Thursday, September 25, 2014

Andersonville 'announces' death of Union soldier who kept compelling diary

(Civil War Picket photo)

His hopes are dashed. His agony is over. Samuel Melvin has died.

Funeral arrangements are pending. Burial will be at Camp Sumter.

Melvin’s death was “announced” Thursday morning via Facebook, 150 years to the day after he succumbed to severe diarrhea at the prison hospital in Andersonville, Ga.

The 20-year-old’s passing is sure to cause heartbreak for readers who have followed the Facebook page since early June, when the staff of Andersonville National Historic Site began posting Melvin’s daily diary entries.

"Oh no, I was so hopeful he would make it," one Facebook comment read after Thursday's post. Another wrote: "Thank you so much for posting his diary. I had avoided spoilers and hoped for the best as I waited for an update. So sad to hear he never made it home."

Samuel Melvin
Melvin, a private with the 1st Massachusetts Heavy Artillery, and 32,000 others were at Andersonville in August 1864, the darkest month and the apex of misery at the Confederate prison. By then, he was often sick.

His last journal entry was Sept. 15, 1864:  "... As things look now, I stand a good chance to lay my bones in old Ga., but I'd hate to as bad as one can, for I want to go home."

He died 10 days later.

Facebook readers have wondered about the gap in postings, hoping that Melvin would beat the illness. Of course, they could search for his fate on the Internet, but many opted not to, wanting to follow along in “real time” – only decades later.

“A lot of our virtual visitors were Samuel’s family,” said acting Superintendent Eric Leonard, who like others, has “adopted” individual American POWs in the park’s “Story in Stone” multimedia tributes to service and sacrifice. Staff members have made emotional connections with their subjects.

Nearly 13,000 men died at Andersonville over 14 month. But each of them had a story. 

The staff wanted to feature the stories of prisoners and decided to go with Melvin because he went beyond the perfunctory. He talked about camp life, other soldiers and the experiences of hope and despair.

“He clearly describes how he feels about it,” said Leonard.

June 25: “… Sam is in poor spirits, but I am getting as well as could be expected. But then, I am almost distracted, for things are dubious here indeed, and all we have to console us is to hope for better things. The seeming joy is great, that I have in thinking of the joy that I will have when I see the Stars & Stripes, for then I soon will see my friends. Orders came to give back the money taken from old prisoners. That is [a] good indication, but money nor anything can ever compensate us for one week's stop here.”

Chris Barr produces "A Story in Stone" videos (Picket photo)

July 7:  “… I dreamed last night of being paroled and seeing Dow, and the disappointment when I awoke & found myself still in Hell! — I have given up all hopes of hearing from home, likewise of their hearing from me. But while there is life there is hope, and that consoles me.”

Sept. 2: “Today I have another sad duty to perform, and that is to record the death of Friend Jonas Learned. He was sick only since last Wednesday with the sore throat, but they say it is not diphtheria, and for the life of me I do not know what it was. He died very easy, said nothing of his friends, and was but a little out of his head during his whole sickness. I took his things, and will see them safe with his folks, in Oxford, N. Y. Perhaps I would not like to see my folks!”

The Facebook video posting Thursday was accompanied by the 12th of the park’s “Story in Stone” series, which is produced by park guide Chris Barr.

Each features a voiceover and details of an American prisoner’s ordeal, about half from the Civil War. A piano version of “My Country Tis of Thee” that begins each clip was performed by Barr’s wife. “We didn’t want to do just short biographies,” said Barr of the ongoing project.

Samuel Melvin's last diary entry

Melvin, 20, was captured at Spotsylvania, Va., on May 19 and arrived at Andersonville on June 3. His diary, while relatively little-known, is rich with detail and observations on the human condition.

The young soldier, like others, held on to hope of exchange or parole. He boarded a train to leave Andersonville on Sept. 10, but the train wrecked and he returned to the prison.

What he didn’t know on Sept. 10 was that the Confederates were actually moving thousands of men after Union Maj. Gen. William T.  Sherman took Atlanta and there was fear Federal troops would march on the camp. There we no plans then to free or exchange the Union prisoners.

“He is convinced he is going home,” said Leonard.

Four Melvin brothers went off to war. Only one came home.

"I almost feel like I lost a friend I never met..." wrote another Facebook commenter.

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