Nearly 150 years ago, in September 1864, George A. Hitchcock looked up from his pocket diary, staring glassy-eyed through a hot Georgia rain. “Signs of scurvy have appeared in my mouth around the gums of my diseased teeth,” he wrote. “The gums swell up and turn dark purple. Where others have it and do not recover, this swelling spreads in a few days until the face and neck turn black as if blood settled all over it; then the teeth drop out—the jaws become set and a general rotting process is the last stage. With others the disease shows itself first in the limbs, rendering them stiff and helpless. My general feeling is one of complete lassitude and low spirits. Am feeling very poorly. Drew no bread today.”
Private Hitchcock was just 20 years old when he found himself at Andersonville Prison. When captured, he was a two-year veteran of the 21st Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, where he had served in Company A with his older brother, Henry, a three-year veteran. They came from Ashby, Mass., a small New England town along the busy Boston-to-Burlington, Vt., stage line. Their father was a wheelwright, and both boys, along with their other siblings, had been well educated and came to believe in their father’s views supporting abolition and “free soil, free speech, free labor and free men.” Henry enlisted in the 21st Massachusetts in the summer of 1861, but George had to wait for his 18th birthday. He kept a daily record of his entire wartime experience from 1862 through 1865. That diary and his postwar reminiscences of the conflict came to modern historians’ attention in 1997, when Ronald G. Watson edited and published Hitchcock’s writings in From Ashby to Andersonville: The Civil War Diary and Reminiscences, Dated 1890, of George A. Hitchcock, Private, Company A, 21st Massachusetts Regiment, August 1862–January 1865 (Savas). Hitchcock claimed that he had barely edited the journal, but no one knew for sure how true the 1890 manuscript was to the original diary.
Shortly after From Ashby to Andersonville appeared in print, Hitchcock’s great-great-granddaughter, Martha Hitchcock Price, contacted Watson and shared with him a copy of Hitchcock’s original diaries. The experts below are from Watson’s latest publication, “Death Does Seem to Have All He Can Attend To”: The Civil War Diary of an Andersonville Survivor (McFarland, 2014), which offers historians and enthusiasts fascinating insights into the experiences of a later enlistee whose dedication to the Union war effort and the cause of abolition never wavered despite the brutality of combat, disease and captivity. Watson has done a superb editing job, making clear (with brackets and italics) what was written during the war, where Hitchcock inserted minor commentary when he transcribed his diary in 1890, and also where Watson provides editorial context.
AUGUST 7, 1862
It was a fine, warm morning that dawned on the quiet little town of Ashby [Mass.] up among the hills of Middlesex [County] and the farmers made themselves busy in the hay-fields on either side of the road as Father and I rode to the depot. The familiar and peaceful scenes seemed to make my prospective future all the more intense and impressive, so that the repulses and difficulties met in the start did not dampen the ardor or overwhelm the patriotism. Lemuel Whitney and myself, armed with “Official Documents” from the Enlisting Officer Mr. B.W. Seamans of Ashby and countersigned by the Selectmen of the town, proceed to Boston….
AUGUST 10, 1862
We awake on our first Sabbath in camp to find a beautiful day and being so near the great city, swarms of Sabbath breakers overrun the camp all day bent on sightseeing. No religious exercises were held but during the morning the entire camp of recruits was ordered out and formed in a hollow square where the articles of war were read to us….A great deal of drunkenness and many arrests during the day have made the sacred hours seem profaned to me since I have never before been away from the quiet and holy influences of a genuine New England Sabbath.
By mid-September, Hitchcock had finally become a member of the 21st Massachusetts and caught up with his regiment in the field—just in time to serve with them at the battles of South Mountain and Antietam.
We find our quarters rather comfortable and are glad to embark on a very long train before noon. Before leaving B[altimore] a large train load of wounded came in from the battlefields of Bull Run and Chantilly….[A] sickening sight to raw recruits yet we are in for it and may have the opportunity to see something more yet.
We soon find the 21st camped by the side of the road at one o’clock in the morning. I soon found the sergeant’s tent in darkness and called Henry’s name. He answered me immediately and I was once more with my brother…. In the morning I find Henry looking very thin and worn down with the terrible hardships of the past few weeks, but we are rejoiced to meet each other again. We are roused at half past four and at half past five Burnside’s whole [IX] corps is on the road moving north westerly. I am loaded down with gun, cartridge box filled with cartridges, belt and cap box, two heavy blankets, overcoat, canteen and haversack. We halt in the afternoon, the brigade camping in a hollow about a mile and a half from Mechanicsville. This campaigning in real earnest comes hard with me and I am feeling well used up. We marched eight miles and camped near Brookville. Lem and I are in the first file of fours on the right of Company A—being two of the tallest [5-foot-11].
