(HOST) Every year around this time, commentator Howard Coffin honors the memory of a young man who left Vermont more than one hundred and forty years ago – and never came home.
(COFFIN) In 1862, nineteen year old Isiah Maxham left the sloping meadows, pastures, and maple woods of a North Bridgewater farm to enlist in the Sixth Vermont Regiment. He survived some of the Civil War’s great battles before being captured in June 1864 near the killing fields of Cold Harbor. In three months the filth, disease, and starvation of the Confederate prison pen at Andersonville killed him. For many years as Memorial Day neared I placed springtime flowers by what I thought was his gravestone in the little cemetery near his farm. Then recently, I learned that he isn’t actually buried there. The stone is just in his memory. And so I went south to find him. And I did, deep in Georgia.
On a chill late March afternoon, I stood within the twenty-six acres of what was once the largest of Confederate prisons where more than 40,000 Union soldiers were confined. Below was the little creek that served as both latrine and water supply and nearby were the desperate tunnel holes. A Vermont prisoner wrote, “Men are dying at the rate of sixty every twenty-four hours mostly of scurvy and diarrhea. Thousands not even a blanket for cover. Water is poor and dirty.” It’s a good thing that I know much of what happened at Andersonville from letters, diaries, and books. I learned little from the interpretive center that utterly fails to tell the shocking story.
Then I sought out the little village of Andersonville where trains brought the captured to their confinement, finding three shabby museums seeking tourist dollars near a monument to prison commandant Henry Wirz, hanged in 1865. A Jefferson Davis quotation attempts to explain that one day the world would understand.
I found the essence of Andersonville in the national cemetery. Walking in its breezy quiet I found grave after Vermont grave, recognizing names – Tom Ranson of Sutton, Edwin Havens of Stowe, John McIntyre of Tunbridge, Lewis Knapp of Bennington. And then I found Isiah Maxham, lying between a Maine lad and an Ohio boy. I knelt by his gleaming little marble stone for a time, then rose and looked across the row on row on row of stones, seeming to stretch endlessly away. Nearly 13,000 Union soldiers are buried there, all perished in the single year that Andersonville operated. Most are known, thanks to a soldier’s secret record of burial locations in long trenches, and the post-war persistence of Clara Barton who insisted that the graves be properly marked.
So once again I’ve taken flowers to North Bridgewater, on a lilac-scented morning, remembering Andersonville’s long rows and recalling words from Pericles’ eulogy for the Athenian battle dead. Their loss, he said, had made it seem like “a year without spring.”
Howard Coffin is an author and historian who’s specialty is the civil war.