"An altogether exciting and unique, almost priceless documentary." — Library Journal
"A tale of adventure, of suspense from beginning to end, of fierce hate and great love, of the incredible callousness of man and the incredible warmth of man — with the added knowledge that 'it really happened.'" — Bruce Catton
John L. Ransom joined the Union Army in 1862, serving as brigade quartermaster of the Ninth Michigan Volunteer Cavalry. A year later, the 20-year-old soldier was captured in Tennessee and interned at the notorious Georgia prison camp, Andersonville. Ransom's harrowing firsthand account of Civil War prison life constitutes a valuable historical record — a true story not only of cruelty, death, and deprivations but also of acts of courage and kindness that ensured the young soldier's survival and preserved his faith in humanity.
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About the Author
John L. Ransom (1843–1919) joined the Union Army in 1862 and served as Quartermaster of Company A, 9th Michigan Volunteer Cavalry. The following year he was captured in Tennessee and was interned at the infamous Georgia prison camp, Andersonville, from which he eventually escaped.
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Civil War Diary
Notes from Inside Andersonville, the Civil War's Most Notorious Prison
By John L. Ransom
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 2017 John L. Ransom
All rights reserved.
A Rebel Ruse to Gobble Up Union Troops — A Complete Surprise — Careless Officers — Heroic Defence — Beginning of a Long Imprisonment
Belle Island, Richmond, Va., Nov. 22, 1863. — I was captured near Rogersville, East Tennessee, on the 6th of this month, while acting as Brigade Quarter-Master Sergt. The Brigade was divided, two regiments twenty miles away, while Brigade HeadQuarters with 7th Ohio and 1st Tennessee Mounted Infantry were at Rogersville. The brigade quarter-master had a large quantity of clothing on hand, which we were about to issue to the brigade as soon as possible. The rebel citizens got up a dance at one of the public houses in the village, and invited all the union officers. This was the evening of Nov. 5th. Nearly all the officers attended and were away from the command nearly all night and many were away all night. We were encamped in a bend of the Holston River. It was a dark rainy night and the river rose rapidly before morning. The dance was a ruse to get our officers away from their command. At break of day the pickets were drove in by rebel cavalry, and orders were immediately received from commanding officer to get wagon train out on the road in ten minutes. The quarter-master had been to the dance and had not returned, consequently it devolved upon me to see to wagon train, which I did, and in probably ten minutes the whole seventy six mule army wagons were in line out on the main road, while the companies were forming into line and getting ready for a fight. Rebels had us completely surrounded and soon began to fire volley after volley into our disorganized ranks. Not one officer in five was present; Gen. commanding and staff as soon as they realized our danger, started for the river, swam across and got away. We had a small company of artillery with us commanded by a lieutenant. The lieutenant in the absence of other officers, assumed command of the two regiments, and right gallantly did he do service. Kept forming his men for the better protection of his wagon train, while the rebels were shifting around from one point to another, and all the time sending volley after volley into our ranks. Our men did well, and had there been plenty of officers and ammunition, we might have gained the day. After ten hours fighting we were obliged to surrender after having lost in killed over a hundred, and three or four times that number in wounded. After surrendering we were drawn up into line, counted off and hurriedly marched away south. By eight o'clock at night had probably marched ten miles, and encamped until morning. We expected that our troops would intercept and release us, but they did not. An hour before daylight we were up and on the march toward Bristol, Va., that being the nearest railroad station. We were cavalrymen, and marching on foot made us very lame, and we could hardly hobble along. Were very well fed on corn bread and bacon. Reached Bristol, Va., Nov. 8th and were soon aboard of cattle cars en-route for the rebel capital. I must here tell how I came into possession of a very nice and large bed spread which is doing good service even now these cold nights. After we were captured everything was taken away from us, blankets, overcoats, and in many cases our boots and shoes. I had on a new pair of boots, which by muddying them over had escaped the rebel eyes thus far, as being a good pair. As our blankets had been taken away from us we suffered considerably from cold. I saw that if I was going to remain a prisoner of war it behooved me to get hold of a blanket. After a few hours march I became so lame walking with my new boots on that the rebels were compelled to put me on an old horse that was being lead along by one of the guard. This guard had the bed spread before spoken of. Told him I was going into prison at the beginning of a long winter, and should need a blanket, and couldn't he give me his. We had considerable talk, and were very good friends. Said he rather liked me but wouldn't part with his bed spread. Didn't love me that much, treated me however with apple jack out of his canteen. I kept getting my wits together to arrange some plan to get the article in question. Finally told him I had a large sum of money on my person which I expected would be taken away from me anyway, and as he was a good fellow would rather he would have it than any one else. He was delighted and all attention, wanted me to be careful and not let any of the other rebels see the transfer. I had a lot of Michigan broken down wild cat money, and pulled it out of an inside pocket and handed him the roll. It was green paper and of course he supposed it greenbacks. Was very glad of the gift and wanted to know what he could do for me. My first proposition to him was to let me escape, but he couldn't do that, then I told him to give me the bed spread, as it might save my life. After some further parley, he consented and handed over the spread. He was afraid to look at his money for fear some one would see him, and so did not discover that it was worthless until we had become separated. Guards were changed that night and never saw him any more.
