As the Union position crumbled before a Confederate assault on the second day of the 1863 Battle of Chickamauga, Sergeant Clark N. Thorp bolted with his unit, the 19th U.S. Infantry, in a mad dash for the rear. “Our retreat,” Thorp would later write, “was about such as you would have seen a rabbit make when the dogs are close behind.” Amid the smoke and noise of battle, Thorp walked straight into a Rebel line—and 19 months inside Confederate prisons. He would spend 11 of those months in Andersonville, the South’s largest prison, in Americus, Georgia.
Thorp’s memoir—originally a typed transcript—was obtained by contributing editor George Skoch about 20 years ago at a Civil?War Roundtable “sale/swap meet.” Skoch learned that Thorp, a 22-year-old Regular Army officer from Sylvania, Ohio, at the time of his Andersonville imprisonment, frequently recounted his story to local church and youth groups between 1896 and 1924, just three years before his death. “To my knowledge,” Skoch said, “his story has never before been published.” Spelling and punctuation from the original have been preserved. The text has been edited for length; paragraph breaks were added for readability.
At the time we arrived [in early May 1864] I suppose there were about 15 to 18 acres enclosed by a huge fence, built by hewing pine logs, 24 feet long, on two sides and placing them tight in the ground, about eight feet deep, leaving 16 feet out of the ground. At a distance of about two hundred feet apart, outside the stockade, there were rude ladders erected leading to a platform about twelve or thirteen feet above the ground, on which the guards stood. They were protected from the sun’s rays and from storms by a rough board roof.
The height of the platform would give the guard easy oversight of the interior of the prison and the top of the stockade made a good rest for his gun. Many of the guards lost no opportunity to shoot at a Yank. There was a dead-line, formed by driving stakes into the ground, leaving about three feet high and sixteen feet from the Stockade. On these stakes were placed sticks of wood 1” x 3.” Beyond this line none dared to go unless he wished to commit suicide….Words of mine are altogether inadequate to describe our feelings when the ponderous gates swung open and we saw the interior of Andersonville. Here was a picture of squalor and misery seldom equaled in the sight of man—thousands of men, many of them nearly naked, barefoot, black and filthy beyond the power of words to describe. The space inside was covered, in great part, by rude shelters of all descriptions and sizes, from the some-what commodious tent made by sewing two army blankets together and stretching them over a ridge-pole and pinning the outer ends to the ground, under which several men could crawl for shelter, to a little affair, made by stretching shirts, blouses, etc., in like manner, which could scarcely shelter two men.
There were no regular streets except the two running into the stockade from the two gates. Spaces were reserved at intervals where men could get into line to be counted. All other spaces were filled up as any man, or squad, chose in pitching their tents….I speak of tents, not because we all had them by any means, but because many were fortunate enough to have one or a portion of one and if so it meant a great deal—it became a question of life or death to us.
We had now been in captivity about eight months and our clothing was in rags though we had been careful to keep it. You must understand that the Confederate government made no attempt to house its Andersonville prisoners….Here we were, by the thousands, taking the weather night and day as it came, without any covering except the clothes worn throughout the twenty four hours. Let me say here that during June and July 1864 it rained for twenty-one consecutive days and the rain-fall amounted at times almost to a deluge. During a heavy storm none of us could keep from getting soaked and those poor fellows who were without any shelter were much worse off than those who had only a blanket for a roof.
I have seen men, by the hundred, standing huddled together for mutual warmth and support (you could not fall very well with men on every side standing tight to you) but these men were weakened by disease and starvation, and during the night many would have to lie down and, in the morning, if it had rained hard you would approach a man who looked like a pile of sand, the heavy rain having thrown sand over his prostrate body. Many of them would be dead in the morning and would be carried out to the deadhouse by their comrades….A sluggish stream separated the north from the south side of the prison and this was all the provision made by the Johnnies for the drink needed by the prisoners. This stream was surrounded by wet, marshy ground which was unfit for men to camp in, nor could they occupy all of the hill-side so that much of the space was worthless as a camp, but very valuable as a source of disease and death.
