Thursday, August 18, 2016

John Lewis, Union Soldier and Prisoner of War

A while back I received a gift from a 91-years-young cousin.  He had all the pages of his mother’s scrapbook scanned and copies sent to me.  Among the newspaper clippings was an obituary “Death of Mrs. Samuel Herbert”.  Mrs. Samuel Herbert was born Jane Lewis.  The notice mentions that she was predeceased by her brother, John Lewis, who died in Andersonville Prison.  This was news to me – I had never heard this before.

Jane Lewis Herbert Obituary

What did I know about my 3rd Great-Grand Uncle?  John Lewis was born about 1831-32 in Dutchess County, New York to John Lewis and Esther Hudson.  His parents were born and married in Yorkshire, England and came to the US shortly before he was born.  John had two older sisters, Sarah, and Ann Jane, called Jane or Jennie, my 3rd great-grandmother, who were both born in England.

According to the Portrait and Biographical Album of Livingston County (1888), John Lewis (the father of John)…”came to America with his family in 1831, settled in the city of New York, where he engaged in the manufacture of boots and shoes, afterward removing to Poughkeepsie, Dutchess County, and engaging in the same business, which occupation he followed until he died.”

On 14 August 1850, John is enumerated in the US Federal Census living in the town of Fishkill in Dutchess County, New York.  He is an eighteen year old shoemaker, living with his parents John and Esther and his married sister Sarah and her husband Phillip Ward.  His sister Jane had married Samuel Herbert in 1848 and lived nearby in Poughkeepsie, New York.

Sometime between 1850 and 1860, John’s father John died and he and his mother moved west to Illinois with his two sisters and their husbands. According to his brother-in-law Samuel Herbert’s obituary the Herbert family came to Illinois in 1857.  It would be reasonable to believe that John and his mother traveled with them, if his father had already died.

On 5 July 1860, John is enumerated in the US Federal Census living in Pontiac, Livingston County, Illinois.  He is listed as a Plastering Mason, living with his widowed mother Esther in the home of his brother-in-law and sister, Samuel and Jane Herbert, along with their children.

In June 1863, he registered for the draft in Livingston County.  He entered the service 5 Jan 1864, with a muster date of 12 Jan 1864 at Joliet, Illinois as a Private in Company K of the 39th Illinois Infantry.  He was about 32 years old.
Draft registration - Civil War

I looked for evidence that John was in and/or died in Andersonville Prison.  I checked  for John Lewis and found 2 possible suspects in the Andersonville Prisoner of War database but no exact match.  There were also a number of John Lewis’ named in the US Army, Register of Enlistments database but again no exact match.  So I wondered did he really die at Andersonville or was he just a prisoner there?  I was suspicious of a newspaper account 30 years after the fact.

I went to  and checked the NARA database of Civil War Pension Files of Veterans Who Served Between 1861 and 1900.  There were two men listed as John Lewis that requested pensions on their own behalf as invalids:  John Lewis, Private, Illinois, Infantry, Regiment 90, Company D and John Lewis, Corporal, Illinois Infantry, Regiment 111, Company H.  Another request was from the mother of John Lewis, Private, Illinois Infantry, Regiment 39, Company K who died at Andersonville Prison on September 23, 1864.  This last one looked promising, but was it really MY John Lewis?

Pension Index

I went to check for Illinois Civil War Muster and Descriptive Rolls.  In the Illinois regiments listing I found over 25 men named John Lewis on the muster rolls, including the three from the pension database.   I was able to see (and save) the Illinois Civil War Detail report on my three suspects.  This detail report includes Name, Rank, Residence, Age, Height, Hair  and Eye color, Complexion, Marital status,  Occupation, Location of birth; when and where they joined; where and when they mustered in and out of service; and remarks including notes about discharge and where they were taken prisoner.    I was able to verify that the John Lewis who died in Andersonville Sep 23, 1864 was my John Lewis.  His report showed that he was born in Dutchess County, New York, a mason and was “taken prisoner May 16, 1864 at Drury’s Bluff, Virginia.”

