Tuesday, August 3, 2010

3 August 1864: Union Prisoners Held in Athens

On this day in 1864, at approximately 3 o'clock in the afternoon, Colonel William Campbell Preston Breckinridge's Kentucky Cavalry escorted into Athens over 200 Union prisoners. The men were members of Colonel Horace Capron's brigade, captured during an early morning raid after a day of fighting at Barber Creek. The prisoners were held on the University of Georgia campus for several days while other Union soldiers, scattered during the fighting, were caught and processed as prisoners of war. A total of 431 men were temporarily interned at UGA.

The Southern Watchman described the men thusly:
The prisoners presented a sorry spectacle. Ragged, some of them bare headed, some bare-footed, and all very dirty, we have never seen an equal number of men looking so badly. The great mass of them appeared to be the "rag, tag and bobtail" of the communities from whence they came. We recognized "the Irish brogue and sweet German accent" among them. It is true that, now and then, a respectable looking man was to be seen among the officers and men. The great mass of them, however, looked like "hard cases."

The University was not in session, and some buildings on campus had been put to use as hospitals. Phi Kappa Hall was used as a quartermaster depot and New College as shelter for refugees driven from their homes around the south. Prisoners of war were kept outdoors in open, fenced areas. The day after the prisoners arrived, the citizens of Athens gave an afternoon banquet for the cavalrymen, complete with a musician-led parade through town to lead the Breckinridge brigade to the banquet site in the campus Chapel.

The arrival of the prisoners in Athens was, according to the account in the Southern Watchman, "great excitement, as this was the first squad of Yankees who had visited us since the beginning of the war." Many of the local residents ventured to campus to see and talk to the prisoners; one man cursed a prisoner roundly, ending his verbal attack with a firm kick. An young observer noted that, "Boy as I was I boiled over with indignation and I felt like apologizing to the prisoner for the whole State of Georgia; and I never saw that man afterwards--and he lived twenty years after the war--that I did not say to myself 'there goes a coward.'"

The Union prisoners spent their time in Athens under the guard of an Athens home defense unit known as the Mitchell Thunderbolts. The Thunderbolts consisted of mostly well-established, well-educated professional men who were too old for the Confederate draft. Confederate law had recently allowed such local "minute-man" style companies to be formed whose only role would be to defend their home towns if attacked, and could not be co-opted by the Confederate Department of War. They were allowed to make their own rules and elect their own officers, and were not under orders of any higher military authority.

The Mitchell Thunderbolts, named for Private William L. Mitchell, were widely known as more independent than most home guards, much to the consternation of General Howell Cobb, who was Georgia's commander of reserve forces. One member of the Thunderbolts, John Gilleland, invented the double-barreled cannon. Though it's intended use was not successful, it may have been used as a regular cannon to defend Athens at Barber Creek the day before the prisoners arrived in town.

According to the Watchman, Athens held the prisoners for only a few days before they were shipped "to Andersonville, where they will be properly cared for." However, by August of 1864, the 26 1/2-acre Andersonville held more than 33,000 Union prisoners of war, far more than the space was built to allow. The site is now a National Cemetery and home to the National Prisoner of War Museum.

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