June 1864: "Between 19 & 20,000 prisoners are now here..."

By Elaine Heavey

Frederic Augustus James diary, entries for 1-30 June 1864, [3 unnumbered pages]

Frederic Augustus James diary, entries for 1-30 June 1864, [3 unnumbered pages]

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    In three text-packed diary pages covering the month of June 1864, 31-year-old prisoner of war Frederic Augustus James provides a glimpse into the most horrific prisoner of war camp of the Civil War: Camp Sumter, Andersonville, Georgia. James writes mostly about day to day activities, noting the weather, what rations were served, and prices set for sundries sold within the camp. He also mentions larger happenings that affect the prisoners as a whole, like the expansion of the stockade and the roundup of the internal gang of “raiders” in late June.

    A carpenter and ship joiner originally from South Scituate, Massachusetts, Frederic Augustus James left a wife and two young daughters home in East Boston when he enlisted in the Union Navy in August 1862. He served as a landsman aboard the USS Ohio and the USS Housatonic. James, along with several of his shipmates from the Housatonic and about 100 other Union sailors, was taken prisoner on 8 September 1863 while participating in a failed attack on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor. Prior to arriving at Andersonville on 1 June 1864, James had been incarcerated in four other Confederate prisons located in Virginia and both of the Carolinas.

    The June entry opens with a happy reunion of sorts, as James and Richard Tinker (a ship’s nurse on the Housatonic who had been with James at each prison he was held in since his capture) are reunited with several other sailors from the Housatonic who were also taken prisoner during the attack on Fort Sumter. James describes the “Chebang” (usually spelled shebang) or tent that he shares with the seven Housatonic sailors as “roofed with four blankets & with logs for walls.” Including an addition of sorts added to the shebang to house five soldiers from the 2nd Regiment Massachusetts Heavy Artillery, James estimates their quarters were about 20 feet in length (page 1). In the many military prisons where there were no permanent buildings to house the prisoners, it was typical for men to pool their resources and shelter together. Men also “messed” together, contributing both their food and firewood rations for communal meals. At Andersonville, the area inside the stockade was a sea of makeshift tents and dugouts which gave the prisoners minimal protection from the elements. James gives some indication of continual struggles the men faced when he notes on 3 June, just two days after arriving, that he and his fellow sailors “partly rebuilt our ‘Chebang’, in the morning” after a thunderstorm that passed through the camp the previous day “nearly drowned us out.”

    James and his fellow sailors were among the nearly 10,000 prisoners transferred to Andersonville from prisons across the South in June 1864. By the end of the month, the prison, which had been built to hold 10,000 prisoners, boasted a population of over 30,000 Union men. James notes the expansion of the stockade (page 3) which increased the size of the prison yard by ten acres, but was still insufficient for the number of prisoners being held.

    The lack of permanent structures to house the prisoners, inadequate hospital facilities, high prices for sundries (butter, which was selling for approximately $0.40 per pound in Richmond, cost $2.00 for about 2/3 of a pint inside Andersonville), and scarce rations all contributed to the rise of internal gangs known as “Raiders,” whom James mentions on 29 June. The Raiders harassed fellow prisoners, depriving them of rations, cash, and other personal possessions including blankets and clothing. As the prison grew even more crowded in June 1864, the Raiders grew bolder and more violent, stabbing and beating any who resisted or attempted to aid those victimized by their raids. Under pressure from the other prisoners, the prison administrators finally attempted to stop them by sending in armed guards. In all, 125 men were identified by their fellow prisoners and, in James’s words, tried “by a jury of our own men” in the fashion of a court-martial. Six men identified as gang leaders were sentenced to death and hanged in mid-July. The remaining men faced various sentences, ranging from having their head shaved to flogging.

    James remained imprisoned at Andersonville and continued to record his observances, always writing on a Saturday and recapturing the prior week, through mid-August of 1864. In late July his health began to fail, and dysentery set in. James died in Andersonville on 12 September 1864. It is believed that Richard Tinker, who was paroled in the fall of 1864, preserved James’s diary and delivered it to James’s wife in East Boston. Of the men James mentions by name in this diary entry, Martin Bannon, Joseph Connaton, John Foley, and John Hyde survived and were subsequently discharged from the Navy. Thomas McCarty died of chronic diarrhea at Andersonville on 30 July 1865. The fates of N. K. Suydam and Alexander Clark are unknown.

    Sources for Further Reading:

    In addition to James’s diary, which spans from 20 February 1864 – 23 August 1864, retrospectively covering the entirety of his captivity, the MHS also holds a collection of Frederic Augustus James papers. This collection consists almost entirely of letters from James to his wife, Ellen, and daughters, Molly and Nelly, written during his service in the Civil War, beginning in September 1862. It also includes the 6 June 1862 letter to his wife, referenced in the featured diary entry.

    James, Frederic Augustus. Civil War Diary: Sumter to Andersonville. Edited by Jefferson J. Hammer. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1973.

    Ransom, John L. John Ransom’s Diary. New York: P.S. Eriksson, 1963.

    Ruhlman, R. Fred. Captain Henry Wirz and Andersonville Prison: A Reappraisal. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2006.