In the Bleak Midwinter, a Soldier’s Grave

This month, one-hundred-fifty-four years ago, my great-great-great uncle, Cornelius Dearth, died at Andersonville Prison Camp in Georgia. He was twenty-two years old. Andersonville — Camp Sumter — was a notorious prisoner of war camp during the Civil War, with the highest incident of death of any prison camp at the time.

My uncle was the 12,224th man to die since the camp had opened ten months earlier.

He Had Died on December 4th

According to the records, he died on December 4th of scorbotus, the medical name for “scurvy,” a disease caused by starvation and a lack of vitamin C. Exhaustion, anemia, hemorrhages, loss of teeth, and muscle constriction are all symptoms of the painful disease exacerbated by exposure, starvation, putrid water.

It was snowing the first time we visited. It rarely snows in the South, but flurries were flying while we joined Boy Scouts and other volunteers filling bags with sand for the 13,000 luminaria, one for each of the men who died there, that would be lit at nightfall on the prison grounds.

As we shivered in the damp cold, we couldn’t help but think of the suffering prisoners. No shelters had been built inside the stockade. Men were crowded inside the prison walls with nothing but what they brought from the battlefield.

Terrifying as contemplating life — and death — in the prison, nothing prepared us for the cemetery, where rows and rows of gravestones were lined up next to each other, just an inch apart. So many men were dying every day that the guards dug trenches, tossing dirt on the day’s dead. One thousand tears couldn’t ease my brokenness that day.

Its Threads of Life

Uncle Cornelius had enlisted with the 33rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry Regiment Company K on 19 September 1861. He was the oldest of seven children of Noah and Anna Dearth. His youngest sister, Mathilda, who was seven when he died, was an old woman when my mother, her great-granddaughter, met her. She had named her son, my great-great uncle, Cornelius, and she passed onto us one of her quilts.

I think of that simple quilt and its threads of life — connecting me to the baby sister of a long lost brother of the Grand Army of the Republic — as I see the luminaria shining in a bleak midwinter night at Andersonville, tiny pricks of light against the darkness of war and death.

 

Christine S. Weerts, a Lutheran, is based in Selma and works in Christian ministry. She is the author of Rosa Young (Hero of Faith). She has also written The Dark Goodbye, about her mother-in-law’s dark tunnel of grief.

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