FLS Town & County. Also online
One Man's Brave Act
Andersonville To Tahiti: The
Dorence Atwater Story by Thomas P. Lowry
By Michael Aubrecht, FLS Town &
Date published: 5/23/2009 CIVIL WAR
ANDERSONVILLE. Perhaps no other
name struck more fear into the hearts and minds of
Federal soldiers during the Civil War. Much more
than a prison camp, for thousands of captured
Yankees it was a prolonged death sentence.
Camp Sumter--as it was officially
called--was among the largest military detainee
sites established by the Confederacy, according to
the National Park Service, today's steward of the
historic site in southern Georgia.
During the prison's 14-month
existence, more than 45,000 Union soldiers were
these, almost 13,000 died from disease, poor
sanitation, malnutrition, overcrowding and exposure
to the elements," the Park Service site's Web
portal states. "The largest number held in the 26
1/2-acre stockade at any one time was more than
32,000, during August of 1864."
This heartbreaking story sounds
notably similar to that of imprisoned Jewish
civilians who suffered in Nazi death camps during
the Third Reich's reign of terror in the 1930s and
early '40s. Another significant semblance of these
camps can be found in the heroic stories of those
who risked additional misery to help their fellow
1993, movie director Steven Spielberg released a
remarkable film called "Schindler's List," which
tells the tale of a German businessman named Oskar
Schindler who reputedly saved the lives of
thousands of refugees. Today, historian and author
Thomas P. Lowry--a Woodbridge resident--has
contributed an equally compelling story of an
imprisoned Union soldier who kept a secret list,
hidden in his coat lining, of more than 12,000
the author of numerous studies, including "The
Story the Soldiers Wouldn't Tell: Sex in the Civil
War" and "Tarnished Scalpels: The Court-Martials of
Fifty Union Surgeons," Lowry has once again
revealed a highly original and neglected tale that
reads very much like a Hollywood movie script, but
is every bit a true story.
plot line recalls the experiences of a young man of
humble origins who enlisted in the army to preserve
the Union, but ended up taking a far different
journey. His name was Dorence Atwater, and today he
is heralded as one of the unsung heroes of the
a private in Company D of the 2nd New York
Volunteer Cavalry, Atwater was captured by
Confederate forces near Hagerstown, Md., in July
1863. At the time, his troop was pursuing the Army
of Northern Virginia, which was retreating south
after its devastating defeat in the Battle of
18-year-old horseman was first taken to Belle
Island Prison in Richmond, but was eventually
relocated to the stockade at Andersonville. Upon
his arrival, Atwater was assigned to the camp's
hospital and tasked with recording the names of
those who did not survive. This gruesome position
became known as the "Clerk of the Dead."
Because of the overwhelmingly
deplorable conditions at Andersonville, Atwater
believed that an accurate list of deceased Union
soldiers would never be made available to the
public following the war.
From the time of his arrival in
Georgia in 1863 until his prisoner exchange in
February of 1865, he recorded a separate list
containing the names of Northern dead.
This roll was later confiscated by
the federal government and used as evidence against
the prison's commander, Capt. Henry Wirz, who
became the only Confederate officer hanged for war
the late summer months of 1865, Atwater returned to
Andersonville with Clara Barton and helped to
identify the graves of thousands of Union dead who
had been haphazardly buried outside the camp walls.
Because of the incredible accuracy of his secret
document, all but 460 of the plots were properly
After completing the task, Atwater
refused to return the list to the War Department.
He remained absolutely sure that it would be buried
in the bureaucracy.
Despite the threat of
incarceration, he dedicated himself to sharing his
register with the entire country.
Atwater was then arrested by his
own government, court-martialed and sent to the
Several public figures came to his
aid and petitioned for his release. Among his
advocates were Barton and Horace Greeley, the
prominent newspaper editor and politician. Greeley
agreed to publish the list and, on Feb. 14, 1866,
Atwater's efforts graced the pages of the New York
Suddenly, he became a national
After his release from federal
prison, Atwater was recognized for his selfless
humanitarianism. Although he refused payment for
his efforts, he accepted an appointment as the U.S.
consul to the Seychelles, a nation of 115 islands
in the Indian Ocean. He was later reassigned to the
consulate in Tahiti.
There, he became a successful
dealer in pearls and precious metals, as well as a
respected gold speculator. Atwater established
himself as a pillar in the community and married
the lovely Princess Moetia, who was of British and
French Polynesian descent. They continued to live
on the island until 1909, when an ailing Atwater
traveled to San Francisco, where he died.
his request, his remains were returned to Tahiti,
where he was buried at a picturesque churchyard in
the village of Papara. Today, Atwater's traditional
tombstone bears his native
moniker--"Tupuataroa"--which, translated, means "a
Atwater's tribute was not limited
to the Pacific islands. His home state of
Connecticut also erected a monument in his honor
that reads, "This memorial is dedicated to our
fellow townsman, Dorence Atwater, for his
patriotism in preserving to this nation the names
of 13,000 soldiers who died while prisoners at
Much like his list, this once-poor
soldier left a lasting impression.
Lowry's account of Atwater's
affairs is a fine narrative that does a wonderful
job of depicting both the ugliness of prison life
and the beauty of the islands. The dramatic
contrast between Dorence Atwater's war years and
his golden years clearly illustrates the potential
for highs and lows that can occur during a
author also does a good job of establishing the
importance of his character's plight. We are
literally pulled into the stockade with Atwater,
and we begin to understand the significance of
something as simple as making a list.
Because of Atwater's initiative,
thousands of families were able to find closure and
mourn the deaths of their loved ones. His act
became a precious gift.
cannot help but applaud the efforts of this
courageous young man as he overcomes atrocity and
injustice at the hands of his enemy and comrades
alike. In a genre that is far too often guilty of
romanticizing the war, the focus of this book
remains solely on the human element.
Lowry is the author of 11 books and co-creator of a
90,000-name, multiple-variable database of Civil
an e-mail interview with me, he explained how he
discovered Dorence Atwater. "My wife and I had read
and computerized all the Union Army's
court-martials, 75,000 approximately," he said.
"There he was. With the basic story, the rest was
research, research, research. We even looked for
his grave in Tahiti."
"From Andersonville to Tahiti" will
appeal to a wide audience, as it combines history,
adventure and romance to portray the amazing life
of an American hero who selflessly held the memory
of strangers in the highest regard.
MICHAEL AUBRECHT is a Civil War author and
historian who lives in Spotsylvania County. For
more information, visit his Web site at