The cars ran very slow, and being crowded for room the journey to Richmond was very tedious. Arrived on the morning of Nov. 13th, seven days after capture, at the south end of the "long bridge," ordered out of the cars and into line, counted off and started for Belle Isle. Said island is in the James River, probably covers ten or twelve acres, and is right across from Richmond. The river between Richmond and the island is probably a third or half a mile. The "long bridge" is near the lower part of the island. It is a cold, bleak piece of ground and the winter winds have free sweep from up the river. Before noon we were turned into the pen which is merely enclosed by a ditch and the dirt taken from the ditch thrown up on the outside, making a sort of breastwork. The ditch serves as a dead line, and no prisoners must go near the ditch. The prison is in command of a Lieut. Bossieux, a rather young and gallant looking sort of fellow. Is a born Southerner, talking so much like a negro that you would think he was one, if you could hear him talk and not see him. He has two rebel sergeants to act as his assistants, Sergt. Hight and Sergt. Marks. These two men are very cruel, as is also the Lieut. when angered. Outside the prison pen is a bake house, made of boards, the rebel tents for the accommodation of the officers and guard, and a hospital also of tent cloth. Running from the pen is a lane enclosed by high boards going to the water's edge. At night this is closed up by a gate at the pen, and thrown open in the morning. About half of the six thousand prisoners here have tents while the rest sleep and live out of doors. After I had been on this island two or three days, I was standing near the gate eating some rice soup out of an old broken bottle, thoroughly disgusted with the Southern Confederacy, and this prison in particular. A young man came up to me whom I immediately recognized as George W. Hendryx, a member of my own company "A" 9th Mich. Cavalry, who had been captured some time before myself. Was feeling so blue, cross and cold that I didn't care whether it was him or not. He was on his way to the river to get some water. Found I wasn't going to notice him in any way, and so proceeded on his errand. When I say that George Hendryx was one of the most valued friends I had in the regiment, this action on my part will seem strange as indeed it is. Did not want to see him or any one else I had ever seen before. Well, George came back a few moments after, looked at me a short time and says: "I believe you are John L. Ransom, Q. M. Sergt. of the same Co. with me, although you don't seem to recognize me." Told him I was that same person, recognized him and there could be no mistake about it. Wanted to know why in the Old Harry I didn't speak to him then. After telling him just how it was, freezing to death, half-starved and gray backs crawling all over me, &c., we settled down into being glad to see one another.
Nov. 23. — Having a few dollars of good Yankee money which I have hoarded since my capture, have purchased a large blank book and intend as long as I am a prisoner of war in this Confederacy, to note down from day to day as occasion may occur, events as they happen, treatment, ups and downs generally. It will serve to pass away the time and may be interesting at some future time to read over.
