Jesse Altom (1840-1898)

Jesse was the son of John Altom and grandson of James Bulger Altom. This branch of the Altom family moved from Tennessee into Illinois and Missouri. My mother, Sarah Altom, moved from Illinois to Vancouver, Washington during WWII where she married my father. My grandfather, Robert Frank Altom, eventually joined his daughter in the Northwest.

Jesse is my 1st cousin, four times removed. Our common ancestor is James Bulger.

I hope you enjoy reading this newspaper review of his diary record and experiences while in Andersonville prison.

This article was published in the Centralia Illinois Evening Sentinel.


Marion County Prisoner of Rebels Kept Diary in Andersonville Prison

by C.A. Frazer

EDITOR'S NOTE - The Sentinel is indebted to members of the Altom family for this unusual account of life in Andersonville Prison during nine months of the Civil War.

Mrs. Bill Epperson, 34 Ridge St., Centralia, provided the actual diary kept by her great-grandfather while he was in prison. Mrs. Lora Altom of Patoka, a daughter-in-law, provided the obituary printed in the Patoka newspaper in 1898 and her son, Robert of Roselle, Illinois, provided additional details. Jesse Altom, the hero of this true story, was born Feb. 1, 1840, in Fayette County. The family moved to "the old homestead about 4 1/2 miles east of Patoka, after known as the R. S. Caldwell farm" and in 1861 he married Sarah Jackson.

On Aug. 9, 1862 he and other Patoka young men enlisted under Capt. Abner S. Gray and in due course were fighting in Kentucky and Tennessee. He took part in the battle of Lookout Mountain. Altom was captured while serving under Gen. James B. McPherson, who was killed that same day, as the division was moving on Atlanta. Finally released from prison, Altom served out the remainder of the war and on his return to Patoka opened a general store. He died July 22, 1898, at the age of 58.

Ninety-seven years ago today Jesse Altom of Patoka made his fourth attempt, with Confederate blessings, to leave Andersonville Prison and return to the Union lines. Like the preceeding three attempts, it ended in his return to prison.

An entirely new slant to life in the Confederate Prison, made infamous by post-Civil War authors of best sellers, is contained in the diary Jesse Altom kept while in prison. He finally made it to the Union lines, at Jacksonville, Florida., on April 28.

Dates and Movements

Unlike another Civil War soldier from the Patoka area, William A. Smith, whose letters home were the subject of a series of articles in The Sentinel last fall, Altom's diary entries were terse and largely without color, a log of dates and movements.  His little leather-covered notebook, well preserved except for the cover, packs nine months of imprisonment into a dozen pages.  He devotes as much space to a prison commander's order regulating prison sutler and a Confederate general's edict concerning prison riots as he does to his own predicament.

Altom gives almost a comic opera picture of the prison as a place where everone, including the guards, were trying to get the prisoner out instead of keeping them in captivity.  "Capt. Wirz came to the prison and said if he couldn't deliver us to the Yankees at one place we would keep going until we found a Union commander who would exchange us," said Altom in his entry of April 2, 1865.  The captain must have given it up as a bad job in spite of his brave words, because the long line of prisoners was back at Andersonville on April 13th.

Tells of His Capture

Altom - the diary does not give his rank or company - was most laconic about his capture.  "The 111th was supporting a line of skirmishers on the 22nd day of July, 1864, about one mile east of Atlanta, Ga., when the Rebel foe charged us, capturing 85 of our regiment."

"We were marched five miles to the east, where we were guarded until the morning of the 25th and then started marching toward Griffin, Ga.  On the 27th we were put on the cars and sent down to Macon, and then run over to Andersonville Prison."

The town of Andersonville, Ga., is a few miles north of Americus and about 25 miles southeast of Columbus.  It now has a population of about 200 and is dwarfed by the national cemetery there which contains the graves of some 13,000 soldiers, most of whom died in the prison.

Almost immediately the Confederates started efforts to arrange an exchange of prisoners with the Yankees.  the next entry in diary relates:

Arrange Prisoner Exchange

"On the 19th of September I left the prison and went for Sherman's lines for a special exchange but was sadly disappointed when we were turned back for prison.  On the 24th we were lodged in the stockade at Macon, on the 25th we started for Savannah on the train and arrived there to join about 5,000 other prisoners.  On the 12th of October we went on the cars to Millen, arriving after dark.  I saw a prisoner shot dead for leaving the ranks to get some boards to make him a shanty."

Altom does not specifically say he was returned to Andersonville after this first attempt at prisoner exchange, however he mentions experiencing the first heavy frost on October 22 and reports the deaths of several companions (?illigible), James McCourtney, (?illigible) and R. M. Lambert. His second try for release started November 21.

Raw Corn for Rations

"Two thousand of us left the prison and went to Savannah, changed cars and started for Blackshear.  We arrived the night of the 25th.  All we had for rations from Savannah was one quart of raw corn."

"On the first day of December 1,000 prisoners were called from our camp and paroled and taken out for exchange."

Apparently Altom was not one of the lucky one thousand because the next entry says:
"On the 5th, 1,600 of us left Blackshear for Thomasville where we took up camp in the piney woods.  On the 19th we left Thomasville and marched towards Albany.  We arrived on the 22nd and were put on the cars for Andersonville, where we landed on the 23rd."

