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Private Abraham Dern in the Civil War

By Ed Bergh Jr

Abraham Dern

Abraham Dern enlisted in the cavalry on August 10, 1861. This was early in the war and he had not been repulsed by stories of war or reports of defeat. There was no draft yet. He lived in a border state. Maryland was a slave owning state that had remained in the union. Two generations before Abraham's birth his family had owned slaves, but that was distant memory. He owned no land. He worked on his brother-in-law's farm where he lived with his brother and mother. He became a member of the First Regiment Potomac Home Brigade Cavalry. Eventually this unit would be known as Cole's Cavalry. In the course of the next three years Abraham would see the Shenandoah Valley, the inside of a southern prison, and see a lot of horse rear end during his constant maneuvering.

A rather sympathetic account of Cole's Cavalry reported that the recruits for this unit were "loyal Virginians and Pennsylvanians from the border land; nevertheless, they were almost exclusively from Western Maryland." Abraham was living in Frederick County, Maryland. Continuing, "They were farmers' and planters' sons, mainly, in good circumstances, who owned good horses, which they brought with them into the military service. They were, in the main, young, unmarried men, intelligent, enthusiastic, accustomed to the use of firearms, of fine physique-in fact, the very best material for cavalrymen." Henry Cole was also able to recruit men by offering a bounty of $100 for each enlistee and promising $13 a month for clothing and a vague promise of "bounty land" after the war's conclusion. Abraham's brother, John, would enlist in a Maryland infantry outfit the following year.

Whether or not Abraham had a "fine physique," or was "intelligent and enthusiastic" is impossible determine. He was unmarried. It was true, however, he certainly was working on a farm.

Abraham Dern was a private in Company A. During his first winter in the unit he was stationed along the north bank of Potomac. He fought off the chill of the rain and the snow. He drilled with his unit and probably thought a lot about his home not very far away in Frederick County. That all changed in January when Gen. Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson dashed up the Shenandoah Valley from Winchester, Virginia. His goal was to cross the river at Hancock, Maryland disrupt Union communications just beyond the Potomac River.

Units defending the river crossing immediately sent for reinforcements. Private Dern and the rest of Company A raced to their aid. A forced march over the mountain ridge through snow and bitter cold brought them along the Potomac River crossing on January 7, 1862. Despite two days of shelling, Jackson, unable to find suitable conditions for crossing turned away and headed back down the valley. Cole ordered a detachment under the command of an officer named Vernon to follow Jackson down the valley and make sure the threat had subsided.

The next months were hectic for Cole's Cavalry. It was not unusual for them to cover 35 miles in a day. They skirmished with Confederate units up and down the valley. Dismounting, firing, "skedaddling," sleeping in the saddle, eating in the saddle, took Abraham a long way from his farm chores. Usually life in the saddle moved at a walk of four miles an hour, but situations sometimes dictated short bursts a maneuvering at a gallop at twelve miles an hour.

On March 2, 1862, Abraham and his company crossed the Potomac at Williamsport, headed for Martinsburg. Three days later in an encounter with southern units at Bunker Hill, Virginia, the unit tasted fire and captured prisoners. On March 7, they engaged the enemy between Bunker Hill and Winchester. In the latter encounter Cole's horse was shot from under him, some men were killed and a friend of Abraham's by the last name of Keedy, was wounded. Fighting "Stonewall" Jackson's highly mobile corps meant moving at a moment's notice. March 11 they fought at Stephenson's Ferry. The next day they charged the Confederate positions and helped capture Winchester. Then they rested for a week. They were to have left to join the maneuvering in eastern Virginia, but Jackson's attack on Union positions at Winchester caused a permanent delay in such plans. Now, part of Banks division, the cavalry stayed in the Shenandoah Valley into the fall.

In September, Lee was on the move. Dern and his fellow soldiers skirmished with southern forces near Leesburg. Both sides suffered dead, wounded, and missing. From there Cole's brigade dropped back to Harper's Ferry just as Confederate forces were converging on that strategic position. Gen. Miles, in command of the garrison at Harper's Ferry, ordered Cole to take his unit and determine "the character of the force marching on you." Confederates were attempting to take control of the heights that ringed Harper's Ferry. The fighting began in earnest at around 6:30 AM on the morning of the 13th. A battle of "great fury" was taking place and after two hours some Union forces were retreating. "The One hundred and twenty-sixth New York has given way and straggling through the woods. All of our forces are falling back," concluded a message to the command in the town.

