- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 26, 2002

My wife and I traveled to Georgia a few years ago for her family reunion. Although the end of April normally is warm and sunny there, it was neither as I stepped out into the national cemetery at Andersonville. I was looking for grave No. 898. I looked down at the first grave, and there it was the engraved name "Frankl'n Hutchins, New York."
The graves at Andersonville are much closer than those at later Civil War burials. The dead Union prisoners were buried side by side in trenches without coffins, wood being too valuable. Dorence Atwater, a soldier captured at Gettysburg, carefully recorded the names of the dead and the location of each grave. After the war, Clara Barton came to Andersonville and arranged for their proper marking. The numbers represent the order in which the men died. No. 898 marks an early death among 12,912.
Franklin Hutchins was my grandmother's uncle. Her grandfather Hiram had married twice, which common in those days because of the high mortality of women, and Franklin was the son of Hiram's first wife. Hiram's second wife was an Iroquois woman.
Along with Franklin's military record, I reviewed the pension records. Because Hiram relied on his son's labor, he was granted his son's pay of $13 a month until his death in 1905.
Son Franklin was only 15 when he enlisted on May 25, 1863, in Potsdam, N.Y. His enlistment record says he was 18, but the prison record from Richmond lists him as 15, and the family record shows he was born in 1848. He was 5 feet 5 inches tall, below average for a solider in the Civil War. He had a fair complexion, black hair and black eyes. His home was in Canton on the Canadian border, and like his father, he was a farmer.
Why would a boy volunteer for this bloody conflict? Perhaps there wasn't enough excitement in Canton; to serve in the cavalry certainly was adventurous. Or could it have been the stepmother? Franklin might not have felt at home with his father's new wife, especially because of the racial factor. Also, many states offered a bounty to enlistees; the July 1863 muster roll shows that Franklin Hutchins had been paid $25.
The young soldier's service record states that he was "captured in Fairfax, Virginia 23 December 1863 with horse, arms and equipment." The 13th New York Cavalry was engaged in anti-partisan operations in Northern Virginia. That could have meant only one thing John S. Mosby, the "Grey Ghost." Mosby's memoirs, however, describe no major operations during this time. Another possible explanation is that Confederate cavalrymen had to supply their own horses, unlike their Yankee counterparts; if a Rebel lost his horse, he had better find a replacement, and prowling the enemy picket line was the best way for a Southern horseman to get back in the saddle.
Andersonville was not opened until February 1864. The cartel for exchanging prisoners had broken down, and the existing camps became overcrowded. The South refused to recognize the legitimacy of using blacks as soldiers, and the cartel had been ended by President Lincoln on that issue. In addition, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant felt that returning Rebel soldiers prolonged the war.
The Southern solution to the end of the prisoner exchange was to build a larger prison farther from the front lines "Camp Sumter" in Andersonville, Ga.
Franklin Hutchins was first taken to Richmond, where prisoners were kept on the open ground of Belle Isle in the James River. Nearly 10,000 men were held there at the time. December through February in Virginia can be cold and wet, and 1864 was no exception. Nor would many complain about poor rations for prisoners of war when Lee's own soldiers were on short rations and hungry. Franklin was admitted to Hospital No. 21 in Richmond on Jan. 18 and remained there until Feb. 15, 1864. On March 4, he was sent to Andersonville, a transfer that involved a full week of travel in cramped, unheated cars.
All Civil War prisons were bad, but Andersonville was the worst. An average of 770 men died there each month; in August, the death toll was 2,993. The 26-acre prison was designed to hold 10,000; by summer its population reached 32,000.
When the camp opened, it still had not been completed. There were no barracks, only an open field. The men would burrow into the ground or set up rude pine or tent shelters called "shebangs." A stream with the unlikely name Sweetwater Creek meandered through the camp. It was fouled first by the guards and then by the prisoners; anyone drinking from it was sure to become ill. Many men made their own slit trenches, which soon contaminated any ground wells. Others, too sick to get up, simply defecated where they lay.
Franklin was admitted to the hospital on March 25, so he may have been still ill from his Richmond confinement. "Hospital" is a misnomer an open space inside the compound served the sick. Later, a roofed shelter with no sides or beds was provided just outside the compound. There were few doctors and little medicine. The "hospital" was a place to die.
Franklin Hutchins did die, on May 5, of chronic diarrhea and fever. Poor food, unsanitary conditions and improper diet made the "green apple quick step" a common feature of life for all soldiers, not just prisoners. The authorities issued uncooked food to prisoners; cornmeal was unbolted, so it contained bits of hard, dried cob, which acted like razors on the men's insides. Meat often was rancid. Diet could be supplemented by purchases from guards if prisoners had the greenbacks to pay. The 1st and 2nd Georgia Reserves young boys, old men and invalids served as guards. No nation has ever used its best soldiers to guard prisoners.
The deceased were taken out each morning in wagons to the "dead house." Trenches were dug, and the dead were placed side by side without coffins. The first man to die at Andersonville was given a coffin, but he was the only one.
I stood uncovered in the cold wet of Georgia, probably the first member of our family ever to visit the distant grave.

All Civil War prisons were bad, but Andersonville was the worst. An average of 770 men died there each month; in August, the death toll was 2,993.

Robert Hutchins Roser Jr. is a retired Air Force officer and a systems engineer. He lives in Stafford, Va., and is a volunteer historian with the National Park Service at Chancellorsville.

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