Prisoner at Andersonville (1864, by John Ransom)
PRISONER AT ANDERSONVILLE (1864, by John Ransom)
Amicable relations between the Confederacy and the Union regarding prisoner exchanges broke down by 1863. Following the Emancipation Proclamation and the introduction of African-Americans into Union ranks, many Confederates refused to give captured black soldiers quarter. Lincoln's administration demanded that Blacks receive equal treatment as Whites when taken prisoner, refusing to exchange captured men until the terms were met. Prison camps swelled in numbers by 1864, as the two sides remained at an impasse.
The South had great difficulty in providing for the rapidly increasing number of detained Union soldiers within their borders. Georgia's Andersonville prison featured particularly horrible conditions. Originally built to accommodate 15,000 men, its population grew to 33,000 by August 1864. Along with congestion within the prison, starvation, inadequate clothing and shelter, poor sanitary conditions, disease, and depression afflicted those interned at Andersonville. Despite abundant wood in the surrounding pine forest, prisoners were not allowed to build huts in which to live. They languished outside in the oppressive heat of the summer months, as only the extremely ill received shelter inside the camp hospital.
An appalling total of 13,000 men perished at Andersonville, with countless others emaciated beyond recognition by the time of their release. Captain Henry Wirz, who served as commandant of the prison, faced charges for war crimes following the war and was hanged in an attempt to find a scapegoat. Assessing blame for the atrocities at Andersonville remains difficult, as the Confederate Army and the Southern population teetered on the brink of collapse and material depravation by 1864. Unsuccessful negotiations for prisoner exchange also were partially to blame. Many prisoners, such as John Ransom (whose diary follows), did not understand why their own government failed to come to their aid.
Boiling hot, camp reeking with filth, and no sanitary privileges; men dying off over a hundred and forty per day. Stockade enlarged, taking in eight or ten more acres, giving us more room and stumps to dig up for wood to cook with.
Mike Hoare is in good health; not so Jimmy Devers. Jimmy has now been a prisoner over a year, and poor boy, will probably die soon.
Have more mementoes than I can carry, from those who have died, to be given to their friends at home. At least a dozen have given me letters, pictures, &c. to take North. Hope I shan't have to turn them over to someone else.
The court was gotten up by our men and from our own men; judge, jury, council. Had a fair trial, and were even defended, but to no purpose. It is reported that six have been sentenced to be hung, while a good many others are condemned to lighter punishment, such as setting in the stocks, strung up by the thumbs, thumbscrews, head hanging.
The court has been severe but just.
Mike goes out tomorrow to take some part in the court proceeding.
The prison seems a different place altogether; still, dread disease is here, and mowing down good and true men. Would seem to me that three or four hundred died each day, though officially but one hundred and forty odd is told. About twenty-seven thousand, I believe, are here now in all. No new ones for a few days.
Rebel visitors, who look at us from a distance. It is said the stench keeps all away who have no business here and can keep away. Washing business good. Am negotiating for a pair of pants. Dislike fearfully to wear dead men's clothes, and haven't, to any great extent.
O, how hot, and O how miserable. The news that six have been sentenced to be hanged is true, and one of them is Moseby.
The camp is thoroughly under control of the police now, and it is a heavenly boon. Of course, there is some robbery, but not as before. Swan, of our mess, is sick with scurvy. I am gradually swelling up and growing weaker.
Guards shoot now very often. Boys, as guards, are the most cruel. It is said that if they kill a Yankee they are given a thirty days' furlough. Guess they need them as soldiers too much to allow of this.
The swamp now is fearful. Water perfectly reeking with prison offal and poison. Still men drink it and die. Rumors that the six will be hung inside. Bread today, and it is so coarse as to do more hurt than good to a majority of the prisoners.
The place still gets worse. Tunneling is over with; no one engages in it now that I know of. The prison is a success as regards safety; no escape except by death, and very many take advantage of that way.
A man who has preached to us (or tried to) is dead. Was a good man, I verily believe, and from Pennsylvania.
Our quartette of singers a few rods away is disbanded. One died, one nearly dead, one a policeman and the other cannot sing alone, and so, where we used to hear and enjoy good music evenings, there is nothing to attract us from the groans of the dying.
Having formed a habit of going to sleep as soon as the air got cooled off and before fairly dark, I wake up at two or three o'clock and stay awake. I then take in all the horrors of the situation. Thousands are groaning, moaning and crying, with no bustle of the daytime to drown it. Guards every half hour call out the time and post, and there is often a shot to make one shiver as if with the ague. Must arrange my sleeping hours to miss getting up early in the morning.
Have taken to building air castles of late on being exchanged. Getting loony, I guess, same as all the rest.
