A Massachusetts soldier, in the autumn of 1864, was near death in the Florence Stockade, a Confederate prisoner of war camp in South Carolina. In a strange coincidence, a Confederate officer running the camp saved the soldier by assigning him to bury Yankee corpses.
The solder was Thomas H. Mann, Company I, 18th Massachusetts Infantry. When he enlisted in 1861 he was 5 feet 7 ½ inches tall and weighed 150 pounds. (At the Florence prison camp he weighed 95 pounds.) He fought in twenty-two battles, including the 1862 fight at Fredericksburg, after which he was commended for bravery. Mann was captured at Griswoldsville, Georgia May 5, 1864 and sent to Andersonville. When that prison was closed he and thousands of others were sent to Savanah. He escaped en route, was captured, and held in the Savannah jail. He was then sent to Charleston, escaped again and on recapture was sent to Florence. There he shared a hole scraped in the ground with comrade and friend Frank K. Bonney. Both were sick but Bonney was so rotten with scurvy that he could not use his hands.
In an attempt to mail a letter for Bonney, Mann approached Rufus Sidney Cheatham, Adjutant of the 5th Georgia Infantry, then guarding the camp. The adjutant had been friends for years with the Bonney family and as a personal favor assigned both Mann and Bonney to the burial squad. This group of trusted inmates lived outside the stockade and was fed on bacon and sweet potatoes, not the moldy hardtack issued to the enclosed prisoners.
“No doubt we were hideous-looking objects. Frank’s weight was about the same as my own, and he was covered with sores from head to foot. Both [of us] were black from the grime and smoke of the camp, with hair uncut for a whole year, but baked sweet potatoes and bacon very soon began to make a change for the better, a small piece of soap I obtained one day by chance made a change in our complexion. My own health and strength came back very rapidly but Frank’s never fully returned.” (Frank Bonney received a pension in 1876 and lived until 1917.)
Mann and Bonney began actual labor as soon as enough strength returned. The burial squad consisted of nine prisoners, assisted by “a two-mule team with a Negro driver,” shovels and an ax. Inside the stockade, on a typical day, twenty-five prisoners died. Thus the nine sickly members of the burial squad buried 25 dead men a day, split pine logs for headstones, and scratched the dead men’s registry numbers on the split logs. Mann was paroled at Wilmington, North Carolina February 27, 1865, and spent the next three months in army hospitals, recovering from his malnutrition and typhoid fever.
What was his life outside combat and prison? In 1855 he was age twelve, living at Wrentham, Massachusetts, with his farmer father, Levi Mann, mother Lurena, and four siblings. Two years after he left the army, he moved to New York and obtained a medical degree from Albany Medical College. He practiced medicine at Block Island, Rhode Island ((1870-1876) and at Woonsocket, where he worked as a general practitioner (1876-1886). Over the next thirty years he moved several times, working as a druggist, newspaper editor, and postmaster. He died of chronic nephritis March 2, 1916. His 1869 marriage to Julia Backus produced five children. Julia lived until 1927.
-By Thomas P. Lowry