The water would spread out over this low ground, especially near the west or upper side of the stockade. Into this the men would wade by the hundreds, with the canteens of their squads upon their backs, waiting their turn to get near the dead-line, where they might reach above the muddy water, to get some which was clear. [If the] wrong kind of a guard happened to be on duty, he was apt to get a bullet into his head.
Our provisions were very much short of the necessary. If cooked rations were issued we would get a piece of corn-bread about 2” x 2” x 3,” the meal being ground cob and all, coarser than one in the north would buy for his horse, a few beans (perhaps one-half pint) and a couple of ounces of pork or bacon….Soon the meat supply failed and I have seen a team loaded up high with the under jaws of hogs, smoked and old, and as we did not get a jaw-bone to each man you may guess that we were not fattened by them.
Our daily occupations were as follows: We would sleep all we could, say 12 or 15 hours daily, getting up sometime before noon. We would then (I am speaking of the most careful among us) remove our garments, which we never removed for sleeping, one at a time and spend an hour skirmishing, looking carefully along the seams, where the enemy were likely to be in hiding after having taken to the woods, so to speak, at the approach of daylight. These enemies of ours were evilly disposed and preferred making their attacks in the night time and lying in seclusion in the day time.
Many of the men had no clothing or blankets to protect themselves, and at night, would dig into the banks and crawl in until they were nearly hidden and often, when a heavy rain came up, the earth would become loosened and cave in, burying all the men sleeping in the hole or cave. I have seen several pairs of feet projecting out of the ground in the morning after a rain. Tunnelling under the stockade, for the purpose of escape was often undertaken but seldom amounted to anything except hard work and the discouragement of defeat, as in almost all cases some one would inform on them and the Rebels would come in, dig down to the tunnel and fill it up.
During June it became quite the fashion to dig wells. Many wells were dug and the condition of a large part of the prisoners was much improved. The party with whom I associated were fortunate enough to secure good water at a distance of about 18 feet down.
The soil was sandy and apt to cave so that it was necessary to dig the well considerable wider at the top so that it would have quite a slope to prevent caving in. The means used for removing the earth were generally a pair of pants legs tied at the bottom and were hauled up with ropes made from strips of clothing, blankets, etc.
Privations, lack of vegetable food and lack of exercise [led many of us to contract that] dread disease, scurvy. The mouth would become infected, the gums swollen so the teeth could not be closed together and we would be unable to chew any solid food. The gums would become black and decayed and, in my own case, with long and sharp finger nails I could gouge away parts which were in such condition as to be exceedingly offensive to the smell.
Limbs would be drawn up to the body and the back of them would become discolored and from the heels to the hips resembled, in color, a very severe black and blue spot. A dropsical swelling of the flesh would take place and I could pull the flesh of my feet out of shape or press an indentation into the flesh and it would remain in that shape until action replaced it.
We termed our habitations “shebangs,” a sneak thief a “flanker,” a robber a “raider.” There being no law within the stockade, evil men among us took to robbing from their comrades. There was an organization of robbers so bold and daring that they would go in squads through the prison and whatever they saw, in the way of clothing or blankets, they captured. For instance, four men would be lying under a fairly good blanket, a raider would come along and lay hold of the blanket and if the men under it attempted to reclaim it each man would quickly receive a blow on the head from a short club in the hands of the raiders companions. [These] raiders committed several cruel and vicious murders. At last the Rebels were appealed to and a guard of a few men under a non-commissioned officer entered the prison and appealed to the Yanks to organize and hunt these desperadoes down.
All that was necessary to cause swift vengeance to fall upon the heads of the evil-doers was done. They were chased and beaten with clubs and captured. The Confederate authorities rendered assistance in the prosecutions which followed by allowing a jury to be impanelled and a regular court to be instituted with able lawyers from among the prisoners as judges and counsel for the defense and prosecution.
