Research reveals Civil War horrors

Published 12:00 am Monday, March 14, 2011

I have often been called a military historian, a term with which I beg to differ.
Rowan County has several qualified historians who spend far more time than I with research. But, when something intrigues me, I tend to research until I find the answer.
So, when I got an e-mail from the National Graves Registration Officer for the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War seeking information on a particular soldier, I jumped right in to find the answer they needed.
Historians will probably see what I consider to be new information as old to them. But I have not read what I found anywhere else and wanted to let the public know more about the notorious Salisbury Confederate Prison.
It was common knowledge that the conditions at the prison were unimaginable.
A.W. Mangum, who served as the prison chaplain, was overwhelmed with requests for help.
Augustus Lyon and his brother, John, from Pennsylvania were captured Aug. 21, 1864, and sent to Salisbury. Lyon mentions in his diary the beatings by the guards and the lack of food, which consisted of cornbread, beans, rice soup and a little meat. Lyon’s brother died on Nov. 20, 1864, and four days later a prison breakout resulted in 12 dead and 20 wounded.
By then, 40 prisoners were dying each day. Lyon died Jan. 15, 1865.
Charles Becker, a Union soldier with General Sherman, remarked about how his grim job after the war was to maintain the shallow, mass graves Confederate guards had hastily dug. When it rained, bones would protrude from the earth.
Becker and others from the 128th Indiana company would have to re-bury the bodies.
I found some records showing that as many as four soldiers were piled on top of each other in a trench no deeper than four feet. Eventually, 18 trenches, each 240 feet long, were dug and filled with Union soldiers.
Of all I have collected so far, the details told by Col. Thos. B. Fairleigh of Kentucky were probably the most disturbing. As head of the Union military commission to investigate and try offenses of the Salisbury prison, Fairleigh located an eye witness and, who as a Southern man, is not likely to “set down aught in malice.”
He noted a ditch marking the “dead line” ran around the space fitted with wooden platforms where guards stood and shot down those who wandered too close to the ditch.
With an average of 40 dying each day and flung into the ditches, those responsible for this duty became habit-hardened by their work. It was reported to Fairleigh that dying Union soldiers would be moved to the trenches alive to make room for the more healthy at the prison.
When they later died, the prisoners were simply pushed into the trenches.
Let’s examine that a little more closely. I have seen many dead enemy soldiers in the jungles of Vietnam, left lying where they had fallen. Occasionally, one may have still been alive but was severely injured, and we were 30 minutes away by helicopter from any help.
The Salisbury prison was holding five times its capacity, with little medicine and little food or water as the wells had become contaminated. So, as terrible as it sounds, there wasn’t much choice for selecting the living.
Fairleigh ascertained that no less than 10,000 soldiers cry out from their graves against the inhumanity that ended their lives. Battlefield talk among still fighting soldiers soon became that of a bullet or a shell was a God-sent mercy compared to dying in prison from starvation and disease.
Finally, I must admit that during some deep searches on this project, very little has filtered through the hands of state and local historians that wasn’t already recorded. They have not missed much about the Civil War and should be commended for their dedication and sincere effort to preserve our history as we know it today.