Monday, August 5, 2013

A Kentuckian Finds Hell on Belle Isle

Searching for Kentucky Civil War images last evening on the Library of Congress website, I came across the disturbing photograph above. It was taken at Annapolis, Maryland, on June 1, 1864, at a United States hospital and shows the emaciated form of Private William M. Smith, Company D, 8th Kentucky Volunteer Infantry. 

Smith was from Owsley County in the eastern Kentucky mountains. His service records indicate he enlisted at Beatyville, Kentucky, on September 24, 1861, for three years. For some reason the army waited until January 15, 1862, to muster some of the 8th's men into service at Lebanon, Kentucky. He only 18 years old when he signed up. 

The 1860 census shows William Smith in the household of his father John (42 years old), and mother Lucy (37 years old), and with a string of younger brothers; Milton (14), Harrison (12), George (10), John (6), and James (4), and a baby sister, Nancy (2).  William's occupation, like so many other Civil War soldiers, was farmer. His father John was a blacksmith, but only had $500.00 valued in personal property at time of the census. No real estate was indicated. Interestingly, his nearest aged brothers (Milton, George, and John) were all noted as having attended school in the last year.

The 8th Kentucky Volunteer Infantry was organized by Colonel Sidney Barnes, a slave owning Unionist from Estill County. In the spring and summer of 1862, the 8th was in Nashville and other locations in Middle Tennessee. That fall they moved back into Kentucky, where they were present but did not engage the enemy at the Battle of Perryville on October 8. During the campaign back in their native state, and near home, many soldiers of the 8th took the opportunity to leave the ranks and visit friends and family. With many men back in the ranks, the 8th fought bravely at Murfreesboro (Stones River) and operated in Middle Tennessee. That spring Smith received a promotion to corporal. Summer brought a new campaign and the Union army maneuvered the Confederates toward Chattanooga. They engaged Braxton Bragg's Army of Tennessee at the Battle of Chickamauga on September 19 and 20, 1863.

It was at Chickamauga that William Smith became a prisoner. He was captured on the second day of fighting and was sent to Richmond, Virginia, where records indicate he arrived on September 29. Smith must have suffered from ill health before being captured and imprisoned, as his service records indicate that he had been in a "convalescent camp" in Nashville earlier in the fall. 

Smith's illness was a common one among Civil War soldiers: diarrhea. In many instances the illness turned out to be just as deadly as any minnie ball or artillery shell.

While Smith was incarcerated in Richmond, apparently on Belle Isle in the James River (pictured above), he was sent to a Confederate hospital at Danville, Virginia, for treatment for his diarrhea on February 23, 1864. It might say something about a certain level of compassion on the part of the Southerners that they would take the trouble to send an enemy soldier to a distant hospital for treatment. However, Smith was returned to prison a few days later. His terrible condition must have quickly returned, as his records show that he was admitted to Hospital 21 in Richmond about a month later (April 24, 1864). 

Smith's time in Confederate hospitals and prisons would be short though, as on April 30, 1864, he was transported to City Point, Virginia (near Petersburg) where he was paroled. On May 2, 1864, he was reported as being at College Green Barracks, Maryland, which was on the campus of St. John's College in Annapolis. This is likely here where his emaciated image was taken.

Was Smith's skeletal condition due to his experience in a Confederate prison, where rations were likely few and far between, or was it due to his chronic diarrhea? I would guess a combination of the two worked to leave him existing as skin and bones.

Smith was able to make his way back home to Kentucky on the government's dime. Actually the record indicates it cost $12.50 to transport the soldier from Annapolis to Cincinnati. How Smith got to Owsley County from Cincinnati is a mystery. Likely he walked.

Unlike many Civil War soldiers who suffered from diarrhea and dysentery, Smith survived the immediate post war years. He was located in the 1870 census for Lee County, which was carved from part of Owsley County that year and named for Confederate General Robert E. Lee who had died that year. How ironic! In the five years since the war's end, Smith, now 28 years old, had married his wife Amanda (22), and his younger brother Harrison (23) was living with the couple. He is listed as a farmer, like his prewar occupation indicated. He is shown as owning $500 in real estate and $250 in personal property.

The trail for Smith gets colder for 1880. There is a divorced William Smith in nearby Jackson (Breathitt County), who was 38 years old and living with a 14 year old nephew named Thomas Combs, but I could not verify that this was the former 8th Kentucky Infantry soldier and prisoner of war.

Images courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Documents courtesy of the National Archives.

1 comment:

  1. Captain Minter lost his life there at the Battle of Stones River of the 8th and lingered in the hospital in Nashville from a sword wound and succombed to his wounds source: his pension. Somehow his body made it's way back to Owsley as well as Smith made it back I always wondered how they got it back.