A prisoner’s tale

Published 1:46 pm Saturday, August 27, 2011

Surviving prison camps called ‘a miracle’

The Sesquicentennial of the War Between the States began on April 14, the date that shots were fired at Fort Sumter in 1861, and will officially end on May 26, the date that the last Confederate troops surrendered in 1865.

An estimated 620,000 lives were lost during the War Between the States, making it the most costly war that America has fought.

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During the 150th anniversary of the War Between the States, 2011-15, people from all walks of life and of all ages will visit the sites of the historic battles that pitted father against son and brother against brother.

Civil War trails have been established, re-enactments planned and special events and activities will commemorate this dark period of American history.

Andersonville National Historic Site in Andersonville, Ga., includes the Andersonville Civil War Prison Camp, the 16-acre prison camp that was designed to hold 10,000 Union prisoners but, at one time, held 33,000 prisoners. More than 13,000 prisoners died at Andersonville prison of starvation, malnutrition, diarrhea and disease.

Dr. Milton McPherson, retired Troy University history professor, said that conditions at Andersonville were so atrocious because the Southern railroad system had been destroyed and there was no way to get food and medical supplies to the prisoners.

The camp’s only water supply was a stream that ran through the camp. In short time, the stream became contaminated but the prisoners had no other choice but to consume it.

As the number of prisoners grew, 10 acres were added to the camp but it was so overcrowded that the prisoners were standing almost shoulder-to-shoulder.

“Gen. Lee requested time after time, the exchange of prisoners but the Union would have no part of that,” McPherson said. “The South had only a fraction of the manpower of the North so the North had the advantage in manpower. War is the mutual destruction of man and materials. There was no reason for Grant to give back prisoners to return and fight for the Union. So, the commander at Andersonville did the best he could with what little he had.”

McPherson said that conditions in the prison camps in the North were not much better – freezing temperatures, smallpox and dysentery. “Prisoners were deliberately mistreated in retaliation of the conditions their prisoners were living in at Andersonville,” he said. “There was death and dying in those Union camps every day, too.”

McPherson said it was a miracle that any prisoner left the war camps alive.

One “miracle” returned to Pike County, Alabama.

At the age of 17, Yancey Bryan of Mossy Grove joined Company “F” of the 57th Alabama Infantry. He participated in the battles of Resaca, Atlanta, Jonesboro, Franklin and Nashville.

“Yancey Bryan was captured at Nashville while on picket duty,” said John Phillip Johnston of Brundidge who is Bryan’s great-grandson. “He was sent to the notorious prison camp at Camp Douglas, Illinois, where he remained until he was paroled at the end of the war.”

Camp Douglas Prison was called the North’s Andersonville. Confederate soldiers starved to death as food rations were withheld. Many were deprived of blankets during severe weather and froze to death. One in five prisoners died at Camp Douglas, which had the highest mortality rate of all Union Civil War prisons.

Johnston said he had heard many stories about his great-grandfather from his grandmother and his mother.

“My great-grandfather told my grandmother that the Confederate soldiers at Camp Douglas were offered parole on the condition that they would fight for the Union,” Johnston said. “But, being die-hard Southerners, they wouldn’t do that.”

Bryan refused all offers of parole and somehow he survived the conditions of Camp Douglas. When the war ended, he was given a half loaf of stale bread and a ham bone with shreds of meat clinging to it. Bryan was so hungry that he gnawed the bone like a starving dog.

“He probably was close to starving,” Johnston said. “The railroad system was all torn up so the only way he had to get home was by walking. And he was looking at a long walk home, about 750 miles and he didn’t even know which way home was. He probably knew which way was south but that was all.”

Johnston said that, when nightfall came, Bryan always tried to be close to a church.

“He thought that if he could slip in a church that he would be safe. One night, he said that he couldn’t find a church so he crawled up next to a picket fence. Some time during the night, he felt something nudge up against him and it almost scared him to death. Now, he was only 18 years old. When he finally got up to look, it was an old hog rooting around him. He guessed the hog was smelling that old ham bone he kept to gnaw on.”

Bryan walked every step of the way from Fort Douglas near the shores of Lake Michigan to Mossy Grove in Pike County.

Bryan married Susan Pinckard of Hilliard’s Cross Roads and they had 10 children. After the death of his first wife, Bryan married Amy Herrington and they had six children and five of them, Florence Helms, Maud Reddock, Claude Bryan, Lula Belle Carlisle and Leila Bryan, were citizens of Brundidge.

“When my mother, Helen Helms Johnston, was a student at Pike County High School in 1928, she was studying American history,” Johnston said. “Her teacher asked her if her grandfather was a veteran of the War Between the States. Mother said that he certainly was so the teacher asked her to bring him to the class to speak to the students about the war and his prisoner of war experiences.

“Mother said that she was so proud of him the day he came and spoke to her class,” Johnston said. “She said the students were enthralled with his stories and Grandpa Bryan fully enjoyed being the center of attention.”