By Dr. Max R. Terman
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2009, All Rights Reserved
Editor’s note: The following excerpt comes from the recently published novel Hiram’s Honor: Reliving Private Terman’s Civil War by Max R. Terman and appears here through the courtesy of the author. (Another excerpt from this book is The Great Battle of Gettysburg.) Private Hiram Terman was captured at Gettysburg, sent to Andersonville—and survived! What would that have been like? Based on over ten years of research, Max Terman, Hiram’s descendant, revisits the camps, battlegrounds, and prisons and writes as if he were Private Terman of the 82nd Ohio Infantry in this fact-based, first person account.
In this excerpt, Private Terman arrives at the Confederate prisoner of war camp at Andersonville, Georgia with other members of the 82nd Ohio in a group they call the “Buckeye Manor.” The religious Isaiah, secular Seth, and quick-witted Bushey are Hiram’s closest friends as they strive to survive in the grinding misery of the South’s most infamous prison camp. Sam Parker is a Confederate guard whose life was spared by Hiram at the Battle of McDowell.
Soon after his arrival in late March 1864, Captain Henry Wirz, the new superintendent of Andersonville, changed the way prisoners were counted and divided into messes. Under the new system, each detachment was made up of two hundred seventy prisoners, each of these then had three nineties and each ninety had three messes of thirty. We were in the second detachment, second ninety or detachment 2.2.
This recounting and reorganizing of ten thousand prisoners occurred just when untrained Georgia Reserves of young boys, old men, and soldiers unable to serve in the field were replacing regular Confederate infantry soldiers at the guard posts. During our wood gathering details Sam Parker told us that all able bodied men were needed for fronts in Virginia, Tennessee, and other battles erupting throughout the South. Sam said he was worried that some of the young guards may have short fuses and that we should be careful.
To add to the confusion and uncertainty, Rebel sergeants counted and recounted, sometimes taking all morning. Rations were delayed. Weakened prisoners fainted in the hot sun and men became sick and death rates increased. Prisoners became increasingly desperate and tried to escape by any means possible, mostly by walking away from wood gathering details or by tunneling under the walls. All of this infuriated Wirz who wanted an orderly and tightly run prison camp with all men accounted for and duly recorded.
As numbers of prisoners grew, food and supplies became harder to procure. Rebel quartermasters cut back on meat and amounts of cornmeal. Reduced rations fueled more discontent. Starving men became frantic. Escape attempts by tunneling increased.
Men absent from roll counts slogged through the swamps with bloodhounds and hired man hunters on their trails. Most were caught, put in chains, and thrown back into the prison. Others were put in stocks where they lay exposed to the weather, unable to move. Furthermore, food was withheld from the detachments of the men who escaped from the stockade. An air of fear and anger spread through the prison as spring moved into summer.
Escape was certainly on the minds of the Buckeye Manor but we were perplexed. Isaiah started the conversation as we sat in the humid and damp shade of our hut near the end of April.
“We have to try to escape. It’s our duty as soldiers! I know of a tunnel being dug by some Pennsylvania coal miners over by the east wall. They could use our help.” To this some would nod ascent but others like Seth replied with caution.
“Isaiah, didn’t you see those poor souls in the chain gangs and in the stocks? Those bloodhounds are good at tracking down Yankee hides and the boys are all bit up by those dogs.” A pair of prisoners dragging a ball and chain trudged by our shelter.
“Besides, we’re in the middle of Georgia. Where can you go in these swamps?” Each of us surveyed the prison around us. “No, we best figure out how to survive ‘till we get exchanged or Union cavalry raids get us out. These Reb guards will run at the first sign of Union horseflesh and carbines.”
Bushey Thomas, rubbing the back of his head, remarked. “Can you imagine what it would be like to be ten feet underground in a tunnel and then have the thing cave in on you? It happened to a Massachusetts soldier named O’Brien. By the time they dug him out, he had suffocated to death. His mouth was full of dirt from screamin’ for help.”
Thus, while escape was in our hearts, caution ruled our minds, as we grew accustomed to the monotony of roll calls, collecting rations, trying to cook and prepare meals, and the ranting of Captain Wirz.
One early May morning as we stood at roll call in the rain going through a third recount, Isaiah, weakened by giving too many of his rations away, fainted. Wirz immediately recognized the gap in the line and rode his gray horse up to where Seth and I were trying to revive Isaiah.
“Get up you damned Yankee and get back in line!” Seth looked up at Wirz with a scowl that would fry eggs.
“You blasted fool, can’t you see he has fainted!” Wirz then called over a guard who was a mere boy, maybe fifteen years old.
