The Andersonville Experience
of a Civil War Soldier

                                              by Neil Elvick

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     Salmon Bickel was born in 1831 in Perry Township, the eighth out of nine children born to Anthony and Dinah Bickel.  He married Susan Harrington in 1855 and they subsequently had two children, John, born in 1857, and Josephine born in 1858. Salmon was a school teacher and his wife was one of his former students.
     At age thirty-one, he entered the Union army on November 8, 1862, when he enlisted for a period of three years. He mustered into Company M of the 7th Ohio Volunteer Cavalry in Pomeroy, Ohio as a private. During the first year of his service his unit participated in the chase for Morgan's Raiders. He had served for just three days short of a year when he was taken prisoner near Rogersville, Tennessee, on November 6, 1863. The timing of this would turn out to be very unfortunate. Prisoner exchanges between the North and South had been taking place on a regular basis, but just at this point the process had become stalled. The North felt that further exchanges at this point would favor the South, because the Confederacy was increasingly short of manpower. Also the South’s resources were being strained by having to care for the large number of Union prisoners. The South for its part was insisting on the return of Negroes serving in Northern Armies.
     By chance, Salmon was captured in the same battle and on the same day as John Ransom, the quartermaster of the 9th Michigan Cavalry, whose John Ransom’s Andersonville Diary became a best seller when it was republished in 1986. The day to day accounts of this soldier’s imprisonment can therefore be useful in following the ordeals that Salmon would now go through. The Union troops involved in the Battle of Big Creek, were the 9th Michigan Cavalry, the 7th Ohio Cavalry, and the 2nd Mounted Tennessee Infantry. (Although a Confederate state, Tennessee ended up supplying 38,000 troops for the Union cause versus 115,000 for the Confederacy.)
     John Ransom’s diary describes the capture. The rebel citizens of Rogersville had sponsored a dance and invited all of the Union officers. He suspected it was a ruse to get the officers away from their command. Many had not returned by the following morning when the troops were surprised by a rebel attack. Over a hundred were killed and two to three hundred wounded before the surrender. Three soldiers from the 2nd Tennessee were picked out and shot. They were accused of deserting from the Confederate Army. They had in fact been impressed involuntarily and had escaped after their first few days and had joined the Union army. These men, as it turned out, may have been the lucky ones, since they were spared the horrors that would confront the other ones taken prisoner.
     The prisoners were marched to the nearest railway station in Bristol, Virginia, a little over fifty miles away. They reached Bristol in two days and were boarded onto cattle cars for the ride to Richmond. The destination was Belle Isle Prison located on a ten to twelve acre island in the James River, just outside the city. At the time of his capture there were about six thousand prisoners here. By the time they were transferred to Andersonville a few months later, the number had swelled to ten thousand. There were only tents for about half of the men. The rest had to sleep in the open, and this was the winter season. Survival would often depend on being warmly dressed and having at least a blanket. Every night there were some men who died in their sleep because of the cold. Footwear was at a premium, and if good boots were recognized by their Southern captors, they were often confiscated. John Ransom reports that on average about fifteen to twenty-five men died every day, many from exposure to the extreme cold, but many also from disease and starvation.
     Food rations consisted of thin rice soup and corn bread, but in very small quantities. The men who had been there the longest were described as being “almost reduced to skeletons, from continued hunger, exposure and filth.” Men passed the time by picking greybacks (lice) from each other and from their clothing. Conversation dwelt almost entirely on the prospects for exchange and a return home.
     The last prisoners to arrive were the ones who had to live outside the tents. They could move into the tents when vacancies occurred because of death, or if someone became sick enough to be taken to the hospital on the mainland. No one was admitted to the hospital unless they had to be carried, and there was very little chance of recovery for the ones admitted. Fighting among the prisoners was common, and gradually there evolved an element of predators, whom he called raiders, who would steal from the honest and the weak.
     Food shortage would be a chronic problem for the duration of the incarceration. Any meat they got was often tainted or infested with maggots, and getting access to any vegetables was rare. Occasionally one would get an onion or some beans, but malnutrition soon would set in. In later testimony for Susan Bickel’s pension application, fellow prisoners would testify that Salmon had begun to get sick at Belle Isle even before he had been transferred to Andersonville. The men were familiar with the symptoms of scurvy (weakness, bleeding, depression, muscular pain, loss of vision, swelling and loosening teeth) and seemed to be aware that eating fruits and vegetables, to which they didn’t have any access, could cure it. Dropsy was a term used to describe the edema (fluid accumulation) that would occur in the advanced state of starvation when the body becomes protein depleted.
