The Clara Barton Museum Blog

Dorence Atwater – Part 2

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I know I said this would be a two part blog post, but I’m finding so much to write about that it’ll have to be a three part one! This one will finish out the Civil War, Andersonville, and the Missing Soldiers Office, and the next one will complete the story with Atwater’s later life.

Samuel Breck
From Companions of the Military Order of the
Loyal Legion of the United States
It would be difficult to recount all of the intrigues and double dealings that were going on in Atwater’s life at that time, but I’ll give you the basics. Despite being extremely ill, Atwater reported for duty in DC; he wanted to get his secret Death Register published, so the friends and families of the dead would know what happened to their loved ones.

The Adjutant General’s Department desperately wanted a copy of Atwater’s list; Samuel Breck, an assistant Adjutant General, convinced him to let a copy be made in exchange for a job, some money, and the return of the original once the copy was finished. Atwater agreed, then returned home for a time to rest and recover.
It was around this point that Atwater met Clara Barton. He had been trying to get his original list back from the military or at least get the military to publish the list so the families of his comrades could have some closure, and was meeting with what amounted to a brick wall.

Somehow, Atwater heard about Clara Barton’s work at Camp Parole, Maryland. Either through word of mouth from other ex-POWs or through President Lincoln’s advertisement that was published in the paper, he ended up contacting her. She was hard at work at this point, interviewing former POWs for information regarding anyone who might still be imprisoned, missing, or dead.

Atwater met with her, told her about his Death Register and the poor condition of the cemetery at Andersonville, and very soon he and Barton were a part of a Federal mission to Andersonville, to identify graves. This still wasn’t what Atwater wanted, though. He wanted to publish his list.
Clara Barton raising the flag at Andersonville
Property of the Library of Congress

After the graves at Andersonville were marked using his original list, a copy, and another list that the government had obtained, Atwater decided to take matters into his own hands. He took back his original list, again smuggling it with him from Andersonville to DC. He hid the list somewhere that was never disclosed, even to this day.

This “theft” of his personal property landed Dorence Atwater with a prison sentence of 18 months or more at Auburn Prison in New York. He’d barely had time to recover from his ordeal in the Confederate prisons (he lost about half of his weight), and now he was to be put to hard labor by his own government.

In Atwater’s own words: “I was convicted, and sentenced as follows: ‘To be dishonorably discharged from the United States Service, with loss of all pay and allowances now due; to pay a fine of three hundred dollars; to be confined at hard labor for the period of eighteen months, at such place as the Secretary of War may direct; to furnish to the War Department the property specified in the second specification [this being the “stolen” original Death Register] as the property stolen from Capt. J.M. Moore, and stand committed at hard labor until the said fine is paid, and the said stolen property is furnished to the War Department.”

Here is again where Clara Barton comes in, this time to save Atwater’s life.

Auburn State Prison
Courtesy of
Barton knew that Atwater wouldn’t survive for long in Federal prison. During his imprisonment at Belle Isle, Smith’s Tobacco Factory, Andersonville, and Florence, he’d lost more than half of his body weight and developed numerous diseases, including scurvy, diptheria, diarrhea, and others. 18 months of hard labor was likely to just kill him outright.

She started doing what she always did when it came time to convince people she was right: pulling strings. She contacted several sympathetic newspaper editors to start getting the public on her side, the chaplain of Atwater’s prison who was known to be sympathetic toward Atwater, the governor of Connecticut (Atwater’s home state), General Rucker, Senator Henry Wilson, President Johnson, and many others. It took her two months of work – during which time Captain Henry Wirz, the former commandant of Andersonville, was tried and hung – but by early December, Dorence Atwater was freed under a general pardon by President Johnson. He returned to DC, to Clara Barton, and to the work of paroled and missing men.

Clara Barton Lecture Broadside
With mention of Dorence Atwater
From the collection of Chris Foard 
While Atwater did work with Clara Barton in her Missing Soldiers Office, he did not really hold the position of a clerk. Much of his work was personal, relating to the editing and publication of his Death Register; this also benefitted Clara Barton, giving her thousands of names she wouldn’t otherwise have. Atwater joined Barton on her lecture circuit, often offering a lecture himself. His were about his experiences in Confederate prison, and he would showcase his original Death Register alongside Clara Barton’s Andersonville Relics.

Atwater’s lectures were always less popular than Barton’s, for a couple of reasons. The main reason was that she was much more popular and well known than he. “Clara Barton” had been a household name in much of the country for most of the war; “Dorence Atwater” had only surfaced in 1865. The other reason is one that would be a thorn in Atwater’s hand for most of his life.

Many veterans’ groups decided that they did not trust Dorence Atwater’s account of his time in Confederate prison, and accused him of collaborating with the enemy at Andersonville, and of being a deserter. Some of these veterans refused to attend Atwater’s lectures; they held on to their fictional grudge for decades, opposing an Atwater monument in his hometown of Terryville, Connecticut, his appointments to Consular positions, and more.

Dorence Atwater’s monument at Terryville, Connecticut
Property of Plymouth Historical Society

A brief segway: Where is the Death Register I’ve written so much about? Copies of it abound. You can find it online and even purchase recreations of it. Most of these are copies that Atwater had published; Atwater kept his original in his personal possessions until it was destroyed in a San Francisco fire in the early 1900s, which I was very disappointed to learn.

There is a copy that the National Archives makes freely available here:
Atwater’s life after the Civil War, his Confederate and Federal imprisonment, the publishing of the Death Register, and helping Clara Barton at the Missing Soldiers Office improved quite a bit.

That is a post for next week, however!

See you then.
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