I’ve copies of two priceless photographs showing my family’s Civil War veteran, John Edwards, born on October 2, 1837. He was 25 years old when he joined Company B of the 13th Pennsylvania Cavalry on August 1, 1863, about a month after the Battle of Gettysburg. Just a little over two months later, my great-grand grandfather’s campaigning came to an abrupt end on October 12, 1863, when he and 126 other men of the regiment were captured at White Sulphur Springs, Virginia, while screening the Army of the Potomac during its fall 1863 Bristoe Campaign. While John Edwards’ fighting days were over, his ordeal was just beginning. He spent the rest of the war in POW camps – Libby in Richmond and then Andersonville in Georgia.
Somehow Great-Great-Grandpa John survived. In 1862, Libby housed 700 Union prisoners, but by 1863 the number of POWs had increased to 1,000. Mortality rates were high in 1863 and 1864, caused by shortages of food and supplies, lack of sanitation, and rampant disease. The prison, once a warehouse for Libby & Son, ship chandlers and grocers, now warehoused glum Union prisoners. Its eight low-ceiling rooms, each 103 feet by 42 feet with barred windows open to the elements, housed the POWs on the second and third floors. With its high death toll, Libby Prison is regarded as only second in notoriety to Andersonville.
The Confederates established Camp Sumter prison at Andersonville to relieve overcrowded conditions at Libby. At Andersonville, nearly 13,000 of its 45,000 Union prisoners died in brutal conditions, suffering from starvation, disease and abuse. This notorious POW camp was kept in operation for fourteen months… John Edwards was there for those fourteen months, finally liberated in March 1865, just three days before Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox. Great-great-granddad was officially released on April 6, 1865.
John Edwards died on September 5, 1917, just a month short of his 80th birthday. On his death certificate, the reason for his death read: “Disease incidental to prison life.”
I’ve been outlining my Civil War novel since early January. To say I’ve been obsessing about that long-ago war is not an exaggeration. So when I saw a photograph titled “Rare Four-Generation Photo” posted on Facebook by a cousin, Portia Haller and her son Michael, I couldn’t resist a look. The 1917 photo shows Great-Great Grandpa John Edwards; his daughter Icie Belle Edwards Kurtz, my great-grandmother; Great-Aunt Nellie Kurtz Shook, and second cousin Audra Shook Kinch. I’m sixty-four now, but in my younger days I sat in the living rooms of Nellie and Audra and chatted with them. I found myself wanting to delve deeper into the life of this remarkable man, John Edwards, who refused to die when so many others around him succumbed.
As I’ve progressed through the chapter outlines of Blessed Shadows Deep and Dark, the story has become clearer in my head. The novel is coming to life. The same holds true for the Civil War era life of John Edwards thanks to a man named Michael Dougherty. Dougherty also served in Company B of the 13th Pennsylvania Cavalry and, like my great-great-grandfather, was captured at White Sulphur Springs on October 12, 1863. And like Edwards, he was a POW at Libby and Andersonville. They may have known each other, perhaps growing closer to each other as others in Company B died, victims of disease or overeager Andersonville guards shooting POWs for wandering too far for a drink of creek water.
Dougherty shared his prison experiences in a book titled War Prison Diary, written in the first decade of the 20th century from diary entries he kept while a POW. As John Snyder, the family’s historian and genealogist, puts it, “This diary follows the same path as John, so is a great insight to what he endured.”
Let’s return to the fall of 1863. After Gettysburg, General Robert E. Lee retreated behind the Rapidan River in Orange County, Virginia. Union troops under the command of General George Meade advanced to the Rappahannock River in August. In mid-September, Meade pushed strong columns forward to challenge the Army of Northern Virginia along the Rapidan. Both armies were weaker in manpower, and not just because of the losses suffered at Gettysburg. Earlier in September, Lee sent two divisions of Longstreet’s corps to reinforce the Confederate army in Georgia. Union brass answered, ordering the XI and the XII Corps to Tennessee by railroad in late September after the Battle of Chickamauga.
