Sunday, November 4, 2012

A Different Approach to Andersonville

The prison pen at Andersonville, Georgia (Camp Sumter) has been the subject of several books, numerous magazine articles and myriad blog posts. It has also been the subject of at least one movie, the 1996 Turner Pictures Worldwide film “Andersonville”.

Generally these efforts relate the squalor and deprivation these men endured. They also tend to lean heavily on the Swiss born commandant, Henry Wirz. Portrayed as cruel and murderous, Wirz would later be convicted of war crimes and executed.

This post will not actually follow the pattern of earlier scholarship on the subject. It may prove interesting to some readers while hold no interest for others. It will look at things concerning different aspects of the soldiers held at the prison. More specifically, it looks at roughly 400 men and boys that were given the sacraments of “penance and extreme unction” by Fr. H. Clavreul, a Catholic priest who had been ministering to the prisoners of war in Savannah, Georgia before transferring to Camp Sumter in July 1864. He ministered in the camp until August 20, 1864. He would be taken ill with what he describes as “continued vomiting” and he would be sent back to Savannah at the insistence of his fellow priest, a Father Whelan. He does not give any details about his malady other than the vomiting. He does relate that he:

Spent that day and following night on board the train wholly unconscious, recovering my senses only when, on arrival at Savannah, they dragged me from under the car seat where I was lying.”

Perhaps his troubles were related to his diet, which closely mirrored that of the prisoners:

cornbread, cow peas, and parched corn coffee.”

This is only conjecture as to what caused his ailment. But scurvy, diarrhea, and dysentery were common in the camp, so it is no surprise he would be touched in some way by illness. Fortunately he would recover sufficiently to resume his duties in late September '64 at Savannah. This was just as an influx of 10,000 prisoners transferring from Andersonville arrived there.
The Dead Line at Andersonville
Clavreul's diary is the only source drawn from for the following numbers and any conclusion drawn here is not to be taken as definitive. They are merely related to a very small segment of the whole terrifying experience that was Andersonville and the American Civil War.

The soldiers and sailors that Fr. Whelan and Fr. Clavreul ministered to were a melting pot to say the least. Of the total Fr. Clavreul ministered to, only 80 are listed as being native born Americans. They came from northern and southern states, with New York leading the grim toll of dead with 26. Pennsylvania was close behind with 24. The other men hailed from Massachusetts, Ohio, Missouri, Virginia, Wisconsin, Michigan, Connecticut, Tennessee, Vermont, Maryland, Maine, New Jersey, Indiana, Kentucky, and Arkansas.

There were 39 native Canadians among Fr. Clavreul's flock. An interesting number when compared to the number of native born sons. They are listed as simply being from Canada or in some cases the province the man was from is noted. Upper Canada (Ontario), New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia are defined as the land of nativity in these instances.

It comes as a mild surprise to find 188 men from Ireland in the group. The surprise is that it far outstrips the next group, those from Germany, or Germanic states, by nearly 3 to 1. The Germans had 59. The rest of the world had representatives a well. 8 Frenchmen were ministered to, as well as 8 Englishmen. Switzerland had 5 and tiny Belgium had 2. Holland and Spain added 1 each. Looking at these figures and remembering this is a small segment of the entire Union army, one might see why nativists at the time would be against emancipation of the slave. It also could shed light on Southern perceptions that “mercenary hordes” were sent to trample Southern rights.

Beyond the geographic origins of Fr. Clavreul's group is the age. At 26.6 years, it appears that the average age of these prisoners was about the norm, perhaps a bit older. The youngest was William Plummer, 14 years old and he came from Pennsylvania. Unfortunately, the diary does not list his regiment or his rank. Surmise would say that he was a musician, perhaps a bugler or drummer. The oldest man given the sacraments was 62 years of age. James Burcham was a ships carpenter in the US Navy, but no vessel is identified. He was from Halifax, Nova Scotia, and one of a handful of sailors attended by Clavreul.There is a surprising number of men in the late 40 to late 50 age group which may account for the slightly higher average age. Eighteen men were between the ages of 45 and 59. Another 33 men were between the ages of 40 and 45 years old. Taken together, 12 per cent of Fr. Clavreul's little flock were older than 40 years! It should be remembered that Andersonville was an enlisted mans pen. Although Clavreul's list does not specify the occupation of these men, it is almost certain it contained a few tradesmen and professional men. Even the loss of a farmer or day laborer would rob the country of the experience level this age group offered.

Another interesting note was of a more personal nature to these men. Nine of the prisoners were baptized in their final hours.

When Fr. Clavreul again took up his duties again at Savannah, he lists another group of prisoners he ministered to. It is a much shorter list, comprising about 100 names. Strangely it encompasses roughly the same length of time as he had spent at Andersonville. It too is heavily laden with foreign born soldiers, and the ages are about the same. The smaller number may be attributed to better conditions as compared to Andersonville. The final entry to the Savannah list reads:

November 24th, Heard confession of 72 Irishmen, names unknown.
Fr. Clavreul writes two telling passages in the diary.

All those whom I administered I found in a dying condition and I have little doubt that they died on the very spot that I found them.”
The list of dead at Andersonville does not include those prisoners who were attended by Fr. Whelan, likely as numerous as those whom I myself attended.”
Of course there is so much more to Andersonville Prison but as mentioned there are numerous other projects in print and on the web that deal with it. This post was an attempt to show something a little different and to look closer at the men as a part of the whole, rather than looking strictly at the whole.
Looking at the Irish, their number tends to bear out the conclusion that they were more than willing to fight for their adopted home in spite of being on a lower rung of society.

The age range is surprising as well. The 40 and older group is an interesting find. Something tells me that the Union army was aging as rapidly as the Confederate army, but for different reasons. Conscription may have something to do with it. It is rare to find any reference to the age of the Federal soldier as individuals while quite common to find the age of the Confederate soldier being noted.
The baptism of the soldier is also interesting. Clavreul would baptize nine more soldiers while ministering at Savannah. The last rites were not the only function a priest performed.

Nowhere in this diary is there to be found anything approaching political statement. The author strictly adheres to relating his duties to the reader. Even after the passage of years when he adds some reminiscences to it the narrative does not diverge from this. Only on the subject of a monument to Henry Wirz does he offer anything beyond his duties. He writes in response to a friends letter:

Now, I think, the poor man is no more worthy of a monument now, as he was at the time deserving of being hanged. His name should be forgotten.”

This little diary only has 17 pages, and it is sadly lacking in specifics on the soldiers listed. Only in a few cases are the regiments noted. It should still be a help to the genealogist though. Digging into it as I did, it proved to be a true gem and quite an interesting find. Well, at least to me!
Andersonville Survivors Medal

The Picket
Clavreul, H., Diary: With the names of the Federal soldiers to whom he ministered at Andersonville, Ga. July and August 1864 Robbins, George, editor. 1910. Retrieved from Hathi Trust,

Photo from Library of Congress collection
The Survivors medal is from the diary frontispiece. I was unable to ascertain if it was a national or state medal. Perhaps one of you know for sure. If so please leave a comment!


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