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Heiser brings Civil War POWs to light


2010-07-16

Becky Heiser 

Community of Scholars

When Becky Heiser decided to research first-person documents – letters, diaries, books – from the Civil War as one of 19 student research fellows in the Wofford College Community of Scholars program this summer, little did she know there would be a connection with the college’s president, Dr. Benjamin B. Dunlap.

Heiser, a rising senior history buff from Pelzer, S.C., got the idea for the research from Dr. Anne Rodrick, an associate professor of history. “She suggested that I go to the Littlejohn Collection (an archive of historic manuscripts and other documents housed at the college) and look around, so I did and the letters written by Confederate officer W.E. Johnson from Civil War prison camps seemed really interesting. I wanted to get an idea of Johnson’s story.

Since selecting the topic and Johnson’s letters as her focus, Heiser has learned that that Anne Dunlap, President Dunlap’s wife, is Johnson’s great-great-granddaughter. “I’m hoping to get some family history from her as well as from the letters and books I have found,” she says. “Johnson’s house is still in Camden, S.C., so I will probably head down there as well. I want to get Johnson’s story and contextualize it on a level of ‘The Immortal 600’ and in terms of the general treatment of prisoners of war.”

Who were “The Immortal 600”?

“They were 600 Confederate officers who were sent to a camp stockade on Morris Island, which is near the Charleston/Fort Sumter (South Carolina) area, in 1864,” Heiser says. “They were fired upon by Confederate soldiers who didn’t even know they were there. The men were put in harm’s way as a policy of retaliation by the North. None of them died from the friendly fire, though, so that’s how they earned their name.”

Many died from other causes, however. What Heiser is finding in her studies is that POWs weren’t treated much better here on American soil than they have been in more recent wars.

“The lack of food provided for these men was incredible,” Heiser says. “One of the book sources said men were given 10 ounces of corn meal a day and two or three crackers. The food was rotten, wormy and nasty. That was the daily fare for months on end. Many times, the commanders of these camps were opposed to the treatment, but they had to follow orders.

“These men sat all day long and then slept four to a two-man pup tent. They were there from August through October, and there was no relief from the sun. A few men died of dysentery, chronic diarrhea, things like that. Everyone had scurvy. Plus they were under fire the whole time.”

The men weren’t allowed to receive any mail, but some, like Johnson, were able to send mail out. Those letters paint a very vivid picture of the human side of war.

“He clearly loved his wife,” says Heiser. “He ended every letter with ‘Your devoted husband.’ He stayed in contact with her before he was in the prison camp and wrote her many letters throughout the war. He was also in touch with his father a lot as well as his wife’s brother. He asked her to send money and clothes and food, but she couldn’t. He made her a necklace out of some wood they had found. Mrs. Dunlap actually has that necklace.

“He was a very spiritual person. He talks a lot about praying that God would bless his family. One theme I have seen in many of the books I have read is that these men were Southern gentlemen. The books all stress the concept of noble values and how all these men stayed optimistic and bore their burden without complaint.”

Heiser’s research already has opened her eyes to the depth of issues that caused the Civil War and that eventually decided it.

“I grew up in New York,” she explains. “We learned that the North was good and the South was bad, basically. When I moved to South Carolina right before middle school, I got the other side of the story, where the war was about states’ rights instead of slavery.”

There was more separating the two sides than just these issues, however.

“One of the things I have read was that in the Confederate army your personal wealth and status weren’t as important as they were in the Union army,” says Heiser. “You would have a wealthy plantation owner serving as a private, while a small farm owner was a lieutenant because he had been in the army longer. The social hierarchy didn’t correlate with the military one like it did with the North.

“This and other social differences caused tensions between the two sides at the prison camps. Many times the guards at the Union camps were less battle-experienced members of the army. Prisoners said they were treated much better by war veterans because the soldiers were more understanding of how they were fighting for a cause.

“At Fort Morris, the guards were former slaves that had joined the Northern army. ‘The Immortal 600’ were corralled by people they formerly had power over.”

Morally speaking, war is messy on both sides; the North did a lot of things that blurred the lines, Heiser is learning.

“Some of the policies the North had toward prisoners of war have horrified me,” she says. “Even toward their own men. They wouldn’t exchange prisoners with the South, mostly because if a Confederate soldier was released, he would go back and fight. If a Union soldier was released, he would go home. The North felt it was cheaper to feed the Confederate soldiers than to fight them. So they let them just sit there.

“The South, which didn’t have enough food to feed its own army , was burdened by having to feed thousands of northern POWs. At one point, they offered to just give them back to the North, but the North said no. A lot of times, the conditions were terrible in Confederate camps, but they could have been better with cooperation from the North.”

Heiser has learned quite a bit already, even though she is really just getting started in her research.

“I plan on spending the first five weeks or so just reading,” she says. “I’ve read through the letters. I have Johnson’s journal, which I really haven’t even touched yet. I’ve read through a book written by one of his contemporaries in ‘The Immortal 600.’ I’m also working on a book that was written in the last 15 years about the 600 men, and I’ve got more books about the prisoner of war camps and the policies that were in place.”

So far Heiser’s project has been a shining example of what the Community of Scholars is all about … encouraging students to embrace research, and get more out of it than they ever thought possible.

“This project makes me excited because I don’t see any of Johnson’s letters quoted in any of the research I’ve gathered apart from his letters,” Heiser says. “It makes me think I am working on something that no one has worked on before, and that is exciting.”

-- By Brett Borden