Sunday, August 21, 2011

Engine Made by a Prisoner

"Engine made and invented by a prisoner, whilst confined at this prison." Proto steam punk, a.k.a. "steam." Graphite, ink, and watercolor drawing by John Jacob Omenhausser, Confederate prisoner at Point Lookout Prison Camp, Maryland, 1864.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Archaeologists Unearth Camp Lawton, Civil War Prison Camp

Archaeologists comb newly-found Civil War POW camp

Associated Press

SAVANNAH, Ga. (AP) — When word reached Camp Lawton that the enemy army of Gen. William T. Sherman was approaching, the prison camp's Confederate officers rounded up their thousands of Union army POWs for a swift evacuation — leaving behind rings, buckles, coins and other keepsakes that would remain undisturbed for nearly 150 years.
Archaeologists are still discovering unusual, and sometimes stunningly personal, artifacts a year after state officials revealed that a graduate student had pinpointed the location of the massive but short-lived Civil War camp in southeast Georgia.

Discoveries made as recently as a few weeks ago were being displayed Thursday at the Statesboro campus of Georgia Southern University. They include a soldier's copper ring bearing the insignia of the Union army's 3rd Corps, which fought bloody battles at Gettysburg and Manassas, and a payment token stamped with the still-legible name of a grocery store in Michigan.
"These guys were rousted out in the middle of the night and loaded onto trains, so they didn't have time to load all this stuff up," said David Crass, an archaeologist who serves as director of Georgia's Historic Preservation Division. "Pretty much all they had got left behind. You don't see these sites often in archaeology."

Camp Lawton's obscurity helped it remain undisturbed all these years. Built about 50 miles south of Augusta, the Confederate camp imprisoned about 10,000 Union soldiers after it opened in October 1864 to replace the infamous Andersonville prison. But it lasted barely six weeks before Sherman's army arrived and burned it during his march from Atlanta to Savannah.
Barely a footnote in the war's history, Camp Lawton was a low priority among scholars. Its exact location was never verified. While known to be near Magnolia Springs State Park, archaeologists figured the camp was too short-lived to yield real historical treasures.

That changed last year when Georgia Southern archaeology student Kevin Chapman seized on an offer by the state Department of Natural Resources to pursue his master's thesis by looking for evidence of Camp Lawton's stockade walls on the park grounds.

Chapman ended up stunning the pros, uncovering much more than the remains of the stockade's 15-foot pine posts. On neighboring land owned by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, he dug up remnants of the prisoners themselves — a corroded tourniquet buckle, a tobacco pipe with teeth marks in the stem and a folded frame that once held a daguerreotype.

"They're not just buttons and bullets," Chapman said. "They're little pieces of the story, and this is not the story of battles and generals. This is the story of little people whose names have been forgotten by history that we're starting to piece together and be able to tell."

A year later, Chapman says he and fellow archaeology students working at Camp Lawton have still barely scratched the surface. In July, they used a metal detector to sweep two narrow strips about 240 yards long in the area where they believe prisoners lived.

They found a diamond-shaped 3rd Corps badge that came from a Union soldier's uniform. Nearby was the ring with the same insignia soldered onto it.

The artifacts also yield clues to what parts of the country the POWs came from, including the token issued by a grocery store in Niles, Mich., that customers could use like cash to buy food. Stamped on its face was the merchant's name: G.A. Colbey and Co. Wholesale Groceries and Bakery.

Similarly, there's a buckle that likely clasped a pair of suspenders bearing the name of Nanawanuck Manufacturing Company in Massachusetts.

Hooks and buckles that appear to have come off a Union knapsack also hint that, despite harsh living conditions, captors probably allowed their Union prisoners to keep essentials like canteens and bedrolls.

The Georgia Southern University Museum plans to add the new artifacts to its public collection from Camp Lawton in October along with a related acquisition — a letter written by one of the camp's prisoners on Nov. 14, 1864, just eight days before Lawton was abandoned and prisoners were taken back to Andersonville and other POW camps.

The letter written by Charles H. Knox of Schroon Lake, N.Y., a Union corporal in the 1st Connecticut Cavalry, was purchased from a Civil War collector in Tennessee. Unaware that Camp Lawton will soon be evacuated, Knox writes to his wife that he hopes to soon be freed in a prisoner exchange between the warring armies.

