How were men taken prisoner during the battle? How did the armies process the POW’s they captured and move them from the battlefield to prisons in the North and South? And what was the experience of those captured in this process? While there is a significant body of work on the experience of prisoners at POW camps in the North and South, there is very little on how soldiers became prisoners, the experience of being moved from the battlefield to prison, which could be extremely arduous, and finally, the consequences of becoming a POW.
POW’s made up a significant percentage of Gettysburg’s total casualties. Of the estimated 51,000 casualties suffered during the battle, approximately 17,500 were POW’s. Of this number 5,365 were Union and 12,227 (6,802 wounded and 5,425 unwounded) were Confederates. My next few posts will consider the experience of these men, both how they were captured and their movement from the battlefield to established prisons. In this first post we will explore how soldiers became POW’s. To narrow things somewhat we will only consider the fighting of July 2.
Was it easy or dangerous for a soldier to surrender at Gettysburg? Was it safer to surrender in groups rather than singly? Gettysburg occurred before the collapse of the prisoner-exchange system, and although every soldier understood that prisons were notoriously unhealthy places to be avoided if possible, they had not yet achieved the overcrowding that turned them into true hellholes. Most men still believed that if you were captured, you had a reasonable chance of surviving your imprisonment.
Richard Holmes, in his book Firing Line, speculates that soldiers in twentieth-century wars who attempted to surrender after the fighting came to close quarters stood only a fifty-fifty chance of their surrender being accepted. In the early nineteenth-century, during the Napoleonic Wars, surrender could also be an iffy proposition, particularly between the French and Prussians after 1812. This was certainly not true at Gettysburg. Soldiers who offered surrender in this battle, even in cases of close-range or hand-to-hand combat, were nearly always spared and the surrender accepted. This is not to say that men were not shot down in the act of attempting to surrender, but this occurrence was rare. In a case of close-quarter fighting, Roland Bowen, of the 15th Massachusetts, continued to fire at the advancing Confederates of Wright’s Georgia Brigade, even though his comrades broke for the rear. Bowen resisted until it was too late to make a run for it
without being shot. Flight, Bowen understood at this point, made him a legitimate target for the Confederate riflemen. So, he wrote, “I threw down my gun and held up both hands, my cap in one and begged that they might spare my life.” Wright’s men “spoke not a word to me but passed over and on.” No one from Wright’s line of battle even bothered to direct or escort Bowen to the Confederate rear. He did this on his own, since this was the only direction he could travel to find safety from the bullets and shell fragments flying about. He came upon a Confederate soldier who may have been shirking, but whom Bowen found “was mighty glad to get one prisoner to go the rear himself.” (Richard Holmes, Firing Line, (London: J. Cape, 1985), 382; Gregory Coco, From Ball’s Bluff to Gettysburg and Beyond, (Gettysburg, PA: Thomas Publications, 1994), 203.)
Captain Alanson H. Nelson, in the 57th Pennsylvania, while fighting within the Sherfy house, found himself cut off by the attack of Barksdale’s Mississippi brigade. “There was nothing I dreaded so much as to be taken prisoner,” he related. So, when he emerged from the house he found many Confederates in the Sherfy yard not fifty feet away. “They saw me as soon as I did them, and ordered me to surrender,” wrote Nelson. Facing a situation similar to that of Bowen, Nelson chose flight, fully understanding the risk this entailed. But he also saw that the Rebel soldiers were in a group and that many could not fire without endangering the others. “I took the chance,” he continued, “and made a dive past them, then firing began.” Nelson concluded that either he moved too quickly or the Confederates were poor shots “for they never touched me.” (A. H. Nelson, “The Battles of Chancellorsville and Gettysburg,” Brake Collection, USAMHI.)
Sergeant H. A. Johnson, of the 3rd Maine, and some of his comrades had a less successful experience when they attempted to escape from advancing Confederates of Wilcox’s brigade during their morning fight in Pitzer’s Woods. One of Johnson’s men, Nathan Call, fell with a bullet in the hip. When the regiment commenced to fall back against Wilcox’s superior numbers, Call cried out to Johnson not to leave him behind. Johnson secured the help of John W. Jones, also from his company. They seated Call on a rifle and had him throw his arms around their neck. So long as soldiers sought escape, wounded or unwounded, they remained fair game in combat. The group had not made much distance before Jones was shot in the head and killed, and the carrying party collapsed. Before Johnson could recover from the fall they were overrun. The dead Jones and the badly wounded Call “were of no use to them,” and were left on the field, while Johnson was taken prisoner. Yet despite the danger, and the death of Jones in the escape attempt, Johnson had no regrets on attempting to escape his pursuers. “It is needless to say that I would have taken the chances with my regiment a hundred times over, could the choice have been given me,” he wrote. (H. A. Johnson, The Sword of Honor (Hallowell, ME: Register Printing House, 1906), 11-12, copy GNMPL.)
