Life in One Union Prison Camp

This was a three-part story, I see, though the paper doesn’t bother linking to the previous two entries. This one deals with one soldier’s “last post”; a Union prison camp. I went through a phase of research in my teens where I read widely on Southern prisons – Andersonville especially – but I can’t recall many accounts of Northern stockades. After reading of Andersonville’s horrors, it was a bit jarring to read about set tables for twice-a-day dinners and debate clubs founded by the prisoners, but it’s worth remembering that thousands died in these comparatively improved camps, too.

Source: One soldier’s story: Pvt. Asaph Wilson Sherrill and Deep Creek, the only Civil War Battle fought in Jackson County | History |

“Hellmira” Reconstruction 

More excellent restoration news: This time from a group looking to reconstruct the infamous prison camp, Elmira. After Chicago’s Camp Douglas, it was considered the worst of the Northern camps.

Friends of the Elmira Civil War Prison Camp is excited to announce construction is underway on a project to recreate the Civil War Camp in Elmira New York.

The first step in the project is the reconstruction of an original building from the camp. The original camp building will be used as a learning center and museum to house period artifacts donated by people who have found them on the former prison camp site, said John Trice, vice president of the group. A camp barracks construction blueprint is currently being developed. 

“We do have hopes of creating a little Civil War village here. There is a great amount of interest in this project, so I think that it could become a great tourist attraction.”

Source: “Hellmira” Civil War Camp Reconstruction Project Underway – Press Release – Digital Journal

Castle Thunder

An interesting ashort article about Castle Thunder, one of several appalling prisons in the Richmond area.

Made up of three old red-brick tobacco warehouses, the prison sat on Cary Street between 18th & 19th in Shockoe Bottom. A wooden fence created a small prison yard with guards lining the top of the walls. Prisoners were divided among the three buildings: Confederate deserters and political prisoners in one warehouse, black and female prisoners in another, and the last warehouse reserved for Union deserters and prisoners of war. In the back of the prison was a brick area where punishments ranging from lashings to executions took place.

In November of 1862, the prison was less than a year old and run by a new commandant, Capt. George W. Alexander. Despite only being on the job for a month, Alexander quickly established a reputation for brutality and inhumane treatment of prisoners. Stories about Alexander and his guards became so heinous that he would later be brought before the Confederate House of Representatives in an investigation into the treatment of prisoners in 1863. He was later cleared of the charges, in part because his defense cited the character of the inmates as justification for his behavior.

Castle Thunder’s residents were a particularly rough bunch, with one newspaper remarking “even Southerners fear this loathsome place.”

I was shaking my head at the Confederacy, thinking about how the South’s prisons were all hellholes of deprivation and depravity, but stopped when I noticed this statement amongst the comments:

While the “want” in Southern prisons was, in most cases, due to lack of ability to provide more (starvation was widespread in the South during the war), in northern prisons it was a matter of policy.

via Richmond during the Civil War: Castle Thunder – RVANews ‹ RVANews.

Camp Lawton Found

It’s amazing to think Camp Lawton – a huge complex that housed 10000 prisoners – is still being rediscovered, but this news item informs us that part of the stockade walls have just been unearthed.

Lawton was an overflow camp for Andersonville, built in mid-1864 when the horror camp was bursting at the seams.  The University of Georgia has a nifty website with details about the camp.

Archaeologists say they’ve unearthed timbers hidden since the Civil War which are believed to be from Confederate Camp Lawton, a stockade used to hold more than 10,000 Union prisoners.

The Augusta Chronicle reports ( that the discovery was made last week at the site in Jenkins County, now part of Magnolia Springs State Park.

via Remnants of Civil War lockup unearthed in east Ga. – AP State Wire News – The Sacramento Bee.

Visions of hell on Earth

When I was a kid, I wallpapered my room in Civil War posters. This Andersonville print was among them. Neat to
learn so much about the man who drew it. Hooray again for enthusiastic small town historians!

