A speech a soldier gave regarding the Andersonville Prison, he was not an Iowa soldier, but many Iowans were in Andersonville and this gives a good account of the happenings at Andersonville. Transcribed and submitted by, NettieMae Lucas, February 2024

View article in paper (scroll down)

Source: Lyons Weekly Mirror, Page 8, Feb. 19, 1876

Last week we copied from the Joliet Sun a notice of an address read by Mr. E. A. Nattinger, Adjutant of Bartleson Post G. A. R., of that city, and following we copy a portion of his "Recollections," vividly setting forth some of the terrible realities of the prison pen at Andersonville.

Anderson station was chosen as the location of the largest military prison of the Confedercy on account of its utter seclusion from the outside world. Before the prison was located there, there was only a wood yard, a shed, and an old church. A writer in Appleton's Journal describes it as the most dreary and desolate spot in the State of Georgia. When we arrived there we were ordered out of the cars and marched to an open field alongside the road. Here we halted, and from this spot I first obtained a glimpse of the prison pen. It looked from a distance like an immense stock yard teeming with human beings. -- Before we were allowed to proceed we were again searched. The Rebel sergeants divided us into squads and with the utmost dexterity went through us. Every man was forced to strip to the skin, the pockets of our clothes were turned inside out, and the linings examined. We were made to open our mouths lest a greenback might be concealed therein. They thrust their hands roughly through our hair, looked between our toes, and even with sharp eyes peered into our ears. A member of my company played a neat Yankee trick upon them. He had a $50 green back, and rolling it up in natural leaf tobacco he placed it in his mouth. When the sergeant came to look into his mouth, in his search, he took the valuable cud out and said, "Johnnie, you don't want this, do you?" The Rebel answered, "No, but a chew of tobacco is about the only thing we won't take." Not until we were stripped of everything valuable, many of us losing our coats and blankets, did the Rebels consider their robbery complete.

Arriving within three hundred yards of the pen, a terrible stench greeted our nostrils. Words cannot convey an idea of it. It poisened the air in vapors so thick that it caused a sickening dizziness. On we went, past the Rebels' camp, past the immense cook house, and following the contour of a small creek, we arrived before the great gates of Andersonville prison -- Beside these wooden arches Death stood and counted his victims, for every third man who passed under them died.

Like a drove of cattle we passed in and stood in the narrow street. No tongue can tell, no pen describe, the site that met our startled gaze. Could it be that those walking skeletons were our own Union soldier comrades? The blackened skin, sunken eyes, emaciated limbs, long matted hair and hairy faces, did not leave much for us to recognize. The hard, sharp tones of the strongest, and the plaintive, piteous voices of the weak, sounded strange and unearthly to us. The first words they said were "Boys, don't go near the dead line." Then they asked for the news from our lines, and when we told them of some Union victories, they clenched their fists and exclaimed, "Bully, we'll give them enough before we get through with them."

I think there were about six hundred new prisoners in the squad that entered with me. We were immediately assigned to detachments and messes. A detachment consisted of 270 men, which was divided into mess of 90 men each. On this occasion it was not found necessary to organize any new detachments, but we were each assigned to a dead man's place in old detachments. The death rate at that time averaged 99 each twenty four hours, so you see there was plenty of vacant places.

When I went into prison there were 35,000 prisoners there. The pen enclosed an area of ground 27 acres in extent -- Taking out the space occupied by the creek and swamp, the space from which we were excluded from occupying by the dead line, and the ground actually taken up by the necessary streets, there was left a space of three and half square feet to the man.

The prison was surrounded by a stockade made of pine logs 20 feet in length. They were set on end in a trench six feet deep, and placed together so close that it was impossible to get your fingers between them. Outside of the inner inclosure were place platforms for guards, about 60 feet apart, from which they could command a full view at what was going on in the pen. Several hundred yards distant from the stockades were two forts, mounting, if I remember right, twenty pieces of artillery, some of the twenty-four and some as heavy as sixty pounders. It required six regiments of infantry and two batteries of artillery to guard us.

The existence of the dead line, which I have heard moated, was a terrible reality. It was placed about 18 or 20 feet from the inner stockade, and consisted of posts driven into the ground with a strip of board nailed on top. If a Yankee placed his arm or foot beyond this line his life was the penalty.

Through the center of the prison ran a creek, the bed of which was perhaps 20 feet wide. The depth of the water in it was from three to four inches. On this little stream, just above the prison, was the Rebel camp. They watered their horses in it, washed their clothes in it, and in fact threw the refuse from their camp into it. Just above the stockade was located the great cook house, for which this creek was utilized as a sewer. On each side of the stream the ground partook of the nature of a morass, and hence could not be occupied by the prisoners. It was springy and spougy and was utilized as the great sink of the camp. From it arose a stench, like the presence of which to the windward of the prison could be detected for the distance of ten miles. The filth in this swamp was so offensive that nausea would attack all who came near the prison. It was so impregnated with poison that the mud, coming in contact with an abrasion of the skin, would produce "hospital gangrene" and inevitable death. In it maggots festered and fattened.