He doesn't write much about conditions at the prison camp, but rather worries about his family. He tells his wife that if she and their young son need money for food or clothing, there's a man who owes him $9. Knox also gives his wife permission to sell the family's cow.

Brent Tharp, director of the campus museum, said his growing collection from Camp Lawton has definitely drawn Civil War buffs to visit from far beyond southeast Georgia.

"The people who are real Civil War buffs and fanatics, those are definitely coming," Tharp said. "But I think we've also created a whole new group of Civil War buffs here because it's right here in their own backyard."

Monday, August 15, 2011

An Sagairtín

"An Sagairtín" ("The Little Priest"), is a traditional Irish ballad, sung here unaccompanied in sean-nós style by Bríd Ní Mhaoilchiaráin. The lyrics and translations available at Mudcat are well worth a read.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Jacob Immell

Jacob Immell
Pvt., Co. L, 21st Pennsylvania Cavalry

I have not been able to find out much about the life of Jacob Immell. No descendents chronicled his life and career. No pension records exist, nor do any census reports trace the growth of his family in the postwar years. Unlike Fred Bentley and James Farris, Immell did not survive to return to his home in Greene Township, Pennsylvania. A farm boy, he may have aspired to one day own land of his own, work out in the sun, and nurture his crops to grow tall year after year. He never had that opportunity or the chance to love, marry, and have children. If he planned on going to college, traveling the country or even the world, or simply watching the sunset from his own front porch, it was never to be. Whoever Immell would have been and whatever contributions he would have made died with him on June 15, 1865, over two months after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, from a leg wound suffered in the Battle of Amelia Springs on April 5. He was about twenty years old. Enlisting at the age of eighteen in August, 1863, Immell had already survived numerous engagements from Cold Harbor through the Petersburg Campaign.

Uncovering the descendents of Bentley and Farris really brought home for me the enduring tragedy of those who did not survive the war. There is not only the immeasurable loss of a man taken before his time, but each death in a sense reverberates through the generations, as it represents the possibility of countless others who will never be at all. His children, grandchildren, and so forth may have included great teachers, scientists, and civil rights pioneers, but whether great or small they would undoubtedly have been friends, cousins, lovers, spouses, and parents. Though no one who loved Jacob Immell is alive today to suffer his absence, his death is, like those of all our war dead, an abiding scar upon the heart of his nation.

A description of Immell's wound and death from gangrene by Surgeon Reed B. Bontecou. This and the above photograph of Immell are from the National Museum of Health and Medicine's gallery on Flickr.

One thing I did discover about Immell is he was buried on the estate of General Robert E. Lee’s wife’s family, on land which the U.S. government confiscated in 1864 for the establishment of a burial ground for fallen Union soldiers. His tombstone can still be viewed there at his final resting place, Arlington National Cemetery.

Immell's headstone from

Friday, July 29, 2011

Fiddler on the Minivan Roof

My last few posts have been devoid of any modern context, so...

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

James D. Farris, Unbroken

James Daniel Farris (a.k.a. Faires)
Private, Company H, 18th South Carolina Infantry

In August of 1864, as young Fred Bentley signed up for the Union Army, far across the Mason-Dixon line another teenage farm boy was readying himself for war. Seventeen-year-old James D. Farris of York, South Carolina, cast his lot with the Catawba Light Infantry, Company H, 18th South Carolina and would soon be headed for the other side of no man’s land along the Petersburg front. Unlike the 185th New York , the 18th South Carolina was a veteran regiment that since 1862 had been involved in numerous campaigns spanning seven different states. At Petersburg, they served in Johnson’s division of Beauregard’s command. Farris and other new recruits and draftees helped fill the ranks of a regiment diminished by heavy casualties, desertion, and disease. As Farris and his colleagues would soon find out, the 18th’s service was far from over.

The days to come melted into a seemingly endless whir of battles, skirmishes, and periods of prolonged exposure to enemy sharpshooters and artillery. A little over two months in, Farris was shot in the chest and sent to Jackson Hospital in Richmond for treatment. He recovered and rejoined his unit on the front, only to find himself back at Jackson Hospital with a gunshot wound to the face in early March of 1865. Farris returned to his regiment in time for the Battle of Five Forks, where they left the trenches with Major General George E. Pickett’s Division to defend a vital crossroads southwest of Petersburg from the combined forces of Warren’s 5th Corps and Sheridan’s Cavalry Corps. Outnumbered and outflanked, the Confederates fought hard but were ultimately overwhelmed. In the maelstrom of battle, Farris was shot in the head and captured by Union soldiers.

