For July, I thought something quintessentially American was called for, and as this is the sesquicentennial of the start of the Civil War, John Ransom’s diary of his 14 months as a P.O.W. in the Confederate prison system seemed a natural choice.
Ransom was born in 1843, and joined the Union army in 1862. He held the rank of sergeant and was the Quartermaster for Company A of the 9th Michigan Volunteer Cavalry. He was captured in Tennessee in 1863 and, after spending some time at Belle Isle prison in Virginia was sent to what is perhaps the most infamous prison camp in that brutal war – Andersonville in Georgia.
Ironically, Ransom “flanked out” (i.e. he jumped the line) to get out of Belle Isle, where he was first imprisoned, figuring any other place had to be better – was he ever wrong. In his first year at Andersonville, he writes, the combination of lack of food, poor conditions and a brutal administration result in the death of about half the prisoners at the camp.
For example, one of the “dead lines” that prisoners are not supposed to get near is along the only source of fresh water in the camp, with the result that prisoners suffering extreme dehydration risk reaching beyond the line to get some fresh water, and are shot for their troubles.
The conditions are so horrible that Capt. Henry Wirz, the commandant, will not visit to perform inspections, out of fear for his life. Those same conditions give rise to a group of marauders among the Yankee prisoners (Mosby’s Marauders were the worst), whom Ransom feels are as bad, maybe worse than the Confederates. In an interesting example of political pressure brought to bear, the prisoners band together to demand the right to police their own area, and are given clubs and sticks to do the job. And this keeps the problem of the marauders under control.
Ransom twice escapes from prison, both times when being transferred to another camp. He escapes when being transferred to a prison south of Andersonville (to escape Sherman in his march through Georgia), only to be recaptured after 6 days of freedom. During that time, he finds help from the slaves he encounteres, but mistakes a dark-skinned white woman for a free black, who reports him to the authorities. Not only does Ransom mistake the woman’s loyalties, but he seems to think he can pass for a southerner – later, in a successful escape attempt, another of his mates offers to speak for the group, noting that it was no wonder that Ransom was caught.
While at Andersonville, and later, Ransom comments on the political and war situation at large. Declaring himself a dyed-in-the-wool War Democrat, he participates in a mock election at Andersonville in November of 1864. In that election, Ransom votes for George McClellan, not for Abraham Lincoln. Politically, he leans toward McClellan, the Democrat, but also he feels abandoned by the Union government, which had ceased its policy of prisoner exchanges (prior to late 1863, it was quite common for prisoners to be exchanged, but the Union leadership ceased the policy figuring that the exchanges were helping the Confederacy). In discussing the election, he notes that the POWs would likely vote for McClellan, as would the older men in the army, while the younger guys would vote for Lincoln.
He also reports throughout his Diary of the effect that Sherman’s March to the Sea campaign has on the Confederates in Georgia – it results in his being shipped from Andersonville (to prevent the prisoners being freed by Union forces) and transferred again later. That advance also makes it possible for Ransom and the Buck boys, his two companions, to reach Union lines and freedom.
In discussing the situation at Andersonville, and at the other camps, Ransom is quite balanced in his discussion of his fellows and of the Confederates he encounters. Justifiably angered at Wirz, and the inhuman treatment of prisoners at Andersonville, he notes that Wirz did not happen in a vacuum, and that there were others beyond him who also had some responsibilities in the horror of that camp. On the other hand, at the last camp, Ransom reports much better treatment and better food.
Ransom’s experience is also remarkable in how it demonstrates how important attitude is in adversity. Those, like Ransom, who maintain a positive attitude (not always easy, as Ransom comes down with dropsy and scurvy while at Andersonville, and almost dies), manage to survive, while those who gave in to despair are more likely to succumb to illness and die.
Ransom also credits two possessions with helping him survive – his diary and his blanket. His daily jottings in the diary, and a sense of the importance of what he is writing, keeps him going – he even trads food on a couple of occasions for additional empty notebooks to keep his diary going. The blanket he wins from another prisoner on his first day of imprisonment, and loses his last day before rejoining Union lines, helps to protect him from the elements – and keeps illness at bay.
About the Author
Bernard Norcott-Mahany, a library technical assistant at the Lucile H. Bluford Branch, is our resident connoisseur of classic literature. He is also the leader of the Black Classics and In the Heat of the Night book groups.