“If dis man says one more word, shoot him! I vill have order in this prison!” The boy grimaced as he clumsily pulled back the hammer of an old smoothbore musket. He then laboriously aimed it at Seth. I quickly put my hand on Seth’s shoulder and said, “Let’s pick him up and hold him. You grab his right arm and I’ll get his left.”
As we raised Isaiah, his limp legs solidified and he regained consciousness. Coughing, he then righted himself and stood in line. Wirz sneered at us and waved his hand at the guard. The boy exhaled in relief, lowered his gun, and released the hammer. Smiling to his comrades, he then walked back to his former position.
The prisoners around us murmured their disgust. Isaiah’s good heart and deeds were well known and an affront to him was an insult to them all. Finally, the count was finished and rations, meager as they were, reached our famished hands.
More crowding in late May agitated the discontent that pervaded the prison grounds. Nearly twenty thousand prisoners now inhabited the cramped space of Andersonville. The constant bumping and physical contact stressed every man who straightaway wanted to get out. Plans of escape were on everyone’s agenda.
Prayer meetings sprang up around the camp like mushrooms. Men heretofore brazen and callous about religious things began to fear death and sought salvation. Sermons and hymns could be heard around the stockade almost every evening. Petitions to the Lord for rescue rode every prayer.
Groups of men began to dig shafts and side tunnels for escape. The Rebels, who reportedly had spies roaming among us, tried to ferret out any organized strategies for a break out. Wirz especially feared a mass run at the gates or walls and aimed cannons filled with canister and grapeshot on the prison grounds. To remind us of the deadly consequences of a charge on the walls, he occasionally fired a shell over the grounds.
He also established a no-man’s land around the inside of the prison demarcated by a deadline of boards nailed to poles set in the ground about nineteen feet inside the walls. Any prisoner in that space (or even reaching into it) was liable to be shot by the guards. Not only did this deadline add another means of dying, it also made the overcrowding worse by taking away space. Those who had set up comfortable quarters next to the shaded walls now had to move to the interior.
Selfishness and self-preservation vanquished morality and produced thievery and a general atmosphere of violence. Evil increased its grip on Andersonville and wickedness flourished along with hoards of flies, lice, and mosquitoes. As new groups of prisoners entered the stockade, this whirlpool of misery twisted and spun, sucking more and more men into the depths of hell itself.
June brought rainy steamy days that became relentlessly oppressive in the foul prison pen where any breeze was blocked by the high stockade walls. A trip outside was worth almost any price and prisoners fought over who could carry dead or wounded men outside to the dead house or hospital.
The overcrowding produced horribly unsanitary conditions, especially along the stockade creek. The sinks overflowed with excrement, contaminating the upper reaches of the stream. Wounds exposed to this filth became gangrenous and arms, legs, fingers and toes rotted and dropped off living men, revealing raw nerves and bones. Maggot infested bodies littered the prison. The summer of 1864 witnessed the playing out of Darwin’s theory of natural selection as the weak died and only the strong continued to endure the misery of Andersonville.
Those of us who survived seemed to be thin and wiry. Two of the taller men of the Buckeye Manor died in the extreme conditions of hot, wet weather and scant rations. We who survived could barely carry the dysentery-riddled bodies of these farm boys from Ohio to the south gate. Those who kept cleaner and could get along on less food and water somehow persisted. There were now seven of us in our hut in the middle of a mass of tents on the upper north slope.
From our higher vantage point, we could see almost the entire prison including the forts and buildings outside the stockade. The camp of the raiders on the southwest side of the prison was the focus of our group one hot afternoon in mid-June. Seth, after silently watching the raider camp for some minutes, remarked.
“Hiram, remember what you said about the rats in your barn in Ohio?” After using an old dirty rag to wipe sweat off my forehead, I murmured a feeble “yeah.”
“Those raiders over there are the mean, tough rats. They band together and take everything they need from the rest of us who just squeal and run away.”
At that moment, some men down by the swamp stirred and shouts of “murder, murder, and thief” pierced the steamy air. Three large men ran away from the commotion, quickly crossed the bridge over stockade creek, and then casually walked up to the raider camp. Cheers and backslapping greeted the thieves who waved blankets and watches in the air. Seth gritted his teeth.
“Good God, look at those thievin’ raiders! How can we put up with that? Those sons of perdition have got to be stopped!” Realizing the importance of this comment, the rest of the Buckeye Manor stirred from their slumber and focused on the area that Seth was so intently observing.
The man who the raiders attacked was now at the north gate angrily beckoning the guard. We could hear his cries, as he demanded to see Wirz. Soon the man left the stockade accompanied by a Rebel officer. Isaiah, shading his eyes with his hand, stared at the doors of the gate that were now closing. Turning to us, he asked, .“Where is that man going? How did he get out of the gate so quick? Do you suppose he will get to see Wirz? Do you think anything will be done about the raiders?”
