Right now we are commemorating the beginning of the Civil War. Little did I know that I would find a soldier with a fascinating story in my family tree. I post the details here in my great, great uncle's memory.
When James BRETT was fourteen-years-old, he came to the United States. When he was twenty-four years old, he died at the Confederate Prison Camp at Andersonville, Georgia. The young man, born in Swaffham, Norfolk, UK, had come a long way to lose his life at a tender age at an infamous site in the Civil War.
James BRETT was born 27 August 1839 to Thomas BRETT and Martha HAYLETT, the youngest of seven children. After his mother died in 1850, James BRETT came to the U.S. arriving at the port of New York on 27 July 1854 with his father, two sisters, his brother and other family members. They joined another sister and her family in Niagara County, New York. While the three daughters stayed near the famous Falls, the 1860 U.S. census shows that Thomas and his two sons moved to Illinois where they farmed. James’ brother, Thomas Haylett BRETT married his wife, Mary; and had a son, George H. in Ashkum, Iroquois County, Illinois. There James BRETT married Marie Antoinette AYRS 3 November 1860, and they had a daughter, Henrietta, born 30 August 1861.
James joined the 88th Illinois Infantry in the late summer of 1862. At that time, he was five feet four inches tall with fair skin, light hair and blue eyes. As a private, his pay would have been about $13.00 per month. Advanced pay and bonuses enticed people like him to enlist.
On September 4, 1862, the 88th Illinois was ordered to go to Louisville, Kentucky where they organized themselves with similar units from nearby states. In October, the regiment saw battle in Kentucky and over the New Year holiday, it was fighting in Tennessee. In September 1863, it was in Georgia and joined the Chickamauga campaign where James BRETT was taken prisoner on 20 September 1863, the second day of the Battle of Chickamauga, the last major Confederate victory.
The Civil War prison at Andersonville did not open until February 1864 so BRETT was held somewhere else before then. Most Confederate prison camps were near the Confederate capitol, Richmond, Virginia, a location that was becoming less secure as union troops pressed south. In the early months, 400 prisoners a day were sent to Andersonville by train. A stockade fence enclosed about 16.5 acres, thought by the commanding officer to be enough room for 10,000 men. By June, there were about 20,000 prisoners there, and it was decided to enlarge the space by 10 acres. Over 33,000 prisoners were held in the bigger 26.5 acre prison camp by August, but James did not live to see this scene. He died of scurvy on 25 July 1864 and was buried in grave number 3940, one of the 13,000 men who died during the fifteen months it operated.
Overcrowding was not the only issue that made this camp a symbol for the atrocities visited on prisoners of war. Lack of food and the means to cook and distribute it were contributing factors. On the very day, James BRETT died, Andersonville’s commanding officer reported to his superiors that he had 29,400 prisoners, guarded by 2650 troops and 500 negroes and laborers and no rations. He was requesting that a ten day supply of food be on hand at all times, but the regular Confederate troops were rationed only one day in advance at that point so there was not going to happen. The camp did not have a central kitchen, although there was a bakery for a short time. The men were divided into smaller units or messes of about 90 men, and they were expected to cook their own food, but wood needed to do that was in short supply as well. As conditions in the South deteriorated, the grain or cornmeal given the inmates came with the husks still on it and is thought to have contributed to deaths from intestinal complaints such as dysentery and diarrhea.
Northern General Sherman occupied nearby Atlanta, GA in September so the rebel army began moving prisoners from the camp, and there were some signs of better treatment. Before Christmas, they began to move some men back, and the prisoners numbered about 5000 until the end of the war in April 1865.
After the war, Thomas BRETT moved back to Niagara County, NY and died at the home of one of his daughters, Rachel BARKER, on 11 March 1875. His second son, Thomas Haylett BRETT lived in Ingham County, MI from at least 1870 onward. James’ widow, Marie, remarried James CLOKE on Christmas Day, 1870 and had five more children.
*The ship’s passengers included: Thomas BRETT; his two sons, Thomas Haylett and James; his daughters, Eliza BRETT and Hannah BRETT PARSONS; Hannah’s husband, John PARSONS; Hannah’s children, John H. PARSONS, Ben PARSONS, and Rosetta PARSONS.
(A version of this post was printed in the Norfolk Ancestor, Volume 7, Part 2, June 2010.)