John Cain's Andersonville Testimony
by James McLean
On February 22, 1864, Mosby with a force estimated to be 160
to 250 men ambushed Captain Reed and a force of 125 men from the 2nd
Massachusetts and 25 men from the 16th New York at Ankers Blacksmith
Shop on the Leesburg Pike. Losses among the 2nd Massachusetts were
high with 19 killed and 56 captured.
Among the captured was 30 year old, former farmer, John A.
Cain. Cain enlisted in San Francisco and was mustered into Company E on February
21, 1863. After his capture at Ankers Shop he was taken to Richmond, Virginia,
on February 29. He departed Richmond on March 4, 1864, for Camp Sumter, Georgia.
After about a week’s train-ride away, Private Cain arrived at the stockade at
Andersonville on March 10, 1864. He spent the rest of the war at Andersonville,
Millen and Savannah, Georgia. He was exchanged on April 30, 1865. While at St.
John’s College Hospital he wrote a letter to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton on
June 3, 1865.
"Deeming it my duty to
myself and my county. I here send you a partial list of Union prisoners who
left the Stockade prison at Camp Lawton near Millen, Ga. on, or about the 10th
of November last; and is supposed to have taken the ‘Oath of
Allegiance’ to the late ‘Confederate Government.’ Should this be of
any service to you in bringing them to justice I shall consider myself amply
compensated for my trouble, I am, sir, your most humble and obedient
servant, mo. A. Cain, Co. F, 2 Mass Cav., Ward 8, St. Johns College
Hospital, Annapolis, Maryland.
Private Cain’s list contained the names of one hundred and
thirty-four persons, and in nearly all cases he listed the company, regiment,
and state or Federal unit in which the individual had served. Private Cain
listed four members from Companies A, B, L, and M, Second Massachusetts Cavalry,
who allegedly embraced allegiance to the Confederate government on that day.
The "Record of Massachusetts men in the War of the
Rebellion" lists three men who were captured and subsequently joined the
Confederate army. The three are William Harrison Co. F who joined the 1st
Foreign Legion Battalion, CSA, Joseph Kemp Co. B who joined the 10th
Tennessee and William Schellinger, Co. F. None were Californians.
Two hundred sixty four men from the 2nd
Massachusetts were captured during the war. Sixty died while prisoners of the
Confederacy. (editors note: click here
to see a list) Thirty- eight are buried at Andersonville. Another eight died at
Millen, Savannah and Florence South Carolina after being imprisoned at
Andersonville. Four men died from the effects of Andersonville while en route or
at the parole camp. Approximately Fifteen thousand prisoners of the total of
about 45,000 or 1 out of 3 died while incarcerated at Andersonville.
After the war Captain Henry Wirz, a Swiss immigrant and
commander of the prison at Andersonville stockade was arrested and tried by
court martial. The outcome of the trial was a foregone conclusion. It was a case
of "bring in the guilty bastard so we can hang him." In retrospect
Wirz was not solely responsible for the disaster at Andersonville. Perhaps the
principal villain was Brigadier General John H. Winder who was in charge of all
Federal prisoners. Winder died of a heart attack just before the end of the war,
escaping trial. Equally at fault were the decrepit southern railroad system and
the lack of a suitable food supply and distribution system.
On September 22, 1865, John A. Cain took the witness stand
for the prosecution in the trial of Henry Wirz, former commandant of the
Andersonville Stockade Prison, Camp Sumter, Georgia. His testimony is summarized
in "The Diary of a Dead Man 1862-1864" compiled by J.P. Ray published
by Eastern Acorn Press in 1981, pages 236-245. Cain described the first days
after his capture:
"I was taken prisoner the 22d
February, 1864; I was taken to Richmond, Va., and remained there three or
four days, long enough to be searched and have everything taken from me and
the rest of us. I was taken from there to Andersonville, and arrived at
Andersonville on the 10th of March, 1864."
The prisoners arrived at Andersonville at about 2:00 AM in a
hard rain. Cain continued,
We were drawn up in line four deep,
about 1,000 of us, and were marched through water about knee deep; a great
many of the men were very sick and feeble; they were forced to walk through
that mud and water about knee deep to the stockade, a distance of about half
a mile; they were turned loose into the stockade; it was raining hard and we
were without shelter and we did not know where to go; they were ordered to
fall in the next morning to receive orders how we were to proceed while
Adding to his misery, Cain fell into the swamp in the middle
of the stockade while trying to get a drink of water. The next morning,
I can hardly describe the scene
that I beheld—men lying around in all directions sick, very sick and
feeble; most of them were Belle island prisoners. It did not matter about
the health of the men; it seemed to me that the healthiest of the men took
sick as quick, if not quicker, than some of those who were weak. Two of my
own comrades—stouter or heartier men never lived—took sick the next day;
I did not know from what cause unless it was from change of water; we had to
carry one of them in a blanket to the hospital. This hospital was only a few
boards thrown together very temporarily to shed the rain off those very sick
lying in there; they were lying in their own filth, with nobody to take care
About ten o’clock that day I was
ordered to the other side of the stockade; the place was very steep, rising
up from the swamp; it could not be called a hill—it was a bank, inclining
at an angle of about forty degrees. I was allotted to a place on that bank
that was very difficult for a sick man or a weak man to ascend without good
help, without two men to help him; I was obliged to lie there until I was
taken to the hospital."
