Dorence Atwater and The Death List
The story of Dorence Atwater and the price he paid for the truth
(Read carefully for a chance to win a signed copy of my 3 in 1 June release Sophie’s Daughters Trilogy)
In Andersonville, Ga, the most notorious Civil War prison of them all led to the deaths of 13,000 Yankee soldiers. There were terrible deprivations in prisons on both sides, but Andersonville became the best known.
While doing research for my August release Over the Edge, book #3 of the Kincaid Brides Series, a quiet piece of history in Andersonville caught my attention.
The story of Dorence Atwater and the price he paid for the truth.
Dorence Atwater was among the first prisoners to be locked up in Andersonville and he was sick when he arrived at the prison and put in the prison hospital. While he was healing it was discovered that he was well educated (for a sixteen year old) and had beautiful handwriting. Dorence was put in charge of the Death List—a list of all the Yankee soldiers who died and where they were buried.
Dorence was told to keep two lists. One for the Confederate Army and one to be sent North to the Union Army. Dorence feared that the south wouldn’t send the second list North, especially because of the horrors of Andersonville. So he began a third list and kept it hidden, knowing that he could be hanged for keeping this secret list.
He remained in Andersonville for the duration of the war and even with the meager priviledges he received for working for the South, he was gravely ill. He wrote, “People are dying all around me. I can do nothing to save them, but I can let their families know exactly where they are buried–where to put flowers and pray.” He hid the list containing 13,000 names in his laundry bag and smuggled it out through the Confederate lines.
The Confederate army did send a list of all the dead soldiers to the north but there were thousands of names missing and much of the ink was smeared so badly the names were unreadable.
Once home he handed the list to his father and immediately fell ill with diphtheria, typhoid and scurvy. Each of these diseases often kill, Dorence had all three. Within a month, Dorence, though thin and frail, was on the mend. He got a telegraph from Washington DC asking him to bring his Death List to them. On the train to the capitol word came that Abraham Lincoln had been shot.
Only twenty years old, Dorence got a job as an intern in DC and his list was taken to be published. Except it never was. The men who’d taken the list refused to publish it or return it. Dorence stayed at his job hoping he’d have a chance to retrieve the Death List. Months went by and Dorence heard that Clara Barton was looking for the burial sites of all Civil War soldiers. She’d raised the funds to mark their graves but had no way to locate those graves. Dorence told Clara about the Death List and the two began a life long friendship.
Dorence and Clara were receiving thousands of inquiries about loved ones who had not returned. With time the List became old news in Dorence’s office and nothing had yet been done about it; it was available to anyone who worked there. Dorence had only leased the List to the government and the lease was long expired. Dorence took the List since it was the only copy that wasn’t short thousands of names. Clara had already arranged the trip to Andersonville with Dorence for the purpose of putting markers on the graves. President Lincoln had approved this action before his death. Dorence took the Death List and traveled via boat with Barton, and forty-two headboard carvers. Upon discovering Dorence’s original List was missing from Washington, the government clique sent a messenger to Andersonville to bring it back. Dorence “accidentally” handed him the copy that the Confederates had kept so carefully—thousands of names missing, smudged, and generally unusable. The messenger never noticed. He went back to Washington carrying the Confederates’ useless list, while Dorence and Clara guarded the original with their lives. While the courier never noticed, the people who had sent him did.
Upon return to Washington D.C., Dorence refused to tell where his List was. He’d hidden it at the house of Clara Barton. Dorence was given a choice to either tell them where the List was or be court martialed. When he refused to reveal it’s location he was put in ankle chains and marched through town to Old Capitol, a prison which housed the worst criminals. Atwater was placed under arrest and immediately taken to be court martialed. He was given twenty minutes, no defense, a dishonorable discharge and a life sentence. Clara Barton, knowing Dorence’s health was still fragile, knew he wouldn’t last even a month in prison. She consulted President Andrew Johnson who gave Dorence a full pardon and Johnson, impressed with Dorence’s will to stand up for what he believed was right, named him an Ambassador.
He ultimately ended up in Tahiti and married a Tahitian princess. Dorence struggled with frail health for the rest of his life. During a trip back to America, while in San Francisco, he was caught in the Great San Francisco Earthquake of 1908. Dorence and his wife survived but the Death List did not. Dorence had kept his copy of the List with him at all times for the rest of his life.
In the fire that resulted from the earthquake the official, carefully preserved List was burned.
Dorence never regained his health enough to leave San Francisco, though he and his wife made plans to return to Tahiti several times. He died in San Francisco at age 65 in 1910.
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