by John L. Ransom
1881, reprinted 2016, Arcadia Books, e-book format
History is anything but boring. Take any incident from any era and start to dig and the most amazing people and stories come to light. The historical stories are often more interesting than anything even the most talented writers might dream up.
ANDERSONVILLE DIARY by John L. Ransom (copyright 1881, reprinted in e-book format in 2016) is a great example of this truth.
Ransom defied almost insurmountable odds by not just surviving the infamous Confederate prison of Andersonville but maintaining a personal diary through his entire ordeal. It makes fascinating reading. To have heard about the horrors (starvation, disease, over a hundred deaths each day) and learning about them first-hand are two different things.
As Ransom says, “Only those who are here will ever know what Andersonville is.”
One among many of Ransom’s observations:
“Laying on the ground so much, has made sores on nearly every one here, and in many cases gangrene sets in, and they are very bad off. Have many sores on my body, but am careful to keep away the poison. To-day saw a man with a bullet hole in his head over an inch deep, and you could look down in it and see maggots squirming around at the bottom.”
On the other hand, he gets used to it:
“By four o’clock each day, the row of dead at the gate would scare the life out of me before coming here, while now it is nothing at all, but the same thing over and over.”
He learns the skills of survival in this place:
“Must take plenty of exercise, keep clean, free as circumstances will permit of vermin, drink no water until it has been boiled, which process purifies and makes it more healthy, are not to allow ourselves to get despondent, and must talk, laugh and make as light of our affairs as possible. Sure death for a person to give up and lose all ambition…Those who find the least fault, make the best of things, as they come, and grin and bear it, get along the best…”
Ultimately, it all comes down to what a man is made of inside:
“Those whom we expect the most from in the way of braving hardships and dangers, prove to be nobody at all. And very often those we expect the least from prove to be heroes every inch of them…A man shows exactly what he is in Andersonville. No occasion to be any different from what you really are. Very often see a great big fellow in size, in reality a baby in action, actually snivelling and crying, and then again you will see some little runt, ‘not bigger than a pint of cider,’ tell the big fellow to ‘brace up’ and be a man. Stature has nothing to do as regards nerve, still there are noble big fellows, as well as noble little ones.”
One of the most surprising parts of this narrative are who turns out to be the villains and who the hero. The villains are not the Confederate forces – who in some ways are as worse off than the prisoners – but their fellow Yankees:
“There are organized bands of raiders who do pretty much as they please…Raiders getting more bold, as the situation grows worse. Often rob a man now of all he has, in public, making no attempt at concealment…The raiders are the stronger party now, and do as they please; and we are in nearly as much danger now from our own men as from the Rebels. Captain Moseby, of my own hundred, figures conspicuously among the robberies, and is a terrible villain.”
The hero, however, turns out to be an American Indian named Battese, a “large, full-blooded six-foot Minnesota Indian, has quarters near us, and is a noble fellow.” Battese took “quite a fatherly interest” in Ransom and showed a way to help cope with the hell: work. They took a plank, carved notches in it to create a washboard, and started a business.
The Indian said, “I work, do me good; you do same.” The work occupied their time, but also allowed them to obtain “small pieces of bread for our labors. Some of the sick cannot eat their bread, and not being able to keep clean, give us a job. Make probably a pound of bread two or three days in the week.”
When Ransom got sick, Battese figured out how to create medicine: “My limbs are badly swollen with scurvy and dropsy combined. Mouth also very sore. Battese digs for roots, which he steeps up and I drink.”
Even so, Ransom’s condition continues to deteriorate, and Battese still looks out for him: “He does all the cooking now. He has made me a cane to walk with, brings water from the well, and performs nearly all the manual labor for us.”
Toward the end, Battese even made it possible for Ransom to leave the prison. The Confederates ruled that all prisoners who could not walk must stay behind. And Ransom could not walk. He wrote, “…trying to stand up, but can’t do it; legs too crooked, and with every attempt get faint. Men laugh at the idea of my going, as the Rebels are very particular not to let any sick go, still Battese says I am going.”
And, in fact, that is what happened:
“The Rebel Adjutant stood upon a box by the gate, watching very close. Pitch-pine knots were burning in the near vicinity, to give light. As it came our turn to go. Battese got me in the middle of the rank, stood me up as well as I could stand, and with himself on one side and Sergeant Rowe on the other, began pushing our way through the gate. Could not help myself a particle, and was so faint, that I hardly knew what was going on. As we were going through the gate the Adjutant yells out: ‘Here, here! hold on there, that man can’t go, hold on there!’ and Battese crowding right along outside. The Adjutant struck over the heads of the men and tried to stop us, but my noble Indian friend kept straight ahead, hallooing: ‘He all right, he well, he go!’ And so I got outside, the Adjutant having too much to look after to follow me.”
Ransom recovered in a military hospital and it was Battese who ensured Ransom would have his entire journal: “Battese on his last visit to me left the two first books of my diary, which he had in his possession. There is no doubt but he has saved my life, although he will take no credit for it.”
Sadly, after they were separated, Ransom and Battese never saw each other again. Ransom wrote in his afterward:
“My good old friend, Battese, I regret to say, I have never seen, or heard of since he last visited me in the Marine Hospital at Savannah. Have written many letters, and made many inquiries, but to no effect. He was so reticent while with us in the prison, that we did not learn enough of him to make inquiries, since then, effective. Although for many months I was in his immediate presence, he said nothing of where he lived, his circumstances, or anything else. I only know that his name was Battese, that he belonged to a Minnesota regiment, and was a noble fellow. I don’t know of a man in the world I would rather see to-day than him, and I hope some day, when I have gotten rich out of this book (if that time should ever come), to go to Minnesota, and look him up. There are many Andersonville survivors, who must remember the tall Indian, and certainly I shall, as long as life shall last.”