After Confederate troops captured William Frederick Irwin of the 5th Maine Infantry Regiment at Spotsylvania Courthouse in mid-May 1864, he was soon shipped to a prison camp at Salisbury, N.C.
“This was a nasty place,” according to Maine historian Curt Mildner. The prisoners suffered from malnutrition, lack of clothing and shelter, disease, and sadistic guards (some, not all). “At that time in the war the confederates couldn’t even adequately feed their own soldiers!” he commented.
Union prisoners were packed into Salisbury Prison, which doubled in population from 5,000 men to 10,000 men in fall 1864, according to Elizabeth “Beth” Kane, William Irwin’s great granddaughter.
“It suffered from one of the highest prison death rates, with as many as half the men dying of starvation or disease,” she informed Maine at War.
Among the Maine soldiers who survived imprisonment at Salisbury was 1st Lt. Abner Small of the 16th Maine Infantry Regiment. Captured outside Petersburg, Va. on Aug. 18, 1864, he arrived at the infamous Libby Prison two days later.
Confederate guards awakened Small and his comrades at 3 a.m., Sunday, Oct. 2 and marched them across Richmond to board a train “for the South, destination unknown.” The Union prisoners arrived at Salisbury at sunset, Oct. 5; initially housed on the fourth floor of a “cotton factory,” the officers quickly realized they had traded one hellhole for another.
Small heard on Oct. 12 that “five enlisted men [were] reported to have died on the grounds last night.” While officers could sell or trade their belongings for additional rations, enlisted prisoners were issued “one-half loaf [of] bread per day and water insufficient to quench thirst.”
According to Small, five more enlisted POWs died on Oct. 13, two on Oct. 14, and three on Oct. 15. A Confederate guard shot dead 2nd Lt. John Davis of the 155th New York Infantry on Sunday, Oct. 16; eight enlisted POWs died that same day and another six men on Monday, Oct. 17.
Two days later Small shipped out for the Confederate prison camp at Danville, Va. He pitied the enlisted Yankees left behind at Salisbury.*
But there was an “out” for some desperate Union lads. By 1864 the U.S. Army was offering Confederate prisoners of war a release from prison if they would swear allegiance to the United States and enlist in specific Union outfits.
A few thousand Confederate prisoners donned Union uniforms and, as “galvanized Yankees,” saw duty primarily at frontier outposts.
Desperate for men by the war’s last winter, the Confederate government offered a similar deal to Union POWs: swear allegiance to the Confederacy and don a gray or butternut uniform in exchange for a “Get Out of Jail” card and a decent diet.
“William [Irwin] enlisted in the 8th Confederate States Infantry to avoid starvation,” Beth wrote. This happened after the incompetent and overwhelmed Confederate Secretary of War, James Seddon, authorized the formation of Union-prisoner outfits on Sept. 30, 1864.
In his Sept. 16 diary entry, Small noted that 15 to 20 Union soldiers were “said to have taken the oath of allegiance to [the] Confederate Government.” If so, these men were among the first Yankees to become “galvanized Rebels.”
Recruiting efforts kicked into high gear in mid-October. The 8th Confederate Battalion was created as the 2nd Foreign Battalion — “later known as ‘2nd Foreign Legion,’” Beth pointed out — in late December at Florence, S.C. The battalion did not become the “8th Confederate” until March 28, 1865.
William Irwin joined the 8th Confederate Battalion probably while it was still known as the 2nd Foreign Battalion, a designation that indicates the targeting of foreign (i.e., German and Irish) POWs. Although a first-generation American, Irwin would have been considered as “Irish” in Anglo-Saxon-dominated America.
He was among many Union POWs who escaped death in Confederate prisons by joining Southern units. The choice was simple as Confederate recruiters pitched their spiels at the Andersonville and Millen prisons in Georgia, Cahaba Prison (a really, really bad place) in Alabama, Florence prison in South Carolina, Salisbury in North Carolina, and elsewhere: enlist, eat, and possibly live or stay in prison and likely die.
For a Maine soldier dying by inches of starvation, the choice was obvious; William Irwin became a “galvanized Rebel.” So did at least some 1,700 other Union prisoners.
Some of them wound up shooting at Union soldiers.
On April 12, 1865, Union Maj. Gen. George Stoneman Jr. (who had survived three months in an enemy POW camp) led two Federal cavalry brigades in a full-scale attack on Salisbury, N.C. Some 3,000 Confederate troops defended the town and prison, which had been all but evacuated of prisoners.
Stoneman’s cavalrymen turned the Confederates’ flanks and routed the defenders.
The 8th Confederate Battalion arrived at Salisbury at 7 a.m., April 12, according to Confederate Maj. Robert T. Fouche. The battle was already lost; “our troops were met going to the rear in great disorder,” he reported on April 19.
An officer “threw the battalion into line to receive the [Union] cavalry[,] which was coming down on us at the charge,” Fouche wrote. Issued 20 bullets apiece, “the men stood well … but being hemmed in on all sides, the most of the battalion was captured.”
His report suggests that the galvanized Rebels were only too happy to surrender.
Curt Mildner has learned that Confederate defenders at Salisbury included “200 ‘galvanized’ Irish recruited from the Federal prisoners” there. William Irwin was captured at Salisbury, as Beth Kane has confirmed.
Federal soldiers packed him off to a Union prison in Nashville, Tenn.
Legally the U.S. Army could have court-martialed and imprisoned (or shot) all galvanized Rebels as deserters or traitors. However, senior Union officers (and definitely most enlisted men) were sick of the bloodshed in spring 1865; no one was going to shoot Union POWs for joining the enemy.
After William Irwin pledged his allegiance to the United States on July 5, 1865, he was released from prison.
Irwin returned to the Northeast. He married Catherine McKennon of Prince Edward Island on Nov. 4, 1873. A son, George Clayton Irwin, was born on Aug. 15, 1874; another son born in 1876 died at age 1.
Residents of southern Maine, the Irwins were divorced on May 3, 1881. “William was awarded full custody” of son George, Beth Kane noted.
George was named for his uncle, George Clayton Irwin, who had served in the 17th Maine Infantry and 1st Maine Heavy Artillery during the Civil War. All the Irwins converged on Boston by the early 1880s; William and brother George worked there as brick masons.
William Irwin married a Scottish lass, Mary McArthur, in East Boston on Oct. 12, 1881. Their son, William Thomas Irwin, was born on April 11, 1883; he was Beth Kane’s grandfather.
The tale of “galvanized Rebel” William Frederick Irwin ends at the Westborough Insane Asylum in Worcester, Mass., where Irwin died of “paralysis and congestive apoplexy” on Feb. 20, 1888, Beth wrote.
“His grave is marked each Memorial Day with an American flag,” she proudly noted.
*The Road to Richmond: The Civil War Letters of Major Abner R. Small, edited by Harold Adams Small, Fordham University Press, New York, 2000
Brian Swartz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He would love to hear from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.