Dorance Atwater … Keeper of the Records

The premiere of this season’s “CSI: New York” last week gave me pause to think about one of the unsung heroes of the Civil War … Dorance Atwater and Andersonville Prison.  In the CSI story, Gary Sinise has left the unit to work on identifying victims of 9/11 in order to provide closure to their families.

Dorance Atwater was born and raised in Terryville, Connecticut, and in 1861, probably lying about his age, enlisted in the Union army and joined the 2nd New York Calvary.

After being captured by the enemy on July 7, 1863, while carrying dispatches to General Kilpatrick, he was imprisoned first in Richmond before eventually being transferred to the notorious Rebel POW camp in Andersonville, Georgia.

The original 16.5 acre POW camp was meant to house ten thousand prisoners; however, by June 1864 there were over twenty thousand.  By August there were over thirty-three thousand prisoners housed there.  Words cannot describe the deplorable conditions the prisoners had to endure.

Since Atwater was detailed as a clerk to the surgeon and recorded all the daily deaths, he secretly maintained a record of the deaths and burial locations of many of his fellow soldiers.

Once the war ended, he attempted to have the lists printed by the Government Printing Office. At that time he had been discharged from the Army and enlisted in the General Service as a clerk. He was purported to have been paid $300 for the death list with a promise that it’d be returned to him after it had been copied by the Army.

The Army dragged its feet in copying, printing, and distributing the list to bring closure to some of the family members who had loved ones die at the prison.  What the Army didn’t know was that he’d kept a secret copy of the list. Atwater took it upon himself to give the information to the New York Tribune where the names were published as a supplement to their newspaper.  I actually purchased a copy of the list when I visited Andersonville, and it’s mind-bogging to say the least.

Dorance was arrested, court martialed and found guilty.  He received a dishonorable discharge, a $300 fine and 18 months in prison.  Through the help of the famous Civil War nurse and later founder of the American Red Cross, Clara Barton, he served only two months of the sentence.  After his release he was made United States Counsel to the Seychelle Islands off the coast of Africa.  This assignment was later changed to U.S. Counsel to Tahiti, were he married a Tahitian princess.  He died in California in 1910.

Before he died, with the help of Clara Barton, they were able to properly mark and identify the many previously unknown graves at Andersonville Cemetery, no doubt bringing comfort and closure to many families up North.

Now you can see why the CSI episode brought  Dorance Atwater to mind and the courage it took for him to make certain that many fallen soldier’s graves were identified and closure could come to their loved ones.

Yesterday was the release day for my, along with fellow Filly Linda Broday’s, newest anthology “A Texas Christmas.”  In honor of the release I will give away signed copies to TWO  lucky commenters today.

Website | + posts

A native Texan, New York Times and USA Today bestselling author Phyliss Miranda still believes in the Code of the Old West and loves to share her love for antiques, the lost art of quilting, and the Wild West.

Visit her at

36 thoughts on “Dorance Atwater … Keeper of the Records”

  1. I love learning tidbits of history I didn’t know. I knew about Andersonville but had never heard of Dorance Atwater or his connection to Clara Barton (and I am a big Clara Barton fan).

    Thanks for reminding me there are people full of integrity doing the right thing every day in horrible conditions.

    Peace, Julie

  2. Remarkable story–stunning in its ramifications! Support is an invaluable resource for service members and their loved ones. Closure is not always possible, but any measure of peace of mind is a priceless comfort. I am so appreciative of all our armed forces members and those who offer them much needed support. I have great empathy for them all, and in my own way, I share in their emotions–heartbreaks and joys.

  3. Im a history nut,that was my best subject in school,loved reading how the past was,,an that Christmas book looks so good,those are my faves,,loved the post today,thanks

  4. I had never heard of Dorance Atwater. Thank you for sharing his inspiring story with us. I enjoy Civil War history and reading about that time period.

