- Historic Sites
Hell And The Survivor
A Union soldier had a better statistical chance of living through the Battle of Gettysburg than of surviving the prisoner-of-war camp called Andersonville. But Charles Hopkins did it and left this never-before-published record.
October/november 1982 | Volume 33, Issue 6
Thursday, May 5, we crossed the Rappahannock at Germania Ford and by afternoon were in line of battle and under fire in the Wilderness. It was a spot on the face of Nature well named, but if anyone was lost they were soon found by the “Confeds” of [Generals] Gordon or Early. Such a battle as waged there for two days, of the three, seemed like Hades broken loose. Six thousand men, lost to Grant, were killed, wounded, and missing—no one will ever know exactly, as many of the badly wounded met a terrible death in their helpless condition; they were burned to an unrecognizable crisp; some in their last struggle to get away from the fire had partly pulled themselves to their knees by clinging to the trees and were tortured by burning in that position. Numbers were literally a mass of crisp, like burned leather—the woods and underbrush had taken fire, and the pine trees of all heights flamed like giant torches, shooting to the skies. Horrible sights in the shadows of the “Wilderness” for three days and nights—scenes that harrowed the soul and gave rise to gloomy thoughts, and sleep unknown, only to those who could stand vigil no longer. Friday, May 6, still found us in the “Wilderness,” hoping for a Moses to lead us out. Grant was the man but he was not my “Moses,” for about 5 P.M. our right wing under General Seymour, with his “Black Brigade” of Negroes who had proven themselves fighters at Olustee, was turned by Gen. J. B. Gordon with his “all Georgia” Brigade. The end of that day gave us to the enemy as prisoners of war…
Now comes the beginning of a life that seemed the realization of that place which, as a child, we imagined the abode of the wicked. No doubt some of us were, yet each supposed of course that it was the other fellow—though I never posed as an angel. Later on we came to think that those of our comrades who so awfully suffered in those “Hells” on earth should be allowed to pass the “Gates ajar,” unquestioned by the good Saint Peter.
The Confederate officer, a captain, in charge of the troops serving as guard to our lot of unfortunate captives, was a Georgian, by name of Fletcher, and he was unfit for officer of any rank—neither a gentleman, scholar, nor soldier, as proven by his language and bearing, but was the personification of a brute, idiot, and coward—he made our dusty, sultry march of twenty-eight miles to Orange Courthouse a march of indignation, misery, and death. Men who were wounded and unable to march farther were speedily furnished with a quick remedy for all the ills of life, brutally murdered and left by the roadside to become the prey of the razorback hogs, and dogs—their bones left to bleach in the enemy’s lines, never to be identified or have their fate known—while loving ones at home waited for some tidings of them. It is a fact that hundreds, aye, thousands, of such cases were reported as “missing in action” or were reported as deserters—their fond parents, widows, and orphans were compelled to mourn in silence and shame for such a record, for while in their hearts they could not believe it to be true, they had no proof to the contrary.
A grueling train ride, with the men “packed in freight cars like sardines,” brought Hopkins to Andersonville on May 22, 1864. The site of this prison had been chosen by a group headed by Capt. W. S. Winder. It was prepared by his cousin, Gen. Richard B. Winder, who commanded until relieved by Henry Wirz. The first prisoners arrived on February 27.
For a God-forsaken place Andersonville tallied with the description most perfectly. Woods—from the tall and stately pine down to the starved-tp-death scrub oak and bunch pine. Woods, woods, all about us; to the east we got a glimpse of some tents of the troops that guarded the world’s greatest “Charnel House”; a winding road through sand led to the “home of the Hopeless”; a thin thread of a stream that had found its way from a loathsome-looking swamp of dead pine and cone led past the rear of the camp. This miserable, puny thread of dirty water entered the stockade with barely depth of water enough to cover a foot half buried in the sandy bottom; yet it must serve that abode of misery, starvation, and death, where thirty-five thousand human beings were crowded at one time—the only water, for all purposes, freighted as it was from the sinks of the Confederate Camp. The silence of death fell upon us who were waiting to enter where so many thousands had and would enter, and so few returned. Stronghearted, brave men who had almost gleefully faced the cannon’s mouth … here sank almost in helpless despair—some actually did, and died—yet the thought was “where others can live, we will not die!”