Nov. 24. — Very cold weather. Four or five men chilled to death last night. A large portion of the prisoners who have been in confinement any length of time are reduced to almost skeletons from continued hunger, exposure and filth. Having some money just indulged in an extra ration of corn bread for which I paid twenty cents in Yankee script, equal to two dollars Confederate money, and should say by the crowd collected around that such a sight was an unusual occurrence, and put me in mind of gatherings I have seen at the North around some curiosity. We received for today's food half a pint of rice soup and one-quarter of a pound loaf of corn bread. The bread is made from the very poorest meal, coarse, sour and musty; would make poor feed for swine at home. The rice is nothing more than boiled in river water with no seasoning whatever, not even salt, but for all that it tasted nice. The greatest difficulty is the small allowance given us. The prisoners are blue, downcast and talk continually of home and something good to eat. They nearly all think there will be an exchange of prisoners before long and the trick of it is to live until the time approaches. We are divided off into hundreds with a sergeant to each squad who draws the food and divides it up among his men, and woe unto him if a man is wronged out of his share — his life is not worth the snap of the finger if caught cheating. No wood tonight and it is very cold. The nights are long and are made hideous by the moans of suffering wretches.
Nov. 25. — Hendryx is in a very good tent with some nine or ten others and is now trying to get me into the already crowded shelter. They say I can have the first vacancy and as it is impossible for a dozen to remain together long without losing some by sickness, my chances will be good in a few days at fartherest. Food again at four o'clock. In place of soup received about four ounces of salt horse, as we call it.
Nov. 26 — Hendryx sacrificed his own comfort and lay out doors with me last night and I got along much better than the night before. Are getting food twice to-day; old prisoners say it is fully a third more than they have been getting. Hardly understand how we could live on much less. A Michigan man (could not learn his name) while at work a few moments ago on the outside with a squad of detailed yankees repairing a part of the embankment which recent rains had washed away, stepped upon the wall to give orders to his men when one of the guards shot him through the head, killing him instantly. Lieut. Bossieux, commander of the prison, having heard the shot, came to learn the cause. He told the guard he ought to be more careful and not shoot those who were on parole and doing fatigue duty, and ordered the body carried to the dead house. Seems tough to me but others don't seem to mind it much. I am mad.
Nov. 27. — Stormy and disagreeable weather. From fifteen to twenty and twenty-five die every day and are buried just outside the prison with no coffins — nothing but canvas wrapped around them. Eight sticks of four foot wood given every squad of one hundred men to-day, and when split up and divided it amounted to nothing towards warming a person. Two or three can put their wood together and boil a little coffee made from bread crusts. The sick are taken out every morning and either sent over to the city or kept in the hospital just outside the prison and on the island. None admitted unless carried out in blankets and so far gone there is not much chance of recovery. Medical attendance is scarce.
Nov. 28. — Very cold and men suffer terribly with hardly any clothing on some of them. A man taken outside to-day, bucked and gagged for talking with a guard; a severe punishment this very cold weather.
Nov. 30. — Came across E. P. Sanders, from Lansing, Michigan, and a jolly old soul is he. Can't get discouraged where he is. Talk a great deal about making our escape but there is not much prospect. We are very strongly guarded with artillery bearing on every part of the prison. The long bridge I have heard so much about crosses the river just below the island. It is very long and has been condemned for years — trains move very slow across it. There was a big fire over in Richmond last night about 2 o'clock; could hear all the fire bells and see the house tops covered with people looking at it. Great excitement among the Johnny Rebs.
