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  • Dale C. Maley

Soldiers survive dreaded prison

During the Civil War, the Confederacy set up a prisoner-of-war camp in Andersonville, Georgia.

This camp developed a reputation as the worst prisoner-of-war camp on either the Confederacy or Union sides. Of the approximately 45,000 Union prisoners held at Andersonville during the war, nearly 13,000 died, giving a 29% death rate.

Two significant factors combined to make Andersonville the deadliest Civil War prisoner camp. The first factor was the discontinuation of prisoner exchanges. When the Civil War started, both sides would periodically exchange prisoners. These exchanges decreased the need for large prisoner camps.

In September of 1862, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed the slaves. The Emancipation Proclamation allowed for the enrollment of formerly enslaved people into the United States military. Nearly 200,000 mostly ex-slaves, joined the Union Army during the war. Their contributions gave the North additional manpower, which was a significant factor in winning the war.

After African Americans joined the Union Army, the Confederacy refused to include these 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.

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 did not have enough 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.

A group of Union Army prisoners, calling themselves the Andersonville Raiders, attacked their fellow inmates to steal food, jewelry, money, and clothing. They were primarily armed with clubs and killed to get what they wanted. Another group organized by Peter "Big Pete" Aubrey to stop the theft, calling themselves "Regulators." They caught nearly all of the Raiders, who were tried by the Regulators' judge, Peter McCullough, and a jury selected from a group of new prisoners. This jury sentenced six of the Raiders to death by hanging. Camp commander Henry Wirz allowed the executions to take place.

On April 9, 1865, General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse. John Wilkes Booth assassinated President Abraham Lincoln six days later, on April 15, 1865. The Andersonville Prison was liberated by Union forces in early May of 1865, with the war officially ending on May 13, 1865.

Captain Henry Wirz was arrested and charged with war crimes for his inhuman treatment of the Andersonville prisoners. He was held for a military trial in Washington, DC. Washington's public sentiment was unfavorable towards Captain Wirz because of Lincoln's assassination. Many former prisoners testified against Captain Wirz at his trial. He was found guilty and hung on November 10, 1865.

Pulaski Mussey was a farmer in Fairbury before the Civil War. He joined the Illinois 16th Cavalry Company M as a Private and survived internment in the Andersonville camp.

James M. Wright lived in Bloomington before the Civil War. Wright served in the Illinois 1st Cavalry and then re-enlisted in the 16th Cavalry unit as a bugler. He was captured and served time at several Confederate war camps, including Andersonville. After the war ended, he traveled to Washington, DC, and testified against Andersonville camp commander Henry Wirz. After the war, he returned to Fairbury and served as a Livingston County Deputy Sheriff.

William Hughes Cornwell, the oldest son of Solomon S. and Emily Cornwell, was born in 1844 near Princeville, Illinois. At the age of 17, he enlisted in Company D of the Eleventh Illinois Cavalry. He was engaged in the battles of Shiloh, Iuka, and Corinth. At Corinth, he was taken prisoner but was soon paroled and came to St. Louis and was exchanged in February.

Cornwell rejoined his unit at Jackson, Tennessee. He fought at the battle of Vicksburg and was granted a thirty-day leave to visit his family and friends. Cornwell had been away from home for two and a half years. W. H. Cornwell returned to military service, and in December of 1864, he was wounded in the hip by a musket ball. He was taken to the dreaded Andersonville prison and was held there for five months until it was liberated in May of 1865. His relatively early death at age 53 was attributed to his poor conditions at Andersonville.

The granddaughter of W.H. Cornwell was Beulah E. Cornwell (1899-1978). She was a school teacher in Fairbury and married Harold H. Dameron (1897-1964). Harold worked his whole life for the TP&W Railroad in Fairbury. The Maley and Dameron families still living in the Fairbury area are descendants of W. H. Cornwell.

Benjamin Robinson was born in Ohio. He enlisted in the 95th Ohio Infantry as a private. Robinson was wounded in his left arm, captured, and sent to Andersonville. For thirty days, he experienced the horrors of Andersonville. During the winter of 1865, Robinson went barefoot without shoes or stockings. Robinson moved to Fairbury after the war and was in the real estate business. He also served as a Fairbury Postmaster and was the Livingston County Sheriff.

Given the 29% death rate at Andersonville Prison, it was a miracle these four men all survived and went on to live productive lives. Today, Andersonville is a National Historic Site located 125 miles south of Atlanta, Georgia.

(Dale Maley's local history article is available each Monday on Fairbury News, sponsored by Dr. Charlene Aaron)

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