Most of the prisoners were without firewood or cooking
utensils of any kind and so.
"I very often mixed up meal
and ate it raw for want of wood and cooking utensils. The rations consisted
of about a pint of meal and a half a pound of very coarse beef; we took it
to be mule flesh; it looked more like horse or mule flesh than beef; we got
about a teaspoonful of salt. That was our rations for twenty-four hours. I
very often ate my beef or mule flesh raw. I just picked the bones."
Every morning the prisoners were required to fall in and be
counted and receive rations for the day. . Frequently comrades had to carry the
sick up the hill to be included in the morning count. About the 23d of May, he
became so week he could not get up to the morning roll call. Cain recalled;
"One time at the top of the
hill I fainted away and was conveyed temporarily to a little tent,
consequently missing the roll-call; the sergeant asked where I was; they
could not find me; and he ordered my rations to be stopped that day; it was
neglect of some comrades for not having me up.
I finally got discouraged and made
up mind to die; I did not wish to be any more trouble to my comrades, and I
went over to the gate and was successful in getting to the hospital; that
was a little after the hospital was moved out of the stockade, about the 23d
or 24th of May, I think."
Cain was paroled as a nurse to care for the sick at the
hospital. The nurses were allowed to go to the gate to help sick men off the
wagons or ambulances, or to carry the men on stretchers. He kept a memorandum
book throughout his imprisonment and during his testimony he referred to it:
"About the middle of April,
1864, (witness refers to his memorandum-book and gives the date as the 23d
of April) an insane man was shot. He was considered insane by us. He would
go around among the debris of the swamp and pick up undigested food, beans
and meat, that had passed through men. I have often myself tried to turn him
from it, telling him to go to his quarters and let that alone, or something
to that effect, which made me form the conclusion that he was insane or
crazy. He was very emaciated. He was one of the Belle Island prisoners.
I know something about a man being
shot on the 2d of May. I do not know that I saw him before he was shot; he
was a man of dark complexion. I took him to be a German. He belonged to a
Pennsylvania regiment. I do not know his name. I was told he was an insane
man. He was near the hospital, or rather on the southeast corner of the
stockade where the hospital was located first."
Another shooting took place at the hospital. Cain testified
that according to his memorandum;
"Rebel guard shot a sick Union
prisoner for coming near his fire." His leg was amputated near the
thigh. He died, I cannot say when. I did not see him when he was shot; it
was done about nine o’clock in the morning. I had been at his fire before
he was shot, and I was there about ten minutes after he was shot. I heard
the report and got up, and heard the man moaning very piteously. I went down
to where he was; they had just carried him into the tent. I heard him make a
statement the next day (that) the guard had their line inside on this end of
the swamp hospital. It was very common for us to go down and sit near the
fires and converse with the guard and trade with them. There was no order
against that. I often went down and warmed myself, and heated soup and mush
and corn-meal coffee; we used to call it conscript. This man said he went
down as usual and sat near the fire, and that the first thing he knew, the
guard, without any warning, drew his musket and shot him."
When questioned about a man who was shot on July 26th
"His name was John Burke. He
belonged to the sixty-ninth New York volunteers, Colonel Corcoran’s old
regiment. … He was brought to my place where I was nursing. …The ball
went in the right cheek, cut off his tongue, cut out his upper teeth, passed
out through his left jaw, and cut three of his fingers nearly off. He was
sitting in his tent at the time, smoking his pipe, when the ball went in and
struck him. That man died; he made a statement to me when he was aware he
could not live; he said he was starving to death; he could not eat what he
got, and could not get anything better to eat. I made a requisition on the
doctor’s steward for suitable food. In some instances it was to be had,
but he could not get it. This man died in consequence of gangrene getting in
his tongue, and breathing through it, the doctor said, was the cause of his
death. He died about a day after being removed from my charge; he was sent
to the surgical ward, but it was too late."
During his testimony he related one appearance of General
"General Winder visited the
hospital after I was sent there. I know something about his ordering men to
be shot about the 20th of July. 1 (one) was standing at the gate. There had
been no dead-line established inside the hospital, never. In fact there was
no dead-line except right in front of the gate. In order to keep the gate
dear he ordered the guard to shoot any damned Yankee who would trespass on
the dead-line. It was only a mark sometimes made in the dust with a bayonet;
he said, further, "Any Yankee son-of-a-bitch you catch bathing in that
creek down there shoot him." The nurses and attendants had a parole at
that time, the pass was taken away from us, and we were refused the
privilege of bathing in the creek. We bathed below the hospital. We had a
ditch dug through one end of the hospital for washing-water, and a sink at
the lower end. It was a tributary of Sweet Water branch; I did not see any
reason why I should not be allowed to bathe there. It was all swamp waste
land beyond that.
Henry Wirz was sentenced to death by hanging and was executed
on November 10, 1865, on a gallows in the yard of the Old Capitol Prison. It is
conceivable that John Cain was one of those who witnessed it. Sometime after
this incident, Mr. Cain moved from Washington, D.C., to Boston, Massachusetts,
and 1868 found him a resident of Yarmouth, Nova Scotia. The scourge of scurvy
and its sequelae plagued him in its ever-progressing agony. He died there on
February 29, 1869 at age 36, from the lingering effects of the diseases
contracted during his imprisonment.
Corporal Cain's image is shown in
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