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The clerk of the dead

September 9, 2012
Sue Eckhoff - Grundy County Heritage Museum , Reinbeck Courier

Andersonville, the Civil War prison, was the most notorious of all the prisons. In its short existence of fourteen months, 45,000 Union soldiers would suffer miserably, and 13,000 would die. Andersonville commandant Henry Wirz would hang for his mistreatment of prisoners.

Less well known however is the trial and punishment of a Union prisoner, Dorence Atwater. Atwater would become known as the "Clerk of the Dead."

Atwater was a private in the New York Cavalry when he was captured in Maryland, pursuing Lee's army after the battle of Gettysburg. He was shifted from prison to prison, finally ending up in Andersonville. He was assigned to the hospital there. For unfortunate prisoners going to the hospital meant a one-way ticket to the cemetery.

Atwater was assigned to keep track of the dead for the confederates. He did, but also kept a secret list for himself, so he could publish the list at the end of the war. It was his hope to notify the families of the dead, so they would know what had become of their loved ones.

In February 1865, Atwater was exchanged. He immediately took the list to the War Department, which promised to copy and publish the names. It never said when though. The very first thing the War Department did was use the list as evidence in the trial of Commandant Henry Wirz.

After the war, Atwater got his list back. He and Clara Barton returned to Andersonville to mark the graves. Because of his accuracy, only 460 graves out of 13,000 could not be identified and were marked as "unknown."

After marking the graves, Atwater refused to return the list to the War Department, and he was then arrested, court-martialed and sent to jail. After two months in prison, petitions from Clara Barton, Horace Greeley and others got him released. To get even with the War Department, Atwater gave the list to New York newspapers who published the list in July 1866. It was a public relations nightmare, and Atwater, to get him out of the country, was quickly appointed to be Consul to the Seychelles Islands. He later was transferred to Tahiti where he married the daughter of an English businessman and lived out the rest of his life there.

 
 

 

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