When Perreault was around 9, his aunt brought him to the home of O’Dea’s daughter, Emma O’Dea, a grade school teacher who lived above a liquor store at 15 Broadway. As the young boy entered a dark hallway, he came upon an imposing 4 1/2-by-9-foot pencil sketch that Thomas O’Dea created from his memories at Camp Sumter prison in Andersonville, Ga.

He drew the large bird’s-eye, panoramic view of the camp, along with 20 surrounding vignettes depicting disease, hunger and death within the prison’s walls. The dark images left a lasting impression on Perreault. “It became a lifelong fascination,” he said.

via From Andersonville, visions of hell on Earth – Times Union.

Escape Artist

Last month I watched the Bresson classic, A Man Escaped for the umpteenth time. The true story of a French Resistance member who pulled a MacGyver-like escape from a heavily-guarded Gestapo prison. Everytime I watch it, I’m struck anew at my total lack of resourcefulness or tenacity; Should I ever be imprisoned by Nazis, I’m done for. The escapes (note plural – they’re always plural for fellows like these) that John Pierson undertook weren’t quite as gobsmacking (few were), but show such determination as to be noteworthy.

Several days later, on March 18, they were recaptured by Confederates that had “orders to arrest any one, white or black, that was going north or south, east or west, that did not have papers to show who they were or where they were going,” Pierson noted. The Confederates transported Pierson and his comrades to a prison in nearby Jackson. “The jail was made of wood and lined with heavy timbers set endways and driven full of nails, so that a mouse could not have escaped. We fared well and had many visitors. All seemed sociable enough except one schoolma’am from the northern states. She thought we ought to be hung, possibly to keep herself from hanging.”


This article was short, but very helpful. I’m familiar with the prisoner exchanges and the idea of surrendered soldiers being “paroled”, but had never realised the “make an effort” component of it:

Following centuries-old precedent, the United States and Confederate governments used parole and prisoner exchange early in the Civil War, relying on the honor of the parties involved to comply with any terms.

On January 27th, 1862, in return for parole, Col. Milton J. Ferguson of Wayne County gave a pledge of honor to obtain the release of Lieutenant Colonel George W. Neff of Kentucky within 60 days or to surrender to the jailer in Ohio County.

In the interim, Ferguson could neither return to active service against the United States nor provide any aid or information to its enemies.

Prison Sketchbook

Another artifact donation in the news, though unlike the Jim Lane portrait, this one was probably a wrench to give away. A Danville museum was just given a sketchbook belonging to a POW, which contains some excellently rendered landscape scenes and portraits of his fellow prisoners.,0,1236021.story

Prison Camp Artist

Another one of those out-of-nowhere serendipitous museum stories that warm the cockles of my nerdy, bookish heart:

For years, the Danville Museum of Fine Arts and History hoped to display a piece of work by Henry VanderWeyde, an artist turned Union prisoner of war who spent a year behind bars in Danville.

“We had a copy of one called ‘Morning Toilette’. We were planning to use as part of our permanent Civil War Exhibit,” said Patsi Compton, the education coordinator for the museum.

But copyright issues prevented them from displaying his art. But last Thursday, Bob Mann arrived at the Museum with a sketchbook and the donation: page after page of sketches by VanderWeyde.

“His Grandfather came into possession of the sketchbook and he is not exactly sure how,” said Compton.

“His visit sort of came out of the blue,” said C.B. Maddox, visitor services coordinator.

Camp Lawton Uncovered

The archaelogical remains of Camp Lawton have been uncovered, by a student who should have no problems defending his thesis.

Georgia officials say the discoveries, announced Wednesday, were made by a 36-year-old graduate student at Georgia Southern University who set out to find Camp Lawton for his thesis project in archaeology…

The Georgia Southern student, Kevin Chapman, stunned experienced pros by not only pinpointing the site, but also unearthing rare Civil War artifacts from a prison camp known as little more than a historical footnote on the path of Union Gen. William T. Sherman’s devastating 1864 march in the South from Atlanta to Savannah.

(Aside: I’m listening to my audiobook of Shelby Foote’s Narrative as I read this story, and am exactly the point where Sherman is rampaging through Georgia. How’s that for timing?)