No one in our group had the energy to speculate further. Hardly anyone in the stockade did anything until the hot sun mercifully descended behind the horizon. As we reclined on our bunks, the grinding monotony of the stockade reclaimed the seven soldiers of the Buckeye Manor.
In our hut, we were much better off than the masses that surrounded us. Most prisoners were under flimsy tents or makeshift shabangs. Some had no shelter at all, the heat relentlessly removing life from their burned bodies.
With evening came a hard rain and we refilled our clay vessels with runoff from the roof. As we picked lice off each other and swatted mosquitoes, we questioned whether we should sleep on our ground cloths or put them on the roof to shed the abundant amounts of water coming down in waves from the heavens. It had rained almost every day in June. Isaiah had kept a diary in the pages of his Bible that revealed twenty-one straight days of rain.
Small drips of muddy water formed and ran down the inside of the roof as the moisture dissolved the clay between the pine logs. I decided to go outside and place my rubber blanket on the roof since I did not want to repack the spaces with clay. I could not imagine having the strength to do that job again.
As I exited the door, I bumped into Isaiah who was carrying a man in his arms. The flashes of lightning revealed the unconscious limp body of the young courier we had helped earlier. Isaiah was barely able to speak to me as he struggled up to the entrance of our hut.
Forgetting my mission to cover the roof, I helped Isaiah pull the boy into the hut out of the rain. The eyes of the rest of the Buckeye Manor were on Isaiah.
“I found this boy lying in his shebang almost drowning. I would like to add him to our mess if the rest of you agree.” I disrupted a long silence.
“We certainly have room in the hut now.” As Isaiah placed the man on the center bunk, Seth questioned him.
“Isaiah, do you think we can save every poor wretch out there?”
Isaiah carefully caressed the boy’s forehead and felt his neck for signs of life. Finding a weak pulse, he looked at Seth. “No, Seth, just this one life tonight.” Seth took a deep breath, exhaled, and slowly approached the boy. Seth paused over the boy as a lightning flash revealed his young face, amazingly peaceful, almost childlike.
“What’s his name, regiment?” Isaiah said he did not know his name. “You don’t even know his name? What’s your connection with him?” Exhausted, Isaiah closed his eyes and then calmly spoke.
“I met him earlier and his face came into my mind tonight as I slept. I felt that he was in trouble so I got up and went to his shebang.” Isaiah looked like he would faint but continued. “I found him drowning, unconscious. It was surely a sign from God.”
Seth clapped his hands and then ran his fingers through his straggly hair. He then moved to his bunk where we heard him mutter. “Why not, the more the merrier!”
I heated a bowl of my sassafras tea and spooned it slowly into the young courier. The brew warmed his blood and got it coursing again. The next day we found him conscious and awake. His name was Richard Cummings and he was the son of a prominent New York congressional representative.
He had not been able to find any men from his regiment and was still alone. He most certainly would have died if Isaiah had not brought him to our hut. Tears ran down the boy’s pine pitch darkened face as he repeatedly thanked and blessed us for saving his life. The Buckeye Manor was now up to eight members.
The last week of April had brought Andersonville a group of two thousand “fresh fish” that changed the economic and social fabric of the prison. These were the “Plymouth Brethren,” a group of well-equipped and fancily dressed soldiers captured by the Rebels at a fort in North Carolina.
These men had made special surrender arrangements with their captors that allowed them to keep their knapsacks, equipment, and money. The Rebels honored this agreement and into Andersonville came an infusion of money and items heretofore unseen in the market place. Watches, pots and pans, knives, spoons, blankets, writing utensils—the variety of materials in their knapsacks seemed limitless.
Convinced that they would not be in this “despicable place” more than a few weeks before being exchanged, the Plymouth Brethren readily traded these items for food and extra rations. We were amazed that only a few astute men in their group realized that they had better hang on to items that might be needed for an extended stay. Old prisoners like us realized that exchange was an improbable dream and that grinding day-to-day survival was what really mattered.
A surprise came to us in late June when Richard Cummings recognized one of these men as his cousin and left us to take up residence with the Plymouth Brethren. Richard later proved to be an “angel unawares” as he brought us a large metal cooking pan for our mess. This bonus of an item from the Plymouth Brethren allowed us to better combine our rations of meal, peas, bacon, and bartered vegetables to make a stew.
The pot was an obvious blessing and caused much introspection and discussion in the Buckeye Manor around many a meal. We debated repeatedly whether we should help other destitute men around us. Bushey Thomas said the pan in front of us argued strongly that we should. Others thought our connection with Richard and the pan was just a fortunate but improbable outcome of a foolhardy practice.
