“Only those who are here will ever know what Andersonville is” (Ransom 81).
“Prison Detail.” Thomas O’Dea’s Print. As it appeared in August 1864. Drawn from Memory. Web. Accessed 28 November 2013.
When war broke out James and Jackson McComas enlisted as part of the 2nd Regiment Maryland Eastern Shore Infantry. James joined August 21st 1862 followed closely by Jackson who joined on August 30th (Jarrett, Wilmer, Vernon 416-417). Being poor farmers, they most likely joined for the money, although, it is tempting to say that the forty-seven year old Jackson joined to watch over his son. They were both teamsters and most likely worked together on a daily basis: sharing the same type of homesickness. Their unit joined Lockwood’s Brigade at Fredrick, MD., on July 6th 1863 and subsequently participated in the “Pursuit of Lee” July 6-14 1863 and the battle of Falling Waters on July 14th. It seems to be the first skirmish the unit was to participate in. Things seemed to be quiet for them for a year. They were stationed at Maryland Heights guarding the B and O Railroad till April 1864, after which they joined Hunter’s Expedition to Lynchburg, VA, May 26th to July 1st, and the Advance on Staunton from May 26th to June 6th. It was during the time of “Hunter’s Raid up the Valley” that James was captured on May 29th. He was captured with Private Lloyd N. Kidd, Private Thomas Barrett, his Company Commander Captain Henry C Smyser, and Corporal Solomon Diffindaffer.1
According to affidavits in Sarah McComas’ pension application Solomon and Lloyd were captured with and suffered with James. They were the last men to see him alive. Captain Smyser being an officer was sent to a different prison but not before James gave him the last of his money for him to deliver to his mother. It was most likely common knowledge that officers would receive better treatment, be less likely to be robbed, and were more likely to survive. James last known act was one of filial duty with the apprehension of a stark reality. These men had been part of a detachment working a wagon train guarded by 15th New York Cavalry. After their capture James, Henry and Solomon were first sent to “Charlottsville, Va from there to Lynchburg VA and thence to Andersonville, GA” (Henry C Smyser Affidavit 26 May 1880).
The Confederate who led the raid was a Marylander, Harry Gilmor. Later becoming police commissioner of Baltimore City he led a well-enough regarded life to prompt him to publish his memoirs entitled, Four Years in the Saddle. Here he gives an account of the raid that captured James McComas and his wagon train.
XXXV. MAY, 1864.
At length my scouts informed me that a train was about to leave Martinsburg, consisting of twenty-two medical wagons of great value, guarded by one hundred and seventy-five cavalry and eighty infantry. I sent word to Mose by that, if he would unite with me, I had no doubt we could capture the train, guard and all, and bring it out to the mountains. I received no answer, and was informed by my scouts that he had moved over to the pine hills near Middletown. I then determined to “try it alone” at all hazards.
Accordingly, I took position in a thick wood near Bartonsville, and next day, about 2 P.M., my scouts informed me the train was at Winchester, five miles off; they had exchanged shots with their advance, and the train had halted while their cavalry were making a reconnoissance. I kept a sharp look-out, but they did not come as far as my camp, and very soon the train came in sight, with cavalry in front and rear. There was no infantry in sight, but I felt sure they were in the wagons, ready to give us a broadside. This somewhat changed my plan of attack, and I concluded to let them pass by and enter Newtown, where I would charge them in the rear, stampede the wagons, and render the infantry useless in the coming fight.
When they came abreast of me I moved along parallel with the train, keeping out of sight in the wood until the rear guard entered the town, built on each side of the road, a mile long. As soon as the last of the rear guard had entered, I broke cover at a gallop, in column of fours, with my fifty-three men well closed up, but divided into two squads. I led the foremost, and Captain Burke the other, with orders to follow me steadily when I charged, and to act as a reserve in case I should be at first repulsed.
I had my ” best bower” Kemp with me. For a while they did not see us; not a word was spoken until they discovered us coming down at a charge. Then every man of us yelled as loud as possible, and kept on yelling, for it was the way to stampede the train, which by this time had got to the lower end of the town.
