26 May 2014

Remember Me? I Died For My Country

I've posted this story before, but thought a re-post would be appropriate for today.

Number 91 on a weathered, lonely, blank headstone; a shared grave with two other men. Not much of a tribute for someone who was a POW and died for his country. For 140 years my family knew nothing of what happened to my great-great grandfather, John Meredith Crutchfield. We did know that Grandpa Crutchfield left the family farm, walked to Gauley Bridge, Virginia (West VA today) and enlisted with the 60th Virginia Infantry, Company F at the beginning of the war. He owned no slaves. He simply wanted to defend his home. He was wounded at the Battle of Piedmont in the Shenandoah Valley (just a few minutes from my home here in Augusta County), taken prisoner by the Federals and transported to the infamous POW Camp Morton in Indiana where prisoners received cruel treatment at the hands of Union soldiers.

Transferred to Chimborazo Hospital in March of 1865 in a prisoner exchange, my grandfather died there on March 28. There, the story ended – or so the family thought. John Crutchfield’s widow died years later not knowing what had become of him. Had he deserted? Had he run off with another woman? Had he been killed in battle? No one knew until the 1950’s when my great aunt discovered the information about the Battle of Piedmont and Chimborazo. But the family still did not know what became of his body. Where was he buried or was he buried? Then I wrote an article for the Washington Times’ Civil War column detailing some of my grandfather’s story. The story was read by a gentleman in Richmond; a fellow Sons of Confederate Veterans member. This man was working on the restoration of Oakwood Cemetery in Richmond. This cemetery, where many Confederate veterans are buried, had fallen into shameful neglect in recent years. I was contacted by this gentleman and he told me that he knew for a fact that John Meredith Crutchfield was buried at Oakwood – family mystery solved. The photograph of Oakwood shown here was taken in April of 1865, just after my grandfather would have been buried. Almost exactly 140 years after the fact, John Meredith Crutchfield’s family now knows where his grave is. Grandpa Crutchfield has never before had someone from his family visit his grave, weep over his death, honor his sacrifice, or place flowers upon his final resting place. That is about to change. I love history. And I love the God of history who providentially shows us what we need to know to honor our fathers.

PS: I'd thought I'd lost a box of old photographs and diaries, etc from my grandfather's (Fred Busic) service in WWII, along with those of his brother, Pat. Quite providentially, my wife just found the whole box in my closet - on Memorial Day! How about that?! My grandfather served in Egypt and Germany. My great-uncle Pat served in the Philippines. Some of the photographs are of rather gruesome executions by beheading. Others are of dead soldiers and blown up tanks and equipment. I may post some of them later. Gotta think about that for a while.


ropelight said...

RGW, do you know if JMC walked the along the route of the James River and Kanawha Turnpike to Gauley Bridge? A man on foot would have had several options but that one seems most likely.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

I have no idea Rope. But I've wondered why he went there when there were closer options.

Graham Pendleton said...

Since his country does not exist any longer does this mean he died in vain since you say he died for "his" "Country"?

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

That's a fair question, though I'm not sure why "his" is in quotes. It was certainly viewed as his country. I would say no:

“We were duty bound to do our best, even if we perished in the endeavor.” ~ General Lee to General Pendleton.

“We had, I was satisfied, sacred principles and rights to defend for which we were duty bound to do
our best, even if we perished in the endeavor.” ~ General Lee on why he fought for the South.

Duty often requires great sacrifice.

Thanks for the comment.

ropelight said...

Credit where it's due:

Camp Morton's treatment of Confederate POWs wasn't all bad and depended almost entirely on the camp commandant's policies. When the first prisoners arrived in February 1862 they were suffering from battlefield injuries, hunger and lack of winter clothing. Compassionate citizens of Indianapolis collected food, blankets, and warm clothing for the POWs and local townswomen volunteered to nurse the sick and wounded.

The first commandant, Colonel Richard Owen, son of Scottish Utopian reformer and founder of New Harmony, had initiated a series of sympathetic rules balanced against firm discipline.

