Civil War: March 1864 – The hell of prison camps

Andersonville Prison, Georgia, August 17, 1864. Conditions left men weak ... or dead.
Andersonville Prison, Georgia, August 17, 1864. Conditions left men weak ... or dead.

By Sandy Vasko

Last time we spoke about the war, the men of the 20th were going home, as were other men from the Will County regiments. But their stay was all too short. It wasn’t long before they were back in the thick of things.

Meanwhile the 100th Illinois was camped near Athens, Tennessee, enjoying life as best they could. George Woodruff described this time as, “the one green spot in their military experience which still retains a pleasant memory.”

Major Rodney Bowen, writing home from Athens said: “We are living as well as anybody need. Rations are plenty. Butter and eggs from the country abundant. We board at a first-class hotel, have a husk mattress to sleep on, and a shingle roof over our heads. Is not this gay soldiering?”

Maj. Bowen also describes a wedding party to which the officers were invited: “The influence of the place and its society was soon manifest in the appearance of the regiment. All, the officers and privates, began to ‘slick up,’ as boys, old or young, will, when there are pretty girls about. Boots were blacked, clothes were brushed, heads were groomed, paper collars sported, etc., things which the boys had almost forgotten how to do.

“When not on duty, they were permitted to go down town and form the acquaintance of the inhabitants, among whom, as more than one soldier’s letter testifies, were many pretty girls. These letters show also that these Athenian damsels found the tender spot in many a soldier’s heart.

“I have heard it said that more than one of the boys came near losing his heart, and forgetting the girl he had left behind him. Indeed, one member of the regiment was married here. This was Charles Styles, of Manhattan, who, though he never surrendered to a rebel, struck his colors to a pretty Athenian widow. … Poor fellow, as we shall see, his wife was soon a widow again!”

April of 1864, troops were on the move across the country. Men of the 20th, 39th and 100th were all moved to new positions in preparation for the battles to come. The ranks had been thinned, but new recruits had stepped up to take the place of the killed, wounded and captured.

It was the captured comrades that weighed most heavily on the minds and hearts of the men. That weight doubled when, on April 17, General Grant announced that there would be no more prisoner exchanges. Grant felt that it was only prolonging the war, as each rebel released would be back at the front within days.

Those who had the misfortune to be in a prison camp faced a bleak future. Those at the front now knew the only way to see their captured comrades again was to win the war.

Col. Bartleson of the 100th, recuperating in Joliet, was one of the lucky ones. His time in Libby Prison was short, and he was soon exchanged. Not so lucky was Rufus Bolton, of Plainfield, who was captured alongside him at Chickamauga. Bolton was only an enlisted man, so his fate was to be sent to Andersonville.

It wasn’t until December of 1864 that his family knew of his passing. They received a letter from his blanket mate at the hospital who survived. It read in part, “I am sorry that it becomes my painful duty to inform you of the sad death of your son Rufus, who died in the 13th ward of the hospital at Andersonville prison, in Georgia.

“Poor Rufus suffered long and badly, yet bore all with Christian patience and fortitude. Our shelter was very poor, an old condemned tent that let the rain in upon us whenever it came on. Our raiment was poor and getting worse every day. We had between us two old blankets which helped to keep us from freezing at night, for the nights in Georgia, especially in the fall and winter seasons, are very cold. Many a time, we had to huddle together as close as possible, pulled the blankets over our heads, and puff our breath beneath to keep us warm.

“Our rations, too, were truly miserable. We received every morning less than a half pint of stuff which went by the name of rice soup, and at noon about three mouthfuls of corn bread, (the cob being ground with the kernel) and, now and then two small biscuits, about a mouthful in each, so sour and ill-baked, that it was more hurt than good to use them. In the evening, we got about half a pint of very badly cooked rice.

“Rufus at length began to grow weaker, and though his face seemed full, yet his body and limbs were reduced very much, and as he began to grow worse, he ate less, till hour by hour, he seemed to be passing away. At length, he grew so sick and weak, that he was unable to stand or hardly sit up, and the doctor ordered him with others in his position to be sent to the 13th ward known as the sick ward.”

Barton Smith Walters of Channahon, from the 39th was sent to Andersonville as well. He lived to be released and taken to Annapolis where he died two weeks later from the effects of his imprisonment. Thomas De Line from the 39th and also from Channahon was luckier. He was paroled in January of 1865, but only lived another two years from the effects of his starvation.

Warren S. and Henry C. Noble, brothers from Wilmington, who were also captured at Chickamauga along with Bartleson, arrived at Andersonville after being held at two other prisons, arriving just after Grant stopped the prisoner exchanges. Warren was paroled at the end of 1864; Henry never left.

Battle lines were being drawn as April drew to a close. The men of Will County faced their fourth summer of the War Between the States.





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