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Feature Article on Civil War Prison Camps. Topic: CIVIL WAR
Written by Rich Wallace in January, 1996


Patriotic fever ran high among the young men in Shelby County, Ohio in the early 1860's. Many were rushing to enlist with their friends, so that together they could help save the union and, perhaps, be a war hero as well. Over three hundred never returned. Some, like the Elliot brothers of Dinsmore Township, died heroes' deaths. A much crueler and totally unexpected fate awaited thirteen Shelby County soldiers. This is their story.

These men enlisted over a period of about one year. The oldest was James Dodson. He had already served an enlistment with the Benton Cadets, was discharged because of tuberculoses, and left his Plattsville home to fight again at the age of 36. Thomas Powell was just 16 when he signed on with the 4th Ohio Cavalry.

Several were good friends. George Ragan, William Borum and George Baldwin all served together in Company B of the 20th Ohio. Theophilus Ailes left his blacksmithing trade in Port Jefferson to join the 20th, as did Thomas Duncan. Frances Honnell, also a blacksmith from Port Jefferson, and Nehemiah Baldwin opted to become horse soldiers. They joined the 9th Ohio Cavalry. Their fate would remain intertwined throughout the war. Levi Bird joined the 12th Ohio Cavalry. James Morris took up arms with the 14th Missouri Infantry. Alfred Swanders and Joseph Wilkinson enlisted in the 99th Ohio. All these men would be captured and sent to prisons in the south. Only Wilkinson would survive.

During the first part of the Civil War, capture meant generally humane treatment, if the scourge of sickness could be avoided. Prisoner exchanges were common between the armies. Therefore, perhaps the hopes of James Morris were high when he fell into enemy hands on July 20, 1863 at Danville, Mississippi. The terrible battle of Chickamauga in September of that year saw the capture of three county boys in one day: James Dodson, Alfred Swanders and Joseph Wilkinson. An engagement at Florence, Alabama in April of 1864 resulted in Frances Honnell, Nehemiah and George Baldwin becoming prisoners. On July 22, 1864 more Shelby Countians lost their lives than on any other day in the war. That same day the Rebels captured Thomas Duncan and Theophilus Ailes.

Even though the conditions of southern prisons would get much worse toward the end of the war, disease claimed several imprisoned Shelby County men fairly soon after their capture. Swanders died on New Year's Day, 1864. He was kept at Libby prison in Richmond, Virginia until December 11th, when he was sent to a Rebel hospital in Danville. His military records list the cause of death as both "enemy cruelty" and "chronic diarrhea." His brother, Aaron, would be killed in battle later that year at Kennesaw Mountain, Georgia. Morris, Honnell, Powell, Ailes, Borum and George and Nehemiah Baldwin were subsequently transferred to the infamous prison at Andersonville, and all died there by October of 1864. By this time in the war, General U.S. Grant was the Commander of the Union Army. In late 1864, he ordered a halt to the prisoner exchanges. His motive was to increase the stranglehold on the Confederacy by cutting off its supply of soldiers. His decision also sealed the fate of thousands of Union soldiers, for whom there would be no escape. Included among these men were Thomas Duncan, Levi Bird and George Ragan. Ragan died while still in prison after the surrender of General Lee at Appomatox.

What untold suffering did these men experience? We will never know. Their lips are now sealed. Letters from only one of the men are known to exist. Alfred Swanders wrote to his sister Savilla, who lived on the family farm south of Anna, on two occasions. On November 20, 1863, Alfred sent a letter asking for "a shirt, a pair of socks, no. 11 shoes, 20 lbs. of crackers," along with paper and stamps. It was not mailed until December 9th, and he died three weeks later.

One comrade in arms, Joseph Wilkinson, did survive. Many years after the war, Wilkinson talked to a biographer working for R. Sutton and Co. His story paints a grim reminder about the tragedies of war and man's inhumanity to his fellow man.

Wilkinson was the youngest of six brothers. When he enlisted in August of 1862, he was 18. Before the war was concluded, his parents would grieve over the loss of two sons. William was killed on the battlefield at Chickamauga on the same day Joseph was captured. George, who was also in company C of the 99th with Joseph, had died earlier at Nashville, Tennessee.

While tending to a wounded comrade, Joseph was surrounded and captured. After spending a short time in Libby prison, he was transferred with 5,000 others to Danville and kept throughout the winter in tobacco barns. Smallpox broke out, and spread in a quick but deadly fashion. Wilkinson contracted it but recovered. Out of the 22 prisoners from his regiment, 19 died. He remembered: "I acted as nurse for several weeks in what they called a 'hospital.' It did not deserve the name, for we had no medicines whatsoever except for red pepper pods, which we boiled and administered as tea to the sick."

In April of 1864, the survivors were loaded in box cars and transported 700 miles to the newly opened prison in Andersonville, Georgia. The trip took 7 days. "None of us were permitted to leave the cars for any purpose. When we reached Andersonville, a number of dead were found in each car."   When asked about it later, Wilkinson would only state, "My experience at Andersonville is too horrid to relate, and is almost beyond belief." A few details from the military record will suffice.

Run by Swiss emigrant Henry Wirz, the prison and its conditions were the cause of the deaths of 13,000 union soldiers in only 14 months. The prisoners had an average of 6 square feet per person. Death by starvation and all manner of disease was a daily occurrence. Wirz once boasted that he was "...destroying more Yankee soldiers than General Lee was killing."

One southern lady was allowed to climb a guard tower and overlook the prison. Her prophetic, yet chilling comment: My heart aches for those poor wretches, Yankees though they are, and I am afraid God will suffer some terrible retribution to fall upon us for letting such things happen. If the Yankees should ever come to south-west Georgia and go to Anderson and see the graves there, God have mercy on the land.

Wirz was later tried by a military tribunal led by General Lew Wallace, convicted, and executed in Washington on November 10, 1865.

According to Rebel records, by September of 1864, one of every two men entering the prison was dying. Wilkinson felt lucky when he was transferred during that month to a prison in Florence, South Carolina. Lucky? If possible, conditions there were worse. "(Our) clothing had become so ragged and tattered it scarcely covered our nakedness. Mortality thinned our ranks, and our prison was a charnel house. Rations were reduced. For four months one pint of coarse corn meal was a daily ration, no salt meat of any kind. The monthly mortality footed up fifty percent."

Finally, on March 10, 1865 Wilkinson and the other union survivors were taken to Richmond to be released. The men were threatened by the Rebel guards against wild rejoicing. Wilkinson remembered the moment vividly: "We were all sick and weak, but as we came in sight of our flag, we yelled crazily at the top of our voices. We were in the sight of our men, and could not be restrained."

After 18 months of the most inhumane captivity imaginable, Wilkinson was free. The scene was one he would never forget. "We were met by northern ladies, who had provided coffee and sandwiches for our reception. One of them, she seemed an angel, handed me a cup of coffee....but my stomach revolted at an article it had not known for a year and a half. She appreciated my difficulty, and uttered the words: 'Poor fellow!' Those words were the first I heard uttered by a woman from the time of my capture, and they came like an angel's benediction."

After his return to Sidney in the early spring of 1864, Joseph Wilkinson slowly adjusted to normal life. he completed his schooling, taught school and then ran a lumber business. In 1875, Wilkinson married Mary McKee of Piqua. Two children, Kate and John soon followed. He subsequently was appointed postmaster of Sidney, a position he held for many years.


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