Museum 75th Anniversary

Friday, April 12, 2019

Andersonville Prison

Andersonville Prison – Stories of Survival 

The brutal American Civil War was fought from 1861 through 1865. Over 600 Wayne County men answered President Lincoln’s call to arms during those years.  This was over half the able-bodied men in the county. There are many tales of the horrors of war and survival that have been printed.  The following harrowing tales are just a few recounted by men who came to Wayne County after the war ended.

One of the most notorious prisoner of war camps was operated by the Confederates; Andersonville Prison near the town of Andersonville, Georgia.   Camp Sumter, as it was officially known, was commanded by Captain Henry Wirz, who was tried and hanged in Washington, D.C. for war crimes after the war ended.  The prison camp was in existence fourteen months, from February 1864 until it finally was closed in May 1865.  When the camp opened in February 1864 it covered about 16 ½ acres but by June it had been enlarged to 26 ½ acres to accommodate the influx of almost 400 prisoners daily.

The camp was surrounded by a 15 ft. stockade wall. It was overcrowded to four times its capacity with inadequate water and food supplies and unsanitary conditions.  Of the approximately 45,000 Union prisoners held at Andersonville, nearly 13,000 died, mostly from scurvy, dysentery and diarrhea.


John R. Henry in Union Army  1862 - 1865

 John R. Henry (1837-1921) was born in Greencastle, Indiana. His family came to Wayne County in the 1850’s when both he and the county were young. He enlisted in Company A, 17th Regiment of Iowa Volunteers on March 4, 1862 in Keokuk.

 In the three years of existence the 17th Iowa took part in many battles in Mississippi under Generals Grant and Sherman, including Luka, Corinth, Port Gibson, Champion Hill and the Siege of Vicksburg. In 1864 and 1865 the regiment took part in the charge up Mission Ridge outside of Chattanooga.  Of the 1,085 men who joined the 17th Iowa in 1862, only about a third were present for the Grand Review in Washington D.C. on May 24, 1865.

 On October 13, 1864, First Sergeant Henry, along with 280 other men from the 17th Iowa were guarding a rail line near Tilton, Georgia when a corps of several thousand Confederates surrounded them and demanded their surrender. The Union troops held out for seven hours under heavy artillery fire until their ammunition was exhausted and they were forced to surrender. He and many men from Company A were taken to the notorious Andersonville prison camp where he spent the rest of the war under horrendous conditions.

 Sergeant Henry and the other 17th Iowa prisoners arrived by train at the small town of Andersonville, GA and were marched several hundred yards up a hill to the prison camp. The men were thoroughly searched before entering the camp, according to Sgt. Henry, for the guards to steal any valuables the men might still have.  Sgt. Henry hid a gold ring in his mouth inside a tobacco plug to protect it from the guards.

 The prison camp was horribly crowded and filthy with no protection from the cold or rain for the men. According to an account from the Andersonville Historic Site, a Massachusetts sergeant is quoted, “The camp was covered with vermin all over. You could not sit down anywhere. You might go and pick the lice off you and sit down for half a moment and get up and you would be covered with them. It was very swampy, all black mud and where the filth emptied it was all alive; there was a regular buzz there all the time, and it was covered with white maggots.

John R. Henry ca.1918
 John Henry said he survived by “never lying down on the ground to sleep.” Instead, he “slept standing up.” Men who did that greatly increased their chance of survival. The site today is covered with grass but visitors to Andersonville are warned not to dig in the subsoil because it is still as badly contaminated as it was in 1865.

Sergeant. Henry was released from Andersonville in April, 1865 when the war ended. He was discharged from the army on May 26, 1865 at Davenport, IA.

 He returned to Wayne County and resumed farming. He married and raised seven children. His hardships in Andersonville took a toll on his health and his daughter, Edith Henry Sturgeon, said that he was never able to work a full day. In later years, when he lived with Edith, he would sometimes stand in the corner to take a nap, a skill acquired from a lifetime before. John Henry died in 1921 and is buried in Kilbourn-Rankin cemetery near Allerton.


Newton C. Michael served 1862 - 1865

      Newton C. Michael (1843-1920) was also born in Greencastle, Indiana. His family came to Iowa in 1856 and lived near Centerville for several years.  On March 4, 1862, in Centerville, N.C. Michael, age 18, enlisted in Company F, 17th Iowa. This company was captured on October 13, 1864 along with Company A.  He was taken to prison camps in Alabama and Georgia before he finally was taken to Andersonville on December 25, 1864.   Newton Michael was held in Andersonville until April 17, 1865 when he was released along with so many others of the 17th Iowa.  He was mustered out in Davenport May 26, 1865 along with John Henry.

     Newton Michael’s time in Andersonville prison affected his health for the remainder of his life and he never fully recovered.  He was much affected by the war and collected a number of lithographs of battles and a large lithograph of Andersonville Prison.  All are in the collections of Prairie Trails Museum.

The crude wooden spoon pictured above was carved by Newton Michael while a prisoner in Andersonville. He wrote the date Dec 25, 1864 on the handle as a way to mark his first day in the notorious prison.  This spoon can be seen at Prairie Trails Museum in the Armed Forces Gallery.

 Newton Michael returned to Centerville and worked in a confectionery and canned fruit business under the name Pennington & Michael.  In the fall of 1869 Mr. Michael moved to Genoa in southeastern Wayne County where he engaged in a general mercantile business, Conger, Conger, & Michael.  The business moved to the new town of Seymour in 1872 where it was in operation for 30 years.

Newton Michael died in 1920 at age 77 at the home of his son Franz Michael in Los Angeles.


