Poetry and Proverbs

By Russell Horton, Reference Archivist

“If I die a prisoner of war, I would like to have this diary sent to my Father, A. Ingersoll, Waupun, Wis.”

-Frank J. Ingersoll, Diary Entry, ca. September 1864

Frank J. Ingersoll, WVM Mss 1369

In the first two years of the Civil War, soldiers from either side of the conflict who were taken prisoner could realistically expect to be released in a relatively short period of time, either through parole or prisoner exchange. This began changing in 1863, as Union officials realized releasing Rebel prisoners allowed the smaller Confederate Army to maintain its strength and that the larger Union Army could withstand having thousands of soldiers held prisoner. Thus, the United States ordered an end to prisoner exchanges.

While this helped hasten an end to the war, it often resulted in misery for Union soldiers captured in battle during the second half of the war. The South had enough trouble feeding and equipping its own soldiers, much less thousands of Union prisoners. Northern men in Confederate prisons like Libby and Andersonville, now with no hope of exchange, faced starvation, exposure, and illness that all too often led to death.

A Waupun, Wisconsin resident, Frank J. Ingersoll was 21 years old when he enlisted into Company K, 10th Wisconsin Infantry Regiment on September 7, 1861. Listing his occupation as “artist,” Ingersoll kept two very descriptive diaries throughout his service in the Civil War. The 10th Wisconsin trained at Camp Holton in Milwaukee and spent the first year of the war performing guard duty and destroying railroads in Tennessee and Kentucky. They saw their first major action on October 8, 1862 at Perryville, where the regiment suffered 48 dead and 97 wounded. Their involvement in the Battle of Stones River on December 31, 1862 was limited, but Ingersoll described a near miss in his diary entry for that day—“Fighting today. Got a ball through my coat tail and damaged this book as you see.”

Ingersoll’s diary shows damage from a Confederate minie ball at the Battle of Stones River. WVM Mss 1369

The next major battle Ingersoll saw was Chickamauga, where on September 20, 1863 the 10th Wisconsin was left exposed and almost the entire regiment was captured. Held at Libby Prison in Richmond, their initial hope was that they would soon be exchanged. Ingersoll wrote on October 28, “This afternoon the whole story of Exchange is again exploded. The papers state that our Government desires no exchange during the remainder of the war. No mention is made of paroling.” Ingersoll moved from Libby to Danville before spending almost five months at the infamous Andersonville Prison. His final destination was the Confederate prison in Florence, South Carolina in October 1864.

There, his diary entries became increasingly unfocused as he battled illness. Poetry was mixed with proverbs, recipes, lists of fellow prisoners who died, and the price of food as Ingersoll sought to occupy his mind and divert his thoughts from the hopelessness of his captivity. Ingersoll died on February 15, 1865, mere weeks before many of the Union soldiers at Florence were finally paroled as the Confederates lost all interest and ability to hold prisoners. His regiment, unaware of his fate, listed him as a prisoner of war at their muster out in October 1865.

Ingersoll’s story, kept alive through his diaries, highlights the cessation of prisoner exchanges as an example of how the Union gave their last full measure in the final years of the Civil War. Victory was achieved, but at a very high cost.

“The owner of this Book Died Near Florence, SC, Federal Prisoner of War.”
-Final Diary Entry, written by fellow member of Company K and fellow prisoner of war Joseph Kolhamer, February 15, 1865

Inside Ingersoll’s dairy, WVM Mss 1369