Rebels Recruit in Prison

At this point in his diary Altom tells of the efforts made by Confederate officers to recruit prisoners into their army.

"January 23rd the recruiting officer came to our camp and took out 195 recruits for the Rebel Army and among those who left were Henry Clay, William Perdew, and J. W. Johnson.  On the 28th he came back again and added about 200 to the Rebel Army, including about 50 of the 17th Iowa regiment."

By this time the Rebels perhaps could see the eventual outcome of the war because the diary mentions several instances of Confederate softness.

"On March 17, Col. Gibbs,commander of the prison, rode through our camp and told us not to be uneasy about an exchange because it would reach us, certainly within about three weeks.  He showed us he was unarmed, which was an uncommon thing for a Rebel to come in the prison without his revolver."

The prisoner exchange started the next day, as Altom reported 960 prisoners boarded the cars for Jacksonville, Miss.  March 24 another 800 left for Union lines of which 800 Altom said "135 had bought their way out.  The first paid $20 and the last only $3 and finally down as low as 3 for $1"

Again Signs Parole

The Patoka Man's third try for exchange started March 27 when he and a fellow prisoner, W. B. Jones, signed the parole and headed for the railroad station.  "We were marched back to camp however on account of some accident on the railroad, unknown to us."

"On the 29th we learned that the delay was caused by a small raiding party of Yanks on the railroad below Columbus, Ga."

A few days later the fortunes of war apparently had turned hard against the Confederacy because on April 2, 1865 Capt. Wirz arrived at the prison, entered the compound unarmed, and called for the division sergeant. "He told us we would be exchanged at Jacksonville, Fla.  He said the Yankees wouldn't let any more of us get to Vicksburg and if he couldn't deliver us at one point we would try another as we were bound to be exchanged someplace."

Head for Union Lines

The Rebels put 4,000 prisoners under parole April 3, and lodged them in the stockade.  The next morning they "took 1,100 of us, put us on the cars and we landed at Albany, 40 miles away.  We marched three miles and camped."

The next day, Altom's diary records, the prisoners and their guards left camp at daybreak and marched 18 miles, much of the time wading slough with water up to their hips. "Little did we care for mud or water while going for an exchange."

The role of prisoner and guard must have ended with signing of the paroles, because Altom notes that "the next night S. Paleston and I went out in the country and paid $3 per dozen for eggs."  He does not mention where Union soldiers who had been in prison for months, got $3.

Prisoner Spirits High

There was a noticeable lift in spirits as this trip wore on.  His words are almost gay as he tells of leaving camp when the sun was about an hour high and that the column marched as fast as the puny and lame could travel.  He is sensitive to the wonders of spring, mentioning rye in full bloom, corn large enough to plow, oak leaves that are green and, a good old country expression, "peaches as large as bluebird eggs."

The march ended April 9 in camp near Thomasville, made during a heavy rain.  The next morning was a dreary one.  Along with the mud and discomfort of a soldier's wet bivouac was the news they would have to return to Andersonville.  "Our government will not receive us until the 19th.  It was sad news, indeed."

Back to Andersonville

Travelling on short rations of bacon and hard bread the weary line of prisoners retraced the route to Albany and back on the cars for prison which by this time must have seemed like home.

At this point in Altom's narrative the situation becomes confused.  "I was then detailed as wardmaster in the general hospital.  I had 40 patients and 7 nurses."

Rebel Guards Demoralized

Rumor of a large Yankee raiding party apparently demoralized the Rebels.  "on the evening of the 17th the prisoners in the stockade were removed on the double quick for fear of a raid.  On the morning of the 18th the Rebs chopped and broke up all of their artillery.  Rebs were going in every direction toward the swamps, the worst demoralized set of men I ever saw in my life."

Jesse Altom signed his last parole April 18, took the cars for Albany and the 19th found him with 50 other ex-prisoners, marching without guards, at the head of a long column of prisoners, walking the familiar route to Thomasville where they boarded the cars again for Live Oak, Fla.  He mentions that a boy from the 16th Illinois Infantry fell off the train and was killed on this trip.

The next day the column moved on  to Lake City, Fla..  Apparently the prisoners had complete liberty as Altom mentions he and Davey went into the Florida swamps and some of the boys killed an alligator nearly 7 1/2 feet in length.

Met Union Soldiers April 28

At dusk on April 28 the column was met by Union soldiers on the outskirts of Jacksonville and "It was the happiest time of my life when they received us with open hearts and open arms.  We got rations of all kinds, with whiskey and tobacco thrown in to boot."

So ends the Altom diary except for excerpts from a general order issued by the commander of prisons regarding riots and escape attempts among prisoners and which stated:

"The brigadier general commanding directs that all prisoners of war who conduct themselves in orderly manner shall be treated with that humanity becoming the Christian people of the Confederate States who, notwithstanding the barbaric atrocities inflicted upon them by a cruel and merciless foe, have not yet learned to formers under this control. Signed, Brig. Gen. J. D. Imboden."

Andersonville Prison Photos

Jesse Altom
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