Civil War Era History
James Dennison - Prisoner of War at Andersonville
Story by Jack Klasey
Kankakee Daily Journal
December 11, 2016
James H. Dennison was a 25-year-old Ganeer Township farmer when he enlisted in Company K of 113th Illinois Volunteer Infantry on Aug. 9, 1862. When this portrait was made in early 1864, he held the rank of Corporal. By the end of the war, he had been promoted to Sergeant.
Kankakee County Museum Photo Archive
On June 19, 1864, after 12 hours in the rain on an open railroad car, Sgt. James H. Dennison caught his first glimpse of the place where he would be held as a prisoner of war. "Andersonville military prison … a hard place," he wrote in his tiny pocket diary.
In that diary, now in the Kankakee County Museum's collection, Dennison kept a day-by-day chronicle of one year of his life as a Union soldier. When he began the diary on March 3, 1864, the Kankakee soldier already had been a member of the 113th Illinois Volunteer Infantry for 18 months. When he made his final entry on Feb. 15, 1865, he was on a train headed for Richmond, Va., where his time as a prisoner of war finally would end. Four months later, he would be back home in Kankakee County.
Dennison was captured by Confederate troops near Brice's Crossroads, Miss., in the early morning hours of June 11, 1864. The day before, the 113th Illinois had been routed by a force of cavalrymen under the command of Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest. Dennison described his capture:
"Tishomingo Creek is where the battle was the 10th of June 1864. It was a bad loss for us. I went 23 miles before I was taken. I was tired out ... after I was taken one of the rebels shot his gun at me, but it did not go off."
The young soldier had plenty of company as a new prisoner of war — more than 1,600 Union soldiers were captured in the aftermath of the battle. Many were from Kankakee or Iroquois counties because six of the 10 companies that made up the 113th Illinois were recruited in those two counties. Dennison's Company K accounted for five of the captured men; two of whom would die in captivity.
Inside the log stockade at Andersonville, Ga., about 33,000 men were crammed into slightly more than 26 acres of ground. "There are 32,940 prisoners hear now in this camp," Dennison wrote on Aug. 4.
Conditions in the camp were horrifying with almost no shelter available from the broiling Georgia sun, scarce food supplies, no source of clean water (the creek running through the camp also served as its sewer) and almost nonexistent medical care. As a result, many men succumbed to illness or starvation. Thus, Dennison's June 20 diary entry: "50 men dies hear every day." In fourteen months of Andersonville's existence, 13,000 prisoners died.
Andersonville was the largest of the Confederate prison camps. This view shows a portion of the camp, looking across ironically named Sweetwater Creek, which served as both the camp's sewer and its water source.
National Park Service photo
Understandably, many diary entries dealt with food and personal health. On Aug. 10, he wrote, in part: "I have not had half enough to eat it is hard to go hungry my health is good I feel very tired of this prison."
Isolated as Andersonville was, news of the war somehow reached the prisoners. The capture of Atlanta on Sept. 2 was recorded by Dennison only two days later: "there is good news from Sherman [General William Tecumseh Sherman] … he has got Atlanta."
Sherman's approach brought reaction from the Confederates, who began moving prisoners out of Andersonville to more distant camps. On Sept. 29, Dennison and hundreds of other prisoners began a series of moves that would take them on a five-month odyssey through Georgia, South Carolina and Virginia.
On Feb. 15, 1865, Dennison ran out of space to write in his diary. His final entry listed towns along the route from the prison camp at Florence, S.C., to Richmond, Va. After 257 days of captivity, he became a free man again on Feb. 24.
From a military hospital bed in Baltimore, he wrote on March 13 to his wife, Ann, "I am in the land of the living once more." Late in June, he mustered out of the service, and came home to Kankakee County. By the end of that year, he had purchased 40 acres of farmland directly south of what is today the Greater Kankakee Airport. The Dennison farm, where he and Ann became the parents of two sons and a daughter, eventually grew to 120 acres. James H. Dennison died in his farmhouse on March 13, 1905, at the age of 68.