100 Objects

Civil War carved wood chains

Carved from tree branches or a solid piece of wood by prisoners of war, the larger chain has the name Ellis Humphreys carved into a link. One end link has a carved head and face, and several links contain moving wooden balls or “balls in cages.”

Civil War records from a prison hospital ward at Elmira, N.Y. , list an Ellis Humphreys, confederate soldier, who died of pleurisy and pneumonia on Nov. 8, 1864.

From 1861 to 1865, both the Union and Confederacy operated prisoner-of-war camps, from Chicago, Ill., to the infamous Andersonville, Ga., where 13,000 of the 45,000 Union soldiers imprisoned there died.

Around 195,000 Union soldiers and 215,000 Confederates went to prison camps; approximately 30,000 Union prisoners and 26,000 Confederate prisoners died in them.

Accounts of life in the camps were horrific. Those fortunate were housed in warehouses or existing prisons while many slept in flimsy tents or in the open on the ground. Prisoners died in droves from disease, battle wounds, poor sanitation, malnutrition, overcrowding and exposure.

Following is from the diary of Michael Dougherty, Company B, 13th, Pennsylvania Cavalry, confined to Libby prison, Richmond, Va.:

From Oct. 27, 1863: “Prisoners busy making bone rings, toothpicks, chains etc. and selling them to the guards. And selling boots, shoes, shirts and blankets, and in fact anything in order to get something to eat.”

And from Nov. 30: “... prisoners making bone rings, trinkets etc. They want to take something home to remember this infernal place. I, for myself, need no reminder.”

Dougherty was transferred to several more prison camps, ending up at Andersonville at the end of the war. On April 24, 1865, Dougherty, along with 1,960 paroled prisoners from Andersonville and the Cahaba prison camp in Alabama, boarded a steamboat in Vicksburg, Miss., for their home. The side-wheel Sultana, designed for a capacity of 376, was loaded with prisoners, guards, passengers and crew totaling 2,155. Two days later, just north of Memphis, three boilers exploded. The Sultana burned to the waterline and sank. More than 1,500 died in the fire or drowned. Dougherty survived.

These chains were donated to the Washington County Historical Society by Edwin L. Smith, March 4, 1919.

Alice Burroughs is a volunteer for the Washington County Historical Society and a member of the antiquities committee.

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