From Empsonian Logic* No. 3. July 2001
A TRUE HERO OF THE AMERICAN CIVIL WAR: WHO WAS WILLIAM H EMPSON?
The internet presents many advantages to family historians not least of which is the ability to search databases from the comfort of your own home. A favourite site is <www.abebooks.com> which allows users to search the stock of second-hand book sellers across the world. Trawling through this site last July I was reaching the last of some 387* entries for 'Empson' when I came across a reference which read: -
Empson W. H. A Story of Rebel Military Prisons Over Nineteen Months A Guest of the so-called Southern Confederacy. Lockport N.Y. (No date). 105 pp. Printed wraps. 'Harrowing story by private in the 124th Ohio Infantry in Richmond, Danville & Andersonville'. Very good condition. Book No. 692. Price 200 dollars. Presented by Rockland Bookman ABAA Cattaragus N.Y.".
Clearly this book was a must-have. Pausing only to check how much 200 dollars was in real money - gulp - I obtained Irene's tacit approval for the purchase, lying only a little about the true cost.
I had made a good friend in Cliff Hall of Pennsylvania in America whilst helping him research the Coggins family in Northamptonshire (To whom the Oxon. Empsons may eventually prove to be related). He owed me no favours having already made me a magnificent present of an authentic Confederate cavalry flag from which and subsequent correspondence, I knew him to be a considerable expert on the Civil War. I turned to him with questions about my find and his immediate opinion was that the book was a rare and valuable historical document which was well worth purchasing and indeed, should be preserved for future generations. He volunteered to obtain the book and it eventually came into my hands in August 2000.
The book tells how William H Empson had joined the 124th Ohio Volunteer Infantry in 1861 (he said he was 'but a boy of 16 when the rebels fired on Fort Sumpter'). He was taken from Cleveland to Covington in Kentucky where he was issued with his equipment and received initial training. He considered himself a seasoned soldier at that point, anxious to get at the enemy, describing those initial days with typical good spirit.
"We were taken to a large pen where there were about fifty wild mules from the plains. Each of the waggons had six mules attached to it, with the driver on one of the wheel teams, and your humble servant held a small rope, which I fastened to the bridles of the leaders. The brakes were set on the waggons and we were turned loose in a large field and the way we went round that field was not very slow. I do not know at this late day which made the best time, the mules or myself, but I got there at the end of the rope all the same. In about two hours we had them so that we could take them on the street, and went back to camp and loaded up our tents and took them to the cars for Elizabethtown, Kentucky".
After a short while they moved to Louisville and then to Nashville, Tennessee to which they travelled on a fleet of sternwheelers. Despite encounters with snipers along the river his good spirits continued.
"As we left the boat at Nashville, the horses were lowered into the river and swam ashore, but the mules were pushed overboard. I was wishing one of my team would get drowned, for I believed he was a rebel or possessed with a devil, but I don't know but that he is alive yet, if he is he ought to get a pension. Sometimes I think his head was on the wrong end, as he would swing outside the tug and pull and jerk the collar over his head, and would kick the stars if they were low enough."
They marched from Nashville to Franklin and "drove the rebels out of the town". They built forts along Harper's river and successfully fought off a counter-attack. William was briefly promoted to 'Brigade Teamster' but shortly after he says "I finally resigned my commission after trying to run the pesky mules up a tree, and came near to breaking the neck of one of the wheel team". Far worse was to come.
On 20th June 1863 the regiment was ordered to Chattanooga. The weather was terrible and the ground a sea of mud. The first day they marched 22 miles many soldiers throwing away their equipment in order to keep up. By September 15th they reached the Tennessee river and forded it, "less than a mile wide", they were now a few miles from General Lee's army. The next few days saw William involved in skirmishing with the enemy with heavy losses on both sides - by the 19th he records "we had lost heavily". That night they could hear the "rumbling of artillery wheels, the clanking of trace chains, rattling of sabres and the muffled sound of the steady tramp of men, as the rebels were changing and massing troops for the coming fight." This was to be the infamous battle of Chicamuaga in which 14,000 soldiers were to loose their lives.
During the next day their regiment repulsed the enemy three times from behind a hastily thrown up breastwork of logs. Their situation was however becoming desperate - they were ordered to turn about and fix bayonets - realising that they were now surrounded. William was eventually ordered to take his sergeant who had been severely wounded to the field hospital. This was under shell fire and shortly afterwards overrun by the enemy - this undoubtedly saved William's life and was how he became a prisoner of war.
For the next seven months he was moved from prison camp to prison camp faithfully recording his experiences, good and bad. Rations were very short and the weather desperately cold. In April 1864 the prisoners were told they were being moved to a better place within a few miles of Mericus, Ga., a place "too good for Yankees". William, with the advantage of hindsight is wonderfully ironic when he relating this. On arrival he records their first encounter with the notorious Captain Wirz the Commandant of Andersonville and destined to become the only Confederate eventually to be tried for war crimes.
"I saw not far from the train what appeared to be a large open field, with a high fence around it; no barracks, no tents, but merely a dismal swamp. This was Andersonville". He calculates there were about 18,000 prisoners at that time which, as the war progressed, increased "very fast".