The officer in charge of their rear guard behaved coolly, but with no judgment, for he wheeled about, faced us, and formed in sections of eights, and, what is fatal to any body of cavalry, received us at a halt. They were all carbineers, and stood their ground manfully ; but, though our numbers were smaller, in the street our front, was as wide as theirs, and when we did get among them with our sabres, they gave way on every side, retreating across a deep muddy branch, and going to the rear of a large house of Dr. McLeod, at the extreme end of the town. Two wagons had upset across the bridge, and the rest of them were going at full speed toward Middletown. My horse had more devil in him that day than I had ever known, for he got beyond my control, carried me through the wreck of the two wagons, and dashed on after the rest of the train. With sabre in hand, I could not even turn his head to the right or left. As I passed Dr. McLeod’s, I perceived the rest of the cavalry drawn up, evidently expecting my column to charge by, when they would take us in flank. Twenty shots were fired at me, but they were so close and so high that they all missed. When they saw that I was alone, they ordered me to surrender, and, thinking I should soon be rescued, I saluted them with my sabre, dropped the point, and told them I would surrender. They stopped firing on me, but I did not stop ; in fact, I could not. I shouted to them that my horse was running away. He plunged by them all, and I got two or three sabre-cuts as I passed on. I called out again that my horse was running away with me, and, as these sabre-cuts did not look much like an acceptance of my surrender, I passed the whole party and got among the wagons, still going at full speed.
Here I made several narrow escapes from being crushed, but pushed on toward the head of the train. When about half way, a wagon-master put himself in the track and shot at me; the next instant I cut his ear and half his cheek off, and left him in a fence corner.
My horse was making for a space between two wagons fast closing together. Having returned my sabre, with a powerful effort I turned him just in time to avoid the collision.
After I had thus in some measure checked the speed of my horse, I saw a sergeant jump from a wagon and make for the fence. I drew my revolver, and, being near, had no difficulty in bringing him down. I shot him through the neck, and I am glad to say the ball missed all the arteries, making an ugly but not dangerous wound. I thought his face familiar, and he proved to be a sergeant in Captain Charles Bowen’s company, 18th Connecticut Volunteers, who had often been on guard over me at Fort McHenry, and was always polite and kind. I was sorry for the old man, but it was ” no time then to swap jack-knives,” and I could not stop to inquire after him. I gave him a crippled horse that would travel slowly, and, after having his wound dressed, sent him back to Martinsburg. He could not sufficiently express his gratitude.
All this, of course, occurred afterward. I did not stop at all, but, drawing my sabre, dashed for the head of the train. It was going at a furious rate, when I ranged up alongside the near leader, and, rising in the stirrups, gave him a hard blow on the crest, just behind the head-strap. This brought him down, and tied up the whole team in a knot across the road, with all the rest piled up behind them. This done, I plunged in the spurs, cleared the fence on my left into a large open field, and hastened back toward Newtown to see what the boys were doing. From a knoll I could see them all — that the advance party had been driven back, but that Burke was coming in with the reserve. The men all thought me killed or captured ; some even saw me fall ! I had scarcely reached the knoll when they recognized the gray, and my hat with a long black plume in it, which I waved to beckon them on ; but it was unnecessary, for they had already started with a yell, and though the enemy stood firm for a time, they were forced to yield to the impetuosity of the assault. We had it all our own way. But few of the cavalry were caught, their horses being so much fresher than ours. We took forty prisoners, including six officers going to their commands, and seventy horses. The wagons were loaded with medicines and commissary stores, and, in fact, every thing necessary for the establishment of a large field hospital. I burned every one of them, and sent the prisoners toward the Shenandoah, while I went to New town to look after the wounded.
Three Federals were killed and seven wounded ; among the former, Captain Brett, of the 1st New York Veteran Cavalry. He was shot in the body and thigh, and when I reached him he was still alive, but dying. I asked if I could do any thing for him, but he had already given his last words to Dr. McLeod, to whom I consigned his watch and money, directing him to give them to the first field-officer who should come along, and take a receipt for them. The receipt is in my possession. He died before I mounted my horse, and I left his body in charge of the citizens, who sent it next day to Martinsburg. Willie Gilmor’s horse threw him in the fight and got away, but he succeeded in capturing another. General Hunter had issued a circular to the citizens, telling them that if any more trains were attacked or pickets captured, he would burn every house within reach of his cavalry. This seems almost incredible for the nineteenth century, but it is nevertheless true, and the printed circular is still in possession of the citizens. He had already burned the parsonage, and Mr. White’s, and two other houses in Newtown. When I rode into town, the people, although overjoyed at my success, were alarmed at the consequences to themselves, and with pallid countenances said, “We shall be houseless before to-morrow night.” This was more than I could bear ; so, seizing a pen, I wrote a communication to General Hunter, telling him that I held thirty-five men and six officers as prisoners ; that I would take them to a secure place in the Blue Ridge, and upon receiving intelligence that he had carried out his threat, I would hang every one of them, and send their bodies to him in the Valley. And Hunter knew that I would do it. [….]
