• August 21, 2014

For Union POWs, hope amid despair at Andersonville

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Posted: Wednesday, September 18, 2013 4:30 am

The prisoner of war camp at Andersonville, Ga., has always been notorious. Close to 13,000 Union men died there from starvation and illness, a catastrophe retold many times in books and movies. But now the historic site at Andersonville is trying to highlight a different side of the story.

Many more men survived than died at Andersonville, officially known as Camp Sumter. About 32,000 prisoners made it out of that hell hole as the war was ending.

When the first prisoners arrived Feb. 27, 1864, they had to create their own housing by making tents using blankets or burrowing in to a hillside. The only water source was polluted and food rations wouldn’t have kept a dog alive.

Some who left Andersonville died within weeks or months of the war’s end. Photographs of near skeletal men arriving at Camp Parole in Annapolis became the public memory of Andersonville. They are still shocking images today. But there were also journals and diaries, some published at the time, which received much less attention.

“Resilience determined who lived,” said Eric Leonard, Andersonville National Historic Site’s chief of education and interpretation. “Thousands did go home. It’s a story of the human spirit and of hope. It’s a remarkable part of the Andersonville story.”

Sgt. Maj. Robert H. Kellog of the 16th Regular Connecticut Volunteers wrote a lengthy journal that was published in 1865. After several months at the prison, he resolved to survive. He would not give in to the excruciating longing for home and good food that had made some men crazy. He would “maintain that energy of character” that he saw as the basis of hope.

“It was those who bore up with brave heart and strong will that came out the best, or perhaps one might say came out at all,” he wrote.

Defiant lot

These soldiers were also a defiant lot who saw escaping as the proper role of a POW. Days and weeks were spent secretly tunneling out of the compound but an actual escape was rare. The men were either betrayed by one of their own in exchange for extra rations or the tunnel caved in. The few who got away were chased down by dogs used to track escaping slaves.

The survivors were a mixture of new immigrants, farmers, mechanics, tradesmen and merchants. With death a daily occurrence, sometimes taking hundreds of men at a time, some of the prisoners reverted to what they knew best. The barbers and tailors opened businesses. Some made a crude beer and others set up gambling games. A little bit of skilled work or luck at the cards could make the difference for survival. Cash would buy fresh vegetables and citrus fruit or just substantial food from a Confederate soldier detailed as a vendor who had a stand in the compound.

That supplemented the daily rations of “a teacup full” of coarse cornmeal and a bit of rancid bacon.

One barber set up shop in front of his blanket-draped hovel. He made a barber pole of a long stick with bark cut out to form the traditional serpentine design, according to the richly illustrated diary of Pvt. Robert K. Sneden, owned by the Virginia Historical Society and published in 2000. With scissors and a straight-edge razor he got from another soldier, he was in business.

A tailor pulled threads from rags he found and with his sewing needle, went to work mending the shabby clothing most men were wearing. He even made trousers of empty grain sacks stolen from the ration wagon. They sold for $2.50.

Sneden, an artist and mapmaker, also wrote about a tattooist who was in great demand. “Old Jack does a good and profitable business by pricking flags, shields and figures in the arms and legs of those who can pay him from $1 to $5 each,” he wrote. “The jabbing takes an hour or so.”

Kellog jumped into the chaotic marketplace by selling his gold pen to a guard for three pieces of soap. “I then sold the soap for five dollars and twenty cents in ‘greenbacks,’ retaining a good sized piece for my own use. The following morning I went over to the ‘Rebel Sutler’s,’ bright and early, and invested my little fortune in beans and salt, and for that day I had something good to eat.”

Market Street

The selling, trading and buying became so much a part of everyday life that North Street, one of the two roads in the compound, became known as Market Street. Sneden wrote that the street was always crowded and noisy.

“Hundreds are yelling all day, ‘Here’s your fine cold beer; coldest in the stockade for only 5 cents a cup,’ or, ‘Who’ll swap beans for soup?’ or ‘Who’ll give a chew of tobacco for half a raw ration?,’ “ he wrote.

And plenty of prisoners could concoct and sell a beer made of cornmeal, water and sassafras root. Pvt. W.F. Lyon, of the 96th Regular Massachusetts Volunteers, wrote a book about his Andersonville experiences that was published in 1905. “We had a great many breweries in the prison — in fact, there were a whole lot of breweries and saloon combined, for each one sold his own product,” he wrote. As soon as the mixture fermented,” the proprietor would go out on the street, find a stand, seat himself behind the tub of beer and cry, ‘Who wants a glass of this nice sassafras beer; only 10 cents a glass?’”

Michael Dougherty of the 13th Pennsylvania Volunteer Cavalry, who kept a diary that was published in 1908, complained about the marketplace and the prices. There is “a great deal of trading going on — the peddlers becoming a great nuisance; wood was in great demand, a handful is worth fifty cents. Hardly anything can be obtained for less than a half dollar.”

In another entry, he wrote, “Eggs are selling for fifty cents, a solid inch of soap is fifty cents, one head of cabbage, one dollar.”

All this activity gave the prisoners something to do and a sense of a normal life. That may have kept them alive while they waited to be rescued or paroled. Others who had nothing to do but sleep and eat the meager rations, surrounded by dying men, might well become despondent and resign themselves to their own deaths.

Leonard, who has studied Andersonville history extensively, said he was most impressed when he read about what some of the long-term prisoners decided to do with their food.

“By early summer, in the midst of all those dying men and the chaos of prison life, they are planting corn,” he said. “They took kernels out of their ration of cornmeal and put them in the ground. That speaks to their knowing they will be there long enough to harvest it. What is corn? It symbolizes hope. It is a remarkable act of hope.”

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