If Meade thought Lee would leave the initiative to him, he soon learned otherwise. As the homefolks turned the calendar to October, Lee began an offensive sweep around Meade’s right flank with his remaining two corps, forcing the Federals to withdraw along the line of the Orange & Alexandria Railroad. Dougherty and Great-Great-Grandpa Edwards found themselves screening Meade’s withdrawal. They were the fodder, there to fight Lee’s cavalry and infantry and prevent an envelopment even if it meant death or surrendering. Of course, they hoped to hold off the Secesh troops long enough to save Meade’s infantry and then escape themselves. It didn’t happen that way.
Theophilus J. Ambrosia
Here’s what happened, according to Dougherty’s diary entry for October 12, 1863. “About six this morning enemy appeared in our front and drove in our pickets. Skirmishing all day, assisted by the Fourth Pennsylvania Cavalry. At 5:00 p.m., we were overpowered, cut off from the division, and 127 of our regiment, among whom was your humble servant, were compelled to surrender. All prisoners were dismounted. The enemy proved to be the advance of General Lee’s army. Remained prisoner at Jefferson all night.” One of those 127 prisoners was John Edwards.
Union cavalry fought on foot. Typically, one man would hold the reins of the horses while others would fight as infantrymen. Many were armed with Henry repeating rifles. Those rifles provided superior firepower, allowing the Union cavalrymen to hold off Confederate infantrymen for almost an entire day. Ultimately, the Johnnies got reinforcements and overwhelmed Great-Great-Grandpa Edwards and his fellow cavalrymen.
Dougherty, Edwards and the other prisoners from the 13th Pennsylvania Cavalry didn’t arrive in Richmond until October 16, four days after their capture. The lack of food became one of Dougherty’s constant refrains all the way to Andersonville and longer – until he was paroled and released from active duty. Edwards surely felt the same.
On the thirteenth, they were marched from Jefferson to Harrington and then back to Jefferson. Dougherty complained the men hadn’t been given anything to eat since their capture and were hungry. Finally, on October 14, after a twenty-mile march from Jefferson through Sulphur Springs to Culpepper, they were given biscuits and salt pork before they boarded railroad cars for a trip to Gordonsville. Exhausted, they remained in Gordonsville all night. “The guards strict and will not allow us to purchase anything,” Dougherty wrote in his diary. “Prisoners searched and everything taken from us. Some boys hide money in their shoes and stockings to prevent the rebels getting it.”
The prisoners awoke to a cool day on October 15. Dougherty wished he still had his overcoat and boots, but a guard now enjoyed them. “I hope they will not do the scoundrel who took them any good,” he wrote. On the sixteenth, they again boarded railcars and arrived in Richmond at 3 p.m. In the entry for that day, Dougherty penned, “Men tired and hungry. Marched from depot through principal streets to the Pemberton building opposite Libby. Got one-fourth pound of bread and one-fourth pound of beef. This is the second time we got anything to eat since we were captured.”
Two days later, on October 18, the men were “thinking of home and friends and anxious to be paroled or exchanged,” Dougherty wrote. Instead, 400 of them, weak and hungry, were moved to Libby, including Dougherty and Great-Great-Grandpa Edwards.
In the writing style of the time, Dougherty described conditions in Libby: “The nights are very cold, and there being nothing but gratings in the windows, the men were obliged to walk the whole night long to keep from freezing. If they can meet with the friendly embrace of slumber at all, it was during the day when the sun would shed its kindly beams upon us and so impart sufficient warmth to our bodies to keep us from shivering. I have seen men draw their bean soup in their shoes for want of a cup or plate of any kind to put it in. What seemed worse than all the rest was the almost satanic rule that if a prisoner was caught resting his eyes upon the glad scenes of nature through a window, he must be quickly translated from the earth by a ball of a musket.”
In a way poignant for us reading Dougherty’s words today, he reflected on his times in Libby: “Households in coming time will gather about the fireside and talk of their friends and ancestors who ended their days in so much wretchedness because of their attachment to the Union. As their bravery and heroism, their courage and constancy are admired, so will it be with malice and fury their persecutors are condemned. It may be, and probably is, one of the essentials of war that places be provided for the confinement of prisoners, but they do not necessarily include every species of torment which the human is capable of conceiving.”
