Like his great-grandfather, Larry Knight frequents prisons in the Deep South.
However, unlike Pvt. Adelbert Knight of Co. F, 11th United States Infantry Regiment, Larry visits places like Camp Sumter in Andersonville, Ga. and Libby Prison in Richmond, Va. as a visitor, not an inmate.
The son of Samuel and Abner Knight of Lincolnville, the 21-year-old Adelbert enlisted in the Army on March 26, 1862. Only nine months earlier, his older brother, Jonathan, had joined Co. H, 4th Maine Infantry Regiment, which fought at Bull Run on July 21, 1861.
Confederate troops captured Jonathan there and initially imprisoned him in Richmond. Then began for Jonathan an odyssey across the Middle and Deep South, a convoluted journey that ended with his death and burial in New York City.
Sent to prisons in Alabama, North Carolina, and elsewhere, he lost weight due to malnutrition; released by parole at Salisbury, N.C. in mid-spring 1862, Jonathan suffered from scurvy when he arrived at the City Hospital on Blackwell Island (later Roosevelt Island) in New York City’s East River on June 3.
Jonathan died there three days later. He lies buried at Cypress Hills National Cemetery in Brooklyn. A memorial stone honors him at Fletcher Cemetery in Lincolnville.
Adelbert would follow his brother into captivity in early June 1864, when Confederate soldiers swept past his regiment’s flank and into its rear, surprising the Union soldiers and capturing almost 50. Marched two miles behind enemy lines, Adelbert was shipped immediately to Libby Prison, a three-story brick hell hole where many Union men suffered and died.
From there Adelbert shipped by train to the notorious Camp Sumter in Andersonville, Ga., then later to Camp Lawton in Millen, Ga. Future prison destinations included POW camps at Savannah, Ga.; Florence, S.C.; and Salisbury, N.C.
Larry Knight has visited some of these prison sites, most of them lost to time and development. A flood wall, a small park, and information signs identify the site of Libby Prison today; until recently, the Camp Lawton site remained undiscovered at Magnolia Springs State Park in Georgia.
Larry knew where Adelbert, his great-grandfather, was imprisoned because he kept two diaries during the war. Adelbert started his first diary at Fredericksburg, Va. on Dec. 11, 1862; probably writing with a quill pen, he kept writing in this diary until shipping it and other personal items home to his mother in late April 1864.
Before doing so, however, Adelbert meticulously copied the entirety of his first diary into a second diary, in which he kept writing until Feb. 20, 1864. That second diary, which Larry Knight transcribed in 1970 as a senior English project, reveals the horror that befell Adelbert after Cold Harbor — and provided Larry with the vital information he needed about his ancestor’s imprisonment.
At 7 a.m. on Wednesday, June 15, 1864, a Confederate locomotive hauled a long line of boxcars into the railroad siding at Andersonville, a small town located about 120 miles south of Atlanta. To handle the burgeoning number of Union prisoners, the Confederacy had opened Camp Sumter at Andersonville in February 1864.
At 12 noon that Wednesday, Adelbert Knight and many other bedraggled Union prisoners passed through the main gate at Camp Sumter, forever seared into the American psyche as “Andersonville,” a one-word term that describes the living hell in which some 45,000 Union prisoners would ultimately be imprisoned. Thirteen thousand men would die there from exposure, disease, and starvation.
But Adelbert Knight does not lie with the dead at Andersonville National Cemetery. Just 106 days — literally a prisoner’s lifetime — after arriving at Camp Sumter, on Sept. 28, 1864, Adelbert shipped by rail (with 60 men crammed into each boxcar) to a new prison, Camp Lawton, that had just opened at Millen, Ga.
Fearing that General William Tecumseh Sherman would send men to capture Camp Sumter, Confederate guards evacuated their surviving prisoners to other POW camps, including Camp Lawton. Union troops did not reach Andersonville until May 1865; they did attack Camp Lawton, forcing its evacuation after only six weeks.
His captors trundled Adelbert Knight to Savannah, Florence, and Salisbury, where he was paroled in winter 1865. Although a Belfast newspaper later described Adelbert as a “wreck” when he arrived home, he recovered sufficiently to marry Sarah Avesta Whitmore of Lincolnville on Nov. 26, 1865. They settled in Belfast and had five children.
Some years ago Larry Knight took his father, James Adelbert Knight, to Georgia to visit Andersonville National Historic Site. Larry has returned twice since then, most recently on June 15, 2014, exactly 150 years to the day since his great-grandfather reached the prison.
Larry has visited the site of Camp Lawton twice; he plans his third visit for this Nov. 15, for Heritage Day 2014. Activities will focus on the 150th anniversary of Camp Lawton.
Archeologists from Georgia Southern University have conducted detailed digs at Magnolia Springs State Park since 2010. Recent discoveries include the sites of two stockaded walls and a trove of items left by Union prisoners when the camp was suddenly evacuated in November 1864.
Larry hopes to visit the prison sites in Florence, S.C. and Salisbury, N.C. “sometime 150 years later for both, by February of 2015.” During his November trip to Georgia, he would like to visit the site of the POW camp where Jonathan Knight was imprisoned in 1862 in Tuscaloosa, Ala.
Brian Swartz can be reached at email@example.com. He would love to hear from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.