The ‘dilemma” was the subject of a discussion on another night in late June. Seth was stirring a stew cooking in the large metal pan. The rains had mercifully stopped and the night was clear and moonlit.
“Well, it worked out with Richard but you fellows see my point, don’t you? How can we take any more men into our mess? We will be swamped and all of us will starve.”
Seth lowered his carved wooden spoon into the pan for a bit more stew. A shot rang out. His hand jerked spilling some of the precious brew onto the ground. We peered out of the hut into the darkness and could only see the glowing light of the fires lighting the perimeter of the stockade. A guard was standing on the wall with his rifle pointed downward.
Bushey, after a long silence, remarked. “Another fellow exchanged and paroled to the heavenly shores!” I followed with a question.
“I wonder if he was trying to get some of the cleaner water where the stream enters the pen? I can’t believe they would shoot a man for reaching into the deadline for some water but I’ve seen four men shot in that area!” Seth shook his head.
“I bet the poor wretch walked into the deadline on purpose hoping to end his suffering.” This comment caused us all to consider the condition we were in at this hellish place.
By the end of June, almost thirty thousand prisoners were crammed into the prison. Disease was rampant and the hospital, which had been moved from inside the prison to the outside, overflowed with sick and dying men. Surgeons were without medicines due to the Union blockade of Southern ports.
Rations, already too small, were cut in half. The only way we survived was to use our greenbacks to buy food at the market. Those without money starved. The dead pile at the south gate numbered over fifty, sometimes near a hundred.
Men became even more frantic with hunger. For more food, some turned into spies for Wirz and reported the locations of tunnels or informed guards about attempts to escape. A mass escape plan was foiled when Wirz learned of it and threatened to fire canister and grapeshot if a rush on the walls or gates was attempted. Spies or traitors who were caught by the other prisoners had their heads half-shaved or were tattooed with two T’s standing for “tunnel traitor.” These “half-shaves” did not survive long unless the Rebels took them outside.
Some desperate prisoners accepted offers to join the Confederate army in exchange for food and clothing. Not many did this, an impressive credit to our patriotism given the absolute misery that men were under. “Death before dishonor! Death before dishonor!” chanted a group of prisoners at a Confederate officer trying to recruit more skeletons.
Others committed suicide by stepping over the deadline. Young boys barely able to peer over the walls of the pigeon roosts shot these miserable men.
One afternoon as I walked along the deadline, I saw a young guard go into shock after shooting a one-legged and insane prisoner called Chickamauga. Chickamauga was suspected of being the spy who revealed the mass escape plan. His isolation and destitute circumstances evidently caused him to lose his mind and cross the deadline.
After shooting the man, the young guard just stared at the corpse, becoming almost catatonic. He did not respond at all to the jeering crowd protesting his action. I moved closer careful not to get too near the deadline.
Sam Parker, who occupied the next guard station or “pigeon roost,” climbed up to the boy’s guard post, his wooden leg produced a noticeable thump. Sam glanced at me before placing his hand on the boy’s back.
“Son, if you didn’t shoot that poor wretch you might have been shot yourself. Ain’t no way a boy your age should be in a place like this. I pray to God that this war ends before too long and we both can get out of here.”
The young guard gradually took his stare off the now stiffening corpse of Chickamauga and found the eyes of Sam Parker. Wiping a tear from his cheek, he shouldered his musket. Sam gave me a glance and shook his head. I reciprocated in kind.
Sadly, the raiders recruited more and more Union soldiers ready to sell their souls by killing and robbing their fellow prisoners. Attacks by these brutes became commonplace in June. We estimated that there were almost one thousand raiders generally located on the southwest side of the prison. Bands of club wielding brutes roamed the grounds robbing men suspected of having money or other items the raiders desired. This was often done at night where the thieves would communicate by whistling when they selected their prey.
Frightful were the nights when this eerie whistling suddenly roused us to attention and caused the hair to stand up on the napes of our necks. Grabbing his club and peering out of the hut into the blackness, Seth remarked one night. “These damned vultures are our own men, our own men damn it! How can Union soldiers be such fiends?”
Isaiah had a ready answer. “We are all fiends by nature, Seth. It’s by the grace of God that we control it.”
For the most part, the raiders avoided groups such as ours that were vigilant and well prepared against their predations. They mostly attacked the weak, defenseless, and new arrivals that were lured to where they could be overwhelmed in the now packed stockade.
The enlarging of the stockade at the north end, about twenty paces away from our hut, marked the beginning of the month of July. Ten more acres of unsoiled ground with tree stumps was made available and all detachments numbered above forty-eight were instructed to pull up stakes and move as quickly as possible to the new area.