On October 20, eight days after capture, Dougherty finally got a chance to write home. “I have written a letter to my mother in Bristol, Bucks County, Pennsylvania, to let her know of my capture and where 1 am. I hope she will get it, as I’m anxious to hear from home.” I can’t help but wonder: Did Edwards’ family receive a letter from him?
A day later, Dougherty explained how the meager rations were divvied up among the prisoners. “I have forgotten to mention before that there are about six hundred prisoners in this room, divided into squads of twenty. One man draws the rations for the twenty and cuts it up. Each man has a number from one to twenty. The twenty rations are put out separately on the floor, and one turns his back and the sergeant points to a ration and says, “Who takes this?” The man with his back turned to the ration says one, two, five or ten, as the case may be, on up till the twenty are served. This is done to prevent the sergeant from showing any favor to any particular one.”
Interestingly, guards were trading Confederate money for greenbacks. Dougherty found it humorous. “So you see Yankee money is considered the best by far right here in the hotbed of secession.” Prisoners made bone rings, toothpicks and chains and sold them to the guards. “And selling boots, shoes, shirts, blankets, in fact anything in order to get something to eat,” Dougherty explained further, then added, “Little we thought we would ever be in this predicament. I wonder if our government knows how we are treated. I hardly think the rebel prisoners in the North are treated like we unfortunate beings.”
Months passed, and by early February 1864, prisoners were hearing that they might be paroled. The rumors could only have come from guards. The guards must have been snickering, knowing the prisoners would soon be bound for Andersonville. One day Dougherty saw Company B Captain Daniel B. Meaney, who “made signs with his hands indicating that we were bound for Georgia.”
The prisoners marched to the Richmond depot at 4 a.m. on Monday, February 8, and were loaded aboard railcars for the trip to Andersonville, Georgia, a 620-mile trek. Dougherty described the walk to the depot: “Each man receives a loaf of cornbread as he marches out of the building. There are 600 of us, about sixty of us packed in each car. No seats; instead, lying about in all positions, swearing and fighting.”
They reached Raleigh, North Carolina, the next afternoon, and slept overnight in the railcars. Four or five prisoners slipped away in the night, preferring to risk getting shot over staying in the railcars. Several prisoners died in the cars. On Wednesday, February 10, the train continued on to Branchville, South Carolina. There, the prisoners changed cars. Next stop… Andersonville. Dougherty’s diary entries between February 10 and February 15 read: “Several prisoners jumped off the cars on the Georgia Central Railroad in the night and made their escape. Several men too sick to take from Raleigh, so were left behind.”
In his February 15, 1864, diary entry, Dougherty summed up the train journey: “Our train, after groaning and creaking along for five or six days, during which time there were many adventures, escapes and re-captures, at last reached its destination. The trip from Macon was nearly south through a continuous stretch of dense pine woods and vine-tangled swamps. After a run of sixty miles from Macon, we stopped in a clearing where there were few houses, and which we learned was Andersonville.”
The prisoners were marched from the cars to open ground just east of the train station. No more than a quarter-mile away, the prisoners could see the stockade, described as immense by Dougherty. He wrote: “The last few days of our journey we had no water and suffered from thirst. The car that I was in had been used for hauling lime and had half an inch of lime on the floor.” With sixty men in each car, any moving around stirred up dust. Prisoners’ lips and tongues were parched and cracked. They were desperate for a drink of water. Two had died during the trip from Macon to Andersonville.
Dougherty spied a small brook only a short distance away, but the guard line stood between the prisoners and the water. He pleaded with the guards to let the prisoners go to the water. A Confederate captain approached on a gray horse and shook a revolver in Dougherty’s face. “You Yankee, you must vait or you get so much vater you drown putty quick,” the captain said in a German accent.
The prisoners quickly learned the captain’s name – Henry Wirz, the commandant of the prison.
