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  • Dale C. Maley

Hemphill survives being POW

Wallace R. Hemphill was an Irish immigrant who served in the Union Army and survived being a POW at the dreaded Andersonville prison in Georgia.

After the Civil War, Wallace became a very successful farmer about nine miles south of Fairbury. One of his sons, Wallace R. Hemphill Jr., became a druggist in Fairbury.


Wallace R. Hemphill was born in 1842 in County Tyrone in Northern Ireland. For centuries, there has been conflict in Northern Ireland between predominantly Catholic Ireland and mainly Protestant England.


The Hemphill family in Northern Ireland was Protestant, and they were Orangemen. The Orange Order was founded by Ulster Protestants in County Armagh in 1795. The Orangemen Order was founded during the Protestant–Catholic sectarian conflict. The Orangemen were a fraternity sworn to maintain the Protestant Ascendancy in Ireland.


Family lore recounts that Mary Hemphill brought her younger brother, Wallace R. Hemphill, to America to avoid religious persecution. Mary and her brother Wallace R. Hemphill came to America in 1854 when he was about 12 years old. They first settled in New Jersey. Around 1856, Mary Hemphill married Marion Johnson, and they moved to O'Neill, Nebraska. In the 1860 U.S. Census, Wallace R. Hemphill was a 20-year-old laborer who lived with the Shoemaker family in Gloucester County, New Jersey.


The Civil War began on April 12, 1861, when Confederate forces fired upon Fort Sumter, South Carolina. The Third Regiment of the New Jersey Volunteer Infantry was raised in May of 1861. Men from nearly every county in the state enlisted, and on June 28, with a compliment of 1,051 men, the Regiment left Camp Olden, Trenton, to start fighting the war. It was one of the regiments that comprised what was known as the "First New Jersey Brigade." It participated in every significant action with the Army of the Potomac until June of 1864 when it was mustered out of service. Men who reenlisted were transferred to the 15th Regiment and saw service until the end of the war.

Nineteen-year-old Wallace R. Hemphill enlisted in the 3rd Regiment of the New Jersey Volunteer Infantry in Company A as a Private on April 19, 1861. He enlisted in Gloucester County, New Jersey. The Prison of War Records state that he was captured at Mechanicsville, Virginia, on May 30, 1864, was confederated at Richmond, Virginia, on May 31, 1864, and then was sent to the prison at Andersonville, Georgia. Mr. Hemphill was in the Andersonville Prison from June 8, 1864, to November 19, 1864.

Andersonville had a death rate of 29%, the highest of any Union or Confederate prison. There were three primary reasons for the high death rate among prisoners at Andersonville. The most significant factor was that prisoner exchanges almost stopped after President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. After the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, many African Americans joined the Union Army. The Confederacy then refused to include black troops in military prisoner exchanges. President Lincoln ordered the stoppage of all prisoner exchanges with the Confederacy. The number of prisoners dramatically swelled after the prisoner swaps stopped. Andersonville prison was never designed to handle 30,000 prisoners.

The second major factor that made Andersonville the deadliest prisoner camp was the prisoners' lack of food. During the latter half of the Civil War, the South lacked food for their fighting soldiers. Not enough food was left to feed the Union prisoners held at Andersonville. The camp commander, Captain Henry Wirz, often asked for food and medicine for the prisoners. All of his requests were denied.


The number of prisoners at Andersonville swelled to four times the design capacity of the prison. A small creek ran through the Georgia camp. This little creek was used as a latrine by the prisoners. The stream was also their only drinking water supply. The water became contaminated, and thousands of men died of starvation and disease.


There is the legend of a little brook, a spring, which came out of the ground and was called Providence Spring and was accepted as evidence that the One Above had remembered the stockade and the people in it. Wallace Hemphill told his children about that little spring of cool water, which still exists, coming from the ground during a heavy thunderstorm in August 1864. Mr. Hemphill, too, felt it was sent from God. The legend is that many sermons were spoken at this site, and many prisoners spoke of angels seen.


Mr. Hemphill received parole at Savannah, Georgia, on November 18, 1864. He reported at College Green Barracks, Maryland, on November 25, 1864. From November 26 to December 16, 1864, he was treated for scurvy at the Camp Parole, Maryland hospital. Upon being dismissed from the hospital, he received a furlough. He returned to camp on January 17, 1865, and to duty on January 20, 1865. On January 25, 1865, he was sent to Trenton, New Jersey, for muster out. He mustered out of the military on February 3, 1865. The Civil War ended on April 9, 1865, when General Robert E. Lee surrendered the last major Confederate army to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse.


After the end of the Civil War, Wallace R. Hemphill came to Illinois. He married Susan Hale on October 11, 1867, in Peoria County, by Justice of the Peace Allen S. Sweet. Wallace was 25, and Susan was 23 years of age when they married. They had nine children.


Many of the men who survived Andersonville Prison were plagued for the rest of their lives with illnesses that started with their interment at that prison. Wallace R. Hemphill continued to suffer after the Civil War ended. He was granted a pension on February 5, 1887, because he had contracted rheumatism from exposure in Andersonville Prison. Mr. Hemphill contracted scurvy in his mouth and legs from exposure. He was considered one-half disabled by the U.S. Government. Mr. Hemphill was just 45 years old when he was classified as one-half disabled.


Wallace R. Hemphill died in 1898 when he was 56 years of age. His obituary recounted that he was a prominent and well-to-do farmer who died at home after a lingering illness. Mr. Hemphill was a member of the I. O. O. F. lodge at Fairbury. He was buried in Cooper Cemetery, about seven miles southwest of Fairbury.


On May 27, 1898, the Blade published an article announcing the Memorial Day ceremonies upcoming on May 30th in Fairbury. The report noted the names of 67 deceased veterans would be read at Graceland Cemetery. The 66th man on this list was Wallace R. Hemphill, who served in the 3rd Regiment of the New Jersey Volunteer Infantry.


Wallace R. Hemphill was an Irish immigrant who enlisted to fight for the Union just a few years after he arrived in America. He fought in many battles and was captured and sent to the dreaded Andersonville Prison. Mr. Hemphill survived Andersonville Prison and became a prosperous farmer with a wife and nine children. Unfortunately, the hardships he faced at Andersonville caused him to die prematurely at the age of 56.

(Dale Maley's weekly history article is sponsored by Dr. Charlene Aaron and Antiques & Uniques of Fairbury)




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