In the whole prison there was not a blade of grass or a single tree. The ground was sandy, barren and dry. Below the sand, luckily, there was a bed of reddish clay, from which, after it had been thoroughly dampened, small huts were constructed. Into the sides of the small bluff many of the prisoners had made burrows, which answered in dry weather for protection against the sun. Not a single building of any kind was furnished the prisoners to protect them from the burning southern sun or fierce rain storms. Pieces of tents, ponchos and blankets, stuck up on sticks, answered as a protection for many; but in Andersonville there were at least 25,000 prisoners, like myself, who had no covering whatever.

My first morning's walk in the prison revealed to me sights too terrible for description. I had seen men weeping, praying and cursing. I had seen them beg for bread and cry for water, which they were too weak to get. I had seen twenty skeleton bodies laid out and ready for the dead call. During my hour's absence I found two men had died within 80 feet of where the boys of our company slept. I was sent after water. Arriving at the creek I found it impossible to get a chance to dip my pail. Several hundred men were there on the same errand, and the croud increased constantly. Near the creek I saw some of the boys dipping water out of the spring holes in the banks. I went to them, and to my horror discovered great long maggots laying on the sandy bottoms in the holes. "What are you going to do with that water?" I said. "Drink it, of course," they answered; "you're a fresh fish, I guess."

We drew our rations about five o'clock each day. A full ration consisted of a piece of corn bread three inches square, with a piece of bacon about the size of an egg. Every other day we received a cup of mush in place of the bread. This was cooked ration. The raw ration consisted of two to four gills of meal, a small piece of bacon, five to ten spoonfuls of rice, and about a teaspoonful of salt. We preferred raw rations, but found great difficulty in cooking them with our limited supply of fuel. One stick of common pine wood was issued to 90 men for a day's allowance. We had to split it very carefully with our pen knives to make it go round, and then club together to do our cooking. For my part, the first ration I got in Andersonville I disposed of in about five minutes. I had to wait twenty-four hours my next meal. I continued to do so the five months I remained a prisoner. The bread we got came to us in loaves two feet long, sixteen inches wide and three inches thick. It was simply meal and water, sometimes with salt, oftener without. The cooked beans and rice we received were emptied from the bags into cauldrons of water in which the beef or bacon had been boiled, and cooked -- beans, bugs, dirt, pods, and all. The rice was cooked in water so filthy as to color it, and generally burned. In the bread we often found that the dry meal had not even been warmed through.

Perhaps you will think I am dwelling too long upon the subject of rations, but I wish you to understand that it was not homesickness that made me lose fifty-five pounds of solid flesh in Southern prisons. When I went into prison I weight 140 pounds; when I came out I amde the scales balance at 85 pounds. It was starvation! The causes of the death of at least 12,000 of the 18,000 Union boys who died in Andersonville were starvation and exposure.

Not withstanding our unhappy condition we still maintained our Yankee characteristics; we would trade and sell. About 9 o'clock in the morning business opened upon the principal thoroughfares, Main and Market streets. Many times I have seen five or six thousand men speculating upon the board of trade. Talk about your bulls and bears of New York. Every man had something to sell, from a few parched beans up to a plate of nice warm cakes. A perfect bedlam of cries, such as the following, would greet you on every side: "Who wants to trade for a nice soup bone, only boiled once." "Right here for your sour meal beer, a sure cure for scurvy, only five cents a glass." "Who'll trade beans for rice." "Step right up and look at this bundle of wood." &c &c. Business was business there -- The transactions though not large, were lively, and the trades as sharp as are made in any part of the mercantile world.

There was a rebel sutler in the prison, who kept on hand a large stock of goods -- all prisoners were not robbed before they entered the prison, and many managed, in spite of the strict search, to retain their money. The object of the sutler, who was also an officer in the rebel army, was got possession of this money, and he succeeded remarkably well. The following was his scale of prices:
Flour, $1 per pound; beans or peas, 25 cents per pint, molasses, $1.50 a pint, salt $1 a pint, soda $8 per pound; Irish potatoes $1.0 per dozen, tea 80 cents a drawing; soap, $1 per bar, apples 50 cents a piece, onions, $1 each, pepper 25 cents a spoonful. These were greenback prices. In Andersonville there were stores kept by the prisoners, where the groceries were sold by the spoonful, chuck-luck boards and faro banks, regular evening prayer meetings and barbers shops.

Few men ever escaped from Andersonville, though constant efforts were made. The favorite way was by tunnels. Those were dug in the clay soil with great success. Sometimes the tunnels were started in the side of a hill, sometimesin the bank of the creek, but generally the first opening was made in the floor of the tent. The aperture had to be concealed with great care. The cups and case knives were the favorite implements used in digging. The dirt taken was thrown into the creek or well. Night after night of hard work was required to get beyond the stockade. When the tunnel was ready to be "tapped," a very dark or raining night was selected. Many prisoners succeeded in getting out of the stockade, but blood hounds were put upon their tracks, and they were almost invariably captured. The Rebels would discover the break in the ground, and then pursuit commenced. Often have I seen Captain Wirz with a number of mounted men, and a large pack of hounds, start out to hunt the escaped Yankee down. "Nigger hunting" had educated alike, in men and dogs, a zest for the sport. Often the capture runaways were horribly torn and bitten by the savage hounds.

