed in the open pen of the camp to the hot Georgia sun, rain, and other inclement weather, nearly 100 men a day died during the summer months.  When Atlanta fell to Union forces under General William Tecumseh Sherman on September 2, most prisoners were transferred to other camps, leaving only 1500 by November.  From December until the end of the Civil War in April 1865, about 5000 POWs were imprisoned at Andersonville.

The atrocious conditions at Andersonville led to shocked outrage in the North, making the prison camp a symbol of alleged Confederate barbarity.  The prison commandant, Henry Wirz, became the only person executed for his participation in the Confederate war effort.  Andersonville attracted worldwide attention and helped forge the way for the Geneva Convention regulating proper treatment of prisoners of war under international law.

Robert C. Kennedy

“Let Us Clasp Hands Over the Bloody Chasm”
July 14, 2024

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