Confederate prisoners after Five Forks

Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was soon forced to abandon Petersburg and Richmond. While Grant’s forces cornered them near Appomattox Court House, a wounded James Farris was on his way to Lincoln General Hospital in Washington, D.C., where he was admitted with a fractured skull. Surgeon J.C. McKee reported removing depressed bone fragments from the wound on April 20. His wound proceeded to heal well.

By the time Farris posed for this portrait in his tattered shell jacket, the war was over. Though he served for only about eight months of a four year war, there is no doubt that the thrice-wounded teen was a veteran by this point. His body, like his clothes, is frayed and torn. But the look in his eyes says everything.

After signing the official Oath of Allegiance in June 1865, Farris was released from Lincoln Hospital. His descendants’ oral traditions hold that he bore an iron plate in his head for the rest of his life as a result of his third war wound. He returned to a life of farming and started a family in Steele Creek, North Carolina. He and his family later moved to Nacogdoches, Texas. By 1910 the lingering effects of his wound had caused him to go blind. James Farris died in 1914 and is buried in Christian Cemetery in Nacogdoches.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Frederick Bentley, Survivor

Frederick A. Bentley
Co. A, 185th New York Infantry

Frederick Bentley was 12 years old when the first shots of the Civil War were fired. He didn't vote for the politicians who started it, and he probably didn't write chickenhawk newspaper articles or deliver loud speeches rallying his fellow Yankees to fight their brothers down South. If this farmer’s son from Lysander, New York had strong opinions about slavery or states rights or tariff policies they are lost to us now. What we do know is that Bentley was determined to serve his country, and enlisted in the army in August of 1864 when he was only 15. The muster rolls list his age as 18, but multiple census records reveal his actual year of birth was 1849. It was not all that uncommon for boys to lie about their age to enlist. For all we know it may not have been Bentley's first effort. The skinny, 5’ 3” teenager may not have made the most convincing 18-year-old, but recruiters were desperate to fill their quotas.

After a stint of infantry training, the newly-formed 185th New York Infantry was sent to the labyrinthian front lines of Petersburg, Virginia on September 27, 1864, where they were attached to the Army of the Potomac’s veteran 5th Corps. One of Bentley's comrades described their new home: "This is what we call the front, and a muddy, gloomy place it is." On March 29, 1865 at the Battle of Lewis’s Farm, the 185th found itself in an exposed, unsupported position and was raked with “a regular blizzard of bullets.” Over 200 men in the 185th were hit. Among them was young Bentley, shot through the chest by a Confederate minie ball. Civil War gunshot wounds tended to be particularly gruesome. The typical minie ball was a .58 caliber chunk of lead which usually flattened on impact, causing it to tear an even wider hole through a person’s body. Bentley was lucky the bullet at least exited. He was sent to a field hospital and eventually made his way to Harewood General Hospital in Washington, D.C., where he came under the care of Dr. Reed B. Bontecou. Bontecou had Bentley and many of his patients photographed to document their treatment and progress. This boy’s care was fairly minimal. In the days before penicillin and general anesthesia, there was not a whole lot that could be done for a wound like this. Bontecou’s note on the reverse of this photograph states simply, “He recovered under simple dressings, with very little stimulants, and no special diet.” After this miraculous recovery, Bentley returned home to New York, where he worked as a farmer and produce merchant until his death at the ripe old age of 71. He left behind at least one child, a daughter named Mary.

Though Bentley was extremely lucky to have survived his injury, this photograph gives us a faint glimpse into what he lived through. The physical pain, psychological trauma, and unimaginable grief and guilt over friends lost at his side reveals itself somewhere in those eyes. Above it all, though, Frederick Bentley looks to me like he is determined to live on. What nightmares accompanied his survival are lost to time. What remains is a lone image of a boy with a hole through his torso. He sits before the camera, his body and wounds laid bare.

I found the above image in this Flickr gallery of public domain photographs of wounded Civil War veterans from the National Museum of Health & Medicine. Though the photographs were taken for clinical reasons, they stand today as an incredible testimony to the wounded men and boys they portray, people exposed both physically and emotionally at the end of a long war. I hope to research a number of them and post what I find as I go. If anyone has more information, please feel free to share it.