We had great fear of the dead line, and with sufficient cause. No halt or challenge was given to one who happened to cross it. If a new prisoner stepped over the line he was shot, without a word of warning. A prisoner in his sleep rolled under the dangerous railing; a portion of his body only was beyond the line, but, taking deliberate aim, the guard fired. The ball passed through the prisoner's thigh and produced a fearful wound, from which, within a few days, he died.

The prisoners, anxious to get the cleares water, at the creek, would reach above the plank. At one time three men were struck by the same bullet. Two of them afterwards died. Men were so frequently shot here that a man was kept on guard constantly, to warn the prisoners. In September, Geo. Robinson, a noble hearted boy of my company, was shot on the dead line.

On the 9th of August there was a terrible rain storm. It continued for hours, and the exposed prisoners became chilled through, so that a great number died. The stockade was washed away at the creek, but the rebels formed a solid line at the break and placed two pieces of artillery so that they commanded the opening. The next morning after the rain we discoved a little stream of water rippling through the sand. We were allowed to convey the water in troughs across the dead line. Its purity and coolness filled us with delight. The rebels told us that the morning after the rain the spring was found bubbling up and seeking its way between the logs of the stockade. It was called the "miracle spring." And I believed the words of a comrade when he said, "It is a gift from God."

Impure air, filthy water, hunger and exposure, soon showed their effects upon the new prisoner. It took only a few weeks to settle upon his face a look that showed plainly the fight for life had commenced. In the grim features it could be seen that every power was strained in the battle. Sickness, misery and unhappiness prevailed throughout the camp. The effects of hunger were terrible. The rations, poor as they were, were consumed with ravenous avidity. I have eaten my meal, and even rice, raw, because I could not restrain myself long enough to cook it. When the raw beans or pease were carried in, I have seen long lines of prisoners follow, searching the ground with their eyes, hoping some beans might have fallen in the street.

Dysentery, scorbutus, and diseases of a like character, were the most frequent, though scury, gangrene and many other diseases were common. The rebel surgeon, Jones, sent by the authorities at Richmond in September, to ascertain the cause of the great mortality in Andersonville, said the real cause was starvation.

A favorite place for the sick to gather was at the creek. I have often seen a hundred of them on its banks at once. There they would lay, begging for water or something to eat. Sometimes they would crawl to the water's edge, and then, too weak to hold up their heads, would fall upon their faces in the stream. One or two, at night, were drowned in that way.

Some of the prisoners lost the use of their lower limbs through scurvy, and would go dragging themselves along by their hands. One poor fellow, located in the old stockade, had half of one of his feet eaten off with the gangrene. The toes were entirely gone, and the maggots were rioting in the purple flesh. John January, a member of my company, through scurvy, lost the use of his feet. They became dead and useless, and he actually amputated them himself with a jack knife, and saved his life. He now lives at Minonk, Ill., andwill verify this statement if anyone should desire him to do so. Some of the prisoners went blind, others crazy and very few had strength enough to walk a mile without resting.

Death came easily and quietly to nearly all. I know of one case where an Ohio boy went to sleep between two comrades, and in the morning he awoke to find them both dead. Let a prisoner but say, "It is of no use, I must die," and in a few days he was no more. When the last dread hour came, the silver thread was broken so gently, that the change was almost imperceptible. It verily seemed as if they had stolen away by night to another and better land. On the face of the dead there was an expression of unutterable relief. With them the battle of life had ended, the war was over. "They slept their last sleep," and they looked, indeed, as if they had simply "wrapped the drapery of their couch about them and laid down to pleasant dreams."

When a poor Union soldier died in prison, his comrades tore from his garments a piece of cloth, and covered the staring features of the pinched face. Then crossing the bony hands upon the breast, they tied them withcloth strings. The lower limbs were straightened, the boots or shoes being removed, for the living had need of them. On the breast was pinned a piece of paper on which was written the name, rank, company and regiment of the deceased. The body was then ready for the stretcher-bearers.

The dead of Andersonville numbered twelve thousand nine hundred and nineteen. All the killed of the battles of Fort Donaldson, Bull Run, Perryville, Fredericksburg, Stone River, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Chickamauga, Pea Ridge, Franklin and Pittsburg Landing, did not equal in number the dead of Andersonville. The average number of deaths per day in August, 1864, was 99. On the 27th of August, there were 127 deaths, or one death every eleven minutes.

Two thousand nine hundred and seventy prisoners died in Andersonville in August, the average number of deaths for eight months were 1500 per month. The graves of the dead of Andersonvill fill an area of ground forty-seven acres in extent.

Friends and comrades. In conclusion, I have no favors to request for the uninjured survivors of the horrible place I have feebly endeavored to describe for you; but I do most sincerely ask you, never to let slip from your minds the memory of the 13,000 boys in blue, who there, uncomplainingly and silently, gave their lives for our own land of freedom and equal rights. For now it can truly be said:
"The hopes, the fears, the blood, the tears,
That mark the battle strife,
Are now all crowned with victory,
That saved a nation's life."