In the winter of 1861-1862, three of my ancestors enlisted in Company K in Sevierville, Tennessee, as privates (National). This company was one of ten in the 2nd East Tennessee Infantry regiment, which became Mounted Infantry in June 1863 (“2nd”). Considered traitors on their home soil, my ancestors were Union men in a state that had seceded.
Led by Captain Underdown under General Carter, and later under General Ambrose Burnside (1824-1881) for his campaign to liberate Knoxville from the Confederate Army, Company K fought battles in Kentucky, Ohio, Tennessee, and Virginia in 1862 and 1863 (Carr; “2nd”). Its members must have seemed elated after they’d returned to camp east of Rogersville on November 5, 1863 (Carr). The day was cold and wet, but they had survived a bloody war and more than once felt the thrill of success. They’d also enjoyed a meal, a night’s rest, and possibly a letter or two from home. However, this oasis was short-lived. Early the next morning, the Union camp was surrounded by Confederate soldiers (Carr). A thirty-minute gun fight decided the outcome (Carr). Five soldiers died; 280 more avoided capture (“Battle”). But my ancestors were not so lucky. They and 600 other men became prisoners of war (“Battle”).
From Rogersville, Union prisoners were marched fifty miles to Bristol (Carr). They then rode three hundred miles by boxcar train to Richmond, capital of the Confederacy – a six-day journey (“Battle”; Gourley 10-12). Commissioned officers were taken to Libby Prison on the wharf, where they remained until the following May (“Battle”). Enlisted men were taken to Belle Isle, a 54-acre island in the James River that linked to the city via one bridge (Gourley 14-15). Since the island had no barracks, Confederate soldiers provided circular Sibley tents and blankets for prisoners (15). However, overcrowding forced newcomers “to sleep out in the open”; by December “more than ten thousand Union prisoners were” living on Belle Isle, the Confederacy’s largest military prison (15; “Belle”). Reverend John Hussey of the U.S. Christian Commission and Brigadier General Neal Dow – a Union prisoner and a former mayor of Portland, Maine – described their visits to the island in late 1863 (Gourley 18-19).
The rations are, for each man, twelve ounces of bread and two to three ounces of beef or mutton in twenty-four hours, given about 1 o’clock each day, and nothing else; no stoves, no fuel, no light at night, no soap. They have no straw or bunks and very insufficient clothing and blankets; not one in four has a blanket. They have very generally bad colds and cough incessantly. They are not allowed to purchase anything. What they get is got by stealth from the guard. (Hussey, qtd. Gourley 19)
Our men at Belle Isle are suffering a slow starvation. … After a cold night, some of them are found dead. They lie in the trench that surrounds the camp. (Dow, qtd. Gourley 18)
During the harsh Virginia winter of 1863-1864, hundreds of Union prisoners died from diseases like dysentery and smallpox, as well as freezing temperatures and starvation (Gourley 15, 18-19, 23-24, 33). Thanks to rationing and transportation problems, however, Confederate soldiers and residents of Richmond were also hungry (19-23). General John Winder, “the Confederate officer in charge of all prisoners of war in Richmond,” still gave them barrels of flour meant for city residents; he believed that “hungry men are dangerous men” (21, 23).
Only in February 1864 did the prisoners’ destiny change (Gourley 31). Thanks to Confederate War Department planning and local slave labor, the first stage of Camp Sumter near Anderson Station in southern Georgia was complete (26-32). Guards later renamed it “Andersonville” (37). Before leaving Belle Isle, prisoners received some hardtack, or dry biscuits; the U. S. Sanitary Commission also provided clean socks and underwear (34). Prisoners then marched across the bridge to Richmond (35). Private Paul Grogger of Company K described the move.
The day of our departure was one of the coldest days that I had witnessed since I had been on the island. It had just cleared off and froze after a dusting of snow. Taking nothing but our blankets, we marched into the city of Richmond, and there remained in a building two days without drawing a bit of rations. I got quite sick for the want of something to eat. At length they brought us some cooked peas and bread, which we ate like a starved set of dogs, and retired for an early call in the morning to start on the train for Georgia. We were crowded in freight cars, from 75 to 100 men together, like a gang of hogs a-going to market or the slaughter pen. (Carr)
Although warmer than Belle Isle, Andersonville was a low-lying swamp (Gourley 29-30). The journey there took eight or nine days on as many railroad lines (32). The 17-acre prison camp, later enlarged to 27 acres, had no barracks or tents; prisoners created shelters out of logs, brush, vines, blankets, and clothing (30, 32, 42-43). Until the kitchen was completed, prisoners also had to cook their own food or eat it raw (44, 51). Each morning and evening, guards gave them a ration of “cornmeal, a sweet potato, and … salt beef” (44). Some rations included rice and molasses, but the poor-quality food still produced disease, as did inadequate clothing and shelter (51). Many prisoners wore tattered uniforms; others had no shirts, shoes, or hats (55). As a result, men “lay on the ground half-naked, covered with lice, sick and weak, and dying from neglect” (55). The camp stream was also polluted by garbage and human refuse, so prisoners had no clean water for cooking, drinking, and bathing (50). The worst part was a wooden fence called a “deadline,” fifteen feet from camp walls; those who crossed it were killed (52). New prisoners also had to defend themselves from nightly attacks by Raiders wanting “to steal their goods” (83-89).
Over 45,000 Union soldiers were imprisoned at Andersonville between February 1864 and May 1865 (“What’s”). Nearly 13,000 died from diarrhea, dysentery, scurvy, poor sanitation, and over-exposure (“What’s”). As a result of the harsh living conditions, this camp “accounted for 43 percent of all Union deaths during the Civil War” (Marsh). One of my ancestors died from diarrhea in April 1864, after lingering in the camp hospital for three days; a second ancestor died in June, also from diarrhea (National). Both men are buried at Andersonville National Cemetery, which was created the following year (Andersonville, “What’s”). A third ancestor survived, having been paroled in North Carolina in February 1865 (National). He was eventually taken to military hospitals in Annapolis and Nashville (National).
No first-person accounts of my ancestors’ war and prison experiences exist, but at least one man lived so that he could rear a family. I wouldn’t be here today if he had died, so I thank God for sparing him.
“2nd Tennessee Volunteer Infantry Regiment, USA.” Tennesseans in the Civil War: Federal Infantry Units. 2005.
Andersonville National Cemetery. Andersonville National Historical Site. National Park Service. 2015.
“Battle of Rogersville, November 6, 1863.” Genealogy.com. Forum. 1999.
“Belle Isle.” Richmond: Discover our Shared Heritage. National Park Service. 2015.
Carr, Beulah Maples. “Upland Chronicles: Sevier County Soldiers Died in Civil War Prison Camps.” The Mountain Press. 18 Dec. 2011.
Gourley, Catherine. The Horrors of Andersonville: Life and Death inside a Civil War Prison. Minneapolis: Twenty-First Century Books, 2010.
Marsh, Alan. “POWs in American History: A Synopsis.” Andersonville National Historical Site. National Park Service. 1998. 2015.
National Archives and Records Administration. 2015.
“What’s So Special About This Place?” Andersonville National Historical Site. National Park Service. 2015.