March 2, 1864 A Civil War Story

“As we entered the place, a spectacle met our eyes that almost froze our blood with horror, and made our hearts fail within us. Before us were forms that had once been active and erect;—stalwart men, now nothing but mere walking skeletons, covered with filth and vermin. Many of our men, in the heat and intensity of their feeling, exclaimed with earnestness. ‘Can this be hell?’”.

In the early days of the Civil War, the government in Washington refused to recognize the Confederate states’ government, believing such recognition tantamount to legitimizing an illegal entity.  Accordingly, the Union refused formal agreement regarding the exchange of prisoners. Following the capture of over a thousand federal troops at the first battle of Bull Run (1st Manassas), a joint resolution in Congress called for President Lincoln to establish a prisoner exchange agreement.

In July 1862, Union Major General John Dix and Confederate Major General D. H. Hill met under flag of truce to draw up an exchange formula, regarding the return of prisoners. The “Dix-Hill Cartel” determined that Confederate and Union Army soldiers were exchanged at a prescribed rate:  captives of equivalent ranks were exchanged as equals.  Corporals and Sergeants were worth two privates.  Lieutenants were four and Colonels fifteen, all the way up to Commanding General, equivalent to sixty private soldiers.

Similar exchange rates were established for Naval personnel.ECWCTOPICPrisonerExchangeandParolePICParoledocumentsmall

President Lincoln’s emancipation proclamation of September 1862 not only freed those enslaved in Confederate territories, but also provided for the enlistment of black soldiers.  The government in Richmond responded that such would be regarded as runaway slaves and not soldiers.  Their white officers would be treated as criminals, for inciting servile insurrection.

The policy was made clear in July 1863, following the Union defeat at Fort Wagner, an action depicted in the 1989 film, Glory.  The Dix-Hill protocol was formally abandoned on July 30.  Neither side was ready for the tide of humanity, about to come.

The US Army began construction the following month on the Rock Island Prison, built on an Island between Davenport Iowa and Rock Island, Illinois. In time, Rock Island would become one of the most infamous POW camps of the north, housing some 12,000 Confederate prisoners, seventeen per cent of whom, died in captivity.illinois-1864-rock-island-bird-s-eye-view-114349732-5b6e3d7b4cedfd0025fd2c3d

On this day in 1864, the first prisoners had barely moved into the most notorious POW camp of the Civil War, the first Federal soldiers arriving on February 28.

This was Camp Sumter, better known as Andersonville.  Conditions in this place defy description. Sergeant Major Robert H. Kellogg of the 16th Regiment Connecticut Volunteers, entered this hell hole on May 2:

“As we entered the place, a spectacle met our eyes that almost froze our blood with horror, and made our hearts fail within us. Before us were forms that had once been active and erect;—stalwart men, now nothing but mere walking skeletons, covered with filth and vermin. Many of our men, in the heat and intensity of their feeling, exclaimed with earnestness. ‘Can this be hell?’”.

Over 45,000 Union troops would pass through the verminous open sewer known as Andersonville. Nearly 13,000 died there.

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Andersonville

Now all but forgotten, the ‘Eighty acres of Hell’ located in the Bronzeville neighborhood of Chicago was home to some forty thousand Confederate POWs between 1862 and 1865, seventeen per cent of whom, never left.  No southern soldier was equipped for the winters at Camp Douglas, nor the filth, or the disease.

Nearby Oak Woods Cemetery is home to the largest mass grave, in the western hemisphere.

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Camp Douglas of Chicago, known to many as “The Andersonville of the North’

Union and Confederate governments established 150 such camps between 1861 and 1865, makeshift installations of rickety wooden buildings and primitive sewage systems, often little more than tent cities.   Some 347,000 human beings languished in these places, victims of catastrophically poor hygiene, harsh summary justice, starvation, disease and swarming vermin.

