Tuesday, July 14, 2015

“Death! Nothing but Death!”: The Capture of the 7th Pennsylvania Reserve Infantry, Part 1

For the next few posts, I plan to tell the tale of a once proud regiment, the 7th Pennsylvania Reserve Infantry, an Army of the Potomac unit that faced wholesale capture and a slow, agonizing death in several Confederate prisons. Today’s tale will be told by a private from Carlisle who endured seven horrible months inside two ghastly prison camps, Andersonville and Florence Stockade. Amazingly, he lived to tell it.

Here’s how it all began.

At 6 P.M., May 5, 1864, amid the Battle of the Wilderness, Colonel William McCandless’s brigade surged onto the Permelia Higgerson farm field, taking heavy fire from Brig. Gen. John B. Gordon’s Georgia brigade. One of McCandless’s regiments, the 7th Pennsylvania Reserves, found itself surrounded (by only two companies from the 61st Georgia, of all things) and it took fire from front, left, right, and rear. A lieutenant from the 7th Reserves jotted in his diary, “[We] attempted to escape to the right and left, but were fired into from all sides.” Eventually, Colonel Henry C. Bolinger ordered his men to stack arms, and nearly the entire regiment, 273 officers and men, became prisoners of war.

For the next seventeen days, the forlorn captives made an uncomfortable journey south, passing through Orange Court House, Gordonsville, Lynchburg, Danville, and eventually to Andersonville prison.

On May 22, 1864, the 7th Pennsylvania—and the other Union prisoners taken at the Wilderness—arrived at their new home.

Private Samuel Elliot, a 22-year-old Carlisle resident who served in Company A, wrote in his diary that day. Obviously, this was his first encounter with Andersonville, which by then had been in operation for three months, and he never forgot it. Elliot wrote:

The camp contains about fifteen thousand men, most of whom have been prisoners from eight to ten months [but kept in other prisoners before this one], and were once strong, able bodied men, but are now nothing more than walking skeletons, covered with filth and vermin, and can hardly be recognized as white men. The horrible sights are almost enough to make us give up in dispair—the ground is covered with filth, and vermin can be seen crawling in the sand. In the centre of the camp is a stream of dirty water so warm and greasy we can scarcely drink it. The sights I saw on this, my first day in Andersonville, so filled me with horror that I can give but a poor idea of this prison den.

The next day, May 23, was Elliot’s birthday. He wrote in his diary, “[This is] a miserable place to celebrate one’s birth day.” The next several months passed in agony. Elliot described the abysmal food at Andersonville:

Friday [June] 2. The majority of the camp drew fresh meat which the rebel Quartermaster calls beef, but he can’t fool “old soldiers” with his mule and horse flesh. It might have been pretty good had they brought it in within a week after its death, or had given us a large enough piece to allow for the maggots; we were too hungry to consider long about eating it, also drew “chicken feed,” and a small piece of wormy pork—quite a variety for one day; went out for wood: the first time I have been outside the stockade since here. What a relief it is to see the outside world and get a breath of fresh air.

One month later, Private Elliot cataloged the sight of an inmate dying a horrible death:

Wednesday, August 3. On different battle fields I have witnessed many horrible sights, but none to compare with what I saw today—a man lying on the bank of the stream being eaten to death by maggots. They could be seen issuing from his eyes and mouth, and his body was eaten completely raw in several places. We could do nothing with him but let him alone to die a miserable death.

Every so often, a member of the 7th Pennsylvania Reserves died in captivity. Like other inmates who belonged to the 7th, Elliot remembered one of the highest-ranking deaths, Sergeant Van Buren Eby, a 23-year-old tinner from Carlisle. He also mentioned the death of Private Charles Jarimer, age 34, who died of scurvy:

Wednesday [August] 10. This evening we were called upon to witness the death of another of our comrades, Van B. Eby. He bore his prison life bravely, but has at last fallen a victim to ill treatment and starvation. He was loved by all who knew him, and his loss is mourned by many friends. . . .

Thursday [August] 25. Charles Jarimer, a recruit of our company, and a bunk-mate of mine, died today, after a long and painful illness; helped to carry his body to the “dead house”—a house built in the rear of the hospital, outside the stockade. There were about twenty-five other bodies, most of which had been stripped of all their clothing, and were so black and swollen they could not be recognized. While I was there I saw them piling the bodies one on top of the other, into the wagon, to be hauled to their graves or ditches. I passed through the hospital on my way back, and the sights I saw there were enough to make one sick: the tents were filled with what could once have been called men, but were now nothing but mere skeletons. The short time I was there I saw several die. A man is never admitted to the hospital until there is no hope of his recovery, and when once there it is seldom, if ever, he returns.

Mostly, Elliot witnessed death in all forms. He hated seeing his regiment whittled away, one at a time. On September 4, Elliot attended the funeral services of a member of Company F who died during the night. He opined, “It is terrible to see how our regiment is thinning out; every day brings the sad news of the death of one or more of our comrades. Death! nothing but death!”

Eventually, in mid-September, to deal with the problem of overcrowding at Andersonville, the Confederates transferred Elliot and hundreds of other inmates to Florence Stockade, a prison camp that held about 18,000 inmates. Elliot suffered worse inside this awful pen, so he claimed. On October 31, he drew a comparison between his experiences at Andersonville and Florence: “While at Andersonville I did not suppose the rebels had a worse prison in the South, but I have now found out that they have. This den is ten times worse than that at Andersonville. Our rations are smaller and of poorer quality, wood more scarce, lice plentier, shelters worn out, and cold weather coming on. I have stood my prison life wonderfully, but now I am commencing to feel it more sensibly, and am getting too weak to move about. To add to my misery I have the scurvy in the gums.”

In mid-December, Union and Confederate authorities finally agreed to a limited prisoner exchange, and Elliot was among the first to leave Florence. On December 26, 1864, he finally arrived at Harrisburg. He wrote, “Arrived at Harrisburg some time in the night and took lodgings at the ‘White Hall.’ After breakfast I went to the depot and met my brother, who passed me without knowing me. It is not necessary for me to tell of the joy it gave me to meet my friends, or of the joy it gave them to see me, after so long an absence.”

Private Elliot survived his ordeal. He recognized, however, that no regiment had experienced the war as the 7th Pennsylvanian Reserves had experienced it. Captured whole at the Wilderness, for the next seven months, it witnessed a constant parade of death. Unlike other regiments, it beheld no victory. It saw nothing but death.
This sketch by Alfred Waud depicts the main gate at Andersonville. New prisoners--such as those from the 7th Pennsylvania Reserves--see the inside of the stockade for the first time.
This impressive watercolor by Robert K. Sneden, an inmate at Andersonville, depicts the vast sea of humanity inside Andersonville prison. During the summer, more than 26,000 inmates huddled inside the stockade, which encircled only 25 acres. This image is looking south, toward the Stockade Branch (middle distance). Captain Henry Wirz's headquarters can be seen atop the hill in the distance.
This drawing by James E. Taylor depicts Union soldiers about to leave Florence Stockade, the prison that Union soldiers dubbed ten time worse than Andersonville.

This is White Hall School, the building where Private Elliot encountered his first good meal since leaving Confederate captivity.

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