The Road to Virginia
Retracing the Steps of Pvt. Joseph Odom
In the year 1825, just 7 years after the state was formed, Wayne County, Mississippi (population ~3000 at the time) became the birthplace of Joseph Odom, my third great grandfather.
Joseph was born to Benjamin Odom (a father of 21) and likely Marilla Sarah Bishop. This branch of the Odom family originally came from Barnwell, South Carolina but later moved to Burke, Georgia. As best we can tell, 17 year old Benjamin (who was born in Burke) came here with his kin Malachi in 1803.
Mississippi saw two major periods of steady settlement and migration during the early part of the 19th Century. The first lasted from 1798 until the War of 1812 started and has been characterized as “steady but unspectacular”. The second flood started in 1815 and lasted until around 1819. It was during the first flood that the Odom’s came to Mississippi.
Joseph was born shortly after the second wave, during a period of time (late 1820,30s, and 40s) was known as the “flush times”. In addition to the arrival of new people, Mississippi saw the arrival of capital, thanks to its fertile soil and cotton potential. As one man observed in Mississippi in 1836, “credit is plenty, and he who has no money can do as much business as he who has,” nearly anyone able to procure even a small piece of land could indulge the belief that he was on the road to success.
Shortly after his 17th birthday, in 1842, Joseph married South Carolina native Cynthia Herrington, daughter of Samuel “Sy” Herrington and Mary Williams. The Herrington’s moved to Mississippi from Barnwell in late 1819 or early 1820.
Over the next 15 years, Joseph and Cynthia would welcome 6 sons (James, Sebourn, Jackson, Malcolm, Samuel, and Ezekiel) and 3 daughters (Sarah, Mildred and Catherine) into their family and settle into life on their farm outside Augusta, Mississippi. In 1850, they lived Joseph lived next to his father Benjamin, and brother Michael. Things must have been looking up because the value of their farm increases from the 1850 census to the 1860 census.
The Augusta they lived near is no longer. The city of Augusta was settled on the Leaf River, which was a main mode of transportation during the early years of settlement. It was founded in 1812 and was once the seat of Perry County. However, in the early 1900s (long after this Odom chapter was finished), the arrival of a railway 2 miles south established the city of New Augusta and eventually “Old Augusta” was abandoned and later returned to woodlands.
While Mississippi as a whole was thriving, Perry and Wayne Counties, were not as fortunate as the rest of the state. While times were good, there were hardships. This area that would later give birth to Hattiesburg, only saw about 14 new people per year between 1820 and 1860. Historian James Fickle explains the challenges:
“Farming [in the Piney Woods counties] was risky and hazardous, and on the hills large-scale cultivation was impossible.”
I wonder what it would have been like for 35 year old Joseph in 1860. His youngest boy was just a toddler and his eldest was coming of age. He owned his own farm but how well was it doing? What did his day consist of?
While we may never know the answer to these questions, the his troubles of that day would pale in comparison to the road ahead.
Early of the following year (1861), Mississippi became the second state to secede from the Union and fellow Mississippian Jefferson Davis was elected President of the Confederate States of America (CSA). After months (and years) of increased tensions between the North and the South, the attack on Fort Sumter in April triggered the official start of the Civil War.
Joseph enlisted in the Confederate Army just months after the battle of Vicksburg where many of the men in his local battalion were captured or killed. On September 30th 1863, Joseph made the trip to Enterprise, Mississippi (the temporary location of the moving capital) to enlist. He was was assigned to Company F of the 7th Mississippi Infantry Battalion, which was organized during the early spring of 1862 near Quitman, Mississippi.
This Battalion, like many others, assigned Company mainly by the soldier’s county of origin. Company F, also known as the Jones County Renovators, was made up of mostly Jones and Perry County civilians. Joseph had a brother (Darling) and a son (James Asbery) in the 7th Battalion but in a different different Company. Company F was made famous by also being the company of Newton Knight, protagonist from the legend of the Free State of Jones.
