Saturday, January 14, 2023

Federal Civil War pensions and Union POW's in Columbia, SC


Federal Civil War pension files may not be the first resource that comes to mind when researching the Civil War in the Confederate states, but they can be a valuable resource for understanding life during the war from the point of view of federal prisoners of war. In the pension file for 1st Lt. Elton Ware of the 9th Maine volunteers helps to better understand the conditions he faced while a POW in Columbia, SC from July 11, 1863-March 1, 1865.

Ware’s unit mustered out Oct 18, 1861. The regiment left for Washington, DC where they eventually joined an expedition to Fernandina, Florida. From there they headed to South Carolina where Lt. Ware was taken prisoner in the initial assault at Morris Island that started on July 10, 1863. The Maine 9th was a part of Strong’s brigade, an amphibious assault on the island led by Brigadier General George C. Strong. Wikipedia explains the first assault nicely,

“Strong’s brigade crossed Lighthouse Inlet and landed at the southern tip of the island. Strong's troops advanced, capturing several batteries, moving about three miles to within range of Fort Wagner. Also known as Battery Wagner, it was a heavily gunned redoubt [temporary fortification] that covered nearly the entire width of the northern end of Morris Island, facing [Fort] Sumter. Strong's report described the advance:

‘The two columns now moved forward, under a lively discharge of shell, grape, and canister, converging toward the works nearest the southern extremity of the island, and thence along its commanding ridge and eastern coast, capturing successively the eight batteries of one heavy gun each, occupying the commanding points of that ridge, besides two batteries, mounting, together, three 10-inch seacoast mortars.’

On July 11, Strong's brigade attacked at dawn, advancing through a thick fog, attempting to seize Fort Wagner. Although the men of the 7th Connecticut Infantry overran a line of rifle pits, they were repulsed by the 1,770-man force under Confederate Col. Robert F. Graham. Heavy artillery fire from Fort Wagner prevented other units from joining the attack.”

The battle at Morris Island is better known for the second assault led by the 54th Massachusetts, a troop of African American immortalized in the movie “Glory”, but Lt. Ware was already captured by that time and was heading to Columbia to begin his nearly two-year internment. Ware was likely kept at the county jail on the corner Washington and Main St., at least until the POW camp was formed at Camp Sorghum in Oct 1864 followed by a camp at the State Hospital created in Dec 1864 called Camp Asylum.

The conditions were deplorable, and Ware became sick after a year of his incarceration. In October 1864 fellow POW, Col. DanielWhite, attested in Ware's pension file that Ware was “attacked with disease of the heart, accompanied by pain in the head.” Col. White attested that the condition remained with Ware through the end of the war and was caused “by the treatment he received in prison.” “Rebel” doctors attended the prisoners and they reported to Ware that his condition was “caused by exposure, lying without blankets and cold settling on the heart.” It may be Ware was sent to Camp Sorghum were it is documented there were few tents and the POW’s dug holes in the ground for protection from the weather. Letters owned by the descendants of Lt. Ware tell how the enslaved people in Columbia risked their lives to help the Union POW’s escape and on occasion brought them information about the war. Elton, however, may have been too sick to try and make the escape especially since there were constant rumors of parole or prisoner exchanges for the federal POWs.

When General Sherman arrived in Columbia on Feb 17 the book “Sack and Destruction of the city of Columbia, SC” says the prisoners in the district jail were released and they followed the Union army out of Columbia, which implies there were POW’s in the district jail so Ware may have remained at the jail through-out his incarceration, we just don’t know. The Washington St. jail was destroyed by fire on Feb 17.

After his parole on March 1, 1865 in North Carolina, Ware was admitted to the hospital in Annapolis, MD were doctors described his health as, “great physical exhaustion & nervous prostration amounting at times to partial insanity.” He was further described as, “pale & emaciated, weighs 165 lbs.” The evaluation concluded, “I consider him disabled for manual labor as totally as by the loss of hand or foot.”

Confederate records about the Columbia POW’s are scarce so the federal pensions of Union soldiers make an interesting addition to Civil War research. The index to these pension records is available on Ancestry but the files are located in Washington, DC at the National Archives (NARA). Remote access to the records through the archives is nearly impossible. Even before Covid the NARA could take months to find a file for remote researchers. I hired a researcher to get this record. The cost was $110.00 which is likely what the NARA would charge, and I had the file (110 pages) in less than a week.

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