The Prisoners and the Angel

3, July 2012

Joe Johnston is a guest contributor who is writing articles related to the Civil War. To read others in the series, click here. His latest book, The Mack Marsden Murder Mystery, was published by the Missouri History Museum in 2011 and received a 2012 National Indie Excellence Award (True Crime category). 

Clara BartonClara Barton. Library of Congress.

The slight, round-faced woman stood among the people who gathered on the Washington, D.C., platform to watch the train roll in. Her name was Clara Barton, a former Massachusetts schoolteacher who had come to Washington to work in the patent office. She had heard that the young militiamen from her hometown of Worcester were coming in on the train that night, and she hoped to see some familiar faces. Sure enough, through the dirty windows she recognized some of the weary soldiers as her former students, and their tired eyes brightened when they saw her.  

It was mid-April 1861, just after the bombardment of Fort Sumter. Still, there was hope that a war could be avoided. President Lincoln asked for troops to quiet the insurrection, and the men of the 6th Regiment Massachusetts Militia headed for Washington. Passing through Baltimore, they had to change trains by walking several blocks from one station to another, and on the way they were attacked by a secessionist mob. The insults turned to violence, first with rocks, then bricks, then pistols. The soldiers shot back. Four of the militia and at least a dozen civilians were killed, and dozens more were injured. The bloodied soldiers lost all their baggage and arrived in the nation’s capital exhausted, with no medical care or food. It became known as the Baltimore Riot, and many consider it to be the first bloodshed of the war.

That night began a four-year flood of casualties, and a Civil War saga that would not only change Clara’s life, but would also touch countless families throughout the country, among them the Hensleys of Jefferson County, Missouri. Clara Barton, “the angel of the battlefield,” was about to single-handedly revolutionize the way the world treats people who suffer.

When Clara saw the exhausted, hungry soldiers step off the train, some of them badly wounded, she ran to the market, bought food, and brought it to them. Then she went home and ripped up sheets for bandages, and spent the rest of the night dressing the soldiers’ wounds. The next day she collected donations from neighbors and merchants, and returned to the soldiers with boxes of supplies, medicine, and food.

In Jefferson County, the Hensleys and a handful of slaves had been farming several parcels of choice flatland—with good water and passable roads—near Sandy Creek for 20 years. There were six brothers, and when the war broke out in 1861, four stayed to keep up the family farms, while the two youngest boys enlisted in the Missouri State Guard. Alfred was 22 and married. Fleming was 25 and single.

Under General Sterling Price the Guard fought their way across southwestern Missouri, then into Arkansas, with heavy losses at Elk Horn Tavern. In spring 1863, Price and almost all of his men were mustered into regular Confederate service, with the Hensley boys in the 10th Infantry. Price led them on to Helena, Arkansas, where they joined other Confederate units in a July 4th attack on Union forces. Helena was only a minor port, but like any point along the Mississippi, it was strategic. A victory there would help the South continue to move supplies on the mighty river.

The battle-hardened Missourians had the honor of making the charge at the Union center, where they hoped to capture the high ground with its cannon emplacements. As soon as the attack began, they found themselves under bombardment from not only the Union infantry and land batteries, but also from the gunboat USS Tyler. Finally, after three charges at the heart of the Union line, the Missouri Rebels overran the hill with its cannons. They hoped to turn the captured cannons on the Yankees, but found that before the boys in blue abandoned the big guns, they damaged them so they couldn’t be fired. The Missourians could only wait for the next phase of the attack, which called for both Confederate flanks to close like pincers on the Yankees. But instead, both Rebel flanks stalled and fell back, leaving Price’s men alone, and suddenly every Federal gun was focused hard on them. After five hours of heavy fighting, they tried to retreat, but were cut off. The 10th Regiment suffered: 11 were killed, 41 were wounded, and 237 were captured. Among those prisoners were Alfred and Fleming Hensley.

Confederate prisonersConfederate prisoners in Chattanooga, Tennessee, waiting for a train to take them to a Northern prison, 1864. Library of Congress.

Prison conditions during the war went from none to worse. The new armies were totally unprepared for the vast numbers of captives. As a result, they confined them in such unlikely places as the basement of the State House in Jefferson City. At first there were frequent prisoner exchanges, as well as paroles, in which the men simply took an oath not to fight again and were then sent home. For some that was an escape from service, but for most it was just a chance to get back into the action. Some of the leading officers in the war were captured, paroled, and returned to lead the charge.