     The transfer to Andersonville took place in early March 1864. It was felt that Belle Isle was too close to Union lines and would be a tempting target for a military thrust, and was also close enough so that the Confederate treatment or mistreatment of prisoners would come to Union attention and retaliation made against their own prisoners. The trip to Andersonville, which is near Macon, Georgia, would be a seven-day ride in a cattle car on the train. They would disembark at night to sleep in the woods under heavy guard.
     The horrors of Andersonville have been described in detail over and over. At its peak there were 27,000 prisoners housed on twenty-six acres. Some of this was swampy and couldn’t be used for living. A small, putrid stream ran through the camp, and was the only source of water. A latrine area along side the stream would overflow when it rained, and it rained almost every day. The climate was unhealthy, hot and humid. When the Belle Isle prisoners first arrived it was still uncrowded and there was wood to burn to cook with. At that time the death rate was about eighteen to twenty per day. These conditions didn’t last. The camp rapidly filled up. The wood was used up and the quality and quantity of food rapidly deteriorated.
     In the early days here there were sometimes visitors, coming to look at the Yankee prisoners, but the sights and the stench soon became too much and people couldn’t stand to come near. By mid July the death rate was one hundred sixty-five per day, and it would keep increasing. The bodies were collected only once per day, and added greatly to the stench. The predators from Belle Isle continued their raiding tactics here and much of the prisoner’s sufferings would stem from this. These raiders were finally put down with the help of the Confederate staff in early July 1864, when six of their leaders were tried and hanged. But by that time it was too late for Salmon. He had lasted but two months here.
     There was a hospital inside the stockade. Prisoners who could walk were not admitted, and essentially nobody sent there recovered. His friends carried Salmon to the stockade hospital on May 12, and he died the next day. If there is any worse way to die in this world, I haven’t yet heard of it. Being among friends until the end must have been the only consolation. John Ransom’s diary records that on May 13, the day Salmon died, there was a picnic outside the prison, (most assuredly on the upwind side), complete with band for entertainment. The picnic was given by the local populace as a send off for some Alabama troops leaving for the front.
     When Salmon was brought to Andersonville, the death rate for a month was one in sixteen. In November, with Sherman’s troops nearing and the camp being evacuated, the death rate was one in three. John Ransom, the diarist, barely survived the ordeal. On September 7, 1864, as he was nearing death, evacuation of the camp had begun. Only those able to walk were allowed to go. Ransom was unable to walk, but a companion propped him up and they faked it. He was able to go to a Confederate hospital in Savannah and he eventually recovered. Col. Wirtz, the Confederate officer who had been the overseer of the camp was hanged in Washington DC after the war. The diarist, John Ransom, and many Civil War historians agree that although Wirtz may have been guilty of mistreatment of the prisoners, he was also in a way a scapegoat for superiors in the Confederate army and government who were guilty of the gross criminal neglect that produced these conditions.
     The devastation and havoc exacted by war seldom stops with the cessation of hostilities. Salmon's widow, Susan, would continue to pay the price for four decades after peace was declared. After the war was over she was granted the usual widow's pension but she forfeited it in 1869 when she married another Civil War veteran, William Morgan. A daughter, Dora, was born to them in 1872, but the marriage was apparently rocky. Morgan, as it turned out, was alcoholic and abusive. During the first ten years of their marriage he was often gone from home for long periods of time, leaving home to work digging coal, but not reappearing again for up to four months. About 1880 he left again, obstensively for work but never again returned. During the long years that followed, Susan tried to locate him by advertising in newspapers and by word of mouth, but without success. After he had been gone for seventeen years, she began to petition the courts to have him declared dead so that she could again apply for a widow's pension. She made several attempts at this but each time the petition was denied. Finally in 1903, twenty-three years after her husband's disappearance, she was granted a divorce. She then applied for reinstatement of her pension as the widow of Salmon Bickel. This was granted in 1904.  She died about one year later.

There were other Gallia County soldiers who were taken prisoner at the same time as Salmon Bickel and who also were imprisoned at Belle Isle and then Andersonville.  Five of them testified for Susan Bickel when she applied for the widow's pension.  They were:

Pvt. Jeb Randolph, Company L 7th OVC
Sgt. H. L. Wood, Company M 7th OVC
Sgt. Samuel J. Kerr, Company L 7th OVC
Sgt. Charles Kiniaid, Co. L 7th OVC
Pvt. Oliver Caviler, a fellow prisoner from Company M 7th OVC

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