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Civil War Diary: “This Hell-Upon-Earth of a Prison”

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This is a guest post by Michelle Krowl, a historian in the Manuscript Division, about the experience of Samuel J. Gibson, a Union soldier who was incarcerated in the Confederate military prison in Andersonville, Georgia. He arrived on May 3, 1864—153 years ago today—and his diary is now available online.

Entries Samuel J. Gibson wrote in his diary from August 7 through 12, 1864, while he was being held in Andersonville Prison.

“I don’t know for whom I am keeping this Diary,” Corporal Samuel J. Gibson (1833–78) wrote on August 12, 1864. “I still have hope that I will yet outlive this misfortune of being a prisoner but I am not made of iron.” A veteran of Company B, 103rd Pennsylvania Infantry Regiment, Gibson penned these lines while a prisoner at Camp Sumter in Georgia, a Confederate-run prisoner-of-war camp better known by its geographic place name, Andersonville.

Until mid-April 1864, Gibson primarily recorded the weather, his daily routine and observations of camp life in Plymouth, North Carolina. He had decided on January 5 not to re-enlist when his term of service ended and was counting the months until he returned home. On April 18, however, his regiment encountered Confederate forces, and “after a night of terror” the enemy surrounded them. After “a most terrific street fight” on the morning of April 20, Gibson became a prisoner of war and arrived at the military prison in Andersonville, Georgia, on May 3.

On June 12, 1864, Gibson penned a letter to his wife, Rachel, in Pennsylvania. He assured her that while his condition at Andersonville was “by no means a desirable one,” it “might be a great deal worse.(?)” He and his comrades were “in tolerably good health” but suffered “a good deal from the hot weather.” “Give yourself no uneasiness concerning me,” he wrote to allay his wife’s fears. “I can live where any other man can.”

Gibson’s letter to his wife, dated June 12, 1864.

The reality of Gibson’s life at Andersonville was quite different, however. Overcrowding and lack of adequate food, water, shelter, sanitation and medical care made conditions at Andersonville among the worst experienced by prisoners of war on either side and contributed to high mortality rates among the prisoners. On June 9, just three days prior to writing his wife, Gibson stated more pointedly in his diary, “Still in this Hell-upon-earth of a Prison, our condition is daily growing more disagreeable as the weather grows warmer, three out of four of my mess, are sick.” On June 28, Gibson concluded, “If this is not Hell itself, it must be pandemonium; which is only Hell Gate. Heaven forbid I should ever see a worse place.” Gibson recorded the passing of comrades in his diary, sometimes adding bitter recriminations against those responsible for the conditions that led to prisoner deaths.

Gibson wrote about the death of a fellow soldier, John Foster, on August 27, 1864.

News still reached prisoners in Andersonville, and Gibson turned his attention to political issues in his diary. He noted on August 29 that the Democratic Party held its presidential nominating convention in Chicago and speculated on the contrast between “their pomp & condition and the condition of the unfortunate inmates of this miserable prison.” On election day on November 8, Gibson recorded that Abraham Lincoln carried a three-to-one margin of victory in an informal election in camp, although he did not specify the candidate for whom he voted.

He left no doubt of his feelings about emancipation, however, and the termination of prisoner exchanges after the Confederates refused to exchange African-American Union prisoners on equal terms. “I hardly know which to despise most, the cruelty & perfidity of the so called Rebel government; or the Miserable Abolition Policy of the gov. of the, U.S. which is causing 50000 freemen to languish & die in Southern jails & Prisons,” he exclaimed on October 16. He continued this thought the following day. “I always regarded Slavery as a great evil; but Abolitionism, as a far greater evil.” Significantly, the words “Abolition” and “Abolitionism” are both crossed out in these entries, and “war” substituted for “Abolitionism.” Whether Gibson altered the diary at the time or when passions had cooled later is not known.

Gibson’s diary also served the vital function of marking time. “Shut up in Prison I am often indebted to this little book, to know how time flies. How else could it be?” he remarked on August 7. Gibson observed that without his diary he would not have known when Sunday arrived each week and would have been unable to observe the Sabbath. “I used to hail the return of sunday & keep it as a day of rest,” he noted on October 30 after being transferred to a prison near Florence, South Carolina, but “in this miserable Prison I would scarcely know the days of the week, were it not for this little Book.”