Walter Hartsough's Daring Escape

 Walter Hartsough (1836-1892) was born in Beaver County, PA. He traveled west as a young man. In 1862 he was working in Cairo, IL and enlisted in the 16th Illinois Cavalry, Company K on December 28, 1862.  His company participated in several battles. Hartsough was taken prisoner at Jonesville, VA then taken to prison camps in Richmond, Belle Island, Andersonville, Savannah, Lawton and Thomasville, GA.  While in Thomasville he and two others made a daring escape on Dec. 7, 1864.

 The following is recounted from a letter written by Walter Hartsough on May 27, 1879 and published in a book titled Andersonville: A Story of Rebel Military Prisons by John McElroy (late of Co. I., 16th IL. Cav.)

Hartsough overheard the guards at Thomasville say they intended to march a number of prisoners back to Andersonville.  The men concluded it would be better to risk their lives in escape than to return to Andersonville Prison. Hartsough, Frank Hommat, of Co. M, and a man named Clipson of the 21st Illinois made a daring escape on Dec. 7, 1864. The prisoners were held in the woods with no stockade and only a line of guards between them and freedom. The three men agreed to meet up after escape.  They were able to slip though the guard line without a shot. The rendezvous was to be the center of a small swamp, that had a stream supplying water to the prisoners.  Hartsough and Hommat got together soon after passing the guards, partially submerged themselves in the steam near a large log and began signaling for Clipson.

Pretty soon a Johnny ( slang for a Confederate soldier - Johnny Rebel or Johnny Reb) came along with a bunch of turnip tops that he was taking up to the camp to trade to the prisoners.  As he passed over the log I could have caught him by the leg, which I intended to do if he saw us. But he passed along, heedless of those concealed under his very feet which saved him from a ducking at least, for we were resolved to drown him if he discovered us.  We waited a little longer, still signaling for Clipson. We could find nothing of him and at last gave him up.

We were now between Thomasville and the camp. Thomasville was the end of the railroad so the woods were full of Rebels waiting for transportation. We crawled up to the road, seeing no one started across. At that moment a guard about 30 yards to our left supposing we were Rebels, sang out:
“Whar ye gwine to thar, boys?”

  I answered: “Jest a-gwine out here a little ways.”

 Frank whispered to run but I said, “No, wait till he halts us, then run.” He walked up to where we had crossed his beat-looked after us a few minutes, then, to our great relief, walked back to his post.

 Hartsough and Hommat made their way through all the troops and began to travel toward Florida. The country was very swampy, and with constant rain, it was very slow going.  Walking all night, they had traveled only about eight miles.

Morning found the men near a large turnip patch where they filled their pockets and found a thicket in the center of a large pasture to lie concealed during the day. In preparation for the escape, Hommat had acquired a suit of Rebel clothes.  Hartsough had stolen enough food sacks at Andersonville to make a shirt and pantaloons, which a sailor fabricated for him.

 Dressed as such, the two men made their way through Georgia and on toward Florida. Several times they were helped by black slaves sympathetic to the Union cause.

One particular evening the men halted an old man returning from a day’s work in the fields.  They told him they were Rebs, who had taken a French leave of Thomasville and were tired of guarding Yanks and were going home.  They asked him for something to eat.  He was the boss of the planation, and his master lived in Thomasville. This man didn’t have much to eat himself, but he promised to bring the men food when the folks went to bed.  Passing near the negro quarters, Hartsough and Hommat got over the fence and lay down behind it to wait for supper.

We had been there but a short time when a young negro came out, passing close by, went to a fence corner a short distance away. Kneeling down he began praying along and very earnestly for the success of our armies.  I thought it the best prayer I ever listened to.

When they were about 50 miles south of Columbus, GA the men found a boat a third full of water and paddled across the river to a little town. Six miles from the river they saw a negro woman roasting sweet potatoes in a backyard. Hommat asked for something to eat. She told him to go ask the white folks. This was the answer she gave for every question. Soon the woman ran into the house.
As Hartsough and Hommat ran away they heard the sound of a horn and hounds were soon fast on their trail.  Fortunately, they had given the woman false information on where they were traveling and the hounds soon circled back in another direction. They didn’t waste any time congratulating themselves over the marvelous escape but traveled at a fast clip for another eight miles.

On Dec 22, 1864, a very cold night, the men came close to capture again when they almost stumbled into a Rebel camp.  Hommat was suffering greatly with swollen and badly cut feet.  A kindly woman had given him the shoes from her feet a few weeks before, but they were now worn out. Tramping through the swamps and briers had taken a toll on both men, but Hommat was almost beyond walking. Walter Hartsough pulled off what remained of his army shirt, tore it into pieces and Hommat wrapped his feet in them.

 At last, the two men came to the Union camp at Jacksonville, FL where they were halted and questioned before being welcomed.  I never expect to enjoy as happy a moment on earth as I did when I again got under the protection of the old flag. Hommat went to the hospital a few days and was then sent to New York by sea.

 Oh, it was a fearful trip through those Florida swamps. We would very often have to try a swamp in three of four different places before we could get through. There is not enough money in the United States to induce me to undertake the trip again under the same circumstances. Our friend, Clipson, that made his escape, got very nearly through to our line before he was taken sick and had to give himself up. He was taken back to Andersonville and kept until the next spring but he came through alright. There were 61 of Company K captured at Jonesville, and I think there was only 17 lived through those horrible prisons.

Walter Hartsough came to Wayne County about 1869, settled in Genoa and opened a general store under the name of Hartsough and Miller. His biography was published in the 1886 Biographical and Historical Record of Wayne and Appanoose County. He became the Genoa postmaster in 1870 and remained for a number of years.  He married Mary Miller in 1870, and they had two daughters.  The family later moved to Seymour where he operated a general store for 22 years.

Each of these men were forever changed by the horrible conditions encountered as prisoners in Andersonville Prison.

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