George, an old friend of my husband’s, lost his father when he was just a teenager. He wanted to know more about his father’s family history and I offered my help. Going back a few generations, I found the story of Ezra Alger, who fought in the Union Army during the Civil War.
Private Ezra B. Alger was a member of Company I of the 7th New York Artillery, enlisting on December 16, 1863 in Hudson, New York. According to the New York State Military Museum website, the 7th New York Artillery Regiment fought at Spotsylvania Court House, North Anna River, and Totopotomoy Creek, Virginia in May of 1864, suffering over 200 casualties during that month.
The 7th then fought at the Battle of Cold Harbor, Virginia from June 1-12, 1864. They suffered 418 casualties there, either killed, wounded, or missing in action—including Ezra Alger. He was captured by the enemy on June 3, 1864 and was sent to the infamous Andersonville Prison at Andersonville, Georgia.
Andersonville is now a National Historic Site with a huge military cemetery. According to wikipedia.com, about 45,000 Union prisoners were kept on its 26.5 acres, and nearly 13,000 of them died of starvation and disease and were buried there. One Union soldier described arriving there like this: “As we entered the place, a spectacle met our eyes that almost froze our blood with horror… Before us were forms that had once been… stalwart men, now nothing but mere walking skeletons, covered with filth and vermin. Many of our men, in the heat and intensity of their feeling, exclaimed, ‘Can this be hell?’”
Wikipedia goes on to say that Andersonville was frequently undersupplied with food, and the prisoners suffered from hunger, exposure, and disease. The water supply was polluted due to overcrowding and poor sanitation, and the desperate conditions made some of the men turn to violent infighting.
In the autumn of 1864 after the capture of Atlanta, the surviving prisoners were taken to other, better prison camps, but it was too late for Ezra Alger. He never came home, and was reported to have died at Andersonville.
Ezra, who was a shoemaker, left a widow and ten children. In the 1870 federal census for Cohoes, Albany County, New York, his widow lives with nine of their children, and the six oldest work in a cotton mill—the youngest worker being only eleven years old. In 1880 she is a housekeeper and six of her children still live with her, all working to support the family. She died in 1888 at age sixty.
Historians are still arguing as to whether the high number of deaths at Andersonville were a result of incompetent prison officials, the general food shortages in the Confederate states, deliberate war crimes, or bad Confederate government policies. But at any rate, the commandant of the camp, Henry Wirz, was court-martialed and tried for conspiracy and murder after the war, found guilty, and hanged—the only Confederate official to be tried and convicted for war crimes.