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Dorence Atwater Records the Atrocities of Andersonville Prison

Dorence Atwater of Terryville, Conn. enlisted in the Union Army expecting to see first-hand the glory of war. Instead he saw its worst horrors.

Dorence Atwater

Dorence Atwater

Dorence’s service in the field was cut short when he was captured shortly after the Battle of Gettysburg and sent south to a prison camp.

First he went to Virginia and from there to the Andersonville prison camp in Georgia in March of 1864. For more than a year, Dorence would survive the horrors of the camp. Disease was rampant. Food was scarce and the death rate was high. Roughly 13,000 of the 45,000 prisoners sent to the 26-acre prison would die there.

Dorence was 19 at the time of his stay at Andersonville. Though he was sick upon arrival, he recovered and was assigned to work in the prison’s medical office. His job was to maintain the list of every prisoner who died and prepare summaries of the death totals.

Dorence was told his records would be shared with Federal authorities, but he suspected they would never reach government eyes because they documented what Dorence believed was a systematic effort by the Rebel army to mistreat Union soldiers.

“The appalling mortality was such that I suspected that it was the design of the Rebel government to kill and maim our prisoners by exposure and starvation so that they would forever be totally unfit for military service, and that they withheld these facts,” he would write.

Working alongside the camp superintendent, Henry Wirz, Dorence undertook the job of creating a second list of the dead, a secret list that he would make sure reached the North. He began copying the entire list in August, and after months of work he completed his task. In the spring of 1865, with the Rebel effort collapsing, Dorence made good on his plans. He tucked his list among his belongings and headed for Washington, D.C.

The conditions inside Andersonville were abysmal. Guards stole mail and gifts being sent to prisoners. Among the prisoners, a gang also emerged that terrorized and robbed incoming prisoners, stealing their blankets and belongings to trade them with the guards for better food and privileges.

Unable to control the mayhem, superintendent Wirz would eventually authorize prisoners to organize their own justice system within Andersonville to police the bad actors. Wirz was a complicated figure. He presided over the horrors of Andersonville, but there is evidence that he did seek better conditions and food for his inmates; his requests were rejected.

After the war, Wirz was convicted of war crimes and hanged thanks to the testimony of many Andersonville prisoners, including Dorence Atwater.

Atwater’s first obstacle upon gaining his freedom was the chaos that enveloped Washington following the assassination of President Lincoln. Atwater travelled through the city and told the War Department about his massive list, and then went home to Connecticut recuperate.

In April of 1864 the War Department sent a telegram to Atwater asking him to return to Washington with his list. He would be paid $300 for it.

For Dorence, the payment wasn’t enough. He didn’t want more money for the list, but he wanted to see it published. His goal throughout his ordeal was to be sure that the families of his fellow prisoners would know the fate of their loved ones.

Dorence negotiated with the War Department. He would let them have the list, but they must either give him a copy for let him copy it himself so that it could be published. The War Department agreed. But in the weeks that followed, the department would renege on the promise.

As Dorence was arguing with the War Department, Clara Barton would learn of the list. The Civil War nurse and activist was in charge of the Office of Missing Soldiers, which was attempting to locate the whereabouts of all the soldiers who died in the war.

Barton summoned Dorence to help her, and armed with his list they went to Andersonville to begin marking the graves of the dead. The thoroughness of Dorence’s list resulted in about 95 percent of all the Andersonville graves being identified. Frustrated by the lack of any effort to publish the list, Dorence took matters into his own hands: he stole a copy of his list and refused to give it back.

Dorence quickly found himself arrested and court martialed and sentenced to prison. Clara Barton intervened. She reached out to President Andrew Johnson and arranged a pardon for Dorence, and he finally submitted his list to the New York Tribune for publication in 1866.

Clara Barton’s introduction noted: “For the record of your dead, you are indebted to the forethought, courage, and perseverance of Dorence Atwater, a young man not yet twenty-one years of age; an orphan; four years a soldier; one tenth part of his whole life a prisoner, with broken health and ruined hopes, he seeks to present to your acceptance the sad gift he has in store for you.”

Dorence and Clara Barton would tour the country, delivering lectures about Andersonville to raise money for the Office of Missing Soldiers.

In the 1870s, Dorence Atwater’s work with his list was finished and he joined the State Department, serving first in the consulate in the Seychelle Islands and later in Tahiti. There he married into the Royal Family in 1775 and established several successful businesses.

In 1908, Dorence and his wife Princess Moetia Salmon Atwater would make a return to Connecticut to see old friends and family. The couple maintained homes in San Francisco and Tahiti. In 1910, Dorence died. He was beloved by Tahitians for his and his wife’s work with the poor. He received the first state funeral ever conducted for a non-native Tahitian.

2 comments

  1. Betsy Walkerman McKee

    One of our “ghosts” at our Ghosts in the Graveyard event this Friday night in Longmeadow will tell this story!

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