We have marched over seventy miles within the past week; a pretty good test for a raw recruit. We lie down on arms all the morning listening to the battle of artillery up the side of South Mountain and at half past one p.m. orders come for us to “Forward.” As we go through the village of Middleton signs of conflict increase. The churches are filling up with wounded, and from their steeple-tops the signal flags are hard at work. The streets are packed with troops hurrying forward and as we begin to ascend, a steady stream of wounded come pouring down from the front. The sights fairly sicken me and John Wallace cautions me—tells me to look only straight ahead.
We rush up at double-quick to support a battery… when, just as we form into line-of-battle [Fox’s Gap– Wise’s Field], a united volley from a rebel battery and musketry receive us crashing through the trees. Instantly the order comes “Lie down.” Down we all go and remain flat for twenty minutes or less, when the force in our front seems to be trying to flank us and we are ordered over to the left of the road which is here called “Fox’s Gap.” As we cross the deep cut, we see the road literally packed with dead and dying rebels who struggled so tenaciously to force back our resistless tide of troops, and here the horrors of war were revealed as we saw the heavy ammunition wagons come tearing up right over the dead and dying, mangling many in their terrible course, while the shrieks were perfectly heart-rending. Soon we reach an open field between two pieces of timber and hardly had we formed in line again before we receive a volley from the enemy posted behind a stone wall a half dozen rods in front. We lie down till the first volley is over and then charge up nearly to the wall but find the New York 51st just in front halting for orders. None of our field officers can be found, so Capt. [Henry] Richardson orders us to fall back to the timber in our rear, and from thence back a few rods to a cornfield, where we reform having found Col. [William S.] Clark. Here we learn that Gen. [Jesse] Reno has just been shot nearby. By this time darkness had settled over the conflict and the battle lulled, so we remain in our position all night, constantly expecting an attack but receiving none. The rebel loss is very heavy. [In 1890 Hitchcock added: “What were my feelings when first under fire? I was fearful that the rebels would hit somebody and I wished they would not hit me. How did I feel? My brain was constantly telegraphing my legs to take me down the hill. Yes, strange, as it may seem, I did not want to be shot and I thought I might be if I remained. I was not brave and I did not want to be a coward so I watch the others and did just as they did, carrying on a conflict on my own private account in my heart and with the help of God I won a victory.”]
…I first read President Lincoln’s [preliminary] Proclamation Emancipating all slaves after the first of next January which I believe is “just right.”
In early 1863, following the Union defeat at Fredericksburg, the 21st Massachusetts and the rest of the Army of the Potomac’s IX Corps were transferred to the Department of the Ohio. Having served with General Ambrose Burnside from the war’s outset, the 21st remained stalwart defenders of “their” general and embraced the opportunity to leave the squabbling of the Army of the Potomac for detached duty in Kentucky for most of 1863.
During their transfer to Kentucky, some members of the 21st Massachusetts, along with other soldiers, became involved in a riot in Columbus, Ohio, when the local provost marshal tried to keep the soldiers from venturing into town.
…When we reached Columbus in the afternoon we were met by generous friends who brought us lunch of sandwiches and boiled eggs. In return for the attention, the raging drunken fellows [who had already been intoxicated the day before in Pittsburgh] made a fuss with the Provost Guard whose orders were “not to allow our men to leave the depot and train.” The difficulty became serious when a large crowd of our men attacked the Guard with clubs and brick-bats knocking down and severely wounding one or two. The whole Company of Provost were then turned out who were ordered to load and fire a round of blank cartridges into the crowd…. This served only to madden the rioters the more, when a round of ball was put into the crowd which killed one and wounded several. Large numbers then rushed to the cars to secure their arms. In the car where I was there was fighting and struggling by men endeavoring to keep them in the car. In the midst of all this disgraceful scene Col. Clark jumped on board the engine and ordered the engineer to move along. So away we went leaving a large number of our boys who, we afterwards learned were properly cared for.
Hitchcock’s time in Kentucky was fairly quiet except for the end of the year, when he was involved in the Siege of Knoxville, Tenn. Hitchcock observed everything from regimental sports to rifts between Unionist- and Confederate-sympathizing Kentuckians, as well as whites’ tense relations with enslaved African Americans, who had not been freed by Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. JUNE 3
A Grand Match Game of Base-Ball was played outside of town on the Ticktown pike.
