Wednesday, July 15, 2015

“The Gates of Hell Were Closed on Us”: The Capture of the 7th Pennsylvania Reserve Infantry, Part 2

In the last post, I profiled a prisoner of war from Company A, 7th Pennsylvania Reserves, Private Samuel Elliot, a man who endured the horrors of Andersonville Prison and Florence Stockade. In this post, I intend to profile another member from that unit, one who remembered Andersonville vividly, even forty-two years later.

In April 1864, Sergeant John Ignatius Faller of Company A, 7th Pennsylvania Reserves, was a light-hearted sentry on duty in Alexandria, Virginia. Every day, he patrolled an uneventful beat up and down Washington Street. Although Faller was a veteran of a half-dozen battles—including the Seven Days, South Mountain, Antietam, and Fredericksburg—he had no desire to stay in the army any longer than necessary. His brother, Leo, had been killed at Antietam, so he felt it incumbent to return home as soon as possible to save his parents from the chance of losing two sons in the war. Although many men in Faller’s regiment had re-enlisted over the winter, adding three additional years to their term of service, Faller chose to let his contract expire. He expected to go home sometime in May; accordingly, he believed he had already fought his last battle. Indeed, as spring drew nigh, his thoughts drifted to home. As of January, his parents had purchased a new house in Carlisle, and Faller expected that he would have a chance to live in it after he mustered out. He wrote his sister, Anastasia, telling her, “I want you to have a room fixed up for me when I get home next summer.”

Sadly, the Army of the Potomac did not heed Faller’s wish. On April 18, Maj. Gen. George Meade reassigned the 7th Reserves to the Army of the Potomac’s winter encampment at Brandy Station. Then on May 4, the Army of the Potomac commenced marching into the Wilderness, one day before orders arrived granting the 7th Reserves the opportunity to muster out. As it happened, Sergeant Faller and 272 other soldiers from the 7th Reserves were captured near the Permelia Higgerson Farm on May 5. (Essentially, if Ulysses Grant had postponed his Overland Campaign by one day, Faller and dozens of others would have avoided capture!) On May 16, eleven days later, Faller had a chance to mail a short note from Danville, Virginia, telling his family that he was now a prisoner of war. Still reasonably light-hearted, he saw no reason to worry his parents and sisters about his fate. He wrote, “We have been treated first rate since our capture.” All he had to do was survive in a rebel prison, he thought. The war would be over soon. It would be easy.

Faller’s optimism didn’t last long. On Sunday, May 22, he and the other enlisted men arrived at their new home, Andersonville. Never forgetting his first day there, he recalled how Captain Henry Wirz ordered them to form into detachments of 270 men. As a sergeant, Faller helped lead the 51st Detachment. “We were then marched up to the big gates,” remembered Faller. “Soon the gates of hell on earth were closed on us. Many a poor soul never passed out again—except to be carried to the dead house.”

In a short memoir written in 1906, Faller remembered many of the horrible sights of Andersonville—cruel guards, raider gangs, starvation, lack of shelter—but the aspect of Andersonville that I’d like to emphasize in this post was the primary killer of the inmates, the Stockade Branch, the small stream that brought refuse into the camp, spreading disease far and wide. Like many inmates, Faller knew that the Stockade Branch was the most dangerous enemy in the prison. Not only did it bring disease, but it brought swarms of maggots. He recalled:

A small stream of water, about twelve inches deep and eight feet wide, entered and ran through it (the enclosure). This stream had its origin in a swamp a short distance from the stockade. The water was warm and impure. To add to its natural filthiness, the rebels had built their cook house across the stream on the outside and the water was always covered with filth and grease; they also washed their dirty, filthy clothes in the stream and also used it for bathing purposes. We were obliged to drink it or do without. . . . On each side of the stream the ground was low and swampy and the filth that accumulated during the long summer months can neither be imagined [n]or described. Most of it collected in and about this swamp, and I have seen these three acres of swamp [become] one animated mass of maggots, from one to two feet deep, the whole swamp moving and rolling like waves of the sea.

By August, the Stockade Branch became overrun with vermin. Rats and maggots swarmed the edges, devouring the inmates who dwelled along its edge, those too weak to move elsewhere. Remembered Faller, “Many of the prisoners who had become too weak to help themselves were covered up with them [maggots] and were literally eaten alive.” He lamented, “To look upon these poor creatures and not be able to give them assistance was a sight so sickening and horrible that it was enough to make one insane with terror.”

Typically, when inmates wanted water (and lacked the provisions for digging wells), they crowded around the west side of the prison, trying to get the water as soon as it passed underneath the stockade wall. That water, claimed Faller, was always a bit more palatable. Sadly, this always caused a mob to form along the deadline, the imaginary barrier which the inmates could not cross without facing the threat of being fired upon by a sadistic guard. As the inmates clambered for water, the guards took the opportunity to shoot at any who might accidentally trespass. Faller remembered one of these shootings. In August, an inmate dipped under the deadline, and a guard, “who had been watching and waiting for such a chance,” opened fire. The ball missed its intended target, but instead struck the head of another man standing near him. His skull cracked open and he died instantly. His body fell into the stream, polluting it with blood and brains.

The incident incensed Faller more than anything else he ever witnessed at Andersonville. “With horror and indignation,” he wrote, “I could not run but turned and stood looking at the monster who could murder a fellow being for so slight an offense.” The guard coolly reloaded his weapon, as a cluster of prisoners loudly condemned the shooting. The guard raised his gun and threatened, “Scatter thar or I will blow some more of you over!” Faller boiled with rage. Before departing, he screamed, “My God how long must we endure this?” Giving the guard the evil eye, he remembered, “I really believe that I would have given my life for one chance at him.”

Faller survived Andersonville (and Florence Stockade). In March 1865, Confederate authorities finally released him. He had been a prisoner of the Confederacy for eleven months. Had all gone as he expected, he should have mustered and returned home in May 1864. Instead, the gates of hell closed on him, chaining him to a vicious plot of Georgia sod, where even the water did its very best to kill him.
In 1906, Sgt. John I. Faller, Co. A, 7th Pennsylvania Reserve Infantry, wrote a graphic account of his Andersonville prison experience.
Here, you can see an image of Andersonville's sinks. The small cluster of tents at middle distance is "the Island," where the most far-gone soldiers lived. This the area where the swamp overflowed and maggots literally ate men alive.

This is another view of Andersonville taken along its east wall. The deadline can be seen running along the right side of the image, and the Island is in the left foreground.


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