Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Two Brothers

You've read about the infamous Andersonville Prison. Now read about death in Northern Prisons during the civil war.


This Veteran’s Day my thoughts turn to Daniel and John McLaurin – two of my great, great uncles. In May of 1861 my great, great grandfather Neill McLaurin and his brother Daniel left their Morven, North Carolina farm and rode off to war with the Anson Rangers. That unit would later be officially designated as Company A, 4th N.C. Cavalry. They were 31 and 32 respectively at the time.
Left behind were two older brothers, their mother, and several sisters. On July 3, 1863 the 4th N.C. was involved in the Battle of Gettysburg, and the following day, while screening retreating troops and supply trains, Daniel was captured.
He, like all Confederate prisoners from the Gettysburg Campaign, was sent to the Federal prison camp at Fort Delaware. Conditions were grim at Fort Delaware as one would imagine they’d be anywhere men were confined in close contact prior the development of immunology. But, there were political conditions which would place these prisoners in jeopardy far beyond the normal risks of disease. More on that later.
Meanwhile, a month later back in North Carolina, one of the brothers left behind to tend the farm, John, enlisted in the C.S.A. He was 42 years old, an advanced age for a soldier which was most likely why he hadn’t enlisted at the outset of the war. I suspect that it was word of the capture of his brother that prompted him to make the move. He traveled to Fort Fisher near Wilmington and joined an artillery regiment there tasked with defending the Cape Fear River and the last open port in the South.
Ironically, he too was captured in January 1865 when Fort Fisher finally fell to an intense Federal assault. He was sent to the Federal Prison at Elmira, New York.

The story of the Confederate prison camp at Andersonville, Georgia is quite well known. Thousands of Federal prisoners were held there in deplorable conditions and faced death by starvation and disease. It was plainly a horrific place. When General Sherman was making his way through Georgia in 1864 the prison was liberated and news of what took place there made big headlines in the North. There was an atmosphere of general outrage, and it seems that revenge was sought at the highest level of the United States government.
Now, the historians have generally granted the moral high ground to the Union side of the Civil War. Clearly, maintaining human bondage as the Confederacy sought to do is morally indefensible, but what took place in Federal prison camps certainly leaves that side with a black spot.
I’ve done a great deal of research on these two prison camps, and the preponderance of evidence points to deliberate withholding of food, clothing, blankets, and proper housing from the Confederate prisoners held in these and other Northern prisons. Though the funds were appropriated and the food and goods readily available in the north, the death rate from starvation and disease at all Northern prisons was horrific. In fact, at Elmira, where John McLaurin was held, the death rate was within a couple of percentage points of that of Andersonville in war ravaged Georgia. The necessary supplies simply weren’t provided.
It must be considered that the South during the months that Andersonville was in operation was a devastated country. Sherman’s total warfare had disrupted or destroyed the food production and distributon in the agriculturally rich region. Not only were the Confederate troops starving on the battlefield, but the citizens well. The lack of food or other provisions at Andersonville perfectly mirrored the conditions of the South in general. Everyone was starving.
Meanwhile, the North, unmolested by war, had a series of very good growing seasons. Food was in abundant supply. Just outside the Elmira prison walls the citizens of that city enjoyed full larders and warm homes while just yards away starving Confederate prisoners shivered in the New York cold.
The two brothers shared a tragic fate. Just five months after Gettysburg Daniel McLaurin, 33, died at Fort Delaware. A little over a year later John McLaurin, 44, also died at Elmira. He lasted just under a month from the date of his capture. These men were starved to death in an act of petty revenge by the U.S. Army. They’re both buried hundreds of miles from the family farm back in North Carolina.
I had four great, great grandfathers fight in that war and survive. And I revere these men, but it’s the tale of the tragic deaths of these two brothers that touches me most from my family’s Civil War history.
Their mother, my great, great, great grandmother was a Scottish immigrant who’d buried her husband and a fifteen year old son years before the war. She died at 74 in August 1865, just four months after then end of the hostilities. I can’t help but believe that it must have been a broken heart that killed her after word that she’d lost the two sons.

As a post script let me salute my Dad, Bill Owens, veteran of the Korean War. Thanks, Dad, for your service to our country.

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