Owen's policies included a bakery so prisoners could earn money for amenities; recreational sports activities, musical and theatrical performances; and limited self-government for the prisoner population under the supervision of Confederate Sergeants.

Only a few months later, in May 1862, when it was announced Owen was to be reassigned to a fighting command, the prisoners organized a protest hoping to keep him in charge of the camp, they respected Owen's leadership and appreciated his fair treatment. Only 3 months after Owen departed all remaining prisoners were exchanged for Union POWs.

However, as new prisoners arrived at Camp Morton, they encountered much worse conditions, some drastically so. They found harsh commandants, very little food, freezing winters and cruel guards. Cooperative self-government was entirely eliminated and was replaced with such inflexible rules and violent punishments that disciplinary problems and escape attempts quickly escalated.

By the time your ancestor JMC arrived at Camp Morton following the Battle of Piedmont in early June 1864 Camp Morton had become an infamous hell hole, incomplete records indicate that nearly 1700 Confederate prisoners died there while in Union custody.

But Confederate soldiers didn't forget the kindness and fair treatment accorded them by Colonel Richard Owen. They passed down the story of their gratitude and respect for him to their sons and daughters, who in 1913 raised money for a bronze bust to commemorate and honor Colonel Owen with the inscription:

Tribute by Confederate prisoners of war and their friends for his courtesy and kindness.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Interesting RL - thanks. Of course, this should be contrasted with the report by Dr. John A. Wyeth, "Horrors of Camp Morton." See also, "Den of Misery" by James Hall.


ropelight said...

Yes, RGW, the contrast is sharp and bitter, after the War there was a great deal of exceptionally acrimonious contention between Dr Wyeth who had been a POW at Camp Morton and one-time Camp Commandant Ambrose A Stevens. Wyeth and other former prisoners charged atrocities including starvation and extreme cruelty while Stevens countered with denials and allegations of irresponsible and malicious exaggeration.

The relatively humane conditions POW's experienced under Colonel Owen differed greatly from the exceptionally harsh treatment prisoners endured while Stevens was Commandant and resulted directly from official changes in Union policies.

At the outset of the War, since the North refused to recognize the Confederacy they also refused to negotiate prisoner exchanges. However, in July 1862, Union General John Dix and Confederate General D. H. Hill met and organized the first official prisoner exchange which then served as the model for future exchanges.

During this period treatment of POW's remained reasonably good as each side expected the other to deliver it's soldiers in the same condition it received it's own returning men. However, in 1863 Edwin Stanton, Lincoln's Secretary of War began pressuring Union exchange representative General Henry Hallack to reduce the number of prisoner exchanges. Then when US Grant became overall commander of the Union Army in March 1864, he ended POW exchanges.

Grant explained his decision to General Benjamin (Beast) Butler who reported "(Grant) said that I would agree with him that by the exchange of prisoners we get no men fit to go into our army, and every soldier we gave the Confederates went immediately into theirs, so that the exchange was virtually so much aid to them and none to us."

Grant's refusal to allow exchanges had the effect of magnifying the suffering of POWs on both sides and was at least partly responsible for the massive over crowding and subsequent disasters at Camp Morton and at Andersonville.

Toward the end of the War the Confederacy was so overly burdened with Union POWs they were often set free and sent North without compensation just to avoid having to feed and guard them.

About 13% of all Confederate POWs died in Union camps compared to only about 8 per cent of Federal prisoners.

Lincoln, Stanton, and Grant knew the more populous North could win a War of Attrition and they cynically institutionalized a range of policies which sacrificed the lives of their own men on the battlefield in the many thousands who could be quickly replaced in order to kill off Confederate soldiers who couldn't be replaced. Union policies also were directed at disrupting the lives of Southern women and children subjecting them to the ravages of Scorched Earth raids and extended destructive marches.

Honorable men like Colonel Owen earned the respect and gratitude of Confederate prisoners, but once Lincoln, Stanton, and Grant replaced compassion and humanity with cynicism and cruelty soldiers and prisoners suffered and died cursing the inhumanity of men that current historians venerate.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Thanks Rope.