After his enlistment there is some ambiguity about what he was doing and where he was. 45 days later, on November 13th, Joseph was absent without leave. Private Odom continues to be AWOL on the November — December 1863 Company Muster and the January — February 1864 Muster. He may have been fighting or he may have been home. We can’t know for sure.
What we do know is that he was most definitely present when MS’s 7th Btn. is sent to Georgia as part of the Atlanta campaign.
Sherman’s troops bombarded the Confederate positions at nine o’clock on the morning of June 27 and then advanced along the base of Kennesaw Mountain.
The Confederates easily repulsed this diversionary attack. Meanwhile, rough terrain and a stubborn defense stymied the Union assault at Pigeon Hill, which sputtered out after a couple of hours. At Cheatham Hill, the heaviest fighting occurred along a salient stretch in the Confederate line dubbed “Dead Angle” by Confederate defenders. Union troops made a desperate effort to storm the Confederate trenches. However, as elsewhere, the rough terrain and intense Confederate fire combined to defeat the Union army. Within hours, the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain was over. Union casualties numbered some 3,000 men while the Confederates lost 1,000, making it one of the bloodiest single days in the campaign for Atlanta. 72 of the 1,000 Confederates lost were from Missippi’s 7th Infantry Battalion.
Sherman hated to admit failure, and his pride led him to consider renewing the assault. After several days of scouting and preparation, Sherman again flanked the Confederate lines. On July 2, the Confederate Army abandoned their entrenchments under the lead of Johnston.
Though we don’t know exactly where or what the circumstances were, we do know that on July 3rd, 1864, Private Joseph Odom was taken prisoner by General Sherman’s forces near Kenesaw Mountain, marking the start of a 234 day period of living in captivity.
Prisoner of War
When they were taken prisoner, prisoners of war were escorted to collection points — then marched to a railway station where they would wait nearby for a train to take them north (or south) to a rail destination close to the prison camp. There, they would be handed over to a Provost Marshal (similar to the MP’s) and marched to the camp. It was a lengthy process getting large groups of captured soldiers from the battlefield to a PW camp. It took nearly 2 weeks to get Joseph from Kennesaw Mountain to his final destination.
After he was captured, Joseph travelled more than 400 miles to Louisville, KY, likely by way of Nashville. On July 14th, 1864, 11 days after his capture, Joseph was both received and discharged at the Military Prison in Louisville. 2 days later, he was received at his Camp Douglas in Chicago, a civil war prison that had dismal living conditions and a death toll that numbered in the thousands. Joseph would spend 221 days there.
Camp Douglas was one of the largest POW camps for the Union Army, located in the heart of the Bronzeville part of Chicago. More than 40,000 troops passed through the camp during its nearly four years in operation. It’s been hyperbolically remembered by some historians as the “deadliest prison in American history” and “eighty acres of hell.”
The camp was meant for no more than 6,000 prisoners, and as its ranks grew to roughly 12,000 at its peak, it became more dangerous than any battlefield.
The camp was low and flat, rendering drainage imperfect. Its close proximity to Lake Michigan, and consequent exposure to the cold, damp winds from the lake, with the flat, marshy character of the soil created a tendency for disease. Combined with overcrowding and poor sanitation, diseases such as dysentery, smallpox, typhoid fever and tuberculosis spread wildly. Illness became the camp’s leading cause of death, claiming roughly 4,500 Confederate soldiers, or 17 percent of the total number of men imprisoned at the camp.
The daily food ration there was typically 1/2 loaf of baker’s bread, with about 4 oz. of meat and a gill of beans or potatoes. All the barracks were greatly in need of repair and only 3 water hydrants were provided to supply fresh water for the entire camp. After retaliatory measures were adopted, the stoves were taken away and all vegetables were cut off from the rations, causing an outbreak of scurvy in epidemic numbers, followed by a (second) smallpox epidemic. Because of the drastic prison conditions, local residents offered relief and assistance to the prisoners, not as a matter of politics but purely out of compassion. This went on for a little while until the Federal Government put a stop to it.