About thirteen thousand prisoners moved through a large hole made in the old north wall in about two hours. So fierce was the stampede that some prisoners were trampled to death unable to get out of the way.
Opening this hole in the wall of the stockade released a valve on the human steam boiler of Andersonville. While the stockade was still crowded, the moving of the thirteen thousand prisoners to the new space allowed us to now walk around without having to push and shove and have constant contact. It also supplied us with a needed supply of wood.
As soon as night fell, the prisoners on both sides of the old wall began tearing it down. Like ants removing sticks from an anthill, the logs disappeared one by one. Groups of thin, emaciated men performed miraculous feats of strength, loosening logs buried five feet in the soil and dragging them away. By the next day, the entire wall was gone and the new ten acres lay open to the old original seventeen making a total area now of about twenty-seven acres.
The Buckeye Manor secured a whole log that we took turns chipping into bundles of firewood using a railroad spike. We traded some of these bundles in the market for sweet potatoes, green ears of corn, blackberries, and sumac berries that helped prevent scurvy. Prisoners all around us were losing teeth from disintegrating gums and leg muscles were involuntarily contracting so that a man could not walk.
Contracting scurvy was a serious matter and all of us were acutely aware of its symptoms. A sour mash beer made from fermented corn meal was also sold in the market as a scurvy cure but we invested solely in vegetables, a proven preventative for a host of maladies.
More difficult to come by for the majority of prisoners was a cure for the robbing and mugging of the raiders. The number of attacks in June going into July was unacceptable. Men were now being attacked, robbed, and killed in broad daylight as well as at night. An organized resistance began taking form all over the camp.
In our area of the stockade, the first call to action came at a prayer meeting. Seth, Isaiah, and I were some of the first men to volunteer to be part of a large force of men dedicated to identifying and capturing thieves, flankers, and raiders. We were called the regulators, a type of police force. Memories of being in the provost guard for General Sigel coursed through my mind.
An Illinois sergeant named Limber Jim became the leader of the regulators. Limber Jim and a number of other sergeants had communicated with Captain Wirz and convinced him to help subdue and keep under guard men known to be thieves and raiders who would then be given a trial and meted out punishment. We were convinced that this would be the best way to end the misery of the raiders.
Anything that restored order was favored by Wirz and with his help, the scoundrels were gathered up during the last week of June and the first week of July.
At the orders of Limber Jim, a tall and lanky man with a fetching personality, the Buckeye Manor grabbed our poles and headed for the south bank where the bulk of the raiders resided in rather plush style on stolen food and other items. As we approached the raiders, the same fear that I experienced on the battlefield gripped me. The raiders were in much better physical shape than us and their line of clubs and knives was daunting.
We, however, possessed the added strength and determination of the righteous cause that fueled our anger. Seth, Isaiah, and I along with a growing group of other men attacked on the left flank of the raider line. In five minutes their defense, held together only by selfishness and greed, broke. We used our poles to knock down and hold seven raiders trying to escape after the front of the raider line dissolved. Each of these brutes snarled at us like rabid animals, threatening to cut our throats once this “farce was over.”
The swelling number of prisoners plus the Rebel guards soon overwhelmed the resistance of the raiders and the result for the thieves and murders was far from being a farce. The ringleaders plus over two hundred known thieves were soon put under guard in the holding areas of the gates to the stockade.
Credit must be given to Wirz and the Rebel guards for helping to achieve this successful outcome. Wirz, ever careful of the mass escape, nevertheless, had his artillery guns loaded and ready should anything but the capture of the raiders transpire.
Over the next few days, a trial by jury was given to the raiders. Six of the ringleaders were sentenced to death by hanging and the two hundred others convicted of crimes were to run a gauntlet. One by one, the raiders were released from the prison gate doors to run through a double line of club wielding and fisted prisoners. The blows killed many of the thieves while others were able to run the line of death and limp out into the stockade to disappear among the chanting throngs to nurse their injuries.
After this, the six leaders of the raiders with hands tied behind their backs were led up to the gallows. Three Rebel guards beat drums playing the death march in the background. One of the condemned men tried to escape by running through the masses down across the swamp. He became mired in the filthy mess and was eventually led back to the gallows. A Catholic priest from Savannah who had been unselfishly helping dying prisoners, then pleaded for their lives saying that all of us in these terrible conditions deserved mercy and a second chance. Those men who endured without attacking their fellows listened but drowned out the priest’s words with repeating chants. “No, hang em! No, hang em!”
