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While redeeming the souls of over 13,000 of his fellow soldiers at the Civil War prison in Andersonville, a Connecticut man became one of the biggest whistle-blowers of his era. For his efforts he was hounded by the Army, court-martialed and sentenced to hard labor for allegedly stealing a government document. His crime sounds as if it could be ripped from today’s headlines, but actually occurred at the close of the Civil War in 1865.
I first came upon this nugget of New England-related Civil War history in a roundabout way. My brother Jerry is a volunteer at Baldwin Park, located in Terryville, Connecticut right on Route 6. One day I was helping him transplant a tree in front of a Civil War-era cannon overlooking the park. A plaque embedded on the cannon noted that it was dedicated to Terryville native Dorence Atwater, a Union soldier who had been captured at age 19 and sent to the infamous prisoner-of-war camp near Andersonville, Georgia.
The memorial to Dorence Atwater in Terryville, Connecticut.
Known for his excellent penmanship, he was assigned to serve as a clerk in the camp office, a role which enabled him to secretly compile a list of the 13,000 Union soldiers who had died in squalid conditions and were buried anonymously in numbered graves. In the list he matched grave numbers and names and smuggled it out of camp when he was released just before the end of the war.
A few months later Atwater returned to Andersonville with Civil War nurse Clara Barton. The death register he retained allowed them to properly mark the graves. Today, long straight lines of stone tombstones with soldier’s names etched into them stand as silent witnesses to their efforts. Due to Atwater’s efforts, only a small number are marked “Unknown.”
The term “Andersonville” was dreaded by captured soldiers as it grew into the largest Confederate POW camp. Of the 45,000 Union troops held captive, almost a third died of disease, starvation and exposure.
The prisoners were packed behind walls hewn from tree trunks into a 16 acre compound; crammed in so tightly that their population exceeded that of the entire surrounding county today. A stream misnamed Sweetwater Creek flowing through the property was supposed to supply all drinking and sanitation needs. However, its location downstream from the Confederate guard’s camp made it a foul source of water and led to much of the misery.
The former internal boundaries of the prison, called the “deadline,” are marked off with white wooden stakes so a visitor can visualize the camp limits. Parts of the original stockade have been rebuilt to complete the effect. A self-guided walking tour along the perimeter reveals the relatively diminutive size of the camp for so many people. On a stifling summer day it’s not difficult to imagine the effects of the scorching Georgia sun on the exposed POWs.
Statue sculpted by William J. Thompson was dedicated in 1975 to all American POWs.
After the war, in the first example of a war crimes trial, Camp Commandant Henry Wirz was prosecuted for his role and hung. In a sign of the often confusing legacy of the Civil War, a monument to him was erected in the village of Andersonville by the United Daughters of the Confederacy where it still stands.
Besides focusing on its Civil War legacy, the Andersonville National Historic Site contains the National Prisoner of War Museum, the only National Park that serves as a memorial to all American prisoners of war.
In it the story of life at Andersonville is told along with those of POWs from all of America’s conflicts. The entrance to the museum shuffles visitors into a blackened room; loud noises, gunshots and shouting in indecipherable languages simulate the confusing moment of capture for a soldier.
Display cases present artifacts created by POWs in captivity including homemade crystal radios to surreptitiously receive news of the war. Videos of the families left behind effectively relay the uncertainties of knowing a loved one is in a POW camp. These are interspersed with the memories of former POWs who tell of missing Christmas or escorting their daughter down the aisle at her wedding.
Further displays branch out to other detainees including U2 pilot Francis Gary Powers and the Americans held hostage in Iran in the late 1970s.
After the Civil War ended, Dorence Atwater initially tried to make his list available to the families of the deceased. The military claimed it as government property and when he attempted to publicize it on his own he sank into murky legal and political waters. He was court-martialed and sentenced to hard labor. At Clara Barton’s urging he was pardoned by President Andrew Johnson and, at the ripe age of 23, given a diplomatic posting to the Seychelles.
The Dorence Atwater and Clara Barton display at the National POW Museum.
Atwater eventually settled in Tahiti where he married a local princess and became a successful businessman. The original of his death register, which he fought the government so hard to hold onto, was destroyed at his home in San Francisco during the 1906 earthquake.
But his legacy lives on in the form of 13,000 stone markers on hallowed ground in Georgia and a simple bronze plaque in his hometown of Terryville, Connecticut.