There was no proper food, sanitation, shelter, medicine. The prisoners were forced to their own resources and William describes how by scraping with their mess tins prisoners would try to dig wells to get clean water, the stream through the camp being full of sewage. Conditions were pure horror
"I well remember one poor fellow who was wasted to a skeleton by a long and painful illness. He was unable longer to move around and retired to his burrow in the ground, and without hat, coat or vest lay down there in his miserable louse-invested kennel, resigned himself to die, being unable to partake of the coarse and unwholesome food dealt out to the prisoners. He welcomed death as the means of ending forever his miserable existence, but death was slow to answer the summons, and thus he lay day after day, in an unconscious condition, too weak to move either hand or foot, while the flies and mosquitoes could be seen crawling from his nostrils, ears and mouth. Each morning for several days his comrades would go to his burrow expecting that death had closed the scene, but it was not until the vermin had eaten into his flesh, creating great sores where the innumerable maggots found a burrow, did his spirit take its flight."
William clearly possesses immense reserves of personal courage and sprit. By the time he had been a prisoner eleven months the dreadful winter cold had given over to fearful summer heat interspersed with torrential rain. He considered himself fortunate to have been given space in one of the barracks but "The second night I was there my left leg was drawn up in a kneeling position, and it was seven months before I got my heel on the ground again. I could not get onto my feet, and had to crawl on my hands and knees. I would fall down exhausted with the effort unable to move from the place where I lay".
Shortly after the fall of Atlanta William heard that the prisoners were to be exchanged. At which time William describes how, having traded his rings for some sweet potatoes, he spent two days eating one which afforded him enough energy to get up from his bunk. General Grant however would not agree. "To exchange us at this time would crush Sherman and compromise our safety here (Petersburg) for the rebel soldiers were well fed and would go right into the rebel army, while our prisoners were half starved, would have to be furloughed home and many of them would not go into the army again". William comments bitterly "We were held, starved and rotted to save Grant and Sherman. William and his companions were finally exchanged after 588 days of prison life on 20th June 1865.
" I hope this book will prove successful in its mission of truly portraying to its readers the scenes at Andersonville and elsewhere during the time of my imprisonment, and if so, the object of its author shall have been accomplished.
Yours very respectfully,
W H Empson
Late Private, Company A, 124th Ohio Volunteer Infantry."
So where are we now. The book has now been transcribed and with Cliff's help, I am trying to piece together William's origins and his family links. This is not proving to be easy because of a complete absence of personal clues in an otherwise very detailed biography.
Cliff has obtained copies of William's war pension file. This tells us that he lived in Buffalo New York State and in later years spent the winter months in Florida. He was very severely afflicted with rheumatism undoubtedly as a consequence of the privations he endured in Andersonville. He worked in the freight yards for the railway company and amongst the papers are affidavits from some of those whose suffered with him at Andersonville proving that they too survived, remaining in contact with William until his death.
He describes himself (on enlistment), as being 5' 8" tall, with fair complexion, Hazel eyes and light hair. He worked as a farmer. There are however few clues about his true origins, the book itself being silent on the point. He says at one point in the pension papers that he came from 'Norfolk' and elsewhere "I think Suffolk". He came to USA when he was five (1850), stating emphatically that he was born on January 6 1845. This is where the mystery begins, because his birth should appear in the Registrar General's list but no William H's are recorded, perhaps explained by the general failure to record second names in those early days. Of the plain Williams two possibilities recorded in the first quarter of 1845. One in Yorkshire and not therefore likely, which leaves only one candidate.
This certificate records the birth of a William Empson on 8th January 1845 at Horsey, Norfolk. That boy's father was George who was illiterate and signed with an 'X' . His occupation was 'Marsh Man' - that part of England being very low lying and he would no doubt have been engaged on keeping the waterways clear, harvesting reeds and similar tasks. Mother was Sarah Empson formerly Bell. Horsey today remains a tiny place (but said by neighbouring villagers to be very wealthy!) It is notable for the beautiful little church, Saxon in origin and one of very few in the country which are thatched.
It is not yet known how William reached America and with whom he travelled and so it is not yet possible to prove that we have found the right person. It remains a concern that somebody who clearly was highly intelligent appears not to have made more enquiries about his origins and would somebody who could write so well have come from illiterate origins. Certainly he could not have begun school until he was six and joined up as a farmer, at the age of 16, so opportunities for formal education were clearly limited.
The Task Ahead
It is likely to be possible to find more out about Williams early life in America. Certainly Empson's live to this day in the area of New York State in which he lived. We know from the pension papers that William married Emeline Bailey in Medina in 1868 by whom he had three children; Francis Gertrude (1869); Martha R (1872); Eva Maud (1876) and Nellie May (1879). He married secondly, in Kissime, Florida and died on 30th December 1930, just before his 85th birthday.
The book has now been transcribed and with Cliff's help I intend to produce a commentary on the events described. Together we intend to publish the book and William's story on the internet with the objective of encouraging the latest generation of American children to reflect upon the effects of the Civil war.
"Though years have passed since then, the horrors of Richmond, Danville and Andersonville are never absent from my mind. I see gaunt shadows of what was once called men, eaten with vermin and ulcers. Again I hear the crack of the cruel musket telling us that some poor boy has sought and found rest across the dead line. I hear again the hallowed grown of the dying comrade, with dry eyes and a dull heart ache, and listen once more to his feeble cries of home and mother till his voiced is hushed in death."