Col. Thomas, of the 3rd Brigade warned, "The enemy are extending their lines from the top of the mountain down to the river." He urgently communicated shortly afterwards, "I cannot hold my men. The One hundred and twenty-sixth all run, and the Thirty-second Ohio are out of ammunition. I must leave the hill unless you direct otherwise."

The news was becoming bleak. Reports on September 14, stated "the enemy are planting batteries on the Loudoun Mountain." Soon there would be more batteries on Loudon Heights alone. "The cannonade is now terrific; the enemy's shell and shot fall in every direction; houses are demolished and detonation among the hills terrible. It is kept up until dark; our long-range ammunition is expended; only 36 rounds left," was the description of one after battle report. Harper's Ferry was surrounded. Or, was it?

On the evening of September 14, Union officers gathered to contemplate their fate. At what was characterized as a "stormy meeting, Col. Benjamin Davis, of the 8th New York Cavalry, argued that, "he didn't intend to hold his hands and wait for the inevitable." Members of Cole's brigade complained to their commander "that under nor circumstances would 'Coles' Cavalry surrender." According to another account, Cole offered to lead the troops through enemy lines. There was still a bridge to the north that might take a fast moving contingent (cavalry) across the river and past enemy lines once darkness had fallen. These forceful arguments by Cole and Davis won the day. "Special Order 120" was issued once the meeting broke up. It stated, [be] "Ready to leave at 8 o'clock without baggage, wagons, ambulances or lead horses, crossing the pontoon and taking the Sharpsburg road. Without loud noise or command." The men involved, from the 12th Illinois, Cole's cavalry, some Rhode Islanders, and the 8th New York, numbered around 1,300 men with horses. As evening approached they gathered near the Quartermaster's office in preparation for their escape. One soldier remembered that one of the garrison's sutlers, knowing all would be lost to the Confederates the next day, distributed extra rations of tobacco to those who wanted some.

As the sun went down, Davis, and a group of 25 troopers, with the help of, either a member of Cole's brigade, or a "Unionist" civilian, led the single file column onto the bridge. Dusk and the shadows of the surrounding hills obscured the trotting column of horsemen. The sound of hooves on the bridge, the neighing of horses, and the clanking of gear made no impression on the southern soldiers, undoubtedly exhausted from their days marches and attacks, nearby. Quickly the head of the column reached the other side and headed up the Sharpsburg road, right under the noses of McLaws division on the wooded heights above. The darkness on the north side of the river was memorable. One Union soldier described that night, "the only way was we could tell how far we were from our file leaders was by the horses' shoes striking fire against the stones in the road." Their luck held, but as the last troops made it out of Harper's Ferry, the lead contingent was a full ten miles ahead.

Two miles up the road Davis' men scattered some pickets and soon disappeared up the road towards the town of Sharpsburg, situated on Antietam Creek. Scouts discovered an improvised defensive position of an overturned wagon and some fence rails in the darkness ahead. Instead of engaging the enemy at that post, David ordered his men off the road and through the cornfields and pastures of the surrounding farms in attempt to outflank the position. Horses gave out, men were grabbed by comrades and pulled to their still moving horses.

Later the column captured a wagon train of ammunition intended for Gen. Longstreet's command. More importantly, sometime during the night, Abraham Dern, was captured. The circumstances surrounding this event are unclear. Maybe he was separated from his company in the dark. Perhaps his horse collapsed and he wasn't rescued by a passing comrade in arms. Certainly he wouldn't have agreed with one of the men on the march that night that "soldiering wasn't so bad, after all."

According to his records, Dern was captured on the 14th, but paroled the next day. The parole system has been explained in the following way: "Any prisoner not exchanged within 10 days of being captured was to be released upon signing a pledge not to take up arms against his captors until he had been formally exchanged for an enemy prisoner." The Confederates were on the move and had no time for prisoners that night. Abraham promised not to take up arms again and was released. The parole system was filled with problems for the opposing armies. "The system operated on the good faith of the governments and the accompanying governmental paperwork, and sometimes several months would pass before the paroled soldier would be notified that he had been exchanged. During that time, the lucky soldiers would be allowed to go to their homes and wait until instructed to rejoin their units. When the failure of exchanged soldiers to return to their units became a problem, Union parolees would sometimes be held in military custody in federal detention camps until exchanged." It is equally unclear when he rejoined his unit, but he undoubtedly missed the action the next day that became known as the Battle of Antietam.

