This is a story about a Confederate soldier from nearby Emanuel County, with Swainsboro as the county seat.
The story is written by Ann Woods Lifer about her great-grandfather. Ann is a cousin of John Toby Wood of Liberty County, so it is about his great-grandfather, also. The Civil War (1861-1865) devastated much of the South, and much destruction was done right here at home. Below is Ann’s story that she graciously allowed me to share with you.
“Where do I start? How do I write about a man who lived and died in the 19th century? He died before the birth of my grandfather, so few facts are known about him. Only his name, John Louis Woods, Company H and Georgia CSA appear on a plaque on the side of a monument in the park where he died while in prison in Maryland.
“His name was John Louis Woods Sr., the oldest of five children born to Matthew and Sabry Woods. His father, like his father before him, cleared and farmed the sandy soil of Emanuel County, in Southeast Georgia. Nothing is known of his early years or education but courthouse records show him getting married to Jemima Flanders in January 1850. Census records of 1860 recorded that he had a farm of 287 acres next to his father’s farm.
“Most of his neighbors were volunteering to serve in the Civil War, but he did not feel compelled to go immediately. He had no dog in this fight, had never owned a slave and had no intentions of ever doing so. At age 36, he just wanted to be left alone to raise his children and mind his own business.
“There were no radios or televisions and newspapers were few and far between for him to know or care about what was going on in the world beyond his farm and church, which were his world. Many of his neighbors, kin and friends went off to war in 1861 and did not return, or if they did, many suffered serious wounds and illnesses. As the war years rolled on, there were fewer men to fight, so he felt compelled to volunteer or was conscripted but really had no desire to leave his family and go off to fight for a cause he really did not believe in.
“The day came that he had to leave his little farm, wife and six children and hoped his oldest son Matthew, age 12, could take care of his mother, five siblings and the farm. (What a huge burden and responsibility for a child!) With a heavy heart, he walked away, leaving a weeping wife and crying children, not knowing when or if he would ever see them again.
“He was stationed in Atlanta, as Sherman’s army was on the march and Atlanta would be the next big battle. John became sick with typhoid fever and was sent home to recuperate. I’m sure he had no desire to return, but he knew the fate of deserters. As he was returning to Atlanta from Swainsboro, he was captured by some of Sherman’s men and sent by rail to a Yankee prison in Maryland. The prison camp was on a peninsular jutting out into the Chesapeake Bay at the point where the Potomac River runs into the bay. It was hot from April until October and was freezing cold in the winter with wind blowing in from the bay. Snow, cold rain, ice and flooding occurred in the winter months.
“The prison was built for 2,000 men, but when John Louis Woods arrived, there were 14,000 men women and children crowded into the enclosure. They had to sleep in raggedy tents the Yankees had discarded. The water was unfit to drink, and little food was given to them. There was no shelter from the cold, rain or snow. Only one blanket was provided per person no matter how cold the temperature. Bathing was unknown unless it rained. His only clothes and shoes were what he wore when he was captured.
“I’m sure he worried about his large family left behind in Georgia. How was the war going? How was his son managing the farm? How were his pregnant wife and small children? Has the war reached them?
“Little did he know that Sherman’s army was on the march and was burning and looting from Atlanta to Savannah. His farm and family were in the path of the mob, and when they arrived at his farm they asked the frightened wife and children if any males of the household were Rebel soldiers. If so, the farm was looted of all food and animals and the house burned.
“John lived in the terrible conditions in the prison through the long, cold winter months, starving and freezing. Men, women and children were dying all around him. Prisoners dug a trench in the wet, muddy soil; each morning the dead were collected and thrown into the trench. Then, the prisoners covered it and dug another trench for the next bodies. John wondered when and if he would be buried in this God-forsaken place.
“He survived the cold winter of 1864, and spring of 1865 was beginning to show signs. The days were getting longer and warmer, but his weakened body no longer could fight the diseases raging all around him and he became sick. There was no one to bring him a cup of cool water or feel his feverish brow when his fever raged. No loving wife or children hovered close by while he suffered. There was no one to pray for his recovery. On a warm sunny day on May 14, 1865, at the young age of 39, a month after the peace had been signed at Appomattox Courthouse, he drew his last breath and died, not ever seeing his new baby son born Aug. 17, 1865 — my grandfather, John Louis Woods Jr.
“John Sr.’s body was dumped into the pit with hundreds of others and covered and forgotten. Finally, years later, the state of Maryland cleared away the weeds and decaying buildings and moved the remains to higher ground, but again the bones were placed in a pit and a monument was erected over it to honor the dead. A Rebel flag was flown but was removed because of the dislike of the stars and bars by some people.
“I visited the park last spring and saw the burial ground and monuments. The park now has flowers, beautiful trees, birds and squirrels and the sound of children playing in the park near the monument. It must bring comfort to my great-grandfather, John Louis Woods Sr., in his grave so far from home.”
Since I read Ann’s story about her great-grandfather, I did a little research about the prison where he was held captive. It was Point Lookout Prison in Maryland on the Chesapeake Bay. It was the Union prison that compared to the Confederate prison at Andersonville. It opened in August 1863 after the Battle of Gettysburg and remained a prison until June 1865. Only 50 ever escaped.
Before being a prison, it was a fashionable resort hotel and summer bathing place, with more than 100 cottages where the elite spent their leisure time. More than 52,000 Confederate soldiers were imprisoned there and at least 14,000 died. Only 3,053 have names on the plaques. Others are listed as unknown.
The bones of the deceased were moved twice since the first burial. When the bones were moved by two men from Tanner’s Creek to the present cemetery, the skulls were placed in one box, arm bones in one and leg bones in another. Some bones were dropped along the road and school children walking along picked some up, not knowing what they were, and took them to school for show and tell. After drinking, sometimes the men gambled with the skull bones, as they were paid in accordance with the number of skull bones they had uncovered.
Today, there is a Confederate Memorial Park consisting of 3 acres of land in St. Mary’s County at Point Lookout, Md., where the bones now rest in a mass grave under an 85-foot obelisk erected by the federal government. It was the first monument to Confederate soldiers. Huge bronze tablets circling the monument depict names of those so far recorded. Also, a 25-foot monument was erected by the state of Maryland in memory of the deceased.