“I can’t tell you what we suffered” Prisoners, Part 2 – A Union Story

1st Lieutenant John Ryan, Company F, 69th Pennsylvania. Captured July 3. GNMP

    When infantry of Pickett’s division began to pour over the stone wall at the Angle during the climatic moments of Pickett’s Charge, the three right companies of the 69th Pennsylvania, whose right flank was threatened by the Confederate movement, were ordered to refuse their line – meaning form in the open facing north at a ninety degree angle to the rest of the regiment, which continued to face west and was engaged with other elements of Pickett’s division. Companies I and A executed the movement. F Company, the next in line, did not, for reasons that will be explained in a moment.
    When A Company pulled out to change the company front, for some reason, Sergeant Edward Bushel remained at the wall. He was captured when Confederate infantry overran his position while seeking to exploit the gap in the 69th’s line that now existed between Company A and Company F.
    Company F failed to move because their company commander was shot in the head and killed before he could give the necessary orders to his men. The consequences were fatal. Pickett’s Virginians engulfed the company from rear and flank and destroyed it. Out of 33 men, 24 were casualties, including 13 taken prisoners. These 13 men and Bushel were among the few Union soldiers captured in Pickett’s Charge. Sergeant George Finley, of the 56th Virginia, may have encountered them as he approached the Union position. He recalled a group of Union soldiers running toward his regiment shouting “don’t shoot,” that they were prisoners. They were ordered to go to the rear, but since no one could be detailed to guard them Finley figured they escaped. Perhaps the men Finley encountered did but the 14 POW’s of the 69th did not. They became part of the 5,365 Union prisoners captured during the battle.
    Not wishing to be encumbered by so many prisoners, who had to be guarded and fed while his army attempted to retreat to Virginia, early on July 4, General Lee proposed an exchange of prisoners to General Meade through a flag of truce. Meade refused. It was war and any encumbrance of Lee’s army was an advantage to the Army of the Potomac. The Dix-Hill Prisoner of War Cartel, agreed to by Union and Confederate authorities on July 22, 1862, specified specific locations where POW exchanges and paroles could take place.  One important exception to this was army commanders of opposing armies were granted the authority to mutually agree to other points for the exchange of prisoners or to process paroles.  When Meade rejected Lee’s offer to exhange prisoners it meant that any parole the Confederates might offer their Union prisoners would not be recognized as binding and Union authorities could return such men to their units.  Knowing this, there was considerable debate among the Union prisoners over whether they should accept a parole. “Many of the boys had not had anything to eat for two days and were willing to do any thing to get out of that,” wrote Roland Bowen. But if their government refused to acknowledge the parole they would be sent back to their regiments or batteries and in Bowen’s words, “if ‘Bob’ catches us he will give us hell,” which reflected the knowledge that violation of a parole was viewed dimly by the opposing side. Nearly 1,500 men decided to take their chances and signed a parole, leaving Lee with about 4,000 prisoners to be marched back to Virginia. Among them were all the POW’s of the 69th Pennsylvania. None took the parole offer. While the experience of these 14 men is not necessarily representative of what all 4,000 Union prisoners went through it does provide insight into the prisoners suffering and the long term consequences of being captured. It was not a ticket out of the war. Instead, it was the beginning of a human ordeal nearly all the men were unprepared for.
    Lee assigned Pickett’s division to guard the prisoners in their march from Gettysburg to Williamsport, Maryland, where on July 9 they were ferried across the Potomac River to Virginia. At Williamsport the 62nd Virginia Mounted Infantry, of General John Imboden’s brigade, assumed the responsibility of guarding the prisoners and marching them to the Staunton, Virginia. The 62nd was a large unit, consisting of 12 companies and just over a 1,000 men. It was reinforced with some artillery, probably from Captain J. H. McClanahan’s Staunton horse artillery battery. According to one of the prisoners, John L. Collins, of the 8th Pennsylvania Cavalry, the Confederates organized the POW’s into divisions on the south bank of the Potomac who were then marched south in column of fours with mounted men and artillery positioned in between each division and dismounted men positioned on each side of the marching column. It took approximately 11 days for the column to cover the 130 miles to Staunton. Collins recorded that from his observation he “never saw anything but kindness shown to the prisoners” by Imboden’s men, but strapped as the Confederate commissary was the soldiers of the 62nd could not produce adequate food, clothing or proper medical attention for the prisoners and there was considerable suffering, particularly for food. [John L. Collins, “A Prisoner’s March From Gettysburg to Staunton,” Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, v. 3, 433]
    From Staunton, the POW’s were transported by train to Richmond where initially officers went to Libby Prison and enlisted men to Belle Isle. Conditions, particularly at Belle Isle, were abysmal. Prisoners lacked adequate food and clothing, and the overcrowded conditions at both prisons led to poor sanitation and disease. One of the Company F, 69th Pennsylvania’s prisoners at Belle Isle, was Private Patrick Lester, a 31 year old with three young children. Suffering from chronic diarrhea he was paroled in late August. One August 31 he wrote his wife from Annapolis, the first chance he had to communicate with her since his capture on July 3; I am in very poor health my self but I am as well as I can espect after the treatment I got this last two months. . . I cant tell you what we suffered. I hadent a [a reference to food ] but what the tuck away. I hadent a shurt or shoe or stocking on me sence I was taking. . . Dear Wife we got new close when we landed heer the ar plenty to eat but cant eat it My stomack is to weak. [Patrick Lester Pension File, NA]
    Lester was transferred from Annapolis to Philadelphia where he died of chronic diarrhea on November 15, 1863. Edward Bushel did not fare much better. He too was paroled on August 31. Army surgeons diagnosed him with “typhoides” and “hyper-trophy of heart.” On December 31, Bushel was deemed well enough to return to his regiment. But on June 9, 1864 Bushel reported sick. His condition worsened until on November 7, 1864 he died. What killed Bushel is difficult to say with the evidence we have but circumstantial evidence points to some infection that damaged his heart. The roll call of the remaining 12 69th Pennsylvania POW’s highlights the lethality of what it meant to be captured at Gettysburg. [Edward Bushel pension file, NA]