The witnesses were subpeoned, and after a fair and impartial trial, six of the raiders were convicted and hanged, and from that time forward flanking and raiding were unknown among the prisoners.
In the month of July, I became so helpless that a few friends volunteered to carry me out to the gate, in hopes that I might be admitted to the hospital. Many poor fellows as helpless as myself were borne by comrades and laid upon the ground near the gates, waiting for the hour to come when they could be seen by Doctors, on the outside of the inner gate.
Here we lay in the broiling sun, between two stockades where no breath of air could come and many of us were not even looked at by the doctors. During the day one-horse wagons were used as ambulances in carrying the sick to the hospital….On being taken from the ambulance I was set upon the ground among a lot of other comrades. Soon a hospital steward came along and eight of us were assigned to the first tent in the ward, where we slept protected from the weather for the first time since the 1st day of May. Our rations were not materially different, but we received some medicine for our scurvy, although not very much to brag about. The medicine consisted of less than one pint of, shall I say, swill and prepared thus: a bushel or so of corn-meal was put into a barrel at the head of the ward and filled with water from a neighboring swamp, a stream from which ran across the lower end of the hospital grounds, this, when allowed to sour, became the medicine which was to cure our scurvy.
A few days after we had been thus fortunate in securing a tent on entering the hospital, a few boards were hauled into the hospital and unloaded near our tent. We inquired for what purpose and were informed that all tents were to have bunks put into them. The seven men in the tent with me, all scurvy patients, were quite an intelligent body of men and pretty good talkers and we proceeded at once, with arguments, to persuade the hospital steward to have the boards put into our tent first, which he finally consented to do, and for the first time our beds were raised from the ground. Our improvement after this was quite marked.
Gradually I became able to walk with my limbs a little straighter until I could stand with my knees at an angle of about 90 degrees, resting my weight upon my toes. At this time came the terrible news that our tent was to be used for gangrene patients and the following day we were separated and I never knew what became of my seven comrades.
I was put into a tent which would hold four men but the only occupant when I entered was a poor, moaning helpless wretch who died the same night. There had been as many as four deaths in one day in some of these tents and I presumed this one was as bad as any. Each of these poor fellows was absolutely helpless and had been so for many weeks and each one contributed to the vermin which formed a large part of the floor of the tent. The rest of the floor was sand about 3 or 4 inches deep…no more awful misery could be suffered than fell to my lot that night.
After enduring all that human nature could I took up my abode in the street, about morning, and was there when the steward came around with his assistants and carried out into the street those who had died during the night, which included my tent mate. The steward inquired what I was doing out there. I told him I had moved and preferred to sleep outside. He informed me that I would have to go back into the tent. I told him I would not and called him to witness and, hobbling back into the tent on my toes, I pulled back my sleeves and scooped up a handful of the tent floor. The fleas were constantly springing from the sand scattering much of it and the vermin crawling out would take more of it. I constantly brushed my wrists to keep them from crawling up on my body.
When the sand became quiet in my hand not much more than half of the amount I had scooped up remained, I threw the rest down and turning fiercely upon the steward demanded if he had the heart to see a man put into such a place as that to sleep and telling him that, under no circumstances except being tied in the tent, would I again attempt to occupy it. A parley ensued when he offered me a nurse’s tent, with bunks in it, providing I would take the tent which I had formerly vacated and care for the eight gangrene patients with which it had been filled.
During this conversation I had been standing with bent legs and upon my toes and, casting my eyes downward, I said to him, “I am a pretty subject to attempt to take care of eight men covered with gangrenous sores.” He urged me to take it as it was the only alternative and I accepted and for three hours I stood upon my toes, attending to my patients. One man, among the eight, had 35 open sores.
The exercise, the imperative necessity for hard work, a good place in which to sleep caused my health and condition to rapidly improve and it was not many weeks before I could walk and touch my heels to the ground, with the limbs nearly straight. My mouth, also, gradually improved until I could chew my rations.
