The Death List


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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Author of Romantic Comedy...with Cowboys including the bestselling Kincaid Brides Series

29 thoughts on “The Death List”

  1. Wow. I had heard of Dorence Atwater’s list but not about the rest of his life. And the Clara Barton connection is so cool, not to mention a princess in the mix!

    No need to put me in the drawing. Loved the trilogy!

    Peace and thanks for a great post, Julie

  2. What an amazing life!! But you do have to wonder, why were copies not made of the list by Clara Barton or Atwater?

  3. CateS they did make a copy. It’s the original that was burned but all the names were properly recorded, their burial sites found and the graves marked.

  4. What a great piece of American history!

    I have read all three books in the Sophie’s Daughters series and loved them, but donated them to my church library for others to read. But I would love a copy of the triliogy for myself.

  5. I really like Historical Fiction and have read most of your books including your early ones. Please enter my name in the drawing for the trilogy.

  6. Researching books (all of us at P & P find this) just uncovers so many tiny, fascinating slices of American history. Clara Barton is so well known but Dorence Atwater … a name that is mostly lost. And yet think of the comfort he brought to families who’d lost sons. No idea what happened, knowing they had to be dead.
    And Dorence risked DEATH to do this. He was a spy in his own quiet way. But his aim was just to preserve truth. I wonder where he found the courage to do that?

  7. I’d never heard of Dorence Atwater, but what an amazing thing he did! It must have meant so much to the families of those who died. Please enter me in the giveaway, I’ve been wanting to read your Sophie’s Daughters Trilogy!

  8. What a courageous story! Loved the friendship between him and Clara Barton and the fact that he married a Tahitian princess. Beautiful story. Thanks so much for sharing, Mary!

  9. That’s a wonderful bit of history, Mary. Isn’t it a delight to find those tidbits during research? And there’s lots of story ideas that could come from Atwater’s life. There’s a couple teasing my brain right now. 🙂

  10. I’ve found so many interesting things in my research about Andersonville prison and the Civil War in general. I started researching because Seth Kincaid, the hero of book #3 in the Kincaid Brides Series, Over the Edge, spent time in Andersonville. I just needed a tiny bit of general info. Honestly, mostly I needed to know the dates the prison was open and closed so I wouldn’t have my hero in a prison that didn’t exist.
    I found those dates in two minutes. And I’ve been reading about Andersonville ever since! Hours and hours and hours.
    And of course going off on rabbit trails to other interesting info about Homesteading…did you know that has strong roots based in the Civil War? And deserters. And women disguising themselves as men and fighting.
    Weird and amazing things went on.

  11. wow what a story! but do like final justice..
    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. ! love this ~ yes for standing up!
    reminds me of wm wilberforce [amazing grace movie]
    great researching – well done Mary!
    faithhopecherrytea at *gmail.*com

  12. The articles I read kept referring to this ‘clique’ within the government that wanted to suppress that list.
    I couldn’t find out what that meant exactly but to have him sent to prison like that? Some very powerful people tried to silence him.
    I wonder why?

  13. A nice surprise for this morning! A very interesting and inspiring piece of history and a chance to read some books I have been wanting for a long time.

  14. I bought a book to research the women who dressed up as men to fight in the war but it’s not what I thought I was buying. It’s more about women serving as nurses and sticking by their husbands no matter the risk. but they never pretended to be men.
    More research needed.

  15. Wow, what an amazing story! Dorence was definitely a man with a conscience. So much so that he risked his life. I really admire him. It’s strange that he was overlooked in the history books. Thanks for a wonderful post. And congratulations on the release of Sofia’s Daughters trilogy. It’s great to have them all in one bound one book. My favorite of the three is Doctor in Petticoats. That was such a good story.

  16. I was doing some research on Andersonville. But all I knew was his name and about the list.

    I have said more often than not recently, “Don’t let your research stop at the first dead end!” I wish I could go back and push through some of those places, like your book for instance.

    Peace, Julie

  17. Wow what a truly interesting story. I have never heard anything about him or the list. Thank you for sharing… I love these little history lessons we get through your research.

  18. What an interesting blog today. I learn so much on my computer. I had never heard about this Death List before. I’m sure your book is just as interesting. thanks for today’s blog.

  19. What a fascinating post. I had heard some of the details, but not all of them. I cannot fathom why the government didn’t want the list to become public. He was an honorable and brave individual. He and Clara Barton did a lot of good for the families who lost soldiers.

    I finally (after 2+ years) found a copy of PETTICOAT RANCH. Silly, I know, but I was determined to start from book one in the series. The advantage is I have the rest of the books on hand and can read right through, then move on to the later series. I started on this series, but only have one book. Can’t wait to read them all.

    Again, thanks for the interesting post.

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