Union prisoner's letter reveals Augusta's Civil War past

Thursday, Dec. 27, 2012 1:59 PM
Last updated Monday, Dec. 31, 2012 1:35 AM
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A faded envelope discovered after 148 years sheds new light on Augusta’s little-known role as a place where Union prisoners of war were held during the Civil War.

This envelope was mailed by a Union prisoner in 1864.  SIEGEL AUCTION GALLERIES/SPECIAL
SIEGEL AUCTION GALLERIES/SPECIAL
This envelope was mailed by a Union prisoner in 1864.

Its author, Sgt. William S. Marshall, was a young Indiana soldier captured near Rowe Gap, Tenn., on May 3, 1863, and shuffled from place to place for the remainder of the conflict.

An envelope he addressed to his family in Green Castle, Ind., on Nov. 26, 1864, however, places him in Augusta, where a county jail at Fourth and Watkins streets was anecdotally known to have housed Union prisoners.

The rare cover, signed “W.S. Marshall, Adjt 51st Ind. Vols, Prisoner of War Augusta Ga,” was part of a collection sold earlier this month by Siegel Auction Galleries in New York, where it fetched $1,900 as a possibly one-of-a-kind postal artifact.

Although the stamped and canceled document carried the appropriate notations from Confederate censors, the correspondence it once contained is long gone.

Georgia was home to Andersonville, one of the largest and most notorious camps for Union prisoners. More recently, the short-lived Camp Lawton in Jenkins County was re-examined as an archaeological project.

Camp Lawton was established in late 1864 to relieve overcrowding and deplorable health conditions at Andersonville, where more than 13,000 Union POWs died.

Augusta was never widely known as a venue for war prisoners, but it was not unusual for cities to use existing facilities to house captured soldiers, said Erick Montgomery, the executive director of Historic Augusta Inc.

“I don’t know a thing about a full-fledged prison camp in Augusta, but there were prisoners of war here from time to time during the Civil War,” he said. “Certainly wounded prisoners were brought here after the Battle of Chickamauga late in 1863.”

The date on the envelope would have placed Marshall in Augusta during the confusing period when Gen. Sherman’s army was approaching the area.

“In November 1864 General Sherman was on his way through Georgia, and Augusta was full of refugees,” Montgomery said. “If Adjutant Marshall were being held somewhere in the path of Sherman, it seems logical they may have brought him to Augusta to hunker down until the bummers passed.”

The number of Union prisoners who lived in Augusta during the war remains unknown, but records for Augusta’s Magnolia Cemetery show that some of them died here.

According to the cemetery’s database, about 90 of the nearly-300 Civil War soldiers interred there were federal prisoners, from places as far away as Maine, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, who succumbed to ailments ranging from “consumption” and “diarrhea” to bullet wounds.

The square brick building that served as the Richmond County jail during the Civil War is long gone, Montgomery said, and the site is now occupied by the present-day law enforcement complex.


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