An Upper Alton Soldier in Andersonville
John J. Dunphy
(originally published in the 10/28/12 edition of The Telegraph of Alton, IL and later reprinted in a revised, expanded version in the Volume 30; Number 1 issue of Springhouse magazine)
Robert Kellogg’s 1865 book Life and Death in Rebel Prisons contains a chilling account of some Union prisoners of war who were taken to Camp Sumter, which is better known to us as Andersonville Prison. As he and his fellow POWs entered, one man stated, “Before us were forms that had once been active and erect — stalwart men, now mere walking skeletons, covered with filth and vermin.” These horrified new arrivals wondered aloud, “Can this be hell?” In a sense, they were right.
Opened in February of 1864 and eventually covering 26.5 acres near the town of Andersonville, Georgia, this Confederate prison camp housed as many as 45,000 Union inmates. At least 13,000 men died during their incarceration. Food was alternately scarce or non-existent, while the small creek meant to provide water for the inmates was choked with filth. Disease was rampant, especially scurvy and dysentery. At least two Union soldiers from southwestern Illinois — Charles Wentworth of Edwardsville and William W. Jones of Hillsboro — died in Andersonville. John T. King of Upper Alton, Illinois, who served in Company F of the 115th Illinois Infantry, survived that living hell and even left a first-hand account of his experiences. I challenge anyone who thinks history is boring to read his narrative, which the Century Magazine published in 1891.
Captured in 1863 while foraging for supplies in Tennessee, King and the other Union prisoners were promptly robbed of their personal possessions by the Rebels, who even ordered their captives to exchange clothing with them. The Rebels “forced us at the point of a bayonet to repair the railroad” at Chickamauga, “which had been burned during the battle.”
The Union prisoners eventually were transported by rail to Richmond, Virginia — the capitol of the Confederacy — and incarcerated in Libby Prison, a former tobacco storehouse. The air inside was stifling, so King seated himself by an open window “and was drawn in by a fellow prisoner, or I would have been shot by an outside guard.” King and the others were later moved to another tobacco storehouse, where their rations were “two to four ounces of beef and six to eight ounces of good wheat bread.” To supplement such meager fare, the prisoners forged greenbacks that they used to purchase additional food.” King recalled that “it was the only time when I was in the Confederacy that I had a full meal.”
While being moved by railroad to Danville, Virginia, King and three other prisoners escaped by jumping from the train. “After five days and nights of almost superhuman effort and suffering,” however, they were recaptured and taken to Danville for further incarceration.
An escape attempt at Danville brought 400 Union prisoners the punishment of confinement in a room that was built to hold no more than 200. A few men who could no longer bear such hell forced open a window and leaped to the ground. They were immediately riddled with buckshot. Those not killed were returned to the confinement room, where King and the others “dug out some of the shot as best we could.” Another prisoner was shot by an inside guard when he held a can of soup through the window “to pour off some of the bugs.”
King and his fellow prisoners arrived at Andersonville on May 20, 1864. His account noted that of the four men who had escaped from that train en route to Danville, only he survived incarceration in Andersonville. “Prisoners kept pouring in,” he noted, “and thousands who had no vestige of a blanket” burrowed holes in the ground for protection against the elements. Minuscule portions of meat and poorly baked bread comprised the inadequate provisions. Later, “yams, rice or peas were issued in lieu of meat, and meal or grits instead of bread.”
Since the men were given no vessels to receive rations, they were forced to improvise. King recalled some men who removed their trousers, knotted up one leg and then received their portion of the food. Since the stream meant to provide water for Andersonville’s inmates was little more than an open sewer, he and a few other inmates used half-canteens and even sticks to dig a 20-foot well that yielded “only drops of water.”
Disease and malnutrition ensured a high rate at Andersonville. “Death came slowly,” King recalled. “It seemed a gradual wearing out.” Brutality by the prison guards also took its toll. King saw one man who had been mauled after guards set the prison hounds on him. “I could have fought off the dogs,” the man told his fellow inmates, “but the men cocked their revolvers and made me come down from the tree, and then set on the dogs until they got tired.”
The guards brutality was emulated by some inmates, who began to prey on the weaker prisoners. “They snatched and ate the rations of the weaker ones and they grew stronger,” King stated. “We called them ‘raiders’ and they grew in numbers and boldness until murder was added to theft and no one was safe.” The other prisoners organized themselves into a squad called the regulators, and the two sides warred with each other. “The stockade was pandemonium those days,” King noted. “Hundreds of half-naked men here, and hundreds there, surged to and fro, with sticks and fists for weapons.”