Finally, a silence came over the grim scene. The six men were then allowed to say any last words. A couple of them broke down from their bravado and lamented their ways. They claimed that they were good men once but had fallen in with the wrong crowd and had given vent to their desires and lost their sense of morality. They asked for forgiveness. My thoughts briefly went back to the preacher at Camp Simon Kenton and his short sermon. Others were stoically silent, saying nothing. Two of the raiders snarled and cursed the men who put them into this situation telling everybody to “go to hell.”
“You will soon be there” was the response of Seth who with Isaiah and I stood about thirty yards off to the west of the gallows.
Isaiah had a sad but angry look on his face as he murmured, “God’s will, God’s will.” Surveying the rest of the Buckeye Manor revealed demeanors ranging from anticipation to disbelief. A sense of profound unrest settled into my stomach as I watched the noose go around the neck of Willie Collins who stood on the end of the gallows closest to us.
Meal bags were placed over their heads. I jerked as the planks were pulled out from under the men and the ropes stretched and strained, squeaking under the weight of the men.
Willie Collins had jumped at just this moment and his weight snapped the rope. As he hit the ground and rolled, the bag came off his head. The poor brute then looked up from the ground and witnessed the others gasp and strain as the taught ropes slowly strangled his partners in crime. Their legs straightened and shook as life leaped from their convulsing bodies. Collins blubbered like a man possessed.
“Please fellows, God has spared my life. Don’t put me up there again!” As two of the regulators lifted him, he tried to drop to the ground to secure seconds to his miserable life. One of the men lifting him then spoke.
“Ah, come on Willie. Stand up and take your medicine. You killed and robbed and it’s done. You’re going to hang. Don’t look at these others. It just makes it worse.”
Indeed, it was if the worst of the raiders was given this psychological torture before his own bout with strangulation was to begin. Soon, mercifully, his huge lifeless body swung beside the others. After twenty minutes, the bodies of the hanged men were lowered to the ground and left in position on the filthy clay of the south bank at Andersonville.
Prisoners filed by them for hours until darkness fell on the horrific scene and the bodies were removed to be buried apart from the other soldiers who died at Andersonville. Prisoners needing firewood quickly removed the wood from the gallows and soon more fires than usual flared up in the cool, damp Georgia night. The Buckeye Manor did not sleep well but the nightmare of the raiders was at an end. The regulators, now numbering about twelve hundred, formed a police force that maintained a relative if somewhat arbitrary sense of justice in the camp.
Soon the monotony and misery that was the essence of our reality came back into our consciousness. The relentless challenges of survival resumed as the days of July sizzled and burned in slow progression from sunrise to sunset.
The relentless march south of Union forces in the summer of 1864 exposed more Federals to capture and increased the numbers of new Union prisoners coming into the camp. Some of these new prisoners were from regiments now fighting in the state of Georgia, soldiers under General William Tecumseh Sherman. They brought hope that the war may be ending but dashed any anticipation of a prisoner exchange.
One new prisoner from Sherman’s troops, on hearing our complaints about the government abandoning us, exclaimed. “Exchange? Grant and old Abe will have nothing of it. The paroled Rebs from our prisons are soon right back in the field while our men are almost dead when returned to our lines. The worst sticking point is that Negro soldiers captured are kilt outright or sent back into slavery, not even put up for exchange. No, I don’t see much chance of exchange.”
Indeed, one day we observed a local plantation owner come into the camp with an old gray bearded slave who walked behind him, head bowed. The portly southerner closely surveyed some of the colored troops captured in recent battles in Florida. The black troops turned to him full bore and looked him fiercely in the eye as he and the old slave walked with a group of Rebel guards in front of them. The proud look of the colored troops infuriated the slave owner who suddenly stopped and pointed out a black sergeant standing erectly off to his left.
“Moses, do you know that negra standing over thar?” The old slave slowly walked over to the sergeant and returned to the plantation owner who was slapping a whip handle into his hand.
“Sho enough, massa, dat one dere is massa Jones slave, sho enough is. He ran off last plantin’ time.” With this the Rebel guards seized the protesting colored soldier and handed him over to the slave owner and his men who waited outside of the south gate. Absolute anger and pain marked the faces of the colored sergeant’s comrades as they watched him get shoved and whipped again into the darkness of slavery.
Another black officer stepped forward at this time and addressed his men. He was a handsome man, tall and slim, with a distinguished manner. With well-formed words, he assured his men that “vengeance was the Lord’s and the evil just witnessed would be repaid with full measure, and even now, the sword of the Lord was in the land.”
Meanwhile, the pale horse of pestilence and hunger was roaming Andersonville as the hot unbearable days of summer and reduced rations squeezed life out of the miserable prisoners. This led some of our men to write up a petition to President Lincoln detailing our terrible state of affairs and demanding that we be exchanged. Wirz even agreed to let some of our men leave to take this letter to Washington.
