Connecticut State Library
Civil War POW
A Letter from a Connecticut Civil War POW
Recently the New Hampshire Historical Society contacted me in hopes that I would accept a letter from Captain Henry Clinton Davis, Company A, 18th Connecticut Volunteers written from Libby Prison, the notorious Confederate facility for Union officers. I agreed and the Society shipped the letter. It is a short letter but one that accurately summarizes Davis's situation as a new prisoner of war.
Henry Clinton Davis was born in Goffstown, New Hampshire on December 17, 1835. He attended New London (Colby) Academy and enrolled in Dartmouth in 1859. He attended classes for two years but did not graduate. Davis was a teacher, and in 1862 he became the Principal at the Greenville School in Norwich, Connecticut. He enlisted in the 18th Connecticut Volunteers on August 8, 1862, was commissioned a Captain and given Company A as his command. In the Battle of Winchester on June 15, 1863, Davis and other members of the 18th were captured.
Captured Union officers were shipped to the capital of the Confederacy, Richmond, and confined in a former tobacco warehouse known as Libby Prison. In his letter, Davis wrote to two friends, John Eastman and James Stevens of Washington, D.C. Perhaps they were classmates from his school days. They had sent Davis a letter which he got, and he relayed that their correspondence "afforded" him "the greatest pleasure to know, that the friends of earlier days had interested themselves to learn of my where and how-a-bouts." His date of capture was accurate, and he hoped that in the Battle of Winchester, "I acted an honorable part."
After the war both Union and Confederate veterans decried the conditions of prisons. The North was so outraged by stories of mass deaths and deprivations at Andersonville that they tried and hanged the commandant, Henry Wirtz. In reality, neither side had a good record in taking care of POW's. Neither was prepared to deal with so many men, and the collapse of the Confederate economy led to shortages for civilians as well as Yankee prisoners
Almost six months into his incarceration, Captain Davis wrote that "prison life has in a measure lost its horrors to me." A later biographical sketch for a Dartmouth publication about the class of 1863 stated that Davis was at Libby for ten months "where he suffered severely from sickness." By December of 1863, at least, the captain was beginning to tolerate prison life. Perhaps officers were treated better than enlisted men, for Davis commented that he had "already received a box of clothing and provision from home." He welcomed the offer of his two friends to send him "whatever articles of comfort" he preferred. He warned them that the commissary stores provided them "will soon play out." "The authorities here permit us to receive," he revealed, "anything except arms, liquors, and greenbacks." He credited the Confederacy with good treatment writing that "everything sent has been honorably and promptly delivered to us."
At the time that Davis wrote, the North and South were still exchanging prisoners. However, such transfers often took a long time to arrange. Frustrated with the delays, POW's sometimes petitioned President Lincoln to speed up the process. Writing to his friends, Davis sarcastically suggested that "our government intends to make ‘Libby' the permanent residence of her captured officers, by her seeming indifference in all propositions for exchange." Since Eastman and Stevens lived in the nation's capital, he urged them to visit "the exchange bureau and accertain [SIC] what you can for your friend."
Unfortunately for Davis, his release was months off. Along with other officers at Libby, he was transferred to a stockade at Macon, Georgia. The size of the prison was two and a half acres and housed from one thousand to eighteen hundred men. If Davis could tolerate life at Libby, the Macon stockade turned out to be "inhuman," as he wrote in a later account. From Macon, he went to Charleston, South Carolina and then onto a prison camp near Columbia. It was there that Davis escaped by bribing a guard with his old watch and fifty dollars Confederate money. He succeeded in eluding his captors for twenty-three days before he was captured. His flight through one hundred and fifty miles of the wilderness of the South Carolina backcountry probably had a deleterious effect on his health.
Official records show that he was exchanged on December 10, 1864, almost a year after the date of his letter to Eastman and Stevens. He was discharged on April 17, 1865. In civilian life, he became principal of a school in Norwich and New Haven. However, he was a casualty of his confinement by the Confederates. He had contracted "consumption," another word for tuberculosis, usually a fatal disease in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He died at his parents' house in Nashua, New Hampshire on December 6, 1878, just fourteen years after his letter from Libby Prison.
Libby Prison, Richmond, VA, PG 085, Brady Collection of Civil War Photographs, 1861-1865, Connnecticut State Library State Archives
Mark Jones, State Archivist
CONNector, July 2007