The officers I had captured were very uneasy while with us, for they intimated that Hunter was just brute enough to carry out his threat. They occupied the same house I did, being on parole not to escape, and were as comfortable as myself. One of them was Lieutenant Smiser, who lived near my own home in Maryland. He said he had just been commissioned, and that my brother Charles advised him not to go up the Valley, for I might capture him, and sure enough I did so on his first trip. (Gilmor 162-167)
The Lieutenant, Gilmor mentions was undoubtedly Lieutenant Smyser who would later testify for Sarah’s Pension. Whatever jovial rapport the two men shared, and whatever claim to military honor Gilmor stakes, the scene is perhaps in our eyes a stained image. Gilmor would go on to become Baltimore’s first police commissioner, his name is respected and the man is entitled to some understanding and regard for his actions as an officer in a war. But close to the end of his memoir he excuses Southern prison camps, justifies the treatment of the men, and then unapologetically places the blame for many men’s deaths on their own heads as they did not have a manly constitution:
At times our whole army was obliged to subsist on half rations, and even less, with flour only once a week, and corn-meal as a substitute for the rest of the time, yet the surgeons reported the army as never in better health or finer condition. These facts must sooner or later be made manifest, and the honest part of the Northern mind disabused of the many falsities so industriously circulated in this particular. If at any time there was privation among the prisoners at the South, it was caused by our poverty, not our will; the same scarcity frequently pinched our own soldiers.
It will come out before long that the large mortality in the Southern prisons must be attributed to other causes than the want of food — chiefly to the uncleanly habits of the prisoners themselves. Another cause was the want of moral courage. When taken sick, they made up their minds they should die, and in such cases seldom recovered. We had something of the kind among our own soldiers on duty — home-sickness some called it. In this malady they could not bear up under a severe wound or disease brought on by exposure, and, whenever attacked by these fits of depression, scarcely ever got well. (Gilmor 290)
Jackson went on with the burden of a captured son to see action at Piedmont and Mt. Crawford on June 5th, and to capture the cities and towns of Virginia including Staunton, Lexington, Buchanan, Liberty, and finally Lynchburg on June 17th to 18th.1 The unit retreated to the Ohio on June 19th to July 1st, moved to Salem June 21 and to the Shenandoah Valley July 1-17. Snicker’s Gap July 18th. Battle of Winchester on July 24th. Martinsburg 25th, Strasburg August 14th-15th. Bolivar Heights August 24. Berryville Sept 3. From there guard duty in WV. The Regiment lost 10 killed in action and 62 enlisted by disease and One officer.
Several memoirs, diaries, as well as watercolors exist from Andersonville prisoners. From them we may get a sense of James’ last months. The following is the excerpted account given by John Ransom prisoner of Andersonville:
Andersonville is situated on two hillsides, with a small stream of swampy water running through the center, and on both sides of the stream is a piece of swamp with two or three acres in it. We have plenty of wood now, but it will not last long. They will undoubtedly furnish us with wood from the outside, when it is burned up on the inside. A very unhealthy climate. A good many are being poisoned by poisonous roots, and there is a thick green scum on the water. All who drink freely are made sick, and their faces swell up so they cannot see. (Ransom 42)2
The pine which we use in cooking is pitch pine, and a black smoke arises from it; consequently we are black as negroes….A dead line composed of slats of boards runs around on the inside of the wall, about twelve or fourteen feet from the wall, and we are not allowed to go near it on pain of being shot by the guard. (Ransom 44)
Lieut. Piersons is no longer in command of the prison, but instead a Capt. Wirtz. Came inside to-day and looked us over. Is not a very prepossessing looking chap. Is about thirty-five or forty years old, rather tall, and a little stoop shouldered; skin has a pale, white livered look, with thin lips. Has a sneering sort of cast of countenance. Makes a fellow feel as if he would like to go up and boot him. Should judge he was a Swede, or some such countryman….Wirtz wears considerable jewelry on his person–long watch chain, something that looks like a diamond for a pin in his shirt, and wears patent leather boots or shoes….(Ransom 43)
The questions and hopes of the prisoners centered on “exchanges”, prisoner exchanges which for many of them were the only hope of living. Fights between prisoners was common and even prison gangs called “Raiders” were formed.