Dougherty described the prisoners as they shuffled into the prison: “We were ordered forward towards the big stockade, moving quietly and painfully along, our spirits almost crushed within us, urged on by the double file of guards on either side of our column of ragged, lousy skeletons, who scarce had strength to run away if given an opportunity. We neared the wall of great square logs, and massive wooden gates, that were to shut out hope and life from nearly all of us forever.”
Within moments of walking into the stockade, two of the prisoners were dead in the creek, shot by guards. They had gone beyond the dead line. What in the world did my Great-Great-Grandpa Edwards think when he saw those men gunned down, all because they ventured past an imaginary line for a decent drink of water? Here’s what Dougherty thought: “The creek that runs through this pen was pointed out to us, and a rush was made for it, as we were nearly dead from thirst. The water soon became cloudy, and two comrades, to get the clean water, pushed above the dead line, and not knowing the danger, reached beyond it, and both dropped dead in the water, shot by the guards on the wall or stockade. We dared not move their bodies until ordered to do so by a rebel officer, who was some time in getting around. The water remaining red with our comrades’ blood; stopped the drinking until their bodies were removed.”
Starvation rations, disease and brutality culled the prisoners at Andersonville, killing about 30 percent of the Union soldiers warehoused there until the end of the war. Designed to hold 10,000 prisoners, the Confederates crammed 45,000 into the grounds. The prisoners arrived before the barracks were built and so lived with virtually no protection from the blistering Georgia sun or the long winter rains. Food rations were a small portion of raw corn or meat, which was often eaten uncooked because there was almost no wood for fires. The only water supply was the creek that trickled through a Confederate army camp, then pooled to form a swamp inside the stockade. It provided the only source of water for drinking, bathing, cooking, and sewage. Under such conditions the prisoners died in staggering numbers.
According to a National Park Service publication, Captain Wirz created an aura of fear to keep the Union prisoners in line, fashioning a tough-man reputation. At Wirz’s war-crimes trial after the war, a Confederate soldier testified that Wirz ordered a prisoner into the stocks during a rainstorm. Seeing the prisoner was drowning, the Confederate soldier placed an umbrella over him and approached Wirz, who told him, “Let the damned Yankee drown.” Wirz couldn’t get the CSA bureaucracy to improve conditions at Andersonville, so he controlled the prisoners the only way he knew how – through intimidation and punishment he learned as an overseer of slaves at a Southern plantation.
The Confederacy couldn’t provide for its prisoners because it could barely provide for itself. The South was plagued by shortages because of the Union Navy’s blockade and the exorbitant costs of supporting its military, which left few resources for feeding or sheltering its prisoners.
A Saturday Evening Post story from February 2014 did a respectable job of explaining why Andersonville happened: “These costs, however, were the unavoidable consequence of starting and continuing the war. Union soldiers had given themselves into the Confederacy’s care with the expectation of reasonable safety. Yet the soldiers who marched into Andersonville had less chance of emerging alive than the soldiers who marched onto the battlefield of Gettysburg.”
Henry Wirz was executed by hanging in November 1865. Obviously, he wasn’t the only one made to pay for all those deaths at Andersonville and for the men who lived through the ordeal, but had to struggle with lifelong ailments.
Great-Great Grandpa John Edwards was a prisoner from October 12, 1863, to April 6, 1865. He was discharged by General Order, May 19, 1865, his health wrecked after nearly 18 months in Confederate POW prisons. Did he read newspapers religiously and follow Wirz’s trial? Did he take satisfaction in Wirz’s execution? His time as a POW at Andersonville has continued to be common knowledge to family members even to modern times, 101 years after his death. As a girl, Mom would say she’d seen him in a front-porch rocking chair; of course, that couldn’t be. She was born in 1929, 12 years after his death – unless he appeared to her in ghostly form.
Maybe that was his plan – to make an after-death appearance before my mother so that she’d tell me and I would someday write the story of his time spent in Libby and Andersonville prisons. Here it is, John Edwards, I hope you like it.
I’m the author of a fantasy trilogy, Larenia’s Shadow. You’ll find the novels for sale on the websites of Amazon and Barnes & Noble. I’m also in the early process of writing a Civil War novel, Blessed Shadows Dark and Deep. I’m outlining it now.