The training depot designated camp Rathbun near Elmira New York became the most notorious camp in the north, in 1864.  12,213 Confederate prisoners were held there, often three men to a tent.  Nearly 25% of them died there, only slightly less, than Andersonville.   The death rate in “Hellmira” was double that of any other camp in the north.

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Hellmira

Historians debate the degree to which such brutality resulted from deliberate mistreatment, or economic necessity.

The Union had more experience being a “country” at this time, with well established banking systems and means of commerce and transportation.  For the south, the war was an economic catastrophe.  The Union blockade starved southern ports of even the basic necessities, while farmers abandoned fields to take up arms. Most of the fighting of the Civil War took place on southern soil, destroying incalculable acres of rich farm lands.

The capital at Richmond saw bread riots as early as 1862.  Southern Armies subsisted on corn meal and peanuts.  The Confederate government responded by printing currency, about a billion dollars worth.  By 1864, a Confederate dollar was worth 5¢ in gold.  Southern inflation climbed past 6000 percent, by 1865.POW StoryCaptain Henry Wirz, commandant of the stockade at Camp Sumter, was tried and executed after the war, only one of two men to be hanged for war crimes.  Captain Wirz appeared at trial reclined on a couch, advanced gangrene preventing him from sitting up.  To some, the man was a scapegoat. A victim of circumstances beyond his control. To others he is a demon, personally responsible for the hell of Andersonville prison.

I make no pretense of answering such a question.  The subject is capable of inciting white-hot passion, from that day to this.

A personal note:

Six generations from his immigrant ancestor, James Tyner could trace his lineage through veterans of the Indian wars, the Revolution and the War of 1812.  One of those farmers who left the soil to fight for his country, Tyner died in captivity in “Hellmira”, about a month before General Robert E. Lee met General Ulysses Grant, at Appomattox.

Corporal Jacob Deppen of the 128th PA Infantry was captured and held prisoner for a time, before being paroled.  Deppen re-enlisted with the Army of the James.  He and the sole surviving member of the four Tyner brothers, Nicholas Tyner, would lay down their weapons at Appomattox.  Former enemies turned countrymen, if they could only figure out how to do it.

William Christian Long, the first to ‘anglicize’ his name from Wilhelm Lang, was Blacksmith to the 17th Pennsylvania Cavalry.  Long survived the war, his name may be found on the Pennsylvania monument, at Gettysburg.

Archibald Blue of Drowning Creek North Carolina wanted no part of what he saw as a “rich man’s war” and ordered his five sons away.  He was murdered for his politics in 1865.  The killer was never found.

Four men who played a part in the most destructive war, in American history.  Without any of these four, I wouldn’t be here to tell their story.

Rick Long

Family Plot
Family cemetery, Scotland County, North Carolina

 

March 30, 1945 We’re All Jews Here

“We’re not doing that.  We’re all turning out”.

“First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out— because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me”. – Martin Niemöller

last_great_act_of_defiance1Before the age of the internet meme,  office jokes and bits of folk wisdom were passed around and copied and copied again.  There was one, “The Last great of Defiance“, which will live for all time as my favorite.  The picture speaks for itself.  I had one on the wall, for years.

This is one of those stories.

The last great effort of German arms burst out of the frozen Ardennes forest on December 16, 1944, aiming for the vital port at Antwerp.

Unternehmen Wacht am Rhein“, (“Operation Watch on the Rhine”) was a tactical surprise for the Wehrmacht, as allied forces were driven back through the densely forested regions of France, Belgium and Luxembourg. Wartime news maps showed a great inward “bulge” in the lines, and the name stuck. The Battle of the Bulge was the largest and bloodiest battle fought by American forces in World War 2, fought in the harshest winter conditions in recorded history and involving some 610,000 GIs.

malmed1Prisoners were swept up by the thousands, and faced an uncertain future.  In Malmedy, Belgium, seventy-five captured Americans were marched into an open field and machine gunned by members of the 1st SS Panzer Division (Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler), a part of 6th Panzer Army.

