Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Death List

When I was doing some of the research for my last story about my Civil War ancestor Uncle Salem Judson Tiffany who lost his life in Andersonville Prison, I happened upon another story. It's a story about a man who as far as I know had no connection to my family tree, but whose life story so intrigued me, I had to write about him. Although he was no relation, he and Uncle Salem did cross paths. 

I grew up being pretty savvy about the Revolutionary War, living in Massachusetts. But I know very little about the Civil War. So, please forgive me if you already heard this story. And from the number of blogs out there about this particular person, I have a feeling he is well-known to many. I first learned about this man's story when corresponding with a fellow named Kevin Frye who lives near Andersonville and is an expert on the subject. I wrote to him some months back when I first found out about Salem. Kevin will take anybody on a free, behind the scenes private tour of the Andersonville site, with his golf cart providing transportation for 5 people. He will bring you to the grave(s) of your ancestors and will do it all for the asking, plus any tips you might find appropriate, he added. Some day I may just take Mr. Frye up on his offer as I would really like to visit Andersonville and find Uncle Salem's grave.

First in Kevin's email to me, and then again when I was doing research for last week's blog, I came across this fellow's story. 

In Terryville, Connecticut, about 40 miles from Coventry where my Uncle Salem was born,  a family by the name of Atwater lived. The father, Henry,  made his living as a stone mason, but was also a school teacher and the local Justice of the Peace. He was a well-respected member of the little town and expected his children to earn their own respectable places in society. The third born of eight, his son Dorence, was a quick learner and as a young teenager of thirteen was already working as a clerk in a local store and in the post office.

But, war had broken out in the 1860s and Dor was eager to serve. At barely 16 years old he went off to war without consent of his parents. Lying about his age, he enlisted with the 2nd Connecticut. He became a regimental clerk for his unit, but while on horseback delivering a dispatch to his general, just a few days after the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863, Dorence was taken prisoner by the enemy. In his coat pocket he had the  letter he had just received advising him of his mother's death. How distraught he must have been, such a young boy, far from home, having just learned of his mother's passing and now in the hands of the enemy.

At first Dorence was held at Bell Isle Prison where he became quite ill with diarrhea and scurvy. After a short time, they moved him from that prison to Richmond where, at the recommendation of his Union adjutant, also a prisoner, he was assigned by his captors as clerk for various projects including keeping track of the funds taken from Union soldiers and keeping an account of the supplies purchased by the US Government for the Union Soldiers who were, like him, sick and suffering in rebel prisons.

In February of 1864 he was sent to Camp Sumter in Andersonville, Georgia to the newly opened prison there. He was one of the first batch of prisoners sent there to suffer. Still sick with scurvy and various life-threatening conditions prevalent in these prison camps, once again because of his experience as a clerk, Dorence was assigned the detail of assisting the prison surgeon in recording the deaths of the Union captives. In large numbers these soldiers died from scurvy, dysentery, starvation, exposure and wounds from battle and were buried in large trenches by the scores.

Although now just 19, Dorence had the experience as a clerk to know the value of records, especially in this situation. His assignment was to make the list for the prison officials. He was also to make one copy for Richmond, the Confederate Capital and one for the Union Army, which he suspected would never be delivered. So weakened by his suffering, at times he had to hold his right hand with his left in order to steady his pen. But Dor felt a compelling need to get this information to the families of these men and to Washington. He wanted to  honor them and make certain that the sacrifice he knew they made would be made known to all. So, Dor set out to make a fourth copy, a secret copy of these "death rolls". He carefully recorded their names, the date and cause of their deaths, making note of where they were buried, hiding his own pages among the official record.

Andersonville's dead were buried in trenches, one after the other.
They closed Andersonville Prison in a little less than a year after it received its first prisoners. Dorence was transfered to a South Carolina prison. He concealed his secret record and took it with him when he left. He was one of the first prisoners to be exchanged and he found himself in March of 1865, after being captive for 22 months, in Annapolis. His sad list, a 24 page document on which he had recorded the deaths of over 13,000 men had successfully been smuggled out with him.