Not very many men, including the Buckeye Manor, felt comfortable signing this document. Isaiah felt that our government had reasons for leaving us at Andersonville. Bushey Thomas said that “some lice free clothes and a taste of some meat and vegetables” would go a long way in helping his understanding of the matter.
Seth could not understand why some cavalry units from the Union forces were not sent to free us. “If Sherman is in Georgia, freeing the prisoners at Andersonville would give him a lot of extra man power.”
Evidently, the Rebels agreed with him as they worked feverishly building an additional stockade wall and earthworks for defense. They also placed more artillery to defend an attack that they were sure was to come any day.
News of that day came to us in early August with the arrival of captured cavalry troops of Union General Stoneman. They had been captured in Macon by Rebel forces in a failed attempt to attack Andersonville. Even Stoneman was captured in the attempted raid.
Our two hopes of salvation were to be exchanged or freed by Union cavalry attacking the stockade and rescuing us. While rumors of exchange circulated constantly, nobody took them seriously. The failed raid depressed our spirits even more than the thirst and hunger that constantly pulled us down.
The fetid grip of death tightened around Andersonville even more firmly in August. Each day the dead house received over one hundred prisoners, every corpse a grim reminder of our own tenuous hold on life. Each of us in the Buckeye Manor now realized that our lives now hung on our ability to avoid the pestilence that pervaded the prison pen.
The pitiful and poisonous conditions were even noted by the Confederate government who sent a military surgeon named Chandler to inspect the prison. He saw Andersonville at its worst. Rations had again been cut. Disease, vermin and starvation threatened every prisoner; none escaped the ravages of the filthy pen.
Our number in the Buckeye Manor was reduced by three more due to the ravages of a fever that caused our comrades to first convulse with heat, then go mad with pain, and finally collapse. I tried every remedy I had from sumac berries to sassafras to laurel root but nothing worked. As Isaiah, Seth, and I dragged the three brave soldiers of the 82nd Ohio to the south gate, Dr. Chandler noticed our pitiful condition and came up to us.
“How long have you men been in prison?” asked the Rebel doctor.
“Since our capture at Gettysburg July 1—first at Belle Island and now here,” I replied. His jaw dropped as he beheld our thin and gaunt appearance. Calling his assistant over, he motioned to him to record our names, regiment, and capture dates on a ledger sheet.
“My God, you have been in prison over a year? You men will be the first to go in the coming exchange at Savannah. Just hang on a few more weeks.” He then left shaking his head and disgustingly repeating, “This is a reproach, a reproach to the Confederacy!”
The days of August were not only hot but clean water could not even be bought at the market. Wells had been dug in the new area of the stockade but the water was as undrinkable as the putrid Stockade Creek. As we lay in our hut, we often looked at our dry clay pots just to stir the memory of the rainwater that we used to have available. All of us showed the telltale signs of scurvy, tight leg muscles and bleeding gums.
Even Seth attended our prayer meetings where mournful entreaties were made every night to the Almighty for deliverance.
On a day in early August, our prayers were answered. A massive cloudbank formed in the late afternoon over the prison, the lightning flashed, and the winds blew as if out of the mouth of God. Torrents of rain came rushing down and in minutes the stockade creek and swamp were filled with rushing waters that mounded up against the west and east walls of the prison. As we watched from our position high on the north slope, the west stockade wall collapsed followed by the east wall. The accumulated stench of thirty thousand prisoners was swept away in minutes.
Through the waves of rain, we saw the Rebel guards form battle lines around the openings in the walls. In the forts, artillery teams quickly staffed their guns. The suddenness and severity of the storm did not allow for any organized mass attempt at escape. A few prisoners tried to ride the floating logs out of the prison but they were captured by the guards and returned to captivity. Most of us bathed in the rain and restored our water supplies.
As I collected water off the roof into our clay pots, I saw Isaiah and Seth, both with their arms outstretched towards the heavens. Isaiah was weeping; his tears joined the raindrops that ran down his cheeks. Seth was wiping his body with a wet rag, murmuring, “Thank you Lord, thank you Lord.” Had the profane but close friend of mine finally received a convincing demonstration of the existence of the Almighty?
Noticing my penetrating stare, Seth slowly dropped his arms, composed himself, and came with Isaiah, who was still weeping, over to near the hut where I stood. Placing his left hand on my back and his right on Isaiah’s head, he embraced us. No words came from his lips but his message penetrated our hearts.
As the refreshing rain let up, we went into our hut and began singing Amazing Grace. Our feeble voices joined thousands of others from all around the camp. Our singing mixed with the sounds of Rebels and slaves working zealously throughout the night and over the next few days to rebuild the walls and washed out areas of the stockade.
