My Favorite Historical Person: Private Dorence Atwater
Three flights of stairs! Wooden, rickety stairs! And who knew how successful he would be at the end of them, anyway? Recently released from Andersonville prison, returning home weighing in the neighborhood of ninety pounds, young Dorence Atwater climbed up those stairs, hopeful that Miss Barton would hear his story and help him out somehow. He’d been in prison–what could be worse?
Although the original muster rolls for New York State list Dorence Atwater as eighteen years old, he was actually sixteen when he joined the Union army in Hartford, Connecticut, on August 21, 1861. Dorence was a store clerk, so he did not know much about horses, but the cavalry needed men, so he signed up. Many of the Union “Boys of ’61” were similar–on their way to becoming self-made men, and ready to make their mark in the world. No one really thought much about them, except their loved ones. After all, President Lincoln had called, and these boys answered, from New York to California. They put on a variety of uniforms, agreed to take orders from men who often knew little more about soldiering than their young volunteers, and began the job of learning new tasks, building new relationships, and trying to save the Union. The Yankee volunteers were mostly young, many hopeful, and few dreaming realistically about their immediate futures. Dorence Atwater was a typical volunteer in every way.
Dorence and his mates saw a lot of action. Less than a month from enlistment the 2nd NY(Harris Light Cavalry) was sent to Washington City as part of McDowell’s Division of the newly formed Army of the Potomac. They fought in many small engagements throughout Virginia as they went on reconnaissance, serving under every general from McDowell to Meade. They also participated in larger campaigns, including fighting at Second Bull Run, the Maryland Campaign, Fredericksburg, Gettysburg, the Wilderness and Cold Harbor. They were part of Maj. Gen. Judson Kilpatrick’s 1864 raid on Richmond and were even present at Appomattox Court House. Atwater, due to his beautiful handwriting, served principally as a clerk for whoever was commanding his unit. His war ended just after Gettysburg when he was captured in early July 1963. Initially, young Dorence was sent to Belle Isle prison near Richmond, and then to Smith’s Tobacco Factory, located in Richmond. From there he was transferred to the infamous Andersonville prison in Georgia. When Andersonville evacuated its men at the end of the war, Atwater was sent to Florence prison in South Carolina. He was released to federal forces on the dual date of February 27-28 1865, indicating that it was at or near midnight when his papers were processed.
It was during his months at Andersonville that Dorence Atwater did something I would, without reservation, consider worthy of admiration. He volunteered to work in the medical offices, thinking perhaps he could help other prisoners, or at least try to preserve some dignity for them when they died. Burial was quick and dirty–a trench in the ground and a stick with a number was all a deceased Union prisoner received. The disorganization and panic concerning Andersonville at the end of the war made it clear to Atwater that the chances of a complete and accurate list of Union deaths had very little chance of being turned over to Federal authorities, so he carefully copied the official list and somehow concealed it in the sleeves of his tattered uniform. This was not a one-time endeavor; he kept a daily list of the deaths of Union prisoners. By the end of the war, men were dying at an average of fifty a day and were buried just as rapidly. Atwater recorded not only each soldier’s name, but his grave site location and number, his regiment, company, and date and cause of death. Each entry had to be made twice–once on the official prison list, and then on his personal copy. At the end of each heart-wrenching day, young Dorence Atwater, list carefully secreted away from the prison guards, made his way back to the main stockade where he slept in a dirt hole amid the filth, stench, and noise of over 30,000 “angry, desperate, and dying men.”
Despite having lost half his body weight and being extremely ill, Atwater reported to Washington when he was released from Florence Prison at the end of 1865. He carried with him his copy of the Andersonville Death Register. His hope was that he could get the Adjutant General’s Department to listen to his story and use the Death Register to identify the deceased so that their friends and family might learn what happened to their loved ones. He knocked on door after door, but no one was interested. President Andrew Johnson had his hands full with reuniting the country, and there was an abundance of dead men just about everywhere.
Finally Atwater thought of Miss Clara Barton, who ran something called the Missing Soldiers Office. She had been working with POWs at Maryland’s Camp Parole, trying to get information about those soldiers who might still be missing. His knock on her door, three flights of stairs up from street level, brought partial success. Miss Barton was very glad to help the emaciated young man, and pulled every string she had–and she had many–to get him noticed. Barton went to see Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. Stanton, known for not suffering a fool in any manner, actually listened to Clara Barton. Immediately afterward he issued Special Orders No. 12, from the Quartermaster General’s Office. These ordered Captain James M. Moore, an assistant quartermaster at the time, to accompany Barton, Atwater, and three dozen workmen, clerks, and letterers to the site of what had been Andersonville prison, to identify remains and mark the graves of the Union dead.
Without Dorence Atwater’s courage to carry out his idea–copying the original list–and then bravely smuggling the list through months of imprisonment, the bodies in the makeshift burial grounds in Georgia would have remained simply graves of unknowns, doomed to anonymity by time and the elements. But that was not enough for Dorence Atwater. He also wanted to make the list public so that the thousands of people who had known someone at Andersonville would be able to find out what had happened to their beloved son, husband, father, or friend. This did not seem much to ask of a nation so recently at war, yet apparently, it was.
In the late spring of 1865, Dorence Atwater reclaimed his original list from the Andersonville papers, since several copies had been made of it. He brought it back to his home in Terryville, Connecticut, and hid it, hoping to be able to make the necessary contacts to have it published. He was very ill with diphtheria at the time and lay nearly helpless for three weeks. During this time, however, he was very much on the mind of Col. Samuel Breck, an assistant adjutant general. Breck sent a barrage of telegrams to a variety of officers demanding that Atwater return to Washington and bring back his Death Register. Atwater, who was still very ill, became aware of Breck’s demands, and on April 12, 1865, he dutifully packed up and went to the Capitol.
