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Chapter 4: Andersonville Prison, Georgia

By Gene Estensen

 

The cemetery at Andersonville PrisonAndersonville Prison stands as a monument to America's prisoners of war. Veterans of all wars visit this place and all but the strongest are moved to tears by what they hear and see. This was a place, in South Georgia, where Union prisoners suffering from hunger and sickness turned into animals and preyed upon their fellow man. They died by the hundreds, then by the thousands at this place. The dead were placed, front to back, in long rows. The last man who died at Andersonville was Knud Hanson of the 1st Wisconsin Cavalry. He was placed in grave number 12,848. Civil War prisons on both the Union and Confederate side were terrible places.

John L. Ramsom of the Ninth Michigan Cavalry was only 20 years old when he was a prisoner at Andersonville. His diary has been made into a book. He wrote:

In April one in every sixteen died.
In May one in every twenty-six died.
In June one in every twenty-two died.
In July one in every eighteen died.
In August one in eleven died.
In September one in every three died.
In October one in every two died.
In November one in every three died.

Thanks to careful recording of the names by Confederate soldiers, a list of the dead survived the war. After the war, a little known battlefield nurse by the name of Clara Barton came to this place and saw to it that each man received his own headstone with reference to his name and regiment.

 

The 15th Wisconsin at Andersonville

Hans Gundersen Haugen from Hjartdal was captured during the Battle of New Hope Church in Georgia in May of 1864. He was sent to Andersonville prison and by October he was dead. He was one of 43 of his regiment that died there. However, it is from the survivors of Andersonville that we learn of the horrors experienced there. Ole Steensland of Moscow, Iowa County, Wisconsin survived to tell his story. The author wishes to thank his ancestor Edith Lea of Milan, Minnesota for providing materials for this article.

Ole Steensland of Company E and Osmund Johnson of Company K of the 15th were both over eleven months in Andersonville, and were according to reports, two who remained the longest, alive. Years later, on August 29, 1900, Ole Steensland spoke at the Regiment's reunion in Chicago. He reflected on that day at the battle of Chickamauga when Ole Milesten was killed on his right and Christian Thompson on his left. He took a bullet through the cap and was captured. "Sometimes, when I was a prisoner of war, I wished I had died that day, so that I did not have to suffer and rot to death in the South's prisons. I will say to you who did not see the horrors of that hell, Andersonville, cannot imagine the terrible sights and all the misery there was there. The Southerners would gather up the dead and place them in rows between the stockade and the deadline. There they dug a ditch 6 feet wide, so they could put them down side by side. They hauled the dead to the graveyard in wagonloads, as the farmers haul fence posts. Robberies and disorder were commonplace. When new prisoners came in that the Rebels had not stripped, then our men stripped them, so we could hear screams of murder and hold-ups every night. It was complete anarchy that reigned. At last, the better element organized themselves and called themselves 'regulators'. The regulators asserted control and six of the prisoners were found guilty of murder and robbery and were doomed to be hanged on July 11, 1864. The first thing that happened was that one of the guilty men tried to escape, but they found him in the swamp and brought him back. So they were taken up the scaffold and shown Eternity...all except one...a big Irishman for whom the noose broke and he came down all right. You can be sure he cried for mercy, but there was no mercy for him. One man named Limber Jim said, 'you robbed me of $80 when I came in here, and now you shall, by God, hang'. And hanged he was."

After the war, when asked how it was that so many Norwegians were taken prisoner, one old veteran replied, "We didn't know enough to beat it when we had the opportunity - when the others ran". "We thought we could make out a little longer; then it was too late to escape - they took us". "Some were left lying on the ground because they waited too long".

Osmund Johnson, the long-term survivor of Andersonville was described as being very skinny and unable to stand due to the effects of scurvy. He is one of the very few 15th soldiers who survived such a long stay in Andersonville. As a result of his experience as a prisoner, it is said he believed virtually everything was edible and for the remainder of his life could not tolerate hearing complaints about food.

Author:
The author is Gene Estensen and his ancestors were pioneers from Tinn, Telemark, Norway. He was born at Morris, Stevens County, Minnesota but now resides at Marietta, Georgia. He is a Civil War history buff and lives on the battlefield at Kennesaw Mountain.

   

Photos from Andersonville-2007

In 2007, Gene Estensen escorted Norwegian visitor Torbjørn Greipsland, author of "Nordmenn i dødsleirene". This book, with selected chapters in English, tells how the American Civil War touched nearly every Norwegian family. It focuses on the Union soldiers that died at Andersonville, Georgia and some that nearly starved to death there. Gene and Torbjørn went to Andersonville on Memorial Day, 2007. They sought out the 40 or so graves that Torbjørn had identified as Norwegian immigrant soldiers, mostly from the Midwest. Many were from the "Norwegian Regiment", the 15th Wisconsin Regiment. They placed a small Norwegian flag at each grave, next to the American flag that had been put in place for Memorial Day, and took a picture of each grave.

Upon returning to Norway, Torbjørn wrote an article about each soldier and sent it to the newspaper near that soldier's place of birth in Norway. The articles began to appear in newspapers across Norway in late 2007, accompanied by small pictures of the gravesites.  You can read two of these articles (in Norwegian):

  • The first article focuses attention on Osmund Johnson Tveit, who was a brother of Telelaget's genealogist Darrel Johnson's great-grandfather. 

  • The second article remembers Andersonville prisoners Ole Stensland and Bjørn Aslaksen Svalastoga, and acknowledges Gene's valuable insight and contributions to his visit.

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