On December 16, the all-black 333rd Field Artillery Battalion of the racially segregated US Army put up an heroic defense outside the town of Wereth, Belgium, using their 155mm guns to delay the German advance. Desperately outnumbered, the 333rd was overrun the following day, groups of men scattering to escape as best they could. Eleven soldiers made their way to the home of Mathias Langer, the Mayor of Wereth.

To shelter allied troops under German occupation was to risk summary execution. Despite the obvious risk to their own lives, Matthias and his wife Maria took these men in and attempted to hide them, in their home. When German troops arrived, the eleven surrendered rather than risk the lives of their benefactors.

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Movie poster for the 2011 film, “The Wereth Eleven”

The prisoners were marched out of sight and murdered, every one of them. The Wereth 11 were lost in the confusion of the Bulge, their bodies hidden under the snow until Spring melt. Their story was lost to history, for the next fifty years.

Nazi atrocities were not limited to Allied troops.  By some accounts, more civilians were killed during the Battle of the Bulge than the last four years.  When the fighting was over, more than 115 bodies were found in the towns of Ster and Parfondruy, alone.

For Master Sargent Roderick “Roddie” Edmonds, the war ended on December 19, swept up with hundreds of American troops and taken prisoner.  These were the lucky ones, escaping those first white-hot moments of capture to be sent to a German prisoner-of-war camp.  He was later transferred to another camp near Ziegenhain, Germany.  At 24, M/Sgt Roddie Edmonds was the senior non-commissioned officer at Stalag IX-A, responsible for 1,275 American POWs.

The Wehrmacht had harsh anti-Jew policies and kept Jewish POWs in strict segregation.  In the East, Russian Jewish POWs were sent directly to extermination camps.  The future was more uncertain for Jewish POWs, in the west.  Many were worked to death in slave labor camps.

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On January 27, the first day at Stalag IX-A, commandant Siegmann ordered Edmonds: All American Jews were to identify themselves, at the following day’s assembly.  The word went out to all five barracks:  “We’re not doing that.  We’re all turning out“.

The following morning, 1,275 POWs presented themselves.  Every. Single. Man.

Siegmann was perplexed.  “They can’t all be Jews!”  As senior NCO, Edmonds spoke for the group.  “We’re all Jews here“.  The Nazi commandant was apoplectic, pressing a Luger into Edmonds’ forehead.  This is your last chance.

Edmonds gave his name, rank and serial number, and then said:  ‘If you are going to shoot, you are going to have to shoot all of us because we know who you are and you’ll be tried for war crimes when we win this war.'”  Siegmann was incandescent, white with rage, but the moment had passed.  He was beaten.

The 1,275 American POWs held at Stalag IX-A were liberated this day in 1945, including some 200 Jews.

Roddie Edmonds was again recruited for the war in Korea.  He never told his family about any of it.

Chris Edmonds is the Pastor at Piney Grove Baptist Church in Maryville, Tennessee. Following his father’s death in 1985, Chris’ mother gave him his father’s  war diary, where he found a brief mention of this story.  Chris scoured the news for more information, around the time Richard Nixon was looking for his post-Presidential home.  As it happened, Nixon bought his posh, upper-east side home from Lester Tanner, a prominent New York Lawyer who mentioned in passing, he owed his life to Roddie Edmonds.

So it was, this story came to light.  In 2015, Edmonds was honored as “Righteous among the Nations”, the first American soldier, so honored.  It’s the highest honor bestowed by the state of Israel, on non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews from the Nazi death machine.  President Barack Obama recognized Edmonds heroism in a 2016 speech before the Israeli embassy.  The United States Congress bestowed the Congressional Gold Medal in 2017.  As I write this, Pastor Edmonds and the Jewish veterans saved by M/Sgt Edmonds are pushing for the Knoxville, Tennessee native to receive the Medal of Honor.

Pastor Edmonds says he always looked up to his father, the man had always been, his hero.  “I just didn’t know he had a cape in his closet“.

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