King and the other inmates were transferred from Andersonville to a prison in Florence, South Carolina, where conditions were also horrendous. “The rations were uncooked and more scant,” he recalled. The commandant “used to hang up by the thumbs men who had escaped and been retaken,” King noted. “I heard their shrieks in the long nights.”
King was one of the prisoners freed by parole from this hell on December 7, 1864. Once safely aboard a Union ship that journeyed to Rebel-held Fort Sumter to take them home, some of the former prisoners cheered and literally danced with joy. Others, King said, “knelt in silent prayer, and tears cut furrows down grimy cheeks where they had long been strangers.” A number of men began cursing the Condeferacy for the hardships they had endured as well as Lincoln and Grant for hampering the exchange of prisoners.
Somehow, King had managed to accumulate small bag of grits during his most recent incarceration. He wrote:
I could not eat the grits but dared not let then go until I knew that we were surely free. I had starved so long that those broken kernals were very precious. I was constantly hoping to barter them for something that I could eat, or possibly for a dose of quinine or some peppers. But now a gang plank was run from some opening in the side of the transport. It was lined on each side by sailors who pushed us rapidly along the big vessel.
King and the other ex-POWs were ordered to strip off their filthy clothes, which were then unceremoniously chucked through a porthole. Their clothing was filthy, he recalled, “they were the remnants of what we had worn a year and half before in the Chattanooga campaign, remnants of what we had taken from the dead.” Such rags, he noted, “had been held together by threads raveled by the stronger parts and held together by needles made from the splinters of Georgia pine.” After being issued new clothing, each an was given a pound of wheat bread, a half-pound of raw pork fat (described by King as “the sweetest morsel I ever tasted”) and a pint of coffee. Now decently clothed and fed. King reported that “lost manhood began to return.” In other words, these ex-POWs began to feel like human beings rather than animals who had to fight tooth-and-nail for their very survival.
Five of these liberated prisoners died before they reached Annapolis, where the men were again stripped and washed. “We were put to bed between white sheets,” King noted. One can scarely imagine the joy these men experienced while lying in clean, comfortable beds. For the first time in years, they were treated with kindness.
Women came to my cot with oysters fresh from the bay, with bread and butter, jellies and pickles, with shining glass and snow-white napkins, and when I had eaten they said, “Now you just rest and sleep, and dream of home.” When I was able to read the card at the head of my cot, I found: “Phthisis pulmonalis, fever, general debility; diet____treatment.” I cannot remember the diet or the treatment, but I remember well the ministrations of thsoe women; how they hovered around my cot, touching up my pillow, and how their cool hands rested on my hot forehead. I do not know whether they were army nurses, residents of Annapolis, or members of the Christian and Sanitary commissions. But the soldiers have never forgotten their ministrations, and give to women’s loyalty and patriotism a “royal three times three.”
Pneumonia prevented King from returning to active service, but he wasn’t discharged from the army until the war ended. He moved to Colorado, where he married Ruth Dorsey and fathered two daughters. His obituary in the Alton Evening Telegraph noted that he engaged in farming, school teaching and business. When he relocated to Upper Alton, King opened a business on College Avenue and later “had charge of the local power house at Sixth and Piasa streets.”
King took an active interest in maintaining the Oakwood Cemetery, now known as the Upper Alton Cemetery, and served as its director for a number of years. Many Civil War veterans are buried there, including Major Franlin Moore, with whom King was acquainted. Serving as cemetery director was King’s way of honoring his old Union comrades. His obituary also noted that King was “gifted with a talent for public speaking and writing, and his pen was a busy one.” His writings on the Civil War, the obituary noted, “had contributed much to the authentic facts of the struggle, as he had a good memory and was a close student of Civil War history.”
In 1924, at age 79, King finally retired, turned over his Upper Alton business as well as the building that housed it to his granddaughter, Marjorie Dietiker, and went to Denver to make his home with his daughter. His wife had diedin 1890. When King died in 1934 — just ten days after reaching 90 — his body was returned to Upper Alton for interment in Oakwood Cemetery. John T. King joined the other Union veterans who rested in the cemetery that had been entrusted to his care for so many years.
John J. Dunphy is the author of Abolitionism and the Civil War in Southwestern Illinois and Unsung Heroes of the Dachau Trials: The Investigative Work of the U.S. Army 7708 War Crimes Group, 1945–1947.