Memoir of Union soldier’s experiences in Andersonville and other Confederate prisons donated to Lincoln Presidential Library

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Springfield, IL – Some of the most unspeakable places of the Civil War are remembered by a Union soldier in a memoir that has been recently donated to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.    
 
The memoir of Silas Edwin Halsey covers in detail his Civil War experiences from 1862 through 1865, including a stint in the notorious Confederate prison camp at Andersonville, Georgia, considered by many to be what is now known as a concentration camp.  Halsey’s memoir was donated by C. Judson Treat of Johns Island, South Carolina and delivered by Library volunteer Dennis Pescitelli, who had encouraged the donor to consider the Lincoln Presidential Library as a repository.
 
“Civil War prison camps on both sides were rife with starvation, disease and death.  It is a testament to Mr. Halsey’s tenacity that he was able to survive some of the worst of such camps and live to write about his experiences,” said State Historian Tom Schwartz.
Halsey was born April 22, 1832 in West Stockbridge, Massachusetts and settled in Warren, Michigan.  Here Halsey farmed, married, and had several children.  Family responsibilities kept him from enlisting in the Union army until August 1862 when he joined Company A, 22nd Michigan Infantry, as a private.
 
Halsey was captured at the Battle of Chickamauga, Georgia, on September 20, 1863 and spent fifteen months in Confederate prisons in Richmond, Virginia; Danville, Virginia; Andersonville, Georgia; and Florence, South Carolina.  He was paroled in December 1864, exchanged on March 20, 1865, and mustered out of the service on June 26, 1865.  Halsey returned to Warren, Michigan where he worked in a shoe shop and a grocery store.  He was  physically disabled by his prison experiences and received an invalid pension beginning in 1866. Halsey died on November 18, 1908.
 
Halsey wrote his memoir in 1886, “entirely from memory and past recollections, without the aid of diary or any thing of the kind, and while the writer was suffring [sic] with the Rheumatism, and unable to walk without the aid of crutches, the effects of fifteen months in Southern Prisons.”  The memoir is composed of two parts, both written in pencil. The first part, on loose pages, traces Halsey’s 1862 enlistment and early months in the regiment when he and fellow soldiers were primarily in Kentucky.
 
The memoir then skips to September 19, 1863 with an account of Halsey’s capture and his experiences in the various prisons.  This section is written in the back of a ledger that contains accounts for a store and the Warren, Michigan post office from the mid-1870s to the early 1880s.  Halsey describes the cruelties of his captors, stripping the prisoners of most of their belongings, and the poor living conditions and food provided.  Halsey was in several prisons in Richmond until late November or early December 1863 when he was shipped to Danville, Virginia.  Here he got the only letter he received from his family while in prison.  Unfortunately, it contained the news of the death of one of his children.  He put the letter away and tried not to think about it.  “I did not want to get homesick, for I had seen the effects of it, if one of the prisoners got homesick and gave up to his feelings he was soon carried out to be put under ground. [died] It was a dread to me to think of being burried under the Rebbel flag.”
 
In late May 1864, Halsey was moved to Andersonville, Georgia.  He describes how he and another man set up their shelter, the layout of the camp, conditions in general, food, lice, the notorious raiders among the captives, and the deaths of many prisoners.  From mid-September to mid-December Halsey was in the prison in Florence, South Carolina.  Here he describes cooking and eating a rat.  Halsey was paroled in December 1864 because he had some congestion and convinced the examining doctor that he had “phthisis” (tuberculosis).
 
Halsey’s memoir contains many instances of wry nineteenth-century humor.  For example, in his description of Andersonville:  “. . . to the left of the road by a little creek that ran through the prison, was the Cook House, where they pretended to cook our rations.”  But there are many sobering descriptions of hardships he personally experienced or witnessed.  Although Andersonville was the most notorious of the prisons in which he was incarcerated, Halsey devotes a fair amount of space to each prison.  Not surprisingly, he frequently mentions food, or the lack thereof.  He also discusses prisoners’ attempts to escape and makes frequent mention of “gray backs” (lice) and the process of removing them, as well as their entertainment value – he would set two “gray backs” on a piece of paper and watch them fight.  Halsey also managed to earn some money by selling little “trinkets” he made out of bones, as well as beans that he bought from the sutler and cooked.  The memoir includes many examples of soldier ingenuity.
 
The Halsey memoir joins 123 Civil War diaries and 400 collections with a Civil War component in the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum’s manuscripts collection.  The library is the nation’s chief historical and genealogical research facility for all aspects of Illinois history, and is one of the top institutions for those researching the Civil War era.  The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum’s next exhibit, “Team of Rivals,” opens October 14 and will examine the events leading up to the Civil War and President Lincoln’s choice of his first cabinet.  The exhibit will be narrated by famed historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, author of a book by the same title.  For more information on the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, visit www.presidentlincoln.org.

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