Rejoining his unit Abraham was once more back in the saddle. The early winter saw the unit covering much of the same ground as the year before with engagements at Charlestown, Berryville, and Winchester in the first week of December 1862. On December 20, the Company A was on the receiving end of a surprise attack, but under the skilled leadership of Capt. Vernon, circled back around the Confederates and chased them for over four miles. They captured the leader of the Confederate force and returned to camp. Christmas, five days later, although in dreary camp surroundings, must have been a little sweeter to the participants of that previous week's combat.

Point of Rock, Maryland. Photo Ed Bergh Jr.

In the summer of 1863 Robert E. Lee moved north into Maryland. Crossing the Potomac at several locations his units headed for Pennsylvania. In the records of Cole's Cavalry there is noted a skirmish at Catoctin Creek and Point of Rocks, Md. on June at 17, 1863.

It is unclear the nature of the skirmish, but one thing is certain, Abraham was again captured. This time there was no quick parole. He was disarmed and sent south on what one of his fellow prisoners later termed "the long tramp." These prisoners were headed for Richmond's Libby Prison. Some soldiers taken prisoner at that time were loaded on trains at Staunton, Virginia. Whether Abraham was allowed such comfort is unclear, the "long tramp" phrase does not suggest rail travel.

Libby Prison, Richmond, Virginia Photo Ed Bergh Jr.

Roland Bowen, taken prisoner at Gettysburg a few weeks after Dern's capture, remembered, "The men could hardly be got along and a great many had fallen out exhausted. The guards would hallo: "You, Yanks, go along dare! get in ranks! doggon, you Yanks!" On the 17th, we reached Mt. Sidney, and on the 18th, Staunton; having marched in thirteen days 168 miles, over a turn-pike, the majority of the men barefoot, no blankets, and no hats in some cases. At Staunton, they took all the India-rubber blankets from the men, and on the 19th, we took the train for Richmond, arriving there on the morning of the 20th. Daylight, they marched us to Libby - 700 of us - and kept us three hours. While here, we got a ration of bread and meat (rather small), and one of the chivalry shot a Kentucky soldier, who was deaf, in the arm - since died - for looking out of the window. After this, they searched us; took all our money, writing-paper, haversacks, etc., allowing us only our blankets and caps."

Abraham Dern reached Richmond sometime that June. Libby Prison was a converted tobacco warehouse which had been home to prisoners, usually officers, since early in the war.

Events At Libby Were Often Reported in the Richmond Press

From the Richmond Examiner, 6/13/1863

"WOUNDED PRISONERS. - About fifty wounded Yankee prisoners were received at the Libby prison hospital yesterday, from Brandy station. Among them were First Lieutenant Edward J. Spaulding, Second United States cavalry; Second Lieutenant William Blanchard, Second United States cavalry; Captain William H. Sawyer, First New Jersey cavalry; and Second Lieutenant S. Weiser, First Maryland cavalry."

From the Richmond Dispatch, 7/8/1863

"Noisy. - On Monday afternoon last officer Adams arrested Margaret Barrett, a middle-aged woman, for attempting to force her way into the Libby prison to furnish the Yankees with bread, and for being noisy and disorderly in the streets. When called before the Mayor yesterday her tongue broke loose from its fastenings, and kept up such a continuous uproar and confusion that she had to be sent to prison before anything else could be heard."


From the Richmond Sentinel, 7/29/1863

"The Yankees at Prayers. - We learn that the Yankees confined at Libby Prison, among whom are one or two chaplains, are holding prayer meetings nearly every day. We should as soon expect the natives of the Fejee Island to unite in the adoration of the Most High, but there is no limit to the presumption of an unadulterated Yankee. Can anybody imagine a more shameless proceeding than the offering of a prayer to God by a man who has willfully and wantonly violated the commandants of Jehovah. Let the officers of the prison have written upon the walls thereof such part of the 21st verse 2d chapter of Romans as may be applicable to the chaplain and his hearers."

There is no record of Abraham Dern's particular experience at Libby Prison. In later years he wrote that he had been treated by a southern doctor when he contracted dysentery, but this may have been at his second stop at Belle Isle.

Belle Island

Belle Island had opened following the 1st Battle of Bull Run. Intended to hold 3,000 prisoners in its tent city, noncommissioned officers and enlisted men, the numbers usually ran well above that.