Battese brought me some onions, and if they ain't good, then no matter; also a sweet potato. One-half the men here would get well if they only had something in the vegetable line to eat, or acids. Scurvy is about the most loathsome disease, and when dropsy takes hold with the scurvy, it is terrible. I have both diseases, but keep them in check, and it only grows worse slowly. My legs are swollen, but the cords are not contracted much, and I can still walk very well.
Our mess all keep clean, in fact are obliged to, or else turned adrift. We want none of the dirty sort in our mess. Sanders and Rowe enforce the rules, which is not much work, as all hands are men who prefer to keep clean.
I still do a little washing, but more particularly hair cutting, which is easier work. You should see one of my hair cuts. Knobby! Old prisoners have hair a foot long or more, and my business is to cut it off, which I do without regard to anything except to get it off.
I should judge there are one thousand rebel soldiers guarding us and perhaps a few more, with the usual number of officers.
A guard told me today that the Yanks were "gittin' licked," and they didn't want us exchanged, just as soon we should die here as not. A Yank asked him if he knew what exchange meant; said he knew what shootin' meant, and as he began to swing around his old shooting iron, we retreated in among the crowd.
Someone stole Battese's wash board, and he is mad; is looking for it. May bust up the business. Think Hub Dakin will give me a board to make another one. Sanders owns the jack-knife of this mess, and he don't like to lend it either; borrow it to carve on roots for pipes.
Actually take solid comfort "building castles in the air," a thing I have never been addicted to before. Better than getting blue and worrying myself to death. After all, we may get out of this dodrotted hole. Always an end of some sort to such things.
Have bought of a new prisoner quite a large (thick, I mean) blank book, so as to continue my diary. Although it's a tedious and tiresome task, am determined to keep it up. Don't know of another man in prison who is doing likewise. Wish I had the gift of description, that I might describe this place. Know that I am not good at such things.
Nothing can be worse or nastier than the stream drizzling its way through this camp. On all four sides of us are high walls and tall trees, and there is apparently no wind or breeze to blow away the stench, and we are obliged to breathe and live in it. Dead bodies lay around all day in the broiling sun, by the dozen and even hundreds. It's too horrible for me to describe in fitting language.
Only those who are here will ever know what Andersonville is.
Can see in the distance the cars go poking along by this station, with wheezing old engines snorting along. As soon as night comes a great many are blind, caused by sleeping in the open air, with moon shining in the face.
Many holes are dug and excavations made in camp. Near our quarters is a well, about five or six feet deep, and the poor blind fellows fall into this pit-hole. None seriously hurt, but must be shaken up. Half of the prisoners have no settled place for sleeping, wander and lay down wherever they can find room.
Have two small gold rings on my finger, worn ever since I left home. Have also a small photograph album with eight photographs in. Relics of civilization.
Should I get these things through to our lines they will have quite a history. When I am among the Rebels I wind a rag around my finger to cover up the rings, or else take them and put them in my pocket. Bad off as I have been, have never seen the time yet that I would part with them. Were presents to me, and the photographs had looked at about one-fourth of the time since imprisonment.
One prisoner made some buttons here for his little boy at home, and gave them to me to deliver, as he was about to die. Have them sewed on to my pants for safe keeping.
Cords contracting in my legs, and very difficult for me to walk—after going a little way have to stop and rest, and am faint. Am urged by some to go to the hospital, but don't like to do it; mess say had better stay where I am, and Battese says shall not go, and that settles it.
Jimmy Devers anxious to be taken to the hospital but is persuaded to give it up. Tom McGill, another Irish friend, is past all recovery; is in another part of the prison. Many old prisoners are dropping off now, this fearful hot weather; knew that July and August would thin us out, cannot keep track of them in my disabled condition.
A fellow named Hubbard, with whom I have conversed a good deal, is dead; a few days ago was in very good health, and it's only a question of a few days now with any of us.
Succeeded in getting four small onions about as large as hickory nuts, tops and all, for two dollars, Confederate money. Battese furnished the money but won't eat an onion; ask him if he is afraid it will make his breath smell. It is said that two or three onions or a sweet potato eaten raw daily will cure the scurvy.
What a shame that such things are denied us, being so plenty the world over. Never appreciated such things before, but shall hereafter. Am talking as if I expected to get home again. I do.
Time slowly dragging along. Cut some wretch's hair almost every day. Have a sign out, "Hair Cutting," as well as "Washing," and by the way, Battese has a new washboard, made from a piece of the scaffold lumber.
About half the time do the work for nothing; in fact, not more than one in three or four pays anything—expenses not much though, don't have to pay any rent.