Capt Moseby, of the raiders, is in the same squad with me. He is quite an intelligent fellow and often talks with us. We lend him our boiling cup which he returns with thanks. (45)
The men seemed drawn to those from their own state and congregating thus, so at one point tiny clusters would form of men from the same stock. On April 9th Ransom writes:
They have rigged up an excuse for a hospital on the outside, where the sick are taken. Admit none though who can walk or help themselves in any way. Some of our men are detailed to help as nurses, but in a majority of cases those who go out on parole of honor are cut-throats and robbers, who abuse a sick prisoner. (48)
April 15.–The hospital is a tough place to be in, from all accounts. the detailed Yankees as soon as they get a little authority are certain to use it for all it is worth. In some cases before a man is fairly dead, he is stripped of everything, coat, pants shirt, finger rings (if he has any), and everything of value taken away. These the nurses trade to the guards. Does not seem possible but such is the case, sad to relate. Not very pleasant for a man just breathing his last, and perhaps thinking of loved ones at home who are all so unconscious of the condition of their soldier father or brother, to be suddenly jerked about and fought over, with the cursing and blaspheming he is apt to hear. The sick now, or a portion of them, are huddled up in one corner of the prison, to get as bad as they can before being admitted to the outside hospital. (Ransom 51-52)
“A great many are terribly afflicted with diarrhea and scurvy begins to take hold of some. Scurvy is a bad disease, and taken in connection with the former is sure death.” (Ransom 46)
In spring of 1864 the prison was not yet complete, prisoners arrived to their horror as the year went on. In Ransom’s journal there are constant entries of exchange rumors, as well as day after day of prisoners arriving filling the walls. Even with a rate of “eighty or ninety” prisoners dead every day the outgoing rate could not keep up with the incoming rate. The ranks were filled with not only white Union soldiers but civilians and Native Americans, and soon African-Americans. Perhaps, there were disguised women in their ranks as well. These failing men competed with each other and with the lice for a piece of ground. The weeks tallied and still more arrived, more fell eventually to scurvy and dropsy: diseases of malnutrition.
James McComas was captured on May 29, 1864 at Newtown, Virginia. We can approximate a week’s worth of travel so that James entered Andersonville on or near June 5th. He came as a new prisoner to a tabula already rife with old prisoners, disease, stagnant air and sewers, and a pile of dead at the gate by the afternoon that were buried in mass graves. Rumors of exchange were still common, and incoming prisoners was steady. Ransom had already been a prisoner for eight months. The weather was one of frequent rain making the filth rise: great clouds overhead from the coast. It was the approach of summer and the deadliest months of Andersonville Prison.
June 8th- The death rate rose to “100 to 130 per day” (65). Confederate guards hardly dared to walk the prison grounds for fear of the mob, instead watching the dead line for desperate actions, clumsiness, or madness. Men went mad, talked on their piece of ground with unshorn hair and nakedness.
Andersonville Prison August 1864. Photo by A J Riddle. Web. Accessed 28 November 2013 http://www.nps.gov/media/photo/gallery.htm?id=A6A1C636-1DD8-B71C-07DB9DB39A2A1074
June 17th- Saw a new comer pounded to a jelly by the raiders. His cries for relief were awful, but none came. Must a few villains live at the expense of so many? God help us from these worse than rebels. (68)
A few weeks after James had arrived Ransom would write, “Old prisoners stand it the best” (71), men who would have been hardened gradually: been weened from daily sustenance and comfort. It is perhaps fortunate that James arrived a few weeks before the humidity of summer reached its peak. Those few weeks may have given him some time to acclimate and maybe why he survived a little longer than others.
June 26- New prisoners come inside in squads of hundreds, and in a few weeks are all dead. The change is too great and sudden for them. (71)
June 29….Have had no meat now for ten days; nothing but one-third of a loaf of corn bread and half a pint of cow peas for each man, each day. Wood is entirely gone, and occasionally squads allowed to go and get some under guard. (72)
June 30.– A new prisoner fainted away on his entrance to Andersonville and is now crazy, a raving maniac. (73)
During July 3 the Raiders were brought to heel. There had been some talk and grumbling before, but a robbery of the newly arrived West Virginia men brought fresh complaints to Capt. Wirtz who deputized several prisoners:
The police go right to raider headquarters knock right and left and make their arrests. Sometimes the police are whipped and have to retreat, but they rally their forces and again make a charge in which they are successful….Must be killing some by the shouting. The raiders fight for their very life, and are only taken after being thoroughly whipped. (76)
The raiders were tried by the men in the prison; a jury of men who had feared and been beaten by the prison gang: “[They] Had a fair trial, and were even defended, but to no purpose” (77). It provided some relief to the men, to see a handful of these criminals swing. Still, as July began the number of dead per day was “over a hundred and fifty” (78). The attempts at tunneling were given up as the population became run-over with disease and weakness. The wood that was brought inside for the hanging, afterward, was taken down and robbed: disappearing into the camp for kindling as well as whittled down for wash boards.