Gibson’s prayers were answered on December 14 when he discovered he would be among the “Lucky ones” to be paroled. He boarded the federal steamer New York in Charleston, South Carolina, on December 16, grateful to once again be under the “Stars and Stripes.” He reached the parole camp at Annapolis, Maryland, on December 22. Although the cold weather caused more suffering for the “thin & shattered condition” of the recent prisoners, he wrote on December 23, Gibson thought they were all “the most fortunate set of men in the world” that Christmas Eve.

Gibson returned to his family and received his official discharge from the army on March 14, 1865. His health never entirely recovered from the time he spent at Andersonville, however, and he died at age 45 on December 2, 1878.

Comments (14)

  1. It’s amazing how much more literate people were then, than today’s college grads.

  2. I couldn’t imagine living during the years of the War of Northern Aggression – which was hard enough – but to also fight a brutal war and then go to a prison camp that is now renowned as a death camp. The Union POW internment of Confederates at Fort Douglas was just as egregious & deady as Andersonville yet rarely spoken of. The Commandant of Andersonville Wirz was executed by the US Government for the conditions at Andersonville because they needed a scapegoat. Meanwhile not a single officer was brought on charges at Camp Douglas. The lives these people lived then seemed so disposable. It’s all really sad quite frankly.

  3. I could see it all happening

  4. It is a truly terrible thing to imagine,I just found out I had a relative die there.I hate to think of anyone going through such a ordeal.

  5. I always laugh when I hear people from the south call the Civil War a war of northern aggression. That is the ultimate in revisionism history. After all, the South left the Union and then started the whole mess by firing on Fort Sumpter. All of this to protect a horrendous institution called slavery! Thank God they lost!

  6. Samuel J Gibson is my great great grandfather. I just recently heard about his diary and read it cover to cover last weekend. I am in awe at the strength, resourcefulness and courage of this man. What a treasure his diary and letter are for our family and everyone who loves history.

  7. It’s called war of northern aggression in the south because they felt that the north was forcing them to give up their way of life ignoring the fact that they built that life on the backs and bodies of slaves.

  8. I live how people in the south call the Civil War the way of northern agression.truth be told, those southern slave owners hardly fought in the war, and if they did they were commissioned officers. It was mainly poor, uneducated white southerners who fought so hard. The reason they didn’t want to end slavery is because they were too fat and lazy to do the work themselves. Southerners should be ashamed of their ancestors, nor hold them on a pedestal

  9. I am struck by the courage and fortitude of prisoners who continued to maintain diaries in such depressing and horrible conditions. These documents help me understand the terrible ordeal a relative, John Dunbar, Pvt.122nd Ohio Volunteer Infantry, must have faced. He died at Andersonville.

  10. Someone referred to the war of northern aggression. May I remind you sir your forces attacked a federal outpost called Fort Sumter. Also, it was Gen Lee who attacked at Bull Run

  11. It is crazy to think about in our time that slavery was a thing

  12. My great-great grandfather, Benjamin Helwig, was held at Andersonville along with his brother, Simon. Simon later wrote a book about it. They were both captured at Chickamauga. Ben is not on the official list of prisoners. I tried to provide documentation to prove his service but received no response from the National Prisoner of War Museum at Andersonville. If anyone knows another way to accomplish this please let me know.

  13. I was born in the Land of Lincoln and from my first day in school was taught that Lincoln was not only our greatest President but nearly Godly in his demeanor. As I grew older and educated myself I came to another conclusion. While Lincoln was a man of good intentions, so are many Totalitarians as we now witness with Global Warming and Covid madness. Slavery would have died out in two generations, maybe less. But Lincoln DID start a Civil War over Slavery and Secession, which hypocritically was the very reason for the America Lincoln said could not be divided. When you can’t wait for a natural and peaceful economic transition and would rather kill nearly 700000 (7.6 Million equivalent today) Americans for your cause, in my opinion that makes you a Dictator in the worst sense that would be comparable to Josef Stalin. If only Lincoln had listened to his “better angels” so many would not have died for a dying way of life.

  14. The government I pay taxes for should not discriminate because of differing political opinions. Will you also not allow this comment?

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