All the mess keep their hair cut short, which is a very good advertisement. My eyes getting weak, with other troubles. Can just hobble around. Death rate more than ever, reported one hundred and sixty-five per day.
Jimmy Devers most dead, and begs us to take him to the hospital, and guess will have to. Every morning the sick are carried to the gate in blankets and on stretchers, and the worst cases admitted to the hospital.
Probably out of five or six hundred, half are admitted. Do not think any live after being taken there; are past all human aid. Four out of every five prefer to stay inside and die with their friends rather than go to the hospital.
Hard stories reach us of the sick out there, and I am sorry to say, the cruelty emanates from our own men, who act as nurses. These dead beats and bummer nurses are the same bounty jumpers the United States authorities have had so much trouble with.
There is no such thing as delicacy here. Nine out of ten would as soon eat with a corpse for a table as any other way. In the middle of last night I was awakened by being kicked by a dying man. He was soon dead. In his struggles he had floundered clear into our bed. Got up and moved the body off a few feet, and again went to sleep.
My teeth are all loose, and it is with difficulty I can eat. Jimmy Devers was taken out to die today. I hear that McGill is also dead. John McGuire died last night. Both were Jackson men and old acquaintances.
Mike Hoare is still policeman and is sorry for me. Does what the can. And so we have seen the last of Jimmy. A prisoner of war one year and eighteen days. Struggled hard to live through it, if ever anyone did. Ever since I can remember, have known him. John McGuire also, I have always known. Everybody in Jackson, Michigan, will remember him as living on the east side of the river near the wintergreen patch, and his father before him. They were one of the first families to settle that country. His people are well to do, with much property. Leaves a wife and one boy. Tom McGill is also a Jackson boy, and a member of my own company. Thus you will see that three of my acquaintances died the same day, for Jimmy cannot live until night, I don't think. Not a person in the world but would have thought either one of them would kill me a dozen times enduring hardships. Pretty hard to tell about such things.
Small squad of poor deluded Yanks turned inside with us, captured at Petersburg. It is said the talk of winning recent battles.
Battese has traded for an old watch and Mike will try to procure vegetables for it from the guard. That is what will save us, if anything.
A petition is gotten up, signed by all the Sergeants in the prison, to be sent to Washington, District Columbia, begging to be released. Captain Wirtz has consented to let three representatives go for that purpose. Rough that it should be necessary for us to beg to be protected by our Government.
Rowe getting very bad. Sanders ditto. Am myself much worse, and cannot walk. And with difficulty stand up. Legs drawn up like a triangle, mouth in terrible shape, and dropsy worse than all. A few more days.
At my earnest solicitation was carried to the gate this morning, to be admitted to the hospital. Lay in the sun some hours to be examined, and finally my turn came and I tried to stand up, but was so excited I fainted away. When I came to myself I lay along with a row of dead on the outside. Raised up and asked a Rebel for a drink of water, and he said, "Here, you Yank, if you ain't dead yet, get inside there!" And with his help was put inside again.
Told a man to go to our mess, and tell them to come to the gate, and pretty soon Battese and Sanders came and carried me back to our quarters; and here I am, completely played out. Battese flying around to buy me something good to eat. Can't write much more. Exchange rumors.
Ain't dead yet. Actually laugh when I think of the Rebel who thought if I wasn't dead I had better get inside. Can't walk a step now. Shall try for the hospital no more. Had an onion.
Marine Hospital, Savannah, Ga., September 15
A great change has taken place since I last wrote in my diary. Am in heaven now, compared with the past. At about midnight, September 7th, our detachment was ordered outside at Andersonville, and Battese picked me up and carried me to the gate.
The men were being let outside in ranks of four, and counted as they went out. They were very strict about letting none go but the well ones, or those who could walk. The Rebel Adjutant stood upon a box by the gate, watching very close. Pitch-pine knots were burning in the near vicinity to give light.
As it came our turn to go, Battese got me in the middle of the rank, stood me up as well as I could stand, and with himself on one side and Sergeant Rowe on the other, began pushing our way through the gate. Could not help myself a particle, and was so faint that I hardly knew what was going on.
As we were going through the gate the Adjutant yelled out: "Here, here! Hold on there, that man can't go, hold on there!"
And Battese crowding right along outside. The Adjutant struck over the heads of the men and tried to stop us, but my noble Indian friend kept straight ahead, hallooing: "He all right, he well, he go!"
And so I got outside, the Adjutant having too much to look after to follow me. After we were outside, I was carried to the railroad in the same coverlid which I fooled the Rebel out of when captured, and which I presume has saved my life a dozen times.
SOURCE: Ranson, John L. Andersonville Diary. Auburn, N.Y.: 1881.