The U. S. government now considered Atwater’s list to be government property. Atwater disagreed, and there was a trial. In Atwater’s own words:
I was convicted, and sentenced as follows: ‘To be dishonorably discharged from the United States Service, with loss of all pay and allowances now due; to pay a fine of three hundred dollars; to be confined at hard labor for the period of eighteen months, at such place as the Secretary of War may direct; to furnish to the War Department the property specified in the second specification [this being the “stolen” original Death Register] as the property stolen from Capt. J.M. Moore, and stand committed at hard labor until the said fine is paid, and the said stolen property is furnished to the War Department.”
Again, the heroic interventions of Clara Barton got poor, maligned Dorence Atwater out of prison by early December, and he was included in a general pardon by President Johnson, but things were still dark. Young Atwater toured with Miss Barton when she lectured about her experiences during the war, but he was never as popular as she. There were several veterans’ groups that had decided they did not think he was being truthful about his time in Andersonville. They accused Atwater of collaborating with the Confederates by working in the prison hospital, and some even called him a deserter. Their efforts to shame him for fictional reasons even extended to opposing an Atwater monument in his hometown. Apparently even in the 1800s a good deed never went unpunished. In 1871, when President Ulysses S. Grant offered Dorence Atwater a position as U. S. consul in Tahiti, it is no wonder that he willingly took the position. When asked to write about someone from the Civil War that I admired, it was not a famous general (or even a certain colonel) to whom I turned. I am automatically suspicious of heroes, and prefer my historical actors to be seen “warts and all.” Humans are, by design I suspect, flawed specimens. But Private Dorence Atwater is different. I see him as a hero defined by the Hemingway Code: he showed honor, courage, and endurance in a life of pain and tension, and refused to give up his personal integrity even when faced with a court martial and public ridicule–because it was the right thing to do. It was Atwater’s grace under pressure that gave Andersonville back to the prisoners and, thankfully, to us. I think that such efforts as those of this young man from New York, including all the challenges he endured along the way merely to do the right thing, define a real hero.
 New York State Archives, Civil War Muster Abstracts, 1861-1900, https://www.fold3.com/search/#s_given_name=dorence&s_surname=atwater&ocr=1&preview=1&t=57,891,24,903,19,924 (accessed May 6, 2017).
 New York State Military Museum and Veteran’s Research Center, NYS Division of Military and Naval Affairs, https://dmna.ny.gov/historic/reghist/civil/cavalry/2ndCav/2ndCavMain.htm (accessed May 6, 2017).
 Thomas P. Lowry, Andersonville to Tahiti: The Story of Dorence Atwater, privately printed, 2008, 5-8.
 The National Archives, Registers of Enlistments in the United States Army, 1798-1914, https://www.fold3.com/image/310969733/ (accessed May 14, 2017).
 Clara Barton Missing Soldiers Office Museum Blog, “Dorence Atwater-Part I,” (June 12, 2014), http://www.clarabartonmuseum.org/dorence-atwater-part-1/ (accessed May 13, 2017).
 Lowry, 17.
 Ibid., 32 and http://www.clarabartonmuseum.org/dorence-atwater-part-2/ (June 20, 2014), (accessed May 14, 2017).
 Edwin McMasters Stanton, Report of the Secretary of War: in two volumes, United States War Department, United States, 39th Congress, 1865-1866, https://ia600504.us.archive.org/31/items/reportofsecretarunit/reportofsecretarunit.pdf (accessed May 15, 2017).
 Lowry, 43.
 http://www.clarabartonmuseum.org/dorence-atwater-part-2/ (accessed May 15, 2015) and Congressional Serial Set, Issue 1267, https://books.google.com/books?id=5z84AQAAMAAJ&pg=RA2-PA1&lpg=RA2-PA1&dq=dorence+atwater’s+letters&source=bl&ots=MG5FsQHSHI&sig=B3EmG3VEwh9_nBgXbssCmlI9kUM&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjl7Kf99-7TAhUL22MKHQnSCdwQ6AEIPzAF#v=onepage&q=dorence%20atwater’s%20letters&f=false (accessed May 15, 2017).
 http://www.clarabartonmuseum.org/dorence-atwater-part-2/ (accessed May 15, 2017).
 Lowry, 67.
14 Responses to My Favorite Historical Person: Private Dorence Atwater
Reblogged this on Time Will Tell.
Thank you! Atwater should get more attention. The restored Missing Soldiers Office/Clara Barton Museum in DC should as well. Huzzah!
What a great story, especially for those of us who have visited Andersonville! Thanks, Meg.
I appreciate your enthusiasm. Thank you.
Great choice Meg. I have shared with my Zanesville CWRT.
Thanks so much! Try to get a field trip together to see the Missing Soldiers Office!!
Thank you for the TERRIFIC story on Dorence Atwater; you have peaked my interest to learn more.
I think this entire series will highlight some folks who are not often in the spotlight, which is a very good thing to do. The nineteenth century was no shortage of fascinating people.
I loved reading this! My dad has always been a Civil War buff and we spent many vacations in Gettysburg, so I always love hearing stories like this! I’ve never heard of this man before and I am so glad you shared this. You are a great writer, as well. Your writing is engaging and insightful. Very well done! Thanks for sharing!
My thanks. ECW does good work, especially in areas such as this. A person at an earlier ECW Symposium said to me, “These men were not born in uniforms, guns in hand.” This inspired me to continue to look at soldiers as individuals–which is, of course, what they were.
I love that quote. It’s beautiful and such a reminder that each man who served has a story.