One hundred and fifty-two years ago Florena Budwin faced the agonizing truth that her husband was dead and she was on the verge of being captured as a Yankee prisoner of war.
The previous year, in 1864, at the age of nineteen, she had faced the momentous decision of either watching her husband march off to fight for the Union Army, or dress like a man herself and accompany him.
A few days later she enlisted with him.
By the best estimates, more than five hundred women became soldiers during the Civil War. Some, like Florena, joined so they could be with their husbands, others were drawn by a variety of factors and perhaps even the supposed adventure of marching off to war.
While both the North and the South assumed that the War Between the States would be concluded in a few months time, we have the hindsight to know that it lasted a full four years. To date, almost as many casualties occurred during that war, as from all other wars combined in which Americans fought.
Among the casualties of the Civil War, were women like Florena Budwin.
After her husband was killed soon after enlistment, Florena was captured by the Confederates and sent to the South’s most notorious prison camp—Camp Sumter, or Andersonville as it was commonly known.
Prison camps existed on both sides and early in the war prisoner exchanges were facilitated. However, as the war dragged on, Ulysses S. Grant concluded that released southern prisoners would pose additional security threats and the exchanges were permanently halted for both North and South.
For prisoners like Florena, it meant the difference between possible survival and certain death.
While none of the prison camps, North or South, were a walk in the park, Andersonville became synonymous with almost no hope of survival. Completely surrounded by a 15-foot high stockade wall of Georgia pine, another barrier of logs was placed 12 feet inside the outer stockade. If any prisoner attempted to cross the inner barricade perimeter, he (or she) was shot on sight. The demarcation point became known as the dead-line; coining a new term in the America lexicon.
Prison camps in the North, like the infamous Libby Prison in Richmond, VA were fashioned from existing buildings, and used for barracks. But in the South, the prison camps were open stockades and prisoners lived in makeshift tents exposed to the elements. It was up to each prisoner to construct his own shelter.
Hastily built in January 1864 to accommodate 10,000 men, the Andersonville prison population would swell to 33,000 before the camp’s twelve-month life came to an abrupt end.
Florena was among the 33,000.
The location of Andersonville had been chosen as a prison site in the western Georgian hills because it was remote, surrounded by acres of timber, and serviced by a rail line. An added benefit was that a fresh running stream coursed through the property.
In theory, the stream could have been used for washing and drinking. But after months of a brutally hot Georgia summer and the arrival of 400 additional prisoners arriving every day, the water source soon became diminished. The little bit of the stream that continued to run became contaminated when Confederate officers housed upstream, used it as a latrine.
With virtually no hygiene or toilet facilities, diseases in the prison tent-city exploded. Food rations were scarce, housing was a series of tattered canvas tents, and dysentery (debilitating diarrhea) claimed more victims than any other diagnosis.
As the ugly war raged on, the Confederate Army sorely needed all sources of available food and supplies for their own troops. There was no surplus that could be spared for captured Federal prisoners.
By the late fall of 1864 when Union General W. T. Sherman tore across the South, the Commander of Andersonville Prison, Captain Henry Wirz, decided it would be better to transfer his prisoners to other camps, rather than let them be liberated by Sherman.
Florena Budwin, still posing as a male soldier, was shipped to the Florence Stockade, near Florence, South Carolina. She died there from pneumonia in January 1865—just a few months shy of the end of the war.
While the name of Andersonville Prison still retains its former notoriety, there were roughly 100 prison camps in the Civil War and the northern prisons held their own badge of infamy for the deplorable treatment of their Confederate prisoners.
Both sides harbored women as soldiers, and both sides harbored women as prisoners.
While General Sherman is remembered for his devastating March to the Sea, his troops carving a path of total destruction sixty-six miles wide from Atlanta to Savannah, he is also remembered for saying, “War is Hell.”
No doubt Florena Budwin and her 500 sisters would have agreed.