Dorence went home to Terrytown, CT, sick and dying of Diphtheria. He was still just a boy of 20 when his widowed father nursed him back to health in the family home. All he could think about was how was he going to get the information he had recorded to these families who had no way of knowing the fate of these brave souls, nor of their final resting place. Perhaps that's what kept him going and gave him the strength to survive when so many others had not.

And so it was there at Andersonville where Dorence and my great grand uncle Salem's paths crossed. It was this record that made it possible for Kevin Frye, the Andersonville expert,  to identify his grave for me when I wrote to him. As Salem was taken to the prison hospital and later pronounced dead on September 1, 1864, Dorence was there to record the event on the list. Perhaps he knew Salem, having also been born in Connecticut. Maybe they exchanged stories of home and Dorence may have comforted Salem as he drew his last miserable breath in the hellish place.

This young hero who took it on his own to honor these men and provide some answers to those who waited at home did not have an easy time of it, however. I am not really a believer in the "no good deed goes unpunished" theory, but in this case it really was the way things went.

After reading the story of the "death list" in a newspaper, someone in the War Department in Washington, requested that Dorence send them the list. He refused, wanting to personally fulfill the promise he had made to himself and these men, which was to let these thousands of families know what became of their loved ones. Not yet fully recovered from diphtheria, Dorence was ordered to Washington, and to bring his list with him. He was forced to sell his list to them for the purpose of copying it for $300. Dorence understood the price was for the right to copy it, not for the list itself, which would be returned to him when the War Department had completed its project. Dorence was also given a position as a clerk to assist in the project.
Unfortunately, his superiors and the Secretary of War was not of the same mind as Dorence had believed them to be and they refused to return the list to Dorence after the copy had been completed. Ignoring his repeated requests, Dorence was then ordered by the Secretary of War to go to Andersonville with 40 or so others to mark the graves, using the copy they had made and his own list, not to mention his personal knowledge of the whereabouts of the over 13,000 graves. Clara Barton was among those who were there and would become a lifelong friend and supporter of Dorence. Dorence was invaluable to the group, pinpointing the exact locations of the trenches and matching up the men with the wooden markers they were preparing. However, Dorence, with the sole purpose of ending the suspense and anguish of the families and friends of the Andersonville dead, took his list while he was there and refused to return it. He admitted to taking it, saying that a man can take what is his wherever he finds it, and that the law allows for it.

A court martial followed charging him with two counts: 'conduct to the prejudice of good order and military discipline' and 'larceny'. The procedure must have felt like such betrayal to young Dorence. The frustration and anguish he must have felt as one witness after the other testified and hearing that he was accused of stealing something that he felt belonged to him must have been overwhelming for such a young patriot. And the sentence that was handed down was a dishonorable discharge, a fine of $300 and 18 months of hard labor in Auburn prison in New York until the list was returned. He was taken from Washington to Auburn in irons. I am still not sure of the Government's motive in not wanting Dorence to publish his list. In testimony one of the reasons was that they felt Dorence would profit by publishing it. But, it is unclear to me whether this was the real reason for the refusal of the Government to return his list or if it was just some sort of character flaw in the Captain in charge. 

He served there two months of hard labor before he was released, reportedly because the Secretary of War was worried about an investigation that various newspapers around the country had threatened. Among these newspapers was the New York Tribune. Dorence promptly went to work and alphabetized and organized his list and had 25,000 copies printed. The Tribune published it and put it on newsstands before the government knew what was happening. Dorence was able to finally do what he had set out to do and he shared the information with the families and the entire country. In an introduction, written by Dorence, he explained to the families why it took so long for him to get this to them and recounts the events that took place surrounding the recovery of what he felt was his property. I have just copied an excerpt here. While you read this, try to picture that Dorence Atwater was just 21 years old when he wrote this, still sick and weak from his captivity and mistreatment by both the South and the North. 