While still an inmate of the hospital in the early part of December 1864, the Confederates [attempted to improve the hospital by building sheds with the assistance of Yankee workmen]. Having been a wood-worker previous to entering the army, I was fortunate enough to be selected as one and, after being paroled, wherein we promised not to attempt to escape, we began our work.
You can scarcely imagine the delight with which we hailed our greater liberty, having no guards over us and allowed to roam at will, outside of working hours.
During [our Sunday] rambles five of the party, with which I was connected, met a colored man from the banks of the Flint River six miles away from Andersonville and, in conversation with him, conceived an idea of escape by way of the Flint River to the blockading squadron in the Appalachian Bay [Apalachee Bay] in the Gulf of Mexico.
Plans were all laid for an escape and the evening set when he agreed to meet us on a certain road and [in trade for blankets and other provisions] pilot us to the Flint River. After having left camp we failed to meet our colored friend but were never able to tell whether through his fault or ours. We started down the river on foot, knowing full well that, in the morning, the Andersonville pack of hungry blood-hounds would be after us.
After traveling a few miles as rapidly as possible, Thorp and his comrades located a boat and, in a hollow tree, its paddles. They started moving downstream, but they encountered one hazard after another: rapids, shoaling waters, submerged boulders, slippery rock and seething torrents. Finally Thorp and his party abandoned the water in favor of the riverbank and a chance for some shut-eye. They were awakened by a locomotive whistle, and discovered a nearby railroad depot.
Many Rebel soldiers were evidently taking a train that stood by the depot [so] we began to get away from that river as fast as possible. Keeping in the woods, [we soon] ran across a party of Negro men and women working in a field. I don’t know whether they went without their dinner or not, but it was pork-killing time and they brought us a pork stew with corn pones enough for ten men.
[Later the slaves had told us that] a few miles below the city there was a large spring only a short distance from the river. They also told us that 5,000 Rebels were encamped there. After striking the river we followed the bank until we came to the creek formed by the spring. We could see the bottom plainly and supposed we could wade it. Jones soon had his clothing off and commenced to cross the creek. By the time he was six feet from shore he was in water up to his neck and we knew that if we crossed that stream we must swim and two of the party could not do that.
After consultation it was deemed best to try and make a circuit around the Rebel camp. [But after encountering a guard at a Rebel outpost, we returned] to the river where we finally induced our timid (they were only afraid of water) comrades to swim. Now commenced a careful march down the river and before daylight we had put many miles between that Rebel camp and ourselves.
After sleeping until noon (we could only guess at the time) we decided that as the woods were dense we could run no risk by pushing on and we started down the river by daylight. [Soon] we heard the unmistakable sounds of paddles and saw just what we were hunting after, a boat, but we saw more than that and the latter did not please us so well. There were three Rebel soldiers being ferried across the river by slaves. We watched until the Negroes brought the boat back to our side of the river. [No sooner had we] secreted ourselves in some bushes [than they] stopped right in front of us and only a few feet away. They were elderly men and one of them could easily have passed as a white man had it not been for his dress and association with the slave. We engaged them in conversation, held out to them a glowing description of the time when they would all be free, and while the darker of the two men appeared to be very friendly and frank the white one acted in a manner that failed to inspire any of our party with confidence.
After a while I said, “Sam, we want your boat,” but each of the slaves appeared badly frightened and said that their old master would kill them sure if they lost that boat. Perceiving, at once, that I had made a mistake in mentioning the boat, I said, “Oh well, if that is the case we will try going by land.”
The darker of the men volunteered to pilot us some distance on our way and the other fellow left for home. After proceeding in a zig-zag, round about way, well calculated to mix us up in regard to our direction, he left us just as darkness set in. His footsteps had hardly died away in the distance when two or three of the party said, in concert, “Now boys, for the boat.” We found the boat, large enough to ferry a span of horses, a cumbersome and unwieldy affair which would restrict our speed to about that of the current. The bottom had a covering of boards and prying up two of them we had a pair of paddles.
