On Oct. 25, 1861, 21-year-old William Tefft of Warwick made the decision to leave his life in Rhode Island behind and march into war as a Union soldier.
After enlisting in the 7th Rhode Island Infantry, he said goodbye to his parents, Daniel and Elizabeth (Dodge), and his siblings Elizabeth, Caroline, Daniel and Emma. On Dec. 28, 1863, he was transferred to the 3rd Rhode Island Cavalry. Two years later, he would be captured and forced into Andersonville Prison, a Confederate prisoner of war camp.
Andersonville Prison in Georgia was known as “hell” to the over 45,000 Union soldiers who were held captive there during the Civil War. The 16-acre piece of property was equipped for its ghastly purpose in February 1864. Four months later, 10 additional acres were added to the grounds, enclosed by a 15-foot-high stockade fence made of logs. Within the enclosure, a boundary line – marked by strips of pine connected to small posts in the ground – lay 19 feet ahead of the stockade fence. This was known as the “dead line,” and any prisoner moving passed it would be shot immediately.
Fifty-two guard towers were set at 30-yard intervals around the prison. More towers stood outside the grounds to bring a quick end to any successful escape.
In the center of the prison grounds, a 3½-acre area had been flooded by rainwater and stood as a constant stagnant swamp. This body of water, as well as the creek that snaked through the property, was used for washing, drinking and serving as bathroom facilities for the prisoners.
Under the direction of Henry Wirz, a wagon would make its way through the prison each morning at 9 o’clock to collect the dead. Meals, consisting of bug-infested cornbread, watery soup and beans with maggots swimming in them, were ravished by men who were quickly becoming skeletal. They broke apart their canteens to use as dishes, making utensils out of sticks or twisted pieces of metal. Those without canteens ate from their own shoes.
The brave and once-strong men within the confines of Andersonville became staggering ghosts of their former selves, covered in mud and excrement. Lice and rats shared living space in an area that was overcrowded by four times its capacity. Dirty, wet and rotted clothing hung from bodies in shreds, and the air carried a constant stench of vomit, fecal matter and death.
In May 1865, Andersonville Prison was liberated. William Tefft was sent back home to Warwick. However, the damage had been done. He died at home from the effects of starvation on June 10 and was laid to rest at Elm Grove Cemetery.
Of the nearly 50,000 men that had been held prisoner at Andersonville, about 13,000 perished there, most from disease. Those who survived had to do so with visions of “hell” forever etched into their minds.
Kelly Sullivan is a Rhode Island columnist, lecturer and author.