Civil War prison Andersonville was
only in operation for fourteen months, but is considered the most
notorious United States prison. During this short period of just
over a year of operation, 45,000 Union soldiers would suffer
miserably and 13,000 would die.
Andersonville commandant Henry Wirz
would hang for his alleged mistreatment of prisoners. However, less
well known is the trial and punishment of a Union prisoner from the
2nd New York Cavalry, Dorence Atwater. Atwater would become known as
the “Clerk of the Dead."
Atwater, a private in the New York
Cavalry, was captured in Maryland pursuing Robert E. Lee’s army as
it retreated following the battle of Gettysburg. He was shifted
around to various Confederate prisons, finally ending up at
In Andersonville he was assigned to
the hospital. For prisoners, going to the hospital meant a one way
ticket to the cemetery. He was assigned to keep track of the
dead for the Confederates. He also made a secret list for himself so
he could publish the list at the end of the war. He hoped to notify
families of the dead so they would know what had become of their
Atwater was exchanged in February
of 1865. He immediately took the list to the War Department, which
promised to copy the list and publish the names. It never said when,
however. The first thing the War Department did was use the list as
evidence in the trial of camp commandant Henry Wirz.
Confederate prison at Andersonville, Georgia , 1864
Atwood got his list back after the
war when he and Clara Barton returned to Andersonville to mark the
graves. Because of the accuracy of the list, only 460 graves at
Andersonville National Cemetery would be marked as "unknown."
After marking the graves, Atwater
refused to return the list to the War Department. He then was
arrested, court-martialed, and sent to jail. Petitions from Clara
Barton, Horace Greeley, and others got Atwater a release after only
two months in prison.
To get even with the War
Department, Atwater used the 20th century method of giving the list
to New York newspapers, which published the list in July of 1866.
President Andrew Johnson,
recognizing the public relations nightmare, appointed Atwater to be
Consul to the Seychelles Islands. Remember, that is where former
Cleveland Mayor Carl Stokes was sent. Dorance Atwater was later
posted to Tahiti. There he married the daughter of a English
businessman. He lived his life out in Tahiti and there he is buried.
Two of my relatives are
buried at Andersonville. One, William Crews is incorrectly
marked as "Y. Crews", 7th Tennessee Cavalry (Union). Why
the “Y;” we do not know as his name was William. Atwater
must have made a mistake. The other is Ephraim M. Crews,
5th Indiana Cavalry, which is correct.