The people of Chicago were curious about the camp and its prisoners. An observatory tower was built just outside the prison gate for onlookers to look at the prisoners, for 10 cents per person. The spectators would go to the top of the tower where, with the aid of spy or field glasses, they could look down upon the camp.
Prisoners hoped for prisoner exchange as one of their only hopes for freedom but the process had only operated sporadically for years. Fortunately for Joseph, the Confederate Congress agreed to continue prisoner exchanges January 24th of 1865. Within one month, Private Odom was selected prisoner exchange and forwarded to Point Lookout, Maryland for exchange on February 21, 1865.
If Joseph knew he was being transferred, hope was in sight. But to reach that hope, he would have to travel the 700+ miles to Point Lookout Maryland. While there is a beautiful park there today, Point Lookout was the Union’s largest prison camp.
It was originally built to hold 10,000 men, but swelled to between 12,000 and 20,000 prisoners after the exchange of prisoners between armies was placed on hold. The result was crowded conditions with up to sixteen men to a tent in poor sanitary conditions. It was the largest Union-run prison camp, and had a reputation for being one of the worst.
Because of the topography, drainage was poor, and the area was subject to extreme heat in the summer and cold in the winter. This exacerbated the problems created by inadequate food, clothing, fuel, housing, and medical care. Besides chronic diarrhea, dysentery and typhoid fever had become epidemic at the camp while smallpox, scurvy, and the itch had become quite common.
Flooding of the prison compound was frequent, soaking the prisoners’ clothing and tents. There was never enough food or firewood; both were strictly rationed. Rats were a major source of protein for some inmates, and catching them became a favorite sport in the camp. And there was much animosity between the prisoners and the guards, who were mostly black troops.
The good news is, Joseph couldn’t have been there long. We know that by March 3rd, he had made it to Richmond a free man, but at a cost.
A Taste of Freedom
Perhaps he was sick, or beaten by the guards. Perhaps he was too frail from the journey to Point Lookout. Perhaps he picked up smallpox or terrible diarrhea from his short stay at Point Lookout. Whatever the reason might be, rather than arriving as a healthy soldier, Joseph arrived in Richmond on March 3, 1863 as a patient being hospitalized at Receiving and Wayside Hospital, or General Hospital #9, also known as Seabrook’s hospital.
The photograph above was taken around the time Joseph would have been there. Built in 1810 by John Seabrook as a tobacco warehouse, the building was acquired by the City and used for a century before its demolition. It was known as “the billboard of Richmond” because it was always well “papered” with show and circus sheets, announcements, and political placards. It opened as a receiving hospital in June 1862, because of its nearness to the Virginia Central Railroad depot. It had a capacity for over 900 patients and was staffed roughly 150 employees. It was located on the north side of Grace Street between 17th and 18th Streets.
This hospital, it seems, was Joseph’s final prison. Sadly, less than 2 weeks after his arrival in the Confederate Capital, and less than 2 months before the end of the War, Joseph breathed his final breath. He was never able to regain his health or to make it back to his family in Mississippi. But on March 15th, 1865, Private Joseph Odom died a free man.
Final Resting Place
Joseph Odom was laid to rest in Hollywood Cemetery, beside 18,000 of his fellow Confederate soldiers. Hollywood Cemetery is the largest Confederate cemetery in existence and houses the remains of 2 U.S. Presidents, Confederate President Jefferson Davis, and 28 Confederate generals.
Section W of the cemetery features the Monument to Confederate War Dead. The famed 90-foot pyramid is made with large blocks of James River granite. The blocks were stacked without bonding and it was built overlooking the cemetery’s Soldiers’ Section.
As part of that section, just several hundred feet away from the memorial, you’ll find area W3390. Here, shown below, is the final resting place of Private Joseph Odom: a soldier, a husband, a father, and a free man.
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