Hoffman, William


US Army Commissary General of Prisoners, presided over terrible conditions and treatment of Confederate prisoners



Type: Signature
Description: (1807-1884) USMA 1829 (classmate of Lee), US Army officer in the Black Hawk War, Seminole Wars, Mexican-American War, and Civil War. During the Civil War he was Commissary-General of Prisoners and set policy for their treatment and release.

In 1860 as Lieut. Colonel, 8th Infantry, he was sent to San Antonio, captured when Brig. Genl. Twiggs surrendered Feb. 18, 1861. Promoted to Col., 3rd Inf. Apr. 25, 1862 while still a prisoner, released via exchange Aug. 27, 1862. Reassigned to Washington 1862 and named Commissary-General of Prisoners, organized Oct. 7, 1861 under the Quartermaster General, put under Secretary of War Stanton June 17, 1862.

On Nov. 11, 1864 the office was divided into Eastern & Western Branches. Hoffman, in charge of the whole office, was placed in charge of the Eastern Branch. On Feb. 1, 1865, it again became one unit under Hoffman. 104,000+ CSA soldiers deserted during the War, 1/3 surrendered to the Union Army. The Army captured thousands held as prisoners of war, sent to camps to house them. Prisoner exchanges occurred 1862-63 before they broke down. Stanton refused to exchange prisoners believing the North could better afford to prosecute the War without the return of its men than the South could, and negotiating with the South might be a precedent construing negotiations as recognition of the CSA as a sovereign power. On both sides, prison camps were overcrowded, suffered food shortages, poor sanitation, and plagued with infectious disease.

Hoffman, working with Lincoln and Stanton, developed a procedure where CSA prisoners and deserters could swear allegiance to the US to gain release. Hoffman believed deserters, as they had renounced their obligation to the Confederacy, could be “reconstructed”. Field commanders could administer the oath of allegiance to deserters if they could verify their stories and be assured they were not spies, released only after Hoffman’s staff reviewed each case individually then approved by Stanton. When Hoffman narrowed conditions for Confederates to take the oath, the number released decreased dramatically.

On Oct. 13, 1863, Brig. Genl. Marston, commanding the military district where the Point Lookout, Md. prison was, wrote Hoffman for money to build barracks for the thousands of prisoners who slept in a large stockade compound crowded into flimsy tents, summer and winter. Hoffman denied his request. Marston asked for better rations for prisoners; Hoffman said prisoners were already “bountifully supplied with provisions” sent by families and friends, clearly untrue. Hoffman allowed terrible conditions to grow unchecked. At the end of the War, having stifled camp commanders and aid groups wishing to help prisoners, he actually returned $2M allocated to feed prisoners to the Treasury.

He was brevetted Brig. Genl. 1864, brevetted Maj. Genl. Mar. 13, 1865 for his service as Commissary General of Prisoners. After the War, he led regiments in Missouri and Kansas to 1868, General Recruiting Service Supintendent 1868-69, retired 1870 as a Colonel.

1 1/2 x 3 1/4 uncommon signature as Colonel, 3rd Infantry, Bvt. Major General USA commanding clipped from an LS or DS. No place, no date (March 31, 1865-1870).

Condition: Very good

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