 Introduction by Dorence Atwater
To the Surviving Relatives and Friends of the Martyred Dead at Andersonville Ga

THIS record was originally copied for you because I feared that neither you nor the Government of the United States would ever otherwise learn the fate of your loved ones whom I saw daily dying before me. I could do nothing for them but I resolved that I would at least try and let you sometime know when and how they died. This at least I am now able to do. So many conflicting rumors have been in circulation in regard to these rolls and myself that I deem it prudent to give a brief statement of my entire connection with this DEATH REGISTER and to show how and why it was so long withheld from you...

...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. Accordingly the latter part of August 1864 I began to secretly copy the entire list of our dead which I succeeded in doing and brought it safely through the lines with me in 1865.

Arriving at Camp Parole at Md I learned that I could not get a furlough on account my term of service having expired some seven months before. I wrote to the Secretary of War asking for a furlough of days for the purpose of having my DEATH REGISTER for the relief of the many thousand anxious in regard to fate of their dead. Before an answer could have returned I received a furlough from the commandant of the camp. I then went my home in Terryville Conn where I was taken sick the next day after my arrival which confined me for three weeks.

On the 12th of April I received a telegram from the War Department requesting to come immediately to Washington and bring my rolls and if were found acceptable I should be suitably rewarded...

...I was convicted and sentenced as follows To be dishonorably discharged from the United States service with loss of all pay and allowances now due; to pay a fine of three hundred dollars to be confined at hard labor for the period of eighteen months at such place as the Secretary of War may direct; to furnish to the War Department the property specified in the second specification as the property stolen from Captain JM Moore; and stand committed at hard labor until the said fine is paid and the said stolen property is furnished to the War Department.

On the 26th day of September I arrived at Auburn State prison New York where I remained over two months at hard labor when I was released under a general pardon of the President of the United States.

I reached New Haven Conn on the following day and learned that the record had not been furnished you. I immediately set about preparing it for publication and have arranged to have it printed and placed within your reach at the cost of the labor of printing and material, having no means by which to defray these expenses myself. I regret that you have waited so long for information of so much interest to you.

Young Dorence Atwater

The government never restored his pension, but at the age of 23, he was given a consulship in the Seychelles Islands, which was chosen because it was thought to be good for his health. But, the climate was not good for Dorence, still suffering residual effects from his prison days. So he was given a consulship in Tahiti where the climate was indeed healing for him.

He married a Tahitian princess named Moetia (Moe) Salmon, who was educated in Europe. 

He prospered as a businessman with a shipping line and a pearl business. He worked with lepers and the impoverished and was well-loved by the Tahitians. Known by some in the State as the Angel of Andersonville, the Tahitians called himTupuuataroa, or "Wise Man". Dor and Moe also had a home on Market Street in San Francisco. However, in the great earthquake of 1906, the home was destroyed, along with it the original "death list". They lived in the hotel Normandie in San Francisco after that, his health making it impossible for him to withstand the voyage back to his beloved Tahiti.

Dorence died in San Francisco in 1910 at the age of 65. Moe accompanied his body back to Tahiti two years later after funds to transport it there were raised. There to greet the funeral procession was every person on the Island.

He was the first non-royal to be given a royal funeral in Tahiti. His wife died in 1935. She was 87. Dorence is buried beneath a 7,000 lb stone. On one side is carved “Tupuuataroa” (Wise Man). On the other, “He builded better than he knew that one day he might awake in surprise to found he had wrought a monument more enduring than brass.”

Of the more than 13,000 men who died and were buried at Andersonville, there are but 400 not identified. All of us who have ancestors buried there owe some gratitude to the Angel of Andersonville, Wise Man Dorence Atwater. Without the remarkable foresight of a Connecticut teenager a century and a half ago, we may never have known what happened to Salem Judson Tiffany and so many others. Thank you, Dor.


Heather Kuhn Roelker said...

What a great story. It is so heart-warming to hear of others doing things without thought for themselves...especially under those types of circumstances.

Nancy said...

I had never heard of Dorence Atwater before. What an amazing and admirable young man he was to continue his commitment to do what he thought was right no matter what. Thanks for sharing his story.

Maggie said...

That's an amazing story, and a very sad one too. Isn't it incredible the tales you find when you start digging into past? Thanks for passing it on.