“Can this be Hell?”

shelters blog

Reconstructed samples of prisoners’ shelters at Andersonville National Historic Site

The diary of Connecticut POW Robert Kellogg indicates that it was raining the day my great-great-grandfather, William Davies, arrived at Andersonville Prison.

Kellogg had already been there for a month, enduring the Georgia heat of mid- to late May of 1864 in the open-air stockade. His only protection from the weather was a shelter he and ten comrades had constructed:

For the small sum of two dollars in [Federal] greenbacks we purchased eight small saplings…These we bent and made fast in the ground and covering them with our blankets, made a tent with an oval roof, about 13 feet long.

They had to lie on the bare ground, with no other covering, but they felt the shelter from weather was more important.

On June 1, it began to rain and continued for three weeks, Kellogg wrote.

As I stood in the holding pen between the outer and inner doors of the prison’s reconstructed North Gate, I tried to imagine how Davies felt as he stood in the rain on June 21, 1864, crushed against the other Union soldiers, waiting for his first sight of the inside of the camp.

Had rumors about Andersonville reached him? Did he know what to expect? Certainly he could hear the shouts of arguing men and the moans of the dying. He could smell the reek of the “sinks”, or latrine, which backed up into the swamp that bordered the prison’s only water source at the time, a three-foot-wide stream.

Kellogg described what he saw when the inner doors swung open: men who were “mere walking skeletons, covered with filth and vermin.” One of his friends wondered, “Can this be Hell?”

I walked through the gate and out onto the treeless hillside, covered with brown grass on this February morning. The land sloped gently down to the stream that crossed the camp from west to east, its banks no longer swampy due to extensive drainage ditches. Another hillside rose from the other side of the stream to the white markers that traced the outline of the former stockade.

Several photos were taken of the camp in 1864 by A. J. Riddle, who was documenting prisons for the Confederate government. I tried to superimpose those pictures over the bleak, blank landscape before me. I imagined the land teeming with men, over 1000 inhabitants per acre, some men with shelters and some without.

The shelters reconstructed in a corner of the prison site are disturbing to look at. Most of them are lean-to’s or crude tents, narrow and low to the ground, barely big enough to cover a man lying down with his legs curled up.

I hope Davies did not have to rely on such a structure for shelter. Perhaps, like Kellogg, he lived with a group of friends.

In spring of 1863, his diary mentioned “the Welsh Squad,” a group from Company A, consisting of “T. Humphrey, myself, John Jones, S. Gales and Evan Evans,” all of them Welsh immigrants. Jones died of pneumonia that fall. Davies, Gales, and Evans, along with Ohio native Wakeman Bell, shared a tent at a camp outside of Memphis in the spring of 1864. All four of these men are listed in the database of Andersonville prisoners at the POW museum.

None of the 19 captives from Company A perished in the prison. It helped that they were only imprisoned for three months, unlike men who were transferred to Andersonville from other prisons. But maybe the comradeship of the Welsh Squad helped them survive.

To be continued–

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12 Responses to “Can this be Hell?”

  1. Barbara says:

    It was a bad place

  2. visnow77 says:

    I have to agree with you there!

  3. Dawn Markle says:

    I can not imagine the horrors of what men of war experience. I don’t know what my relatives, my ancestors, went through coming to America or on the other side through Canada,.. No one has talked of prisons or torture but there was surely a lot of relational disfunction happening to the people nearest to my arrival on the planet. Tragedy’s of different sorts. see you soon love Dawn

  4. visnow77 says:

    The best we can do, perhaps, is to think of them and honor them, thank them for coming through that experience to give us a chance to be born. Thanks for posting, Dawn.

  5. Alan fliegel says:

    How we’ve treated each other, our enemies, our deviants, in prison, is unimaginably awful, it’s still like that.
    I enjoy your writing!

    • visnow77 says:

      Alan, I am thinking a lot about prisons. There is the reasonable point of view that prison protects the public from deviants, but which people are deviants–not to mention how they get that way–is a matter of opinion. I once spent two nights in a Scottish prison for protesting nuclear arms. Pretty strange experience.

  6. Augie Rillera says:

    Thanks for sending me this story of what people had to go through in wars. I hope that one day all wars well become a thing of the past.

  7. Hey Violet. Wow! wow. wow. That you found all of this is just amazing, especially the journal entry about Davies.. I am wondering what it took you through to witness this and how this knowledge has moved through your brain/body/heart/mind/spirit. Where it is still alive in you. This project is tre fascinating. I look forward to hearing all this and more. Go Violet.

    • visnow77 says:

      Oh dear, is that what I’m implying? No, the journal entry was not about Davies, it was about the weather, but I was able to track the dates and see that it was raining when he arrived, which seemed like a major and vivid detail–that he came when the place was swamped, and everyone was wet, and I had clues about that moment, that first impression of walking into the camp–

  8. sara says:

    My mother a staunch Mississippi Southerner had me read the novel ,Andersonville, when I was in high school. I couldn’t understand how the horrors there could have been true and I was relieved to believe that something like that could never happen again. I was 15. Your blog post reminded me of that book and now I realize that what it must have meant to my southern mother blindly bonded to the belief that all southerners were brave and noble gentlemen, to have had to confront the barbarity of her clan at Andersonville. No one escapes the degradation of war. Wonderful blog. It brings it into focus.

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