Confederates of the 15th Alabama found themselves on the other end of this situation when their regiment was forced to flee in the face of the 20th Maine’s counterattack on Little Round Top. The left wing of the 20th, led by Captain Ellis Spear, trapped a large group of Alabamians in the Weikert farm lane. Quite a few attempted to leap over the fence enclosing the lane to escape, and Spear, writing his step-granddaughter, related with unusual honesty for a Civil War veteran, that “painful as the necessity was, we were obliged to shoot them. I mean those who were trying to scale the fence & escape without asking leave. The rest, who dropped their guns & showed signs of repentance, we magnanimously spared, and accepted their apologies.” (Spears to Mildred, March 14, 1910, in William B. Styple, ed., With a Flash of His Pen and Sword (Kearny, NJ: Bell Grove Publishing Co., 1994), 301.)
Many soldiers who surrendered recorded being threatened by their captors, or being pushed and shoved, but in only the most exceptional cases were threats carried out, and not surprisingly these were not recorded by those who participated. The experience of George W. Whipple, of the 64th New York, was fairly typical. During his regiment’s disorganized retreat from an advanced position in the Wheatfield on July 2, Whipple’s company commander, Captain Henry Fuller, fell badly wounded. Whipple tried to carry Fuller from the field but was unable to keep up and had to lay him down. This enabled his Confederate pursuers to catch up. They shouted “Surrender, you d-m Yankee,” as they approached. He did, but asked his captors if he could remain for a moment more with his dying captain, “but the bayonet was close to my back, with awful threats to put it through me if I refused.” “Go to the rear you d—d Yankee son of a b—h,” they cursed at him. That the Confederates should be angry at an enemy soldier whose comrades minutes before had caused many casualties in their ranks should not be surprising. As an experienced veteran Whipple probably understood that the mercy of angry men in battle only extended so far. He wisely complied with his captors’ demands and was escorted to the rear by two of them, who were probably very happy to have a reason to leave the front lines. They left him in the rear with some men from the ambulance corps, unharmed. (Letter of George W. Whipple printed in the Cattaraugus Freeman, January 9, 1864, GNMP Library)
E. H. Sutton, of the 24th Georgia, barely survived one of the uncommon cases where a captor deliberately attempted to kill an unarmed man. A counterattack by the Pennsylvania Reserves overran his position. The Federals told Sutton to go to the rear. He
dropped his weapon and cartridge box and cut his belt. But when he started to the rear “a burly Irishman presented his gun at my breast and was pulling the trigger, cursing me.” A file closer saved Sutton’s life when he pushed the rifle aside just as it discharged, then ordered the soldier to “go forward and fight those who had not surrendered.” The dearth of evidence regarding the shooting of prisoners leads to the conclusion that although it did occur, it was rare. (E. H. Sutton, Civil War Stories (Demorest, GA: Banner Printing Co., 1910), 43, copy GNMP Library.)
While to men cut off from their comrades or overrun by the enemy the decision to surrender or not was fairly clear cut, to those in a combat whose outcome hung in the balance, it could be decidedly murky. The skirmishing around the Bliss farm illustrated this. Sergeant Frank Riley, 12th New Jersey, recorded that during a charge his regiment made that swept up and around the Bliss farm buildings, the Confederates within the buildings did not surrender until Riley and his comrades “poured in through the doors and windows and almost meeting them face to face.” And even then some of the Confederates in this combat, perhaps sensing their captors were not too numerous, or not realizing that their comrades were laying down their weapons, chose to continue resistance and fired upon the Federals. One of them wounded an orderly sergeant in Riley’s regiment and as he was helped from the field swore to Riley that had the Confederate not wounded him he would have “pinned him to the wall,” which indicated that the sergeant’s comrades spared this individual even though he violated the soldiers’ rough code of justice on the battlefield. (Elwood Christ, Over a Wide Hot Crimson Plain, (Baltimore, MD : Butternut and Blue, 1993), 36-37.)
In my next two posts we will examine the experience of several Union and Confederate POW’s to better understand what they endured in the process of being moved from the battlefield to prison, and the ultimate consequences of what being captured at Gettysburg cost them.
D. Scott Hartwig