The hospital was dreaded. Men stayed in their hovels begging for the hospital at times but were soon convinced otherwise. They had to be carried to the gate where they were examined. Ransom describes his condition, “Am myself much worse, and cannot walk, and with difficulty stand up. Legs drawn up like a triangle, mouth in terrible shape, and dropsy worse than all” (89). To be let in to the hospital usually meant they were too close to death to be saved.
A faded Hospital Record showing the faint name of McCombs, J Cpl E Md. 3rd from the bottom entry. Hospital Records vol 111 Prison Hospital register and index 1864 Feb- 1865 Apr, A-N pg 26 “Georgia, Andersonville Prison Records, 1862-1865,” images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/pal:/MM9.3.1/TH-1951-31547-2266-99?cc=2019835&wc=MM1Q-489:235849449 : accessed 27 Nov 2013), Hospital > vol 111 Prison hospital register and index 1864 Feb-1865 Apr, A-N > image 225 of 231.
The count of the dead rose steadily each week as the year was carried into the heat of August: one-eighty, two hundred, two hundred and twenty-five, faster now, three hundred every twenty-four hours. James survived the worst month that Andersonville would deal. However, his health left him by and by. James was admitted to hospital on October 23, 1864 suffering from Scorbutis or scurvy and returned to prison November 2 1864. His return was short lived as the prison was being evacuated because of the advances of the Union army: “It is said all were moved from Andersonville to different points; ten thousand to Florence, ten thousand to Charleston and ten thousand to Savannah; but the dead stay there and will for all time to come” (Ransom 100). We may presume that James was able to walk or may have had comrades able enough to help him when Andersonville was evacuated, those left behind had but one course, “Only the sick were left behind there, and it is said they died like sheep” (Ransom 106).
James was transported to Millen, GA or Camp Lawton on November 11th.1 He is listed as being a part of 1st Squad 4th Mess, most likely as a type of squad leader. Mulden, J. W, Merrydith, Geo. Mausberger, Thos; McCoy, Samuel[Lemuel] M. were within the same Mess.
1 McCombs Jas. Corpl. E. 2nd E.S. Md Squad 1 Mess 4 Millen Nov 11 Register of Departures Vol 3 1864 Feb -1865Apr L-Z First Entry pg 77. “Georgia, Andersonville Prison Records, 1862-1865,” images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/pal:/MM9.3.1/TH-1942-31548-5140-1?cc=2019835&wc=MM1Q-48H:n1129112014 : accessed 28 Nov 2013), Departures > vol 3 Register of Departures 1864 Feb-1865 Apr, L-Z > image 82 of 479.
As a response to Gimore’s apology for the prison camps and his stigmatizing of the prisoners, I rely on Ransom’s own words. Ransom gives an inventory of the necessary vitals for surviving Andersonville: “I had an iron constitution that has carried me through and above all a disposition to make the best of everything no matter how bad, and considerable will power with the rest.” Of course had the prison not been evacuated when it did his diseases would have gotten the best of him, Ransom lost several teeth, some hair and more than seventy pounds. (108)
While no case is the same, we can infer that James’ condition was congruent to Ransom’s. All evidence is that James died in the prison camps, Diffendaffer testifies that, “Corporal James M. McComas was a prisoner at camp Loton, last of December 1864, in a dying condition and believes he never left that Prison but died there as he, Diffendaffer, was removed about that date to camp Florence and never saw McComas again” (Diffendaffer Treasury Affidavit). News of their son’s death reached Sarah and Jackson with James’ comrades as they were released and returned to their neighboring farms. Jackson and Sarah on the 16th of November 1866 testified that James had died a prisoner of Camp Lotton Georgia on or about the 25th day of November 1865 (Jackson and Sarah Affidavit 16 November 1865). Lieutenant Smyser fulfilled James’ request: giving Sarah the last of the pay that James had earned.
“The Dead at the Gate, A Daily Occurance.” Thomas O’Dea’s Print. As it appeared in August 1864. Drawn from Memory. Web. Accessed 28 November 2013. http://www.nps.gov/media/photo/gallery.htm?id=8D47CC1C-1DD8-B71C-07AF929987E6B3A5
James McComas was born about 1843 in Northern Maryland, Most likely in either Hampstead, Carroll County or Middletown, Baltimore County areas. His father was Jackson McComas and his mother was Sarah McCullough. Before the war, he worked the farms with his father.