Dec. 1. — With no news concerning the great subject — exchange of prisoners. Very hungry and am not having a good time of it. Take it all around I begin to wish I had stayed at home and was at the Jackson Citizen office pulling the old press. Dream continually nights about something good to eat; seems rather hard such plenty at the North and starving here. Have just seen a big fight among the prisoners; just like so many snarly dogs, cross and peevish. A great deal of fighting going on. Rebels collect around on the outside in crowds to see the Yankees bruise themselves and it is quite sport for them. Have succeeded in getting into the tent with Hendryx. One of the mess has been sent over to Richmond Hospital leaving a vacancy which I am to fill. There are nine others, myself making ten. The names are as follows: W. C. Robinson, orderly sergeant, 34th Illinois; W. H. Mustard, hospital steward 100th Pennsylvania; Joe Myers, 34th Illinois; H. Freeman, hospital steward 30th Ohio; C. G. Strong, 4th Ohio cavalry; Corporal John Mc-Carten, 6th Kentucky; U. Kindred, 1st East Tennessee infantry; E. P. Sanders, 20th Michigan infantry; George Hendryx and myself of the 9th Michigan cavalry. A very good crowd of boys, and all try to make their places as pleasant as possible. Gen. Neil Dow to-day came over from Libby Prison on parole of honor to help issue some clothing that has arrived for Belle Isle prisoners from the Sanitary Commission at the North. Sergeant Robinson taken outside to help Gen. Dow in issuing clothing and thinks through his influence to get more out for the same purpose. A man froze to death last night where I slept. The body lay until nearly dark before it was removed. My blanket comes in good play, and it made the boys laugh when I told how I got it. We tell stories, dance around, keep as clean as we can without soap and make the best of a very bad situation.
Dec. 2. — Pleasant weather and favorable for prisoners. At about nine in the morning the work of hunting for vermin commences, and all over camp sit the poor starved wretches, nearly stripped, engaged in picking off and killing the big gray backs. The ground is fairly alive with them, and it requires continual labor to keep from being eaten up alive by them. I just saw a man shot. He was called down to the bank by the guard, and as he leaned over to do some trading another guard close by shot him through the side and it is said mortally wounded him. It was made up between the guards to shoot the man, and when the lieutenant came round to make inquiries concerning the affair, one of them remarked that the — — — — — — passed a counterfeit bill on him the night before, and he thought he would put him where he could not do the like again. The wounded man was taken to the hospital and has since died. His name was Gilbert. He was from New Jersey. Food twice to-day; buggy bean soup and a very small allowance of corn bread. Hungry all the time.
Dec. 3. — Rumors of exchange to be effected soon. Rebels say we will all be exchanged before many days. It cannot be possible our government will allow us to remain here all winter. Gen. Dow is still issuing clothing, but the rebels get more than our men do of it. Guards nearly all dressed in Yankee uniforms. In our mess we have established regulations, and any one not conforming with the rules is to be turned out of the tent. Must take plenty of exercise, keep clean, free as circumstances will permit of vermin, drink no water until it has been boiled, which process purifies and makes it more healthy, are not to allow ourselves to get despondent, and must talk, laugh and make as light of our affairs as possible. Sure death for a person to give up and lose all ambition. Received a spoonful of salt to-day for the first time since I came here.
Dec. 4. — Exchange news below par to-day. Rather colder than yesterday; a great many sick and dying off rapidly. Rebel guards are more strict than usual, and one risks his life by speaking to them at all. Wrote a letter home to-day, also one to a friend in Washington. Doubtful whether I ever hear from them. Robinson comes inside every night and always brings something good. We look forward to the time of his coming with pleasure. Occasionally he brings a stick of wood which we split up fine and build a cheerful fire in our little sod fireplace, sit up close together and talk of home and friends so far away. We call our establishment the "Astor House of Belle Isle." There are so many worse off than we are that we are very well contented and enjoy ourselves after a fashion.
Excerpted from Civil War Diary by John L. Ransom. Copyright © 2017 John L. Ransom. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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Table of Contents
"The Civil War produced many diaries, but few as appealing and readable as this one."—Publishers Weekly
"An altogether exciting and unique, almost priceless documentary."—Library Journal
"A tale of adventure, of suspense from beginning to end, of fierce hate and great love, of the incredible callousness of man and the incredible warmth of man—with the added knowledge that 'it really happened.'"—Bruce Catton
John L. Ransom joined the Union Army in 1862, serving as brigade quartermaster of the Ninth Michigan Volunteer Cavalry. A year later, the 20-year-old soldier was captured in Tennessee and interned at the notorious Georgia prison camp, Andersonville. Ransom's harrowing firsthand account of Civil War prison life constitutes a valuable historical record—a true story not only of cruelty, death, and deprivations but also of acts of courage and kindness that ensured the young soldier's survival and preserved his faith in humanity.