Sunday, April 12, 2015

Solemn graveyard was once N.C.'s first ballpark

SALISBURY, N.C.
     The Union lost more men at the Salisbury prison than on any battlefield of the Civil War.
     A monument erected in 1875 at the Salisbury National Cemetery says 11,700 Union solders were buried in 18 trenches  during 1864 and 1865. Scholars and historians say the actual death toll was closer to 3,800. 
     The most Union men killed in battle: 3,155 at Gettysburg.
     Salisbury pales in comparison to Andersonville, Ga., where 12,912 Union soldiers perished. Over 5,000 of those died in August and September of 1864, while Gen. George Stoneman himself was a Confederate prisoner. 
     Gen. Stoneman was trying to liberate Andersonville when he was captured July 31, 1864. Southerners respected his rank and held him in homes in Macon and Charleston, rather than dumping him at Andersonville. Gen. Sherman freed Stoneman along with Major Myles Keogh Sept. 30, 1864, by exchanging a captive Confederate, Gen. Daniel C. Govan.
     That was about the time the Union and the Confederacy stopped exchanging prisoners, which was the root of the problem at Salisbury. Sudden overcrowding in the fall of 1864 resulted in over 3,000 deaths that winter as a result of disease, hunger, and exposure.  
    As hard as it is to believe, in 1862 the Salisbury prison was more like a way station. The Union and Confederacy regularly exchanged prisoners, and most were detained just a few months at Salisbury. In 1863, the Salisbury stockade was used more as a jail for Confederate deserters and common criminals. Not until October 1864 did it become a death trap.
    Typical of the early prisoners was Capt. Otto Boetticher, a German immigrant who was captured at Warrenton, Va., in March, 1862 and released six months later. He was renowned as an sketch artist, and one of his illustrations made history.
Base ball in 1862, drawn by Salisbury prisoner Otto Boetticher
     Boetticher gave us the earliest image we have of a baseball game when he sketched this scene from the prison yard as Salisbury. This was the first place that base ball (originally two words) was played in North Carolina.
     Base ball became popular in the New York area in the decade prior to the Civil War, and Union soldiers played it often in camps and prisons. In an 1862 diary entry, Salisbury prisoner Dr. Charles Carroll Gray recorded that the Fourth of July was “celebrated with music, reading of the Declaration of Independence, and sack and foot races in the afternoon, and also a base ball game.”
     Boetticher’s print seems out of scale but otherwise is recognizable as the game we know 150 years later. He captures a dramatic moment as the runner tries to steal second base a split-second before the pitch is thrown. The basepaths look no more than 40 feet, rather than the modern 90, and the crowd is uncomfortably close in the outfield. The spectators include guards as well as local residents who freely attended the games (and often bet on the outcome).
     In the original print at the Reynolda House Museum of American Art in Winston-Salem, you can see many other details that document what was evidently a casual lifestyle in a Confederate prison camp in 1862. 
     Since Stoneman was a New Yorker, I looked for any sign he played base ball, but I found nothing. He knew Gen. Abner Doubleday, who was once credited with inventing baseball in 1839, although Doubleday never claimed that. Doubleday graduated from West Point in 1842, the same year Stoneman entered. At the start of the war, Doubleday was stationed at Fort Sumter, and when the rebels began bombarding the fort, Doubleday fired the first Union shot of the war
This 1875 monument says 11,700
 Union soldiers are buried here,
which would make Salisbury
comparable to Andersonville.
The actual total is closer to 3,800.
Mark Wineka of the Salisbury Post
 explored the question in
  a column last July 4.
     Life at Salisbury Prison took a turn for the worse in 1864, after the Union refused to swap any more prisoners. From October 1864 through February 1865, 10,321 prisoners were received into a 16-acre stockade that could house only 2,000. Some of them burrowed into the old base ball field to escape winter weather. Food and firewood were scarce in town and there was almost nothing left to supply the prison.
     According to Confederate records,  3,479 Union prisoners were buried in trenches on the grounds, starting in October 1864. In February, when prisoner exchanges resumed, 3,729 men were transferred to Greensboro and 1,420 to Richmond. When the Union soldiers arrived, they found 200 prisoners who had been too feeble to evacuate.That leaves over 1,500 unaccounted for. So the actual death toll at Salisbury may be close to 5,000.
     "The men we recaptured were emaciated and gaunt-looking," Pennsylvania Capt. Harry Weand wrote. "In the burial ground, attached to the prison pen, thousands of our men sleep."
     Ohio Corp. William Bushong was was horrified by the condition of the survivors and the extent of the burial trenches. "That they did not at once sweep the town from the face of the earth was because they were soldiers actuated by a higher motivation than revenge," he wrote. 
     Conditions at the prison weren't the fault of the local citizens, however. Some tried to help, and many considered the prison a blight on their town. According to Ann Brownlee, "No one was sorry when the Yankees made a bonfire of the evil-smelling empty, dolorous prison, the scene of so much unalleviated suffering and so many deaths.  This chapter could only be appropriately closed in a purification by fire.”
       Prison conditions were abhorrent on both sides. Of the 215,000 rebels held in Union prisons, 26,000 died. Of the 211,000 Yankees in Confederate prisons, 30,000 died.

No comments:

Post a Comment