Andersonville’s “Clerk of the Dead”

By Dick Crews
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2009, All Rights Reserved

Civil War prison Andersonville was only in operation for fourteen months, but is considered the most notorious United States prison. During this short period of just over a year of operation, 45,000 Union soldiers would suffer miserably and 13,000 would die.

Henry Wirz

Andersonville commandant Henry Wirz would hang for his alleged mistreatment of prisoners. However, less well known is the trial and punishment of a Union prisoner from the 2nd New York Cavalry, Dorence Atwater. Atwater would become known as the “Clerk of the Dead.”

Atwater, a private in the New York Cavalry, was captured in Maryland pursuing Robert E. Lee’s army as it retreated following the Battle of Gettysburg. He was shifted around to various Confederate prisons, finally ending up at Andersonville.

Dorence Atwater

In Andersonville he was assigned to the hospital. For prisoners, going to the hospital meant a one-way ticket to the cemetery. He was assigned to keep track of the dead for the Confederates. He also made a secret list for himself so he could publish the list at the end of the war. He hoped to notify families of the dead so they would know what had become of their loved ones.

Atwater was exchanged in February of 1865. He immediately took the list to the War Department, which promised to copy the list and publish the names. It never said when, however. The first thing the War Department did was use the list as evidence in the trial of camp commandant Henry Wirz.

The Confederate prison at Andersonville, Georgia, 1864

Atwood got his list back after the war when he and Clara Barton returned to Andersonville to mark the graves. Because of the accuracy of the list, only 460 graves at Andersonville National Cemetery would be marked as “unknown.”

After marking the graves, Atwater refused to return the list to the War Department. He then was arrested, court-martialed, and sent to jail. Petitions from Clara Barton, Horace Greeley, and others got Atwater a release after only two months in prison.

To get even with the War Department, Atwater used the 20th century method of giving the list to New York newspapers, which published the list in July of 1866.

President Andrew Johnson, recognizing the public relations nightmare, appointed Atwater to be Consul to the Seychelles Islands. Remember, that is where former Cleveland Mayor Carl Stokes was sent. Dorence Atwater was later posted to Tahiti. There he married the daughter of an English businessman. He lived his life out in Tahiti and there he is buried.