Towards morning a heavy fog settled over the river making it difficult and dangerous to proceed. The country appeared to be open and settled, and we concluded to go on in hopes of reaching a wood. When we were compelled to land we found we were in a large grove of young forest trees without underbrush or means of concealment.
We built up a fire, imprudently, of course, and lay down to sleep. When we woke up we found the day well advanced and that the fog had lifted. After some hours we discovered three boys, two black and one white, approaching the grove seated upon two horses. [When they saw us, they turned their horses and galloped off.] Our situation now was nearly hopeless. We were in Mitchell County, Ga., and on the opposite bank was Baker Co., notorious for its numerous packs of blood-hounds. We argued that if we took the boat and proceeded down stream that the pursuing parties would head us off and if we crossed the river into Baker county they would soon have a pack of trained hounds after us.
An hour or so later our expectations of pursuit were realized. A party of four white men and three negroes, mounted upon dripping horses, approached the grove from down stream and the leader, a white man, of 50 or 60 years, with a gun, asked what we were doing there.
They were evidently much excited, more so than we were. Leaning on my left elbow and looking up at him I coolly informed him that we were resting a bit and he informed us that he should have to place us under arrest, as he was a confederate soldier on furlough, and would be held accountable if we escaped. We told him that we expected that and were ready to go with him.
[Taken to the old gentleman’s home], we were greeted by his son-in-law, a Rebel Major. He invited us to his plantation, where he gave us a good supper, and said that in the morning he would hitch up and let his boys take us over to Newton [to begin] our return trip, putting the best face upon it we could.
Arriving at Newton we were turned over to a Provost Marshall [who] treated us very kindly, furnished us with all the tobacco we wished, loaded us with eatables and peanuts, and locked us in a room in the court house for the night. Having no chairs, beds or blankets, to make us comfortable, we got somewhat restless in the morning and some one of the party, happened to have a pocket-knive, we took off the catch which held the door and when our jailor came he found his prisoners sitting on the court-house steps enjoying his tobacco.
The day was Sunday and we did not march. The following morning we started on foot for Albany. There we were put on a train for Andersonville.
Happening to be the first to step off the car on our arrival, I found myself in front of Captain [Henry] Wirz. He said, “What is your name?” I told him, “Thorp.” “Oh yes, you are the five fellows what runned away last week.” I told him, “Yes sir, we are the fellows.” The Captain, one of the most violent tempered men I have ever met, flew into a violent passion and began a tirade of abuse interspersed with many oaths and uncomplimentary names. He ordered us to be taken to the little stockade [where] prisoners were severely punished. But, strange to say, we were never punished for an hour. A day or two later we were turned into the stockade.
Spring came at last and rumors of an exchange became more and more frequent, and finally a large number of prisoners were taken from the stockade and sent to Vicksburg. After a few days another party were sent away and you can imagine with what utter despondency those left would see the gates closed and we inside.
At length the day came when we were to leave the stockade, the last of all the thousands who had suffered there. When I glanced around me, on going through the gates, I presume there were not one hundred men following and the stockade was tenantless, forever, thank God.
Thorp and his fellow soldiers were transported to Jacksonville, Fla., then on USS Constitution to “Camp Parole” in Annapolis, Md. There, they were issued rations, clothing and back pay before being sent to their respective regimental headquarters for discharge. Thorp was mustered out of the Army at Fort Wayne, Mich., on June 22 and returned to Ohio. He found work as a railroad busman, and in 1868 married, eventually raising two sons and a daughter. Despite his Andersonville ordeal, he would live another six decades before dying in August 1927, at the age of 86, in Lakewood, Ohio.
This article was edited by George Skoch and originally published in the October 2007 issue of Civil War Times Magazine. For more great articles, subscribe to Civil War Times magazine today!