Carolina Traditions: The fascinating history of Florence's role in the Civil War

Carolina Traditions: The fascinating history of Florence's role in the Civil War
Published: Feb. 1, 2018 at 12:40 AM EST|Updated: Feb. 1, 2018 at 10:04 AM EST
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FLORENCE, SC (WMBF) - Many people have heard of Gettysburg, Chancellorsville, Vicksburg and Bull Run. The names of towns that played host to the most violent and dramatic parts of the Civil War are well known.

But Florence, South Carolina isn't really thought of for its involvement in the war.

In fact, while northeastern South Carolina didn't see many battles and Sherman's Army didn't torch homes in that area, the Pee Dee was home to a prison stockade with conditions as bad as those at Andersonville.

The city of Florence wasn't incorporated until decades after the Civil War. But just as it's now the site of the intersection of Interstate 95 and Interstate 20, so in the mid-1880s, it was where main transportation routes came together, and a town was planned around the intersection of three railroad lines.

It was that rail access that led to Florence being chosen by the Confederacy as the location for a prison to house captured Union soldiers.

"A lot of people are familiar with Andersonville, but are not familiar with Florence." Stephen Motte, the curator of interpretation and collections at the Florence History Museum, said regarding why the Florence prison stockade was necessary. "When Sherman's troops were coming up northward through Georgia, there was a great fear amongst the Confederate Army that they would be set free. They were looking for sites to build a new stockade that would take the place of Andersonville. Florence was ultimately the site they selected."

Civil War veteran John Wales January, who was held at the Florence prison stockade, wrote about his journey there.

"I was captured by six rebel soldiers, sent to Andersonville, and there kept until the fall of Atlanta made it necessary for us to be removed. I was taken to Charleston, S.C., remained here ten days and was taken to Florence, S.C., where we passed the winter of '64-5." January wrote.

Like the infamous Andersonville, conditions at the Confederate prison in Florence were horrendous.

"It was probably as close to a living nightmare as there can be," Motte said. "There were not adequate rations, so they weren't eating, so they were just skeletal, right. There was no medical attention given to them."

These conditions led to extreme cases like that of January, who was a teenager from Illinois when he was captured and eventually sent to the Florence prison stockade. There, he got gangrene in both his feet.

After the war, January wrote: "The surgeon, with a brutal oath, said I would soon die. But I was determined to live, and begged him to cut my feet off, telling him if he would do that I could live. He still refused and, believing that my life depended on the removal of my feet, I secured an old pocket-knife."

Motte explained what happened to January.

"In order to prevent the infection to spread to the rest of his body, he used a homemade pocketknife and literally cut off his own legs, to avoid dying, to prevent his own death," Motte said.

Amazingly, January survived.

"At the close of the war I was taken by the Rebs to our lines at Wilmington, N.C., in April 1865," January wrote, "and when weighed learned that I had been reduced from 165 pounds (my weight when captured) to 45 pounds.  Every one of the Union surgeons who saw me then said I could not live; but, contrary to this belief, I did, and improved."

Thousands of prisoners didn't survive the Florence stockade, however, and were buried in mass graves in what is now the national cemetery.

Set apart from most of the older gravestones in a large field is one that honors a particular prisoner of war—Florena Budwin, thought to be the first woman buried in a national cemetery.

"In what is probably the most romantic story of the Florence stockade," Motte said Budwin "disguised herself as a man and snuck into the Andersonville prison to be with her husband"

Some historical records indicate her husband was killed by a guard at Andersonville, but Budwin was transferred to Florence, still in the disguise of a male soldier.

"Later, of course, she got sick, as so many people did," Motte said. "She was taken to the stockade hospital, and the doctors discovered that she was indeed a woman. And she was then kept separate from the men. And she was a nurse, she became a nurse that assisted the doctors at the stockade hospital until she became sick once more and died."

While the families who lived near the stockade likely had sons, brothers and husbands fighting in the Confederate Army, they couldn't ignore the dismal conditions of the Union soldiers at the prison.

"There were a lot of local residents who felt so badly for the prisoners that they would take food over there and throw food over the stockade walls," Motte said.

While all that remains of the prison stockade now is this field of gravestones and some signs marking where thousands lost their lives, the stories of their bravery and the kindness of strangers remains.

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