The Clara Barton Museum Blog

Dorence Atwater – Part 1

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Dorence Atwater in 1865
Property of the Connecticut State Library
I just read a biography on the life of Dorence Atwater (From Andersonville to Tahiti: The Dorence Atwater Story by Thomas Lowry), one of Clara Barton’s friends and allies after the end of the Civil War, and it inspired me to do some extra research into the man’s life. I feel that he’s interesting enough to share on this blog! How a young Connecticut boy managed to befriend one of the greatest humanitarians of the United States is both fascinating and heartbreaking.

Due to the amount of content that’s available about Dorence Atwater’s life, this will be a two-parter.

Atwater was very young, only 16, when he signed up for service in the Union military. He joined the Connecticut Squadron of Cavalry, which was merged with a couple of other units not long after to form the 2nd New York Cavalry. He mostly served as a scout and a messenger.

The 2nd New York Cavalry, otherwise known as the “Harris Light Cavalry”, getting its name from Senator Ira Harris of New York, was in service from the beginning of the war (August 1861) to the end (June 1865). They saw action at numerous small engagements, and in several major engagements and campaigns, including the Second Battle of Bull Run, the Maryland Campaign, the Battle of Fredericksburg, the Battle of Gettysburg, numerous engagements throughout western Maryland following Gettysburg, Kilpatrick’s 1864 Raid on Richmond, the Battle of the Wilderness, the Battle of Cold Harbor, and many more. They were even present at Appomattox Court House.

The cover page of the “Song of the Harris Light Cavalry”
Set to the tune of “Maryland, My Maryland”
Property of the Library of Congress

Dorence Atwater was only present during the first two years or so of the Harris Light Cavalry’s service. He was captured by Confederates in early July of 1863, after the Battle of Gettysburg. From there, he received a tour of the Confederacy that no one would ever want: first, he went to Belle Isle Prison near Richmond, Virginia, then to Smith’s Tobacco Factory inside Richmond. From there, he was transferred to one of the worst prisons in the war, Andersonville, Georgia, and then finally to Florence Prison in South Carolina. He was released to Federal forces in late February of 1865.

Atwater, as a young man, survived four separate Confederate prisons, contracting numerous diseases and losing roughly half of his body weight in the process. That in itself is a feat worthy of acclaim, but his story is far from over.

During his stay at Andersonville, Atwater was put to work in the medical offices, in charge of recording the names of the dead Union prisoners. While carrying out his work, he figured that there was little to no chance of the official “Death Register” finding its way into Federal hands; and indeed, the complete official list never did. Atwater made a second, secret copy of all of the dead of Andersonville Prison. He smuggled this list out of Andersonville when he was transferred to Florence Prison, and then again when he was released and he could finally go home.

Andersonville Prison, Georgia
Property of the Library of Congress

Dorence Atwater’s story will be completed in next week’s blog post, where I’ll talk about the consequences of his Death Register, his involvement in Clara Barton’s work, the injustices done to him by the Federal government, and his later life as a US diplomat.

This young soldier’s life played a key role in Clara Barton’s establishment of the Missing Soldiers Office. If any of this interests you, please consider donating to the Clara Barton Missing Soldiers Office in Washington, D.C., so we can preserve the history of these people and events. Any donations, big or small, will put us one step closer to being able to tell the full story of the CBMSO.

Anyone interested can go to or call the National Museum of Civil War Medicine at 301-695-1864.

See you next week.
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