  5. Fantastic post! What a tremendous bit of lost history. I hate to admit that I studied the Civil War in college and I’ve never heard of Dorance Atwater, or he was so glazed over I don’t remember him. Anyway, he sounds like quite the individual and very smart keeping a copy of his list. It’s hard to believe he was punished for helping families find the resting place of their loved ones.

    Thanks so much for sharing this story, Phyliss. I received confirmation my pre-ordered A TEXAS CHRISTMAS just uploaded to my kindle. Can’t wait to get home and get reading. :o)


  6. Until now I had never heard of Mr. Atwater. What a hero he was! It is such a shame that our own government tried to cover this up…some things never do change! Thanks for the great post Phyliss. 🙂

  7. I’m a CSI NY fan, too, Phyliss, and I completely see your connection. What a blessing young Mr. Atwater was to hundreds of families simply by him having the foresight to keep that list. I’m glad he had a happy ending with his Tahitian princess.

  8. What an amazing man. I had never heard of Dorance Atwater. It is great what he did. I am a big fan of CSI: New York.

  9. Phyliss, this is so interesting. The Civil War families owe Dorance a huge debt of gratitude. Without him all that would have been lost. And thank God he thought to keep a copy. Just shows the level of government distrust in those days.

    I LOVE your story in A Texas Christmas. Randall Humphrey was the perfect hero for Sarah and those kids. Too precious. I think this is one of your best and I’m extremely proud to have my story next to yours.

  10. Wow what a fabulous story! I can’t say it was right what they did to him. Its like the man tried to do something for other people and was punished for it. Without him the families from the Civil war would not have known where their loved one were buried. Thanks for sharing this info with us.

    A Taxas Christmas looks fantastic.

  11. PHYLISS!!!!!!!!!
    I am right now researching Andersonville Prison. There are some weird and fascinating tidbits in that nightmarish prison. I’ve never heard of this one, though.

    Why do you think they courtmartialed him for distributing the list? Why did the not publish it to begin with? I wonder what was going on. Great little history nugget.

  12. Thank you for the wonderful information. Thank goodness there are people throughout history who have taken it upon themselves to make records and pass along information that otherwise would be lost. And we need to know history, don’t we?

  13. What a fascinating bit of history, interesting how God used this terrible thing that happened to him to do good for others. I can’t imagine, though, why the government sat on that list or punished him for going public with it????

  14. Hi Phyliss, I preordered and it got sent to my Kindle before I went to bed last night~ Yay.

    I saw the CSI NY and wept at that beautiful Brooklyn Memorial. The story line was heart renting. How lovely to know “Mac” has a real-life counterpart. What a guy Dorance was, and to believe so strongly about that list he even went to prison. The tie-in to Clara Barton is amazing!

    Great post, filly sister! oxox

  15. Thank you for sharing this with us… I love this blog… always find out some wonderful bits of history! Congrats on your latest release! 😀

  16. Hi Julie, thanks for dropping by. I love tidbits of history. A lot of the major events of the Civil War were documented; however, there’s a ton that have come from personal letters, etc. Clara Barton had a huge hand in getting the graves at Andersonville identified, thanks to Atwater’s list.

    Virginia, you are so right closure might never come to some. My husband was thrilled when we found the grave of one of his family members at Andersonville and I took his picture. Hope you have a great day. Hugs, Phyliss

  17. Oh Mary, I have several books that I purchased during my two visits to Andersonville. I wish you were close enough to borrow them. Dang it! It was awesome. My husband and I were on our way to Florida and I had gotten really interested in the POW Camp and the sinking of the Sultana (which I’ve blogged about before), so we took a side trip to Georgia. To my surprise, they were having their weekend of reenactments, etc. They have drummer boys, camps set up, the hospital set up, and cannons. It was surreal to stand only a few feet behind one of the cannons and feel the earth shake, smell the sulphur, and my heart really pounded because of the pressure. That’s where I got books written by locals, so they have stories that you might not find on the Internet. Long story short, on the way back from Florida, I just had to go back to the cemetery, walk the deadline and sit in a shebang. Awesome!!!! I wish I could share the experience with you. Hugs, P

  18. I really enjoy history bits and am always reading them. I like them to be short but informed. I think of the danger of the time and feel very lucky. It makes me wonder who will document the heroes and villains of today and when will they become history? Also, it’s doubly interesting to find out he married a Tahitian princess!

