This latest Andersonville Irish Spotlight post is the first to contain some of the information gleaned from my recent research trip to Andersonville National Historic Site. The trip was made possible thanks to grant funding from the Andersonville POW Research Grant Program, made possible thanks to the Friends of Andersonville, as well as project funding received from the Consulate General of Ireland in Atlanta.
Among the many fascinating files in the research room at Andersonville National Historic site is one that relates to a soldier named Roger Brown. Roger was just one of the thousands of Irishmen to be incarcerated in the camp during the Civil War’s latter stages, but of all the files I examined during my trip, it was perhaps Roger’s that excited me the most. There were a number of reasons for that. For one, the file contained images of Roger, always a rare treat. Added to that it also contained a series of wartime letters, promising detailed insights into his experience. But the thing that captivated me most of all was where Roger was from. The file revealed that his Irish home had been Newcastle West, in Co. Limerick- just three miles from my own place of origin, and a town I knew intimately growing up. Here I was encountering Roger in rural south-east Georgia, thousands of miles away from our former West Limerick abode, a thought that struck me immediately. I explore people from all over Ireland as part of my work, but just as with so many of us who delve into the past, the knowledge that Roger and I shared the same locality-albeit 150 years apart- fostered a sense of connection.
Among the letters and newspaper clippings in Roger’s file was one of particular interest to the Project, as it was penned from within the stockade of Andersonville itself. Along with a brief background to Roger’s life, I want to share that letter with readers here.
Roger Brown was born in Newcastle West, Co. Limerick on 12th December 1835. His father died there when he was just three-years-old. In 1852 he and his mother decided to set off for a new life in America, travelling first to New York. Like many others in the 1850s Roger eventually gravitated westward, first to Ohio-where Roger’s mother passed away-and then in 1856 to Rockford, Illinois. It was here that Roger found a permanent home. He quickly married Julia Scanlon-seemingly another Limerick emigrant-and they soon celebrated the birth of a son. Working as a shoemaker in Rockford, Roger and his family gradually began to make their way among their new community. But tragedy struck in 1859, following Julia’s second pregnancy. The young woman died, followed just a few month’s later by the couple’s new baby daughter. It was the beginning of a tumultuous few years for Roger Brown.
War found Roger a widower, seeking to provide for a young son. His letters clearly indicate a strong desire to see Union victory, and a feeling of obligation towards his adopted home. But his responsibilities at home initially kept him out of the fight. Nevertheless, by 1864 he felt he had to join the struggle. Paying for his young son to board with a local family, Roger joined the ranks of the 74th Illinois Infantry. He marched off to participate in the Atlanta Campaign as part of Company K. On 27th June 1864 he and the 74th were among those ordered to make a fateful assault on Confederate lines at Kennesaw Mountain, Georgia-their lines aimed towards Cheatham Hill. His officer later recalled what happened:
…our Division made a charge on the Reb works, out Regt being in front lost half of those lost in our Brig[ade]…Among the missing is Roger Brown…He was in the very front line and I am positive that he was taken prisoner. We were obliged to fall back and those nearest the enemy’s works were not able to get away and the Rebs advanced from their works getting all that were close to their works. I saw some 25 or 30 go to them but I feigned dead and after the Rebs retired to their works worked myself off. Brown is one of the bravest men I ever knew seeming not to realise the presence of such a thing as danger. If I hear anything anon from him or of him I will write again…
Roger was indeed a prisoner. He was eventually taken to Andersonville, where on 1st September 1864 he succeeded in sending the following letter. It describes both the horrifying situation in the camp and suggests the impact the prison was having on Roger’s mental and physical wellbeing:
Andersonville GA Sep 1 64
I have read in the southern Confederacy, a paper published in Macon of date Aug 28 64 that they would exchange officer for officer and man [for man] and whoever had pluss to keep them until a nother capture would be maid to exchange for them. There was nothing said bout the Negroes this propisition was maid by the rebel government to our government Aug 22 64 I hope that our Government will accept of it if they do and releace us soon out of this abode of want, suffering, and misery thousands of homes will be maid happy by the presence of the loved and absent ones there are thousands hear that has nothing to protect them from the rais of the burning sun nothing to shelter us from the cool night air and heavy dewes thousands of us has to lay down on mother earth without a board, blanket or anything else to keep its colds and its dampiness a way from us. Hear we are pined in like a lot of hogs, and not half treated near as well as half of those bristley swine that is raised in this country. We don’t get half a nuff to eat and sometimes things that is not fit for hogs. Hear is whare a person can see suffering and destitution in the extream hear can be seen a valley almost equal to Hinnom, spoken of in the bible where…the fire is never quelled. Hear I have seen men reduced to skelitons, full of sores and lice…and large maggots and not able to move hand or foot and nothing under them but mother earth and nothing over them but the starey heavens for half the time and by way of exchange for the other half a Julys burning sun to try how we could stand Southern fire. As the valley of Himmon was a terror to the Jews so will the Southern prisons be to Union soldiers by far more so than rebel bullets or bayonets so the sooner that our government will release use from hear the sooner all this want suffering and destitution will be relieved and hundreds of lives saved and thousands of heartfelt prayers offered up to the trove of that all wise and just seeing who rules nations as individuals those prayers will be offered so fervently…
Roger’s letter makes reference to the major issue that had halted prisoner exchange after the summer of 1863, namely the refusal of the Confederacy to treat captured African American U.S. troops as they did white prisoners. As Roger’s letter intimates, many inside Andersonville cared little about the reasons behind the breakdown of exchanges, they just wanted the situation resolved. It is starkly apparent that Roger was experiencing terrible hardship, unsurprising given that he had just come through the most deadly month in Andersonville’s short but dreadful history. But thankfully Roger survived his ordeal. He eventually returned home to Rockford, seemingly determined to pick up where he left off in making a success of life in his Illinois home.
In the decades of life that followed for Roger, the respected local veteran worked as a shoedealer, served the local community as a supervisor, a town collector and as county treasurer. Roger Brown was undoubtedly one of the more fortunate Irish Americans who passed through Andersonville’s gates. Bu even so, one is left to wonder to what extent the horrors he articulated in September 1864 stayed with him during the near six decades that followed. Whatever they were, he didn’t let the many hardships he experienced early in life unduly hamper his American progress- or that of his son. Roger Brown finally passed away on 9th March 1922, having overcome extreme odds to forge a long and successful life in the United States.
The research highlighted in this article was made by possible by grant funding from Andersonville National Historic Site, thanks to a POW Research Grant facilitated through the generosity of the Friends of Andersonville. It was also supported by the gracious grant funding provided by the Consulate General of Ireland in Atlanta.