Dorence Atwater, member of the 2nd New York Cavalry, was captured by Confederate forces near Hagerstown, Maryland in July 1863. He was transported to Richmond, Virginia where he was held prisoner at Belle Isle for more than 7 months. In January 1864, Atwater accepted parole to work for the Confederate Army and was able to assist in accounting for prisoner supplies sent by the Union Army.
In late February 1864, Atwater was transferred from Richmond to Andersonville. While there, Atwater was paroled and sent to work as a clerk in the office of Surgeon J.J. White. His task was to “keep the daily record of deaths of all Federal Prisoners of War.” Based on the horrors he witnessed at the prison camp, Atwater kept a secret copy of his register where he was able to successfully smuggle it across Union lines in March 1865.
After the war, Atwater’s desire to publish the list for families to reconnect with those who perished at Andersonville was denied by the War Department. By the summer of 1865, Atwater met with Clara Barton and together, they accompanied the U.S. Quartermaster expedition to Andersonville in order to document the site and its horrors. Atwater and Barton were able to identify and mark the graves of the Union dead in Andersonville National Cemetery. In 1866, Atwater’s register was published, enabling families to connect with their loved ones. Thanks to his work, over 95% of the graves were identified.
Alt text: Black and white portrait image of a younger gentlemen with slicked hair, wearing a suit.
Image Credit: NPS