    A Texas Christmas looks like a great Christmas stuffer 🙂

  19. It’s amazing the things government tries to keep secret. I truly believe it’s more of a power thing, to know something others don’t – whether it makes sense or not. This was a fascinating story and I too had never heard of him. I think everyone would have learned a lot more in school if the real human stories had been told. That’s one of the main reasons I enjoy historicals so much – they humanize it all like I believe it should be. Thanks for the post and your book sounds wonderful!

  20. Vickie, Lori, and Minna, I’m kinda playing catchup on today’s blog. I’m so glad to hear from each of you. I love Civil War history, and there’s so much to it that really isn’t in the history books. One could debate forever on a number of issues, but I’m glad you enjoyed my post. I thought he was interesting, and to think he was treated more as a trader than a hero; yet, all in all, even with the deplorable conditions of the POW camp, good things happened to him. Thanks for stopping by. Hugs, P

  21. This was fascinating, Phyliss. I enjoyed reading about Dorence. I’m not a CSI fan, but I have to go find this episode on demand now. Is it the new season or an old program?

    Cher 🙂

  22. Kirsten, I loved history, too. Yeah, on getting “A Texas Christmas” so soon. All four stories are getting great reviews and I think most readers love a good Christmas story. It’s a little hot here to be promoting Christmas but …
    Thanks, Tammy. I’m always thrilled when I can do a blog on something or somebody who isn’t well known in history. The list I purchased is so eerie just to read it. There’s a zillion names on each page and probably in a size 3 or 3 font. I mean little, but if anyone ever wants to know if their loved one was buried in Andersonville, I have the info. Have a great day, ladies

  23. Interesting post. Would like to know more about Dorance Atwater and the person(s) who withheld the information.

  24. I totally apologize to everyone for not getting all of the your comments addressed. I pride myself on making a personal comment. I appreciate each of you, and you are all in for today’s drawings. I’m thrilled for those of you who have already purchased our Christmas anthology and hope you’ll let Linda and me know what you think. The little girl is very close to my granddaughter Addison Claire; thus the Addie Claire. At the time I wrote the story, she was about 4. Now she’s in kindergarten.

    Karen and Crystal and the other CSI fans, I thought they did the season premier really good and tears came to my eyes.

    Hugs to all, Phyliss

  25. I am an avid watcher of CSI: New York and I so enjoyed that segment. It was very moving and so well done.
    What a hero this man was to have done that, keep a tally of those names of the dead and give their families peace of mind…

    Thanks for sharing this information… I love these books…Thanks for writing such wonderful stories..

  26. Thank you for the post. I am curious what the army charged him with. It obviously didn’t hurt his government career. What Mr. Atwater did was admirable, both for keeping the records and for publishing them when the Army didn’t proceed in a timely manner.
    We were at Andersonville in March for the funeral of a fellow retired Air Force friend. He was buried at the Andersonville National Cemetery. The service was at a pavilion and we never went into the main cemetery. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to go through the national park or the cemetery. We hope to go back in the near future. The events at Andersonville are important for all of use to remember and learn from. Similar things happened at other camps both North and South, but this one seems to have been the most dramatic.

    I will be looking for A TEXAS CHRISTMAS. I have so enjoyed the previous books in this “series,” I don’t want to miss this one.

  27. Thank you for sharing this information. I am working with a history teacher this year and he is a civil war buff. We now have something new to discuss.

    I will be looking for A TEXAS CHRISTMAS! I Love Christmas stories!!

  28. Thanks for the enlightening post. Soundw like Mr. Atwater was courageous, compassionate and a true hero. He deserves some recognition. I hope he got his own HEA! (I love Civil War stories and I’m surprised I’ve never heard of him before.)

Comments are closed.