Baylor College Medical School

Aslan, History A Letter from Prison

The Civil War lasted four years. Each side took about 200,000 prisoners. One in every seven died before he could be released.

Old factories and warehouses became prisons. When those were full, men were sometimes placed in stockades. These were open acres of land, fenced all around.

Prisoners were expected to shelter themselves however they could. Below, a Union prisoner writes h ome. He's in Andersonville. That was the Confederate prison in Georgia.

June 20, 1864

My dearest Martha,

This poor excuse for a letter may never reach you. But I will take that chance. My heart is so full. I must write down what was happened these last weeks.

On May 11, I was following General Sheridan on an attack against Richmond. A bullet caught my horse in the throat. I ran into the woods. All at once, I was surrounded by rebel soldiers.

"Three weeks have passed since they marched me here to Andersonville. It is an open space with guarded fences all around. Some say there are 30,000 men here. It is very crowded, and the prison is filthy.

The Georgia sun beats down on us. No trees of any kind give us shade. And we have no roof over out heads unless we can find a way to build a shelter ourselves.

"Our water comes from a stream. It is no wider across than I am tall, and it is about ankle-deep. Before it reaches us, the stream passes through the guards' camp. By the time it get here, it is dark in color. It gives off a terrible smell.

"Since we have no other water, we drink and cook from the stream. I am learning to strain, or filter, it as best I can. I found a torn piece of burlap from a prisoner who died las week. I strain the water through that.

"The camp cookhouse is next to the stream. That adds rotting food and grease to the already foul water. Should I wonder, dear Martha, that so many men here suffer from fever?

"We have little shelter from the hot June sun. But we can stretch coats and scraps of blankets over ourselves. The rain cools us some. We are glad for thunderstorms. Then we wash ourselves and our clothes.

"A few men have made low mud houses from the dirty water and clay soil. An army buddy, James, had aggred to build such a hut with me. We made out plan last night. But when I awoke this morning, he lay on the ground beside me-dead. I will try to find another man to build with.

Each evening, we are given our rations for all the next day. We get a square of corn bread. It is made with the cob round in with the kernels.

The other men have taught me to pick out the weevils. A few men just leave them in. They have come to like the taste.

"Some days, we have a small piece of salted pork too. About twice a week we have two tablespoons of rice. A man next to me says we receive two tablespoons of molasses each month, but I have not seen that happen.

"The men around me are thin as skeletons. Nearly half have no clothes at all. I think I might stay alive on the food given to me. However, the fear I have is of illness. Food will not keep me alive if it comes back up.

"Dozens around me stare into space or just lie about the ground. Men die her at the rate of 75 a day.

"We must all watch out for one another. I spend much time trying to cheer the weakest men. In the morning, each group of 90 must line up for roll call. If a man is missing, his group will receive no rations that day.

"I am sorry to bring all this sad news to you. Martha, but it helps to write this letter. Remembering our life in New York is what keeps me going.

There is one sure way out of the pain and suffering here. It is one I pray I will to be driven to take.

I told you there were no trees in the stockade. Here is the reason. They were cut down to make a fence out of the upright trunks. I judge it to be about 20 feet high. Near the top are small platforms. The guards sit there with their rifles.

About 20 feet inside that high fence is a smaller one. It runs parallel to it. This mailer fence is mown as the "dead line". You could put a foot or finger over that inside fence. But it will be blown away by a flurry of bullets from the guards.

"By now, dear Martha, I think you've guessed what I meant by "a way out of the misery". Just yesterday I saw a man hobble to the inner fence. He looked to see if the guard was watching. When he knew he had been seen, he moved forward.

Taking his last bit of energy, he climbed over the inner fence. In an instant, the guards filled his body with bullets. Clearly, that man wanted to escape Andersonville-in the only way he could.

I promise not to do something so foolish, my dear Martha. Though the days ahead may be difficult. I will do all I can to go on. I pray this way will end-and while I am still strong enough to find my way back to New York. I long to hold you and the children.

I ask your prayers

Your loving husband


1. If you were in Andersonville Prison, what do you think would be the hardest part of being there?

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Despite the horrible conditions of the camp, I would find being away from my children the hardest part.