No, I’m not in jail. I spent yesterday at the National Historic Site marking the prison where my great-great-grandfather spent three months as a POW during the Civil War.
On June 10, 1864, William Davies was captured at the Battle of Brice’s Crossroads in Mississippi and taken by train to Anderson Station, Georgia, where a prison camp had been opened just four months before.
He made only two entries in his diary about his stay in Andersonville:
Tuesday 21 Arrived at Andersonville Prison where 32000 of our men prisoners confined in 22 acres of land
Monday July 11, 1864 11 of our men was Hung on the same Scaffold & at the Same time for robbing & murdering their fellow Prisoners
While he was there, the prison stockade was enlarged, using the labor of the prisoners, to 26.5 acres, but overcrowding, starvation, and minimal sanitation still resulted in over 100 deaths a day in the summer heat.
There was no shelter except the tents and shacks the prisoners could cobble together. At first, the only water source was a branch of the Sweetwater Creek that ran through the camp. Impeded by the walls of the stockade and polluted by the cookhouse and guards’ camp located upstream, the brook spread into a greasy swamp that reduced the available living space and became a breeding ground for dysentery and other diseases.
The Confederacy was poor, war and administrative mismanagement straining its resources. With barely enough food for its own soldiers, there was little left over for Union prisoners.Food was distributed once a day, in the afternoon, and typically consisted of enough corn meal to make less than half a loaf of bread, plus a bit of salt and bacon, at times some sorghum molasses. Prisoners had to do their own cooking—if they could get wood for a fire. The wagon that brought in the food was the same wagon that had taken out the corpses that morning.
In a place where 12,699 men died, close to one-third of the prisoners to pass through its gates, how did my ancestor, William Davies, survive?
It’s one thing to say, “He was in Andersonville Prison,” the most notorious of the Civil War prison camps. It’s another to find out what that means. What did he do while he was there? Conditions changed over the 14 months the prison was in operation. What what was it like during the particular three months of his stay?
His diary gives no clue, except to note the famous execution of the “Raiders,” a gang of Boston thugs who terrorized other prisoners until men appealed to camp administrators to take action. The ringleaders were hanged, after a trial by a jury of newly arrived, and therefore impartial, prisoners.
I’d like to think my ancestor’s survival did not come from resorting to such dastardly measures as robbing other prisoners or betraying escape attempts to the authorities in exchange for a reward.
After the war, several memoirs about the prison were published. Eric Leonard, a historian and park ranger at Andersonville, told me that the most prominent of these memoirs were sensationalized for easy sale. They came out in 1879 and 1880, while publications closer to the end of the war tended to be more accurate.
Robert H. Kellogg, a sergeant from Hartford, Connecticut, published his expanded diary entitled Life and Death in Rebel Prisons in 1865. His time at Andersonville overlaps the three months that Davies was there and gives clues that are helping me envision my ancestor’s experience.
To be continued…