In September, I visited the site of the Salisbury, N.C., Confederate prison camp where my great-grandfather was a prisoner during the last months of the Civil War. George Holly Nichols kept a diary during his years with the 118th New York Volunteers, from 1862 through 1865, much of which documented his experiences from October 1864 to February 1865 in prisoner of war camps in Libby, Va., and Salisbury.
The 118th was a volunteer regiment from upstate New York and was called the "Adirondack Regiment." The regiment was in action primarily around the siege of Richmond/Petersburg, Va. After receiving a head wound in the Battle of Drury's Bluff, George Nichols and 50 of his regiment were captured by the Confederate Army at the 2nd Battle of Fair Oaks, Va., on Oct. 27, 1864. Initially confined at Libby prison, where the Union soldiers were stripped of all their valuables, the prisoners were loaded -- overloaded -- into train cars and shipped to Salisbury.
Corporal Nichols entered the prison on Nov. 6, 1864.
The Salisbury prison was opened in 1861 to hold captured Union soldiers from the Battle of Bull Run. At first the prisoners received adequate food and shelter. An early lithograph shows the prisoners playing baseball. But with the breakdown of the prisoner exchange program in 1863 and the large number of captured Union soldiers starting in October 1864, the prison designed to hold 2,000 people soon had to accommodate 9,000.
By 1864, the Union blockade of Southern ports and the Confederacy's collapsing economy had led to shortages of food, clothing, medicine, and shelter, for Confederate soldiers as well as Union prisoners of war. Due to a shortage of tents for the prisoners, George Nichols relates in his diary that in order to turn over at night, everyone had to turn over together. At least a third had to dig dugouts in the ground to escape the rain and cold. The food ration was inadequate to sustain a prisoner even if he was healthy, well-clothed and sheltered, which most were not. If there were any rations handed out that day, it might consist of half a loaf of bread and a pint of rice soup with a layer of bugs swimming on top. One prisoner claimed he lost 95 pounds in less than three months, ending up at 87 pounds.
The number of deaths reported at Salisbury climbed to nearly one in three prisoners by February 1865. Diarrhea was a major cause of death, along with smallpox, typhus, and pneumonia. Because of the lack of medical care and the cold, some prisoners developed gangrene, which led to their hands and feet rotting off. Each morning, the dead were stripped of their clothing (to be reused by surviving prisoners) and brought to the "dead house" where they would be loaded like cord wood to be buried.
Earlier in the war, the dead were placed in coffins and buried individually, but after October 1864 the death rate was so high that the "dead wagon" carried the bodies for trench burial outside the prison compound. Today, the 18 burial trenches are within the Salisbury National Military Cemetery, just outside the prison site. Prisoners who died from a contagious disease like typhoid or smallpox were buried at the nearby Old Lutheran Cemetery and were later re-interred at the national cemetery.
A government monument next to the trench area says that 10,700 Union soldiers are buried in the trenches, but later estimates have reduced that number to about 5,000.
Because of the desperate conditions, many men tried to escape. In Nov. 25, 1864, an attempt by many prisoners to break out resulted in about 250 deaths, many by cannon fire. About 300 Union prisoners managed to escape during the war, often helped toward Northern lines by slaves.
In the waning months of the war, the Confederate government paroled the remaining prisoners at Salisbury in February 1865. In his diary, Nichols recounts leaving the prison by train on Feb. 22, 1865, for Willmington, N.C., and then traveling by steam ship to Camp Parole, Md.
Some of the prisoners were so ill that they didn't survive the journey home to freedom. Shortly after the prison was abandoned, Union Gen. George Stoneman and his army burned it to the ground. Only one of the buildings, used by the Confederate guards, remains standing today.
During his time in prison, Nichols met John C. Hitchcock, who was from Rushford and served in the 7th Minnesota Regiment. After the war, Nichols relocated from New York and ended up in Eyota, where he died in 1924 and is buried in the Eyota Oak Grove Cemetery.