…I was on guard at the courthouse. A negro who had been convicted of trying to kill his master was taken from the jail this morning and after much delay, caused by difficulty in securing a guard (Henry was…requested to furnish escort which he refused to do considering the trial a farce and illegal). By noon a portion of the 14th Ky. Cav. escorted the convict out of town and hung him. The entire proceeding was a disgrace to a Christian country done under the name of the “law.” A small drum-cord was used which broke, of course and the strangled man was kept alive till a stronger rope was procured from town after a delay of some half an hour. Although many of the regiment witnessed the scene I had not the heart to go….
By late October, operations intensified for the 21st Massachusetts around Knoxville, inspiring Hitchcock to reflect on the course of the war.
…Piper and Adams were detailed to assist in laying the pontoons, so we surmise that we are in a position where we can resist a large force and if obliged to, can retreat to Knoxville without danger of being cut off. I was detailed to guard regimental headquarters at night, which sets in with very hard rain and intensely dark. When I go onto my beat at nine all fires are out and as watching is out of the question, I listen with all my five senses combined in the ear. After accustoming myself to the suspicious sounds in the vicinity and the distant reports of scout and picket firing, and satisfying myself that my body is actually present with my faithful old “Enfield,” both tightly grasped under my rubber….The rain pelting in torrents, not feeling that I can justly be court-martialed for deserting my post, I take a rapid flight (in mind) and with one bound I have crossed the Holston, Clinch, Cumberland, Allegheny, Blue Ridge and many other deep rivers and lofty ranges and find myself in the quiet home of my boyhood, nestled away up among the New England hills far away. Contrasting the two pictures, one where war’s desolating hand has never been felt and being away from any thoroughfare where a soldier’s uniform may be seen, and where the terrible conflict is only understood when read from the news-papers, even then the fact does not seem more of a present reality than the story of the “Revolution.” The other picture, seen only by the mind’s just now. The blackness of night, the bivouac exposed to the inclemency of approaching winter…the formidable army of Lee standing between us and our forces in Virginia, and the well-known fighting Corps of Longstreet closing in upon us with Gen. Bragg’s army to back it, living on half-rations, tents lost—“Halt! Who comes there?” “Corporal of the guard with the second relief.” “Advance.”—O, Well! Boy perhaps you haven’t seen all sides of army life yet. Suppose you crawl in and catch a nap before you go on post again; in the meantime, go to sleep and dream of mother, you great nineteen year old baby.
After gaining control of Knoxville, Hitchcock and the 21st Massachusetts returned to Camp Nelson, Ky., arriving in January 1864, about a month after George and Henry Hitchcock, along with most of their regiment, re-enlisted for the war’s duration. While Union forces were better supplied that winter, soldiers on both sides suffered from too little food and record low temperatures.
Rained all day, we made shelter of a fly and kept “decently uncomfortable” until relieved at night. As we return to camp we found great enthusiasm over recruits enlisting as veterans. Dr. Cutter was making a speech… showing the advantages of reenlisting and urging every man to do so. According to a promise from the Government of a furlough of thirty days and large bounties about three-fourths of the regiment have reenlisted, myself with the rest for the prospect of a thirty days rest at home is too tempting.
JANUARY 1, 1864
Toward morning the wind changed and commenced snowing, growing very cold and before daylight it had become sleet but at daylight the storm ceased and the sun came out of a bitter cold sky. By the help of enormous piles of rails for fires, we roast one side while the other side freezes or constantly changing position we manage to keep from becoming “baked ice.” We learn that the mercury fell to several degrees below zero. At night we drew rations of hardtack, sugar and coffee.
Cloudy, very cold, no thawing all day and all nature frozen stiff. Henry has come back to the regiment and has been assigned to Company A as commander. One hundred and seventy rebel prisoners came down from Knoxville whom we are to guard enroute for Camp Nelson. Half the regiment has been detailed to guard them so no picket detail from our regiment has been made. [In 1890 Hitchcock added: “Much interest is taken in our new allies—the graybacks; most of them are very ragged and barefoot.”]
Our ration today consisted of two ears of corn to a man. I fear we shall rob the poor mule. But our Johnnie friends seem well contented with our treatment of them, so I think their appetites may be of a more ethereal nature or else their idea of the Yankee ration is more exalted than mine. [In 1890 Hitchcock added: “As we sit gazing in awe and wonder at these emblems of a peaceful bucolic life, we are puzzled to know why the little boy in the reading book called for “only three grains of corn, mother.” Perhaps his teeth were poor and he couldn’t chew any more. But our rebel friends do not exhibit any unusual surprise at the “hog’s food” and seem well contented to fare as we do.”]
