Prisoner's diary reveals horrors , unexpected kindnesses

by Steve Charles

October 7, 2005

Wabash has multiple connections to the Civil War's Andersonville prisoner abuse trial, a dramatization of which is being performed at the College this Friday and Saturday night.

While Wabash alumnus General Lew Wallace, Class of 1840, presided over the actual trial, the College archives also contains a diary written by a Union soldier who was a prisoner at the notorious Andersonville stockade. Archivist Emeritus Johanna Herring recently completed the first transcription of a diary written by Thomas Asbury Gossett, who was a member of Company One, Seventh Regiment of the Indiana Volunteers during the Civil War.

She says the diary is "rich in descriptions of daily life at Andersonville and other Confederate prisons."

"Research on other Andersonville diaries reveals a tendency for authors to exaggerate the horrors they experienced so the diaries would sell better," Mrs. Herring says. "They also tended not to describe the positive acts of southerners towards Federal troops. The Gossett diary seems to be fairly balanced between detailed accounts of the extreme hardships he endured and the kindnesses of the 'enemy,' when they occurred."

The horrors described include this description atrocities committed at the stockade's "Dead Line:"

"Stakes were driven inside of the stockade and formed a line that prisoners were not allowed to pass without punishment; this formed the celebrated dead line. The guards stationed in their sentry boxes were ordered to shoot down without warning any man who passed this dead line, and every guard who killed a Yankee was allowed a furlough for thirty days.

"Providence Spring was on the west dead line and a scene was enacted there one day which even now to think of it sends the blood in a cold strain through my veins. A great many of us were about the spring getting water when a poor crazy man happened to step over the dead line. The guard fired, missed the offender, and hit three innocent men.

"Such reckless shooting was no uncommon thing. A member of my own regiment, Maurice Prindeville, was thus shot in the night when asleep and while lying at least ten feet from the dead line. The bullet took effect in the top of the head, tearing the skull to pieces in a shocking manner. Poor Maurice never knew what hurt him. We were so thick on the ground that it was almost impossible for a bullet to enter the stockade without hitting someone. I have no doubt but some men crossed the dead line on purpose to be killed and thus put an end to their sufferings, choosing to die a quick death by the bullet rather than a slow one by starvation & disease."

The diary was donated to the archives in the 1990s by Thomas Asbury's descendant, Andrew Keith Houk ’37. A copy of the diary's transcript will be available later this month in the College's Robert T. Ramsay, Jr. Archival Center.

The Andersonville Trial, Saul Levitt's dramatization of the trial of Andersonville prison camp commander Captain Henry Wirz, continues performances at 8 p.m. on Friday and Saturday in Ball Theater on the Wabash campus. Above right: Pete Wagner ’06 portrays Wabash alumnus General Lew Wallace in The Andersonville Trial.

 


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