1st Lt. John Ryan – paroled at City Point, March 7, 1864
2nd Lt. John Eagan – paroled at Richmond, March 4, 1864
1st Sgt. Robert Doake – paroled at City Point, August 2, 1863
Sgt. George Mulholland – paroled November 17, 1863. Died of typhoid fever at Annapolis on November 19, 1863
Sgt. John O’Neil – transferred to Andersonville Prison, died of chronic diarrhea June 13, 1864
Cpl. Arthur McLaughlin – died of chronic diarrhea at Richmond on Feb. 4, 1864
Private John McKenney – died of typhoid pneumonia, November 20, 1863
Private Arthur Mulholland – died of chronic diarrhea at Andersonville, Sept. 15, 1864
Private Patrick Rafferty – died of pneumonia in Richmond, Oct. 15, 1863
Private Peter Smith – died of chronic diarrhea in Richmond on Feb. 7, 1864
Private Michael Gorman – paroled at City Point, March 14, 1864
Private James Hand – paroled at Richmond, Sept. 23, 1863

    Nine of the 14 men of the 69th captured on July 3 were dead by September 1864, a death rate of 60%. Of the 5 who survived their capture and imprisonment only two men, 2nd Lieutenant John Eagen (whose real surname was Lacy) and Private Michael Gorman, appear to have fully recovered from their ordeal and maintained their health. Eagen lived until 1918. Gorman returned to the regiment after his parole in March, 1864 and served out the rest of his military service, was discharged, and never applied for a pension. The

Physician's report of John Ryan's December 5, 1890 exam.  John Ryan Pension File, National Archives

Physician’s report of John Ryan’s December 5, 1890 exam. John Ryan Pension File, National Archives

other three, 1st Lieutenant John Ryan, 1st Sergeant Robert Doake, and Private James Hand, were not as fortunate. Doake was paroled in August, 1863 and hospitalized until February, 1864, when he transferred to the Veteran Reserve Corps. But, even this light duty proved too much for him and he was discharged from the army. James Hand received his parole in September, 1863, and, although he subsequently returned to the regiment, he was constantly in and out of hospitals until his discharge in August, 1864. Lieutenant Ryan contracted scurvy and dysentery at Libby Prison. At the time of his parole on March 7, 1864, he reported that there were sores all over his body, and an ulcer on his left leg. Several months in the hospital convinced doctors that Ryan could not return to the field and he was discharged from the army on July 9, 1864. Following his discharge Ryan suffered constantly from the maladies resulting from his imprisonment. His teeth blackened and decayed, he developed heart disease and a constant hacking cough. He died at age 59 on August 10, 1896. [Eagen, Ryan, Doake, and Hand pension files, NA]
    In my experience at Gettysburg there has often been the impression that the men who were captured during or after the battle somehow got off easier than those who were wounded or killed. They were out of the war. But the experience of these 14 men reminds us that capture on the battlefield for many only delayed their deaths, and that a slow and unpleasant one from disease, and left hundreds more with their health permanently destroyed. A relatively small percentage ever fully recovered.

Our next post will conclude this prisoner series by looking into the Confederate POW experience.

D. Scott Hartwig


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3 Responses to “I can’t tell you what we suffered” Prisoners, Part 2 – A Union Story

  1. Ed Lacey says:

    I am a descendant of John Eagan Lacy. Please note that John Eagan Lacy returned to service after being released from Libby prison and was severly wounded in the battle of Petersburg va. He was hit 4 times and was sent home in July 1864. He did live until 1918 and is buried in Cathederal Cemetary in Philadlephia, PA

    i have more information if you would like

  2. Pingback: 1862: Patrick Deveney to Wife | Spared & Shared 19

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