In February Hitchcock was hospitalized with “remittent bilious fever” and “dropsy” (edema). His request for a furlough was approved in early April, and his diary entries reveal glimpses of a home visit that are often missing from accounts, when soldiers were too busy—or too happy—to record events.
…Reach Worcester [Mass.] at two and having two hours to wait for the train, I stretch my limbs with a stroll on to Main Street and almost the first persons I meet as I turned on to Main Street were Father and Henry, a meeting entirely unexpected on both sides, and a very delightful one too. At four I went on to Fitchburg with Father. Had a sleigh-ride home in the evening and at nine was at the “home of my childhood” and in the arms of my mother, a complete surprise to her, also.
I was thoroughly exhausted and did not leave the house. Received several callers.
I suffered a most excruciating headache all the afternoon, and fearing an attack of brain-fever, Dr. Emerson…was called and I found relief. I now draw the curtain and shut out the curious eyes from the short three weeks delightful intercourse with family and friends.
[In 1890 Hitchcock added: “The furlough on which I visited home was called a “sick furlough” because it was granted by order of an army surgeon. It was of the utmost value to me at this time to complete the recovery of an illness which was induced by the terrible strain upon my constitution in the march over the mountains upon half or quarter rations. When therefore the end drew nigh, I was feeling better than I had been for a long time, and although the partings from home friends were painful, I was enthusiastic to get back into the ranks of the 21st and have a part in the glory which we could begin to see was coming through a perfected Army of the Potomac.”]
Hitchcock had been back with his regiment for just a few weeks when he was captured near Cold Harbor, Va., on June 2, 1864. He soon found himself at the infamous Camp Sumter in Andersonville, Ga., where his health would begin to deteriorate once more.
Cloudy and rain, very chilly and damp nights. Great numbers sick with colds. Drew a ration of hardtack (would it were hardtack), molasses and beans. The hardtack is a lot of condemned sea biscuit which the soldiers outside would not eat as it was so moldy. Nevertheless, the little handful was a desirable change from the “grits.”
Shower in the afternoon. A lively trade between the guard and prisoners. The prisoners articles of traffic are military buttons and the rebs—sweet potatoes. Some rebel officers visiting here rode around the dead line to view the human menagerie.
Four months a prisoner, and O how long ones. A few Sherman prisoners captured near Atlanta came in. Drew a splendid ration of beans—we know beans. We find it difficult to remember the Sabbath as it comes around but conclude that this is one, up in God’s country if we haven’t lost our reckoning.
It is very hard to sit day after day with nothing to occupy my thoughts, but the harrowing question constantly: “Must we die here?” Time can only ease my woe….
I was detailed to “pack” the sick and dead to and from the sheds for this I drew an extra ration of bread, rice and molasses. My teeth and jaws are quite sore.
Camp rumors of an exchange of ten thousand Potomac men. The wood detail has been stopped because some of the men have escaped. Salt is very scarce.
…Well, this is about the last of Andersonville for us and it is a general abandoning of this horrid place for orders came for us all to be ready to start at eleven in the forenoon, but as means of transportation did not arrive, we did not start until ten at night when we were roused out of a sound sleep. And went out through the gates in perfect darkness and in a pitting rain, a most fitting [and] appropriate time and aspect for us to pass out of a place that, if we are allowed to live long, will always combine more of the realities which we expect will be found in that dark and terrible region of despair of a future world known as “hell” than any other can to us. Thankful for past favors (we cannot feel too thankful that we have been allowed to remain to see almost the termination of the glorious reign of the Dutch Captain [Wirz]), we cast one (not long lingering) look back into the darkness and pack into old freight cars, eighty three in a car and move out on the northward track toward Macon.
[In 1890 Hitchcock added: “We now feel assured that this prison pen is about to be abandoned and whatever the future may have in store for us, we are devoutly thankful to look back into the darkness, lighted from the outside of the stockade by a few dim fires…and feel that we are permitted to get out of it alive while so many thousands of our comrades are now under the sod all around us.]
George Hitchcock was transferred from Andersonville to Camp Lawton, and then to Charleston, S.C., where he was exchanged in December 1864. He made it home to Massachusetts in time for Christmas. His rapid discharge and “out processing” enabled that reunion, but led to a lack of paperwork about his medical condition. He spent the next 39 years fling pension applications, all of which were denied for lack of evidence. The only surgeon who examined him before his discharge had died, and there was no proof of all that he had suffered in captivity. In 1913, a year before Hitchcock died, the Pension Bureau finally approved his claim.
Susannah Ural is the Blount Professor in Military History at the University of Southern Mississippi. Her latest book is Don’t Hurry Me Down to Hades: The Civil War in the Words of Those Who Lived It.
Originally published in the October 2014 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.