Sunday, June 14, 2015

The Angel of the Battlefield and the Clerk of the Dead

Although we have reached the end of the 150th anniversary commemoration of the United States Civil War, I have decided to continue my Sunday Civil War feature.  Thank you, all who commented on my blog when I asked if this feature should continue.

After the war was over in 1865,  the job of identifying those who had died in the camps remained.  Letters from families whose loved ones never returned from war started to pour in, begging for help in locating

About five years ago, I visited perhaps the most famous Civil War prisoner of war camp, Andersonville  (Camp Sumter) in the Confederate state of Georgia.  During the 14 months the camp existed, some 13,000 Union prisoners died in unbelievably horrendous conditions.

Looking at the remains of the wells prisoners attempted to dig with their bare hands, and freely crossing the "deadline", the line that prisoners could not cross without being shot dead, was an unforgettable experience.

About 40% of the total Union POW death toll occurred at Andersonville.   The Union, of course, wasn't blameless.  One notorious Union POW camp, Elmira, was located about an hour from where I live in upstate New York.  Elmira will hold special ceremonies held in July of this year to mark the 150th anniversary of the closing of the camp.

Here are some facts about two of the people who tolled to identify the war dead.

One was a woman called the Angel of the Battlefield - Clara Barton, who was famous as a battlefield nurse during the Civil War later went on to found the American Red Cross.

The other was a prisoner at Andersonville, Dorence Atwater, of the 2nd New York Calvary.  Atwater worked in the camp hospital, and had secretly maintained a list, as best he could, of the dead prisoners.  In June of 1865, he contacted Barton, who, in turn, joined an Army expedition to find out the fate of missing soldiers and mark as many graves as they could. In June and July, they reviewed letters, then spent even more time, heading into August, writing to the affected families.

Atwater became known as the Clerk of the Dead.  This is, online, his list, published by the New York Tribune newspaper in 1866.

It is sobering to recall the time when the people of the United States were at war with each other between 1861-1865.  May this never, ever, happen in our history, ever again.


  1. We have a famous POW graveyard close by us that we've visited a couple of times. Amazing how many lives were lost when we were fighting with ourselves.

  2. What a great effort both of your mentioned people put into helping as best they could. How many men would go out of their way to list dead soldiers? He must have had great empathy for their families.


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