The storm left a lasting blessing to us in the form of a new spring that formed near the north gate just inside the dead line. The Rebels built a trough to convey this life-giving water to the prisoners. Thousands stood in line for hours to get a refreshing drink from this new source of water. Before long, the name of Providence Spring was given to this vital source of water that no doubt saved hundreds if not thousands of lives.
This was not the only improvement that came to the prison as we went into the middle part of August. For some reason, Captain Wirz took sick and went to Macon to recover. In his absence, an officer named Davis took command and immediately instituted measures to clean up the stockade. Conditions improved and better rations were also provided. The weather at night became more pleasant and sleep helped many a prisoner to recover. However, record numbers of men continued to get sick and die. The struggles of prison life finally laid Isaiah low.
As the sounds of slaves and multitudes of workers building a new wall around the original stockade filled the days and nights, our friend Isaiah lay on his bunk struggling to stay alive. Like the others who died previously, he became feverish and hot, shaking with chills and then losing consciousness. Seth, Bushey, and I took turns attending to Isaiah’s needs. We brought him water and shared our rations. We bathed him and cleaned up his bouts of diarrhea. We were the last of the Buckeye Manor and we did not want to lose another life. Isaiah had a strong constitution and gradually showed signs of recovery but he could not walk and was totally dependent on us.
With September came new and serious rumors of parole and exchange. Captain Wirz returned and our hopes again sank. The only good news was that Sherman had captured Atlanta and the end of the war seemed closer. We learned this through a Rebel guard who late at night on September 4 called out “post number ten and all’s well and Atlanta’s goin’ to hell.” After this pronouncement, the stockade literally pulsed with excitement as nearly comatose prisoners suddenly found new vigor.
Over the next days, Rebel officers called together the various detachments and told them to get ready to board the trains to the coastal port of Savannah to meet Union ships that would take us home. A new energy swept through the camp as the dead literally sprang to life. We were to be one of the first detachments to leave and immediately began gathering up items that we thought we might need. Isaiah watched us from his bunk, his eyes alternately closing and opening in weakness, as the rest of us excitedly prepared for the short train trip to Savannah. Seth went over to Isaiah and put his hand on his warm forehead.
“Hang on, Isaiah. We are finally going to get out of this, er ah, prison. I almost said damn, didn’t I, Isaiah?” The sick man managed a slight smile. “Well, I am turning a new leaf, the Lord willing, and you, me, Hiram, and Bushey will even form a new kind of church back there in Ohio. What should we call it? Let me see here.” He looked at the rest of us who bore a resemblance to a circle of vultures eyeing two skeletons. Bushey began laughing.
“Isaiah is a Hard Shell Baptist, ain’t he?” Isaiah gave a short moan. “And Hiram, you and I are Presbyterians and Seth there, well, he is a new convert. Why don’t we call ourselves Hard Pressed New Baptists?” Realizing that this was the first time I could remember hearing laughter anywhere in Andersonville, I replied, “I certainly agree with the hard pressed part!”
After a few seconds, our laughter turned to silence as we noticed that Isaiah had again lost consciousness. Seth came over close to me and began whispering.
“Hiram, you know the Rebs are only going to allow able bodied men to leave for Savannah. Our side won’t exchange anybody who can’t make their own way on board those Union ships. Those who can’t walk are going to have to stay behind. If Isaiah can’t get up on his feet, what are we going to do?” Bushey overheard us and leaned up close.
“If he can’t walk, we will carry him between us. The Rebs will never know he’s being carried if we get into the middle of a crowd.” This sounded like a good plan and we talked the rest of the night about Savannah, the Union ships, and the details on how to get our good friend carried out of Andersonville. The thought of leaving him for the surgeons in the wretched hospital was not an option.
About the author: Dr. Max R. Terman is a professor emeritus at Tabor College in Hillsboro, Kansas. He is the author of three books and numerous articles. A scientist by training (see his Princeton University published book Messages from an Owl), he lives in a solar earth-sheltered home on fifteen acres of restored prairie (see his book Earthsheltered Housing).
Max Terman’s blog.
About the book: Of Hiram’s Honor, Dr. Terman says, “The first person narrative flowed naturally from my research (and emotions) into a sincere reliving of my great uncle’s journey through the Civil War. While Hiram’s records are the skeleton and flesh of this resurrection, its soul and spirit comes from stepping into Hiram’s shoes. I actually became my ancestor, a Civil War Private. That is why I wrote this novel in the first person.” Hiram’s story goes from Ohio to Virginia to Georgia; from Second Bull Run, Chancellorsville, and Gettysburg, to the unmerciful darkness of the prison camps at Richmond’s Belle Island and Andersonville, and finally, finally–to the euphoria of release and home.
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