Abner Small, Civil War Hero, Imprisoned in Confederate Hell Hole

Abner Small of Waterville, Maine, narrowly evaded capture at the Battle of Gettysburg, only to be taken prisoner of war 13 months later.

He was first incarcerated in Richmond, Va., at Libby Prison, infamous for overcrowding, malnutrition and disease. He survived his ordeal and was exchanged for Confederate prisoners in time to lead his regiment in the last days of the Civil War.

Libby Prison

Libby Prison

Battle of Gettysburg

Abner Small was 25 years old when he enlisted in the Maine 3rd Infantry Regiment on June 4, 1861, according to the Maine Historical Society.

He was mustered out of the 3rd Maine and commissioned an officer in the newly formed Maine 16th Infantry Regiment, which was famous for its heroism at Gettysburg. The regiment’s delaying action on June 1, 1863, allowed the retreat of 16,000 Union Army troops, but at a dreadful cost. More than 200 were killed, captured or wounded; only 38 lived to fight another day. Abner Small was one of them.

After the battle, he wrote how the men of the Maine 16th prevented the Confederates from capturing their flags – the regimental flag and the Stars and Stripes — as they overran what was left of the regiment:

“For a few last moments our little regiment defended angrily its hopeless challenge, but it was useless to fight longer. We looked at our colors, and our faces burned. We must not surrender those symbols of our pride and our faith.” The color bearers “appealed to the colonel,” Small wrote, “and with his consent they tore the flags from the staves and ripped the silk into shreds; and our officers and men that were near took each a shred.”

Battle of Globe Tavern

Thirteen months later on Aug. 18, 1864, Abner Small was captured south of Petersburg, Va., at the Battle of Globe Tavern. After he suffered through Libby Prison, he was taken to Salisbury in Rowan County, N.C., then Danville Prison in Danville, Va.

In his diary, he “Our condition is humiliating, degrading & almost unbearable,” he wrote in his diary on Nov. 17, 1864. He complained of cold, hunger, filth, vermin and illness.

Money helped. The prisoners sold their possessions for Confederate scrip, which they exchanged for food. Small sold his watch and shared the proceeds with his men. Not all officers were so generous. Small complained about those who simply looked out for themselves.

I am sick & hungry & can borrow no money
have no money – by no money neither
can I find the virtue called charity

On Aug. 19, 1864, Abner Small wrote in his diary:

Petersburg Va.

Captd (captured) on 18th with Capt. Conley, Lieuts. Broughton
& Chapman. Confined in lockup (negro prison) with E M (enlisted men)
until 11 A.M. 19th. Moved to island in Appomattox river
Sold watch for 150$ Confed. Scrip. Watkins scout
gave me 10$. While in Petersburg I gave
Lieut. Chapman 20$, Lieut [name erased] 10$
Wrote to Col T [Tilden]

With thanks to Photo Detail of Libby Prison by Alexander Gardner. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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