John Lewis Military Detail

I found the History of the 39th Regiment of the Illinois Infantry (John Lewis’ unit) and saved this excerpt (highlights are mine):

“After the Regiment had been recruited to seven hundred and fifty (750) strong, it left, early in March 1864, for Washington, D.C., and from thence sailed to Georgetown, Virginia, where in was assigned to the First Brigade, First Division, Tenth Army Corps. It then embarked, the 5th day of May 1864, with General Butler's expedition up the James River. On reaching Bermuda Hundred, the Regiment took the advance on the march into the interior for several miles, when the entire command was halted, and entrenchment’s thrown up. After remaining for a day or two, the whole column was moved forward to Drury's Bluff. The Thirty-ninth was located on the extreme left of General Butler's command on the 16th of May 1864, when the entire force under Butler was attacked and driven back. The Regiment was at one time completely surrounded by the enemy, but succeeding in cutting their way out, after great loss. To use General Butler's own words, "the Thirty-ninth fought most gallantly, and have suffered most severely". Colonel Osborn, Major Linton, Captain Phillips, Captain Wheeler, Lieutenant Kidder and Lieutenant Kingsbury were all wounded - the latter losing an arm. Captain James Wightman and Adjutant J. D. Walker were killed while gallantly cheering on the men. The entire loss in this engagement, including killed, wounded and missing, reached nearly 200 hundred (200).”   The entire history of the regiment can be found at

John and the other prisoners were taken first to Libby Prison in Richmond Virginia.  His mother may have seen the following newspaper article.

At some point John and his fellow prisoners were transferred to Andersonville.  According to the Civil War Trust web site: “The first prisoners were brought to Andersonville in late February 1864. During the next few months, approximately 400 more arrived each day. By the end of June, 26,000 men were penned in an area originally meant for only 10,000 prisoners. The largest number held at any one time was more than 33,000 in August 1864. The Confederate government could not provide adequate housing, food, clothing or medical care to their Federal captives because of deteriorating economic conditions in the South, a poor transportation system, and the desperate need of the Confederate army for food and supplies.”

This means that John, being captured in May 1864, was sent to Andersonville while it was still fairly new and died when it was near its highest population.

Also from the Civil War Trust:
“When General William T. Sherman’s Union forces occupied Atlanta, Georgia on September 2, 1864, bringing Federal cavalry columns within easy striking distance of Andersonville, Confederate authorities moved most of the prisoners to other camps in South Carolina and coastal Georgia. From then until April 1865, Andersonville was operated in a smaller capacity.”

A sketch of Andersonville Prison by John L. Ransom, author of Andersonville Diary, Escape and List of the Dead. Areas of the sketch are numbered, the labels at the bottom are transcribed below: 1. Head Quarters, 2. Rebel Camp. 3. Hospital, 4. Cook House, 5. Death House, 6. Death Line, 7. The Island, 8. Sutler's Camp, 9. Police Quarters. 10. Hospitals along the Death Line. 11. Market Street, 12. Broad Street, 13. Inside Stockade, 14. Second Line Stockade, 15. Third Line Stockade, 16. Lieut. Head Quarters, 17. Washing Place, 18. Rifle Pits, 19. Astor House Mess.  This image is available from the United States Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID pga.02585

This time-frame of moving of the prisoners suggests that John Lewis was too ill to be moved and therefore died in Andersonville.  The movement of the prisoners and the confusion that must have ensued could also explain why some records I found for John did not specifically state he died at Andersonville, but said “no discharge furnished”.

Here is a report of the conditions found at Andersonville in August 1864, a month before John Lewis died from The Pantagraph, (Bloomington Illinois) 23 Sep 1865, Sat, Page1
“…we respectfully submit the following as causes of disease and mortality. 
1rst. The large number of prisoners crowded together.
 2nd. The entire absence of all vegetables as a diet, so necessary as a preventative of scurvy.
3rd. The want of barracks to shelter prisoners from sun and rain.
4th. The inadequate supply of food and good water.
5th. Badly cooked food.
6th. The filthy condition of the prisoners.
7th. The morbid emanations form the branch or ravine passing through the prison, the condition of which cannot be better explained that by naming it a morass of human excrement and mud.”

Based on the accounts of Andersonville conditions, it would be reasonable to assume that John Lewis died weak, emaciated, malnourished, and sick on 23 Sep 1864.  I assume he suffered, but hopefully someone, perhaps a friend was with him at the end.

According to The Pantagraph (Bloomington, Illinois) 26 Aug 1865, Sat Page 1 there were about 500 prisoners who were buried of which no records were kept and so could not be identified.  About 13,000 were identified and given grave-markers.

I still have questions:  Was he able to write or receive letters from his mother and family?  How and when did his mother learn of his death?  

Marker at Andersonville