The Hero of Andersonville

Dorence Atwater, of the 18th New York Cavalry, was 19-years-old when he was sent to Camp Sumter in 1864. There, he became ill and, while a patient at the hospital, got himself a position as a hospital clerk. He apparently had remarkable handwriting — “calligraphic” descriptions call it — so he was given the job of keeping the death list, a list of the almost 13,000 (out of the 40,000 total) prisoners who died at the POW camp over the course of its 14 month life.  Fearing that the information might never make it to the Union (for whom it was intended), he made two copies of the list — the official one for the Confederates and a secret one, for himself. The list included where each man was buried.

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Atwater survived Camp Sumter and when he got home, he turned the list over to the US Army with the hope that it would be published, so that families would know what had happened to their loved ones. The army, however, dragged its feet.  Some say it was because the bureaucrats who got the list intended to profit by selling it, others that the army didn’t want the rest of the country to know that they had done nothing while almost a thousand men a month died at Camp Sumter. Atwater got tired of waiting and was eventually able to contact Clara Barton, who was the government’s official responder to inquiries about missing soldiers.

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In the summer of 1865, Atwater and Barton went together to Andersonville, identified burial sites, and oversaw the erection of wooden markers.  Headstones would replace the markers in the late 19th century. The headstones are close together because the bodies were buried in long trenches, side-by-side.

What I found interesting about Andersonville National Cemetery: it doesn’t have the perfect symmetry found at other national cemeteries. So Andersonville feels more … organic.


John Ramsey, in the grave with the flag, was captured at the Battle of Chickamauga in September 1863. He was among the first group to be transferred to Camp Sumter when it opened in 1864 and he died there, of diarrhea, just a couple of months later in May. His photo and story were in the National POW Museum at Andersonville. The museum is the focus of my next post.

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There’s a memorial to “the untiring devotion of Clara Barton” at Andersonville for “aiding in the great work of preserving the names of more than twelve thousand of the brave men who died here.”  But nothing for Dorence Atwater (there’s a monument to him in his home town of Terryville, Connecticut).

Somewhere along the line, Atwater stole his list back from the government, though I couldn’t find a description of exactly how.  Ostensibly for the theft (but probably more because he’d pissed off the powers-that-be in the Army), he was arrested, court-martialed and sentenced to prison. Clara Barton used her political connections to get him out after a few months. The New York Tribune published his Andersonville death list in 1866.

President Andrew Johnson, liking his spunk, appointed him consul to the Seychelles. From there, he went on to Tahiti, where he married the sister-in-law of the Tahitian king, settled and became a wealthy businessman.  He died in 1910 and is buried in the cemetery of the Protestant church in Papara, Tahiti.

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6 Responses to The Hero of Andersonville

  1. Looks like one case where a whistleblower (Atwater) actually got rewarded. Score one for the good guys! And thanks for your giving him the credit due.

  2. What an interesting story! And I guess with marrying the sister-in-law of a king “alls well that ends well”.

  3. Well told. What a hellish place that POW camp must have been.

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