Civil War Relics: Tribute and Legacy

by Erin McGough, Collections Manager


Fragments from the deadline at Andersonville Prison

Last year, DRHS pulled from a bureau drawer in the Gershom Bradford house a small wooden trinket box containing a number of Civil War relics, previously uncatalogued. This box includes some wood fragments from the deadline at Andersonville Prison, a hickory nut from Bloody Lane at Sharpsburg (Antietam), and a small star constructed from wood gathered at Fort Wagner. A note inside, written in 19th century handwriting, indicates that the box once contained other items as well: a chestnut from where “[General Jesse] Reno fell at S. Mt [South Mountain]”; an ochrea from “the white house at the landing in 1862 when guarded by order of Gen. McClellan”; minie balls from rifle pits at Wilderness and Chancellorsville; a bullet from Richmond; and a minie ball from Petersburg. These last items are no longer in the box but the names are impressive and we can draw important connections between some of these relics and the experiences of Duxbury soldiers in the Civil War.


Star made from wood collected at Fort Wagner, SC. Hickory nut from “Bloody Lane” on the Antietam Battlefield, MD.

The 18th Massachusetts, in which about 55 Duxbury soldiers were enlisted, participated in a number of the battles with which these items are associated. The White House Landing mentioned in the note was located on the Pamunkey River on the north side of the Virginia Peninsula, and was taken as a supply base by Union troops under General George B. McClellan during the Peninsula Campaign in 1862. The 18th Massachusetts camped at White House Landing during for a time during the campaign. Duxbury’s Civil War nurse Charlotte Bradford also served at the landing a number of times because the hospital ships used it as a primary location to drop supplies for the army and to pick up the sick and wounded. The Battle of the Wilderness, also mentioned in the note, was a difficult one for the 18th Massachusetts. In May 1864, a number of Duxbury soldiers were captured there and sent to Andersonville prison, including John Southworth and David Meechan, subjects of much research in the DRHS collections.[1]

Andersonville 1

Bird’s-eye view of Andersonville Prison from the south-east (1890), b&w film copy neg. cph 3a27466. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. (accessed 8/14/2013)

Prisoners like Meechan and Southworth experienced horrific conditions at Andersonville. The site was designed for a maximum of 10,000 prisoners, but at its most crowded it held more than 32,000 men, many of them wounded and starving. The prisoners experienced over-crowded housing, rampant disease, contaminated water, and only minimal shelter from the elements. Such conditions resulted in a dangerous state of affairs for those imprisoned, and prisoner violence was common.  Over the course of the prison’s 14 months of existence, 45,000 Union prisoners were held at Andersonville and 13,000 died [3]. The prison was notorious during the war, and in fact, the prison’s commandant, Captain Henry Wirz, was the only person tried and executed for war crimes when the Civil War ended [4].

Duxbury’s David Meechan recorded in his diary the heat, hunger, and exposure of life in Andersonville. He also notes the daily arrival of new prisoners in huge numbers; he says emphatically on May 31, 1864, “We stow too thick here to live now….There are 20,000 of us here in an eight acre lot. This beats all the places I ever got into. It is a shame to keep hogs in such a place. Men are dying on an average of forty a day.” Meechan also records in his diary the decline of John (Jack) Southworth over a couple weeks, stating that Jack was sick and abused by his Sergeant. On June 24, he took Jack to the hospital and a day later it is clear that his friend was heavy on his heart as he wrote, “I have been looking over Jack’s trinkets, which he gave me to carry home to his mother if he died. Never felt so affected in my life, he seemed like a brother to me.” Unknown to him at the time, John had died at the hospital of dysentery, after only 1½ months in captivity. John’s body was buried in the cemetery at Andersonville. David Meechan survived both Andersonville and the War, finally being discharged from service in August 1865.

Andersonville 2

Andersonville Prison, Ga., August 17, 1864. South-east view of stockade, (digital file from original item) ppmsca 33768. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. (accessed 8/14/2013)

The wooden fragments from Andersonville are contained in two small envelopes – the sort used in the 19th century for calling cards. Inscribed on the interior envelope is the following: “This last day of April 1866 we sawed into our piece of the dead line (which Capt Moore of the Quarter Master’s Dept. brought himself from Andersonville + gave us) that we might give half to Mr. Olmsted. + this is the dust + chips I saved from it – L.A.K.” On the outer envelope is written, “Deadline at Andersonville.”

The “deadline” was a low post and rail fence that stood about 20 feet inside of the stockade wall. It was intended to keep prisoners from nearing the stockade and to prevent any attempts to climb the wall or tunnel beneath it. Any prisoner crossing the deadline or even reaching over it was shot by the guards.[5]

The “L.A.K.” are the initials of Lucia A. (Bradford) Knapp, daughter of Claudius and Maria Bradford (Bradford family of Duxbury). Lucia married Frederick N. Knapp, who was an administrator with the Sanitary Commission during the Civil War and worked for Frederick Olmsted, head of the Sanitary Commission and famous landscape designer. It is notable that persons like Knapp and Olmsted, who themselves served important roles during the Civil War, felt that the Andersonville experience was worth memorializing.

Andersonville relics

Relics of Andersonville Prison from the collection brought from there by Miss Clara Barton and Dorence Atwater, August, 1865, and photographed by Brady & Co. for the great National Fair, Washington, June, 1866. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. (accessed 8/14/2013)

In considering the import of the names associated with objects in this collection – Andersonville, Antietam, Fort Wagner, South Mountain, White House Landing, Wilderness, Chancellorsville, Richmond, Petersburg – we must also consider the power these relics of the war have had, especially on subsequent generations which took the trouble to preserve them carefully. I use the term “relic” in this blog very deliberately. To the naked eye, these are scraps of wood, trash really – at best, perhaps, described as souvenirs. But these objects become relics because of the memory and legacy attached to them, an almost religious association with the venerated event. Indeed, the object itself becomes the embodiment of the original event. This is not a new phenomenon, certainly – our own deadline fragments were gathered as early as 1866, shortly after the end of the war, and the illustration in this blog shows “relics” from Andersonville Prison displayed at the National Fair in Washington, DC in August 1865. One can conclude then that the power of these little scraps was evident from the earliest days in post-war America. But, such objects make history tangible when little else survives in a physical sense, and even today, they allow for grief, for celebration, for wonderment, for bewilderment.  Now no longer hidden in a box in Duxbury, the legacy of the Civil War lives on and is remembered in these little relics.

[1] DRHS publishes entries from David Meechan’s Civil War diary on its Facebook page, The DRHS Drew Archives collection has correspondence during the war between John Southworth and his cousin, Emma Cushing Paulding. See DRHS Drew Archives, See also blog written by Archivist Carolyn Ravenscroft, “John Southworth of the 18th Massachusetts” (January 21, 2012),
[2] Civil War Trust, “Andersonville Prison,” (accessed 8/14/2013).
[3]National Park Service, “Andersonville,” (accessed 8/14/2013).
[4] Civil War Trust, “Andersonville Prison,” (accessed 8/14/2013).
[5] Civil War Trust, “Andersonville Prison.”