Even after prisons were established, both sides struggled to guard, transport, house, and feed prisoners of war. With resources of every kind in high demand on the front lines, it was extremely hard to devote soldiers, trains, boats, and wagons to the care of captives. Especially in the South, where armies often went starving, it was almost impossible to keep Yankee prisoners fed. The prisons continued to fill far beyond their capacity. Disease was rampant. Men were exposed to every kind of weather with no shelter. They had no blankets, no medical care, and no sanitation. They were reduced to drinking water from drainage ditches, and catching and cooking rats to eat. Worms in the corn meal became a delicacy, when they had corn meal.

It was into that world that the Hensleys, two Missouri farm boys, were sent. Their first stop was the overcrowded Alton Prison, just across the Mississippi from St. Louis. It was primarily a clearinghouse, and they were shipped on to Ft. Delaware, a fairly new and technologically advanced coastal facility on the chill, foggy, 75-acre Pea Patch Island. There, the Hensleys joined over 12,000 other prisoners in wooden barracks on a muddy plain.

Then in early 1864, General Grant realized that the prisoner exchange program offered another way to fight the war. By that time, the North held more prisoners than the South, and the South was short of everything, including men. Conversely, the North had a draft in place, and was doing pretty well at keeping the ranks filled with recruits. Every time there was a prisoner exchange and men re-entered the fray, it was a shot in the arm for the Confederates. So even though Grant knew prisoners on both sides were suffering and dying, he ordered an end to the exchanges. As a result, at Fort Delaware, about three men per day, almost 2,500 Confederates in total, died. Their names were recorded, but only a handful of their graves were marked.

Abraham Bates TowerAbraham Bates Tower, a Union soldier and survior of Andersonville prison in Georgia. Courtesy of Virginia Allain.

At Andersonville, the infamous Georgia prison for Yankees, 3,000 a month died, almost a third of the 45,000 men who were sent there. It’s no wonder. At its peak in 1864, there were 33,000 men crammed into 26 muddy acres. A stream served as their water source and latrine, and during floods its filth widened to almost fill the camp. Abraham Bates Tower, of the 93rd Indiana, was imprisoned there and witnessed the rise of raiders (prisoners who stole rations, clothes, and blankets from other prisoners). In later years Tower would tell of being one of the regulators who arrested, tried, and even hanged some raiders, putting an end to their terror in the camp. He would survive the prison and the war, and live to enjoy his wife, children, and old age in Linn County, Missouri.

Also among the fortunate survivors, Alfred Hensley endured almost two years of captivity on Pea Patch Island. When the South surrendered in April 1865, both sides were eager to exchange their prisoners. Alfred was released and had no choice but to climb into a railroad boxcar, go as far as it would take him, and gradually make his way back to Missouri. Many veterans went home unable to work as they once did, because of injuries and lingering sickness. Though he returned to the arms of his family, Alfred continued to suffer from health problems that stemming from his captivity. He was never well again, and died in 1880 at the age of 41.

The last thing Alfred had heard about his brother was that Fleming was sick and in the prison hospital. Prison records say Fleming was “refused exchange,” because he had developed severe stomach problems and was too ill to travel. He must have shared the afflictions of many men, with little to eat and a weakened immune system, resulting in some combination of dysentery, respiratory infections, rheumatism, internal bleeding, and anemia. Fleming simply could not make the trip home. Instead, he was moved to a hospital in Richmond, Virginia, and died there on May 25.

The Hensley boys’ story was a familiar one: two brothers went to war, and one came home. But the fact that it was common conceals its deep human drama. For the families that waited back home, the separation, the lack of information, wondering if their men would ever return, and what happened to them when they didn’t return, was horribly painful. In fact, Alfred and his family would never have known what became of their beloved Fleming if not for the efforts of Clara Barton.

In her continuing work toward the end of the war, Clara saw that nobody was attending to the emotional needs of the men in hospitals and prisons. Nor was anyone helping their families. So she undertook the monumental work of gathering information, writing letters, and sending telegrams, so families would know about the sick, the imprisoned, the living, and the dead. Clara published lists of those who died at Andersonville and other prisons, and she’s credited with identifying some 20,000 missing soldiers.

Clara’s compassionate workers even played a role in the case of William Appleberry Hensley, a distant cousin of Alfred and Fleming who served the Union cause. He was wounded in the winter of 1864 and hospitalized at Jefferson Barracks in St. Louis. When he was released a month later, still unfit to return to duty, the doctors told him to go home and recover. But he had no orders to go home, so a few weeks later the poor man was arrested for being absent without leave. Thankfully, Clara Barton’s workers got involved in the case, and Appleberry was cleared of the charges.

After the war, Clara Barton’s career of public service continued for 50 years. Her crowning work was the founding of the Red Cross in 1881.

—Joe Johnston, Guest Contributor