Wednesday, May 20, 2015

A Soldier's Experience in Southern Prisons, Part II

Continued from Part I

We reached Andersonville May 20, 1864. As I passed inside, the ground seemed entirely occupied. The stockade then contained eighteen acres and eight thousand men. On all sides I heard the cries of 'Fresh fish.' 'Look out for the dead line!' 'You can't stop here; pass on; plenty of room down the hill.' I walked down the slope to unoccupied ground. My feet sank into the yielding sand, and as I retraced my footprints had filled with the slimy ooze from the hillside. I would not lie on such ground except as a last resort. On the farther side of the stockade, near the dead line, I found a smooth-faced boy named Reese. He was from Ohio, and was slow in his speech. He always smiled when he spoke, and his smile was sweet as a girl's, but sad as tears. He was sheltered under an old blanked stretched on three small sticks. I had secured an overcoat from the supplies sent us a Danville, and this I had traded to a guard for two United States blankets. I had stolen a sheet-iron tobacco plate from the cellar there which I had transformed into a dish. I had an old knife that I had managed to save from the searchers, and a haversack that had been carried through the Chattanooga campaign. I proposed a partnership with Reese, which, when I had shown my property, was speedily accomplished, and comparing our condition with those of thousands about us we were a pair of millionaires. Reese died in the pen at Florence. The three comrades with whom I escaped from the train died at Andersonville. One friend with whom I slept died at Charleston, and another was killed by a guard.

Confederate soldiers waiting for a train; photograph courtesy of The
Photographic History of the Civil War

Prisoners kept pouring into Andersonville until the number reached 23,000. The entire ground was covered until there was scarce room to move, and then the stockade was enlarged to thirty-three acres, and later the number of prisoners reached 35,000. The soft hillside by the tramping of so many feet became more solid, and thousand who had no vestige of a blanket burrowed holes to escape the heat and dew. When it rained these holes filled with water and the occupants had to sit outside. The ration for the earlier months consisted of about four ounces of meet and a section of corn bread four inches square by three inches thick. The bread of unboiled meal was baked very hard for the depth of half an inch while the center was raw. The bread would often be as full of flies as a plum pudding is of fruit. As a large portion of our number drew rations after dark, the ingredients were not wasted.

During the later months yams, rice or peas were issued in lieu of meat, and meal or grits instead of bread. We had no vessels to receive these, and the steaming rice was shoveled from the wagon box into blankets; or a man would take off his trousers, knot one of the legs and thus receive the portion for his mess. The same method was used in the distribution of the yams and peas, except sometimes the receptacle was a piece of under clothing. Reese and I with some half dozen others, with the aid of sticks and half canteens, dug a well some twenty feet deep, which yielded only drops of water, but it was a great improvement over the sluggish stream which carried to us the sewage of the cook house and the camps above. When rations were issued a raw and feeble attempt was made to furnish wood. A few loads of wood came in so that once a week a mess of fifteen would receive two cord-wood sticks. These were so inadequate that we dug in the sand for the roots of the forest that had once covered the ground. This was done so long as a piece the size of a lead pencil remained. The heat of July and August caused Reese and hundreds of others to go blind after the sun went down, nor could they see until the sun rose again. We called them 'moon-eyed men.'

Union prisoners at Andersonville; photograph courtesy of the New
Georgia Encyclopedia

All the prisoners had scurvy. Nine or ten months of prison life did not fail to produce it. While smallpox prevailed at Danville the authorities caused a general vaccination. Many hundreds of these men were now attacked with virulent gangrene. These, with the wounded, the scurvy cases and the imbeciles, used to gather daily at the south gate to solicit medical aid. The dead were also carried there to await the opening at nine o'clock. Then Confederate surgeons came in and applied some substance to the wounds that cause them to emit smoke. This did not stop the work of gangrene, but it killed the parasites. While the dead were accumulating, I used to count thirty, forty, sixty and more, coming from all quarters of the stockade. Death came slowly. It seemed a gradual wearing out. I had noticed that what I supposed was a dead soldier lying for some days near my place. He had comrades there, and at last one of ventured to enquire, "Why don't you carry that man out?" "Well, he will never be any deader than he is," was the retort. "You wait and see." I noted him carefully for some minutes, when at last the breast heaved slightly and emitted a faint sigh.

Burying the dead at Andersonville; photograph
courtesy of the Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript
Library, University of Georgia Libraries

Passing down the hill one day a packed mass of men attracted my attention. As I pushed my way in, making inquiries, I was answered, "The hounds! The hounds!" A man sat naked on the sands. His comrades were pouring water over him. He was covered with scratches and bits from his head to his feet. His face, his breast, his back and limbs were torn and bruised. "I could have fought off the dogs," he said, "but the men cocked their revolvers and made me come down from the tree, and then they set on the dogs until they were tired."

It was in June that a small portion of the prisoners were transformed into beasts and began to prey upon the others. They snatched and ate the rations of the weaker ones and grew strong. We called them 'raiders' and they grew in numbers and boldness until murder was added to theft and no one was safe. They made raids within a few steps of where I lay, and cut and bruised some men in a horrible manner. The prisoners began to organize as regulators, and armed themselves with the sticks that had supported their little shelters. The raiders, anticipating trouble, began to organize and also called themselves regulators. The law and order men began the arrest of the the raiders and they began the arrest of the others, and even of non-combatants, that they might turn attention from themselves. The stockade was pandemonium those days. Hundreds of half naked men here, and hundreds there, surged to and fro, with sticks and fists for weapons. No one can say what was done. The dense crowed hid the acts of individuals, but order was finally victorious. A court was organized; as is well known six of the raiders were found guilty of murder and were hanged. The others, with the innocent men that had been arrested in the turmoil, were compelled to run the gauntlet, where fearful vengeance was visited upon the unfortunates.

To be continued...


A Soldier's Experience in Southern Prisons, Part I 


  1. It's near to impossible to think of these conditions and what those men endured. You might be interested to read Clara Barton's Report on an Expedition to Andersonville (1866). It opens with heart-wrenching remarks by Dorence Atwater, a prisoner whose superb penmanship won him the ghoulish job of recording the names of those thousands who perished there. Together, Clara and "her Dorr" led the team who organized the first national cemetery in the United States.;view=1up;seq=7

    1. Thank you so much for the link to the book. It's right up my alley!