The Richmond Press Reports on Belle Island

From the Richmond Examiner, 5/16/1863

BELLE ISLE is again barren of Yankee prisoners, the whole number having been sent away Northward. The tents and camp arrangement will, however, remain for the accommodation

From the Richmond Examiner, 7/28/63

THE YANKEE PRISONERS, now in Richmond, number 4,300, of which number 3,309 are at the Belle Isle encampment. Several thousand were sent Northward last week. Very few additional prisoners were received yesterday from all sources. The Central train brought none, for a wonder. - The Gettysburg fountain of "blue bellies" has about run dry.

By leaving when he did Abraham Dern avoided much great suffering. One prisoner at Belle Island wrote, "Stormy and disagreeable weather. From fifteen to twenty and twenty-five die every day and are buried just outside the prison with no coffins- nothing but canvas wrapped around them." So wrote captured Union soldier John Ransom in his November 27, 1863, diary entry from Belle Island Prison. On February 11, 1864, the 20-year-old brigade quartermaster wrote that there was "a good deal of fighting going on among the men;" they were "just like so many hungry wolves penned together." Bands of predatory prisoners roamed the encampment, robbing their fellow prisoners of rations, blankets, and anything else they wanted.

In these prisons where the prisoners cooked their own food, the possession of a skillet or tin pail raised a man much above the level of his fellows. He might gain greater riches by charging rent, such as a share of everything cooked, or a button, a pin, a sheet of paper, or tobacco.

Belle Island, Virginia. Photo Ed Bergh Jr.

Another northern prisoner at Belle Island in August 1863 was Roland Bowen of Massachusetts. His descriptions of Belle Island provide a first hand account of the world that Abraham Dern entered when he was transferred to that facility.

Bowen estimated the number of prisoners there in August to be around 4,000.

According to Bowen, "Very seldom during my stay on the Island that all could get into tents. At times many hundreds had to sleep on the street and in the ditch with out a blanket or an overcoat. I say blanket or overcoat. They were half naked and would lay down 8 or 10 together like pigs just as close as they could get, in this way they would shiver out a part of the night, the remainder of wick they would walk the street."

"The silent hours of night are always broken by the dismal tread of a hundred shivering forms as they pass to and fro." (the spelling is his)

Abraham Dern's illnesses either continued at Belle Island or started there. Medical services were described this way, "The sick are much better taken care of than formerly; the [re] was a time when it was almost impossible to get a sick man out to the hospital. You might hear men at all hours of the day crying out Steward; Steward; I want to get a sick man out to the hospital, don't expect he can live but a short time. Answer. can't help it, have no room for him. Nine times out of ten this would be the answer. Yes, I believe nineteen out of twenty, and the poor wretch would be left to die without ever seeing a physician or having the first identical thing done to relieve him of his sufferings, until at last death relieves him of all his miseries.

The Hospital is a large tent and will accommodate twenty or twenty-five patients, when this is full they are taken over to Richmond. Sometimes this is not done for weeks, consequently no sick are taken out of camp. I think at one time the deaths in camp were from three to five daily, my only surprise is that the mortality under the circumstances was not greater."

The quality of the food was particularly strong memory of the soldier from Massachusetts. He wrote, "About 4 oc P.M. we get supper, the routine is about the same except that we get 6 buckets of soup instead of meat, more appropriately called slush or swill. Sometimes it is rice, at other beans, and once in awhile mush.

The beans are a very inferior kind, I think I never saw any like them before, they are very small and dark colored. It is said they grow wild in many parts of the South and are commonly called peas. I should never call them peas however.

The quality of the rice would be very good if they would pick it over, but the quantity, Lord. The mush would be very good if it was not for the absence of meal. I have seen many a pail of soup, say ten or twelve quarts, with less than a pint of beans or rice in them.

Sometimes for supper we would get a few miserable half decayed sweet potatoes. A few times we got potatoes and soup both at the same time.

Occasionally in the place of bread we got 3 hard tack and a little pork in the place of soup, with came from our lines. Very little of the provisions sent by our Government ever reached us, and when they did they were sparingly dealt out to us in place of Confederate rations. We expected to get a little extra when they should arrive but in this we were bound to be disappointed.

I have not mentioned the irregularity in our rations. This was a serious and shameful annoyance and I believe at many times inexcusable on the part of those in charge. It was not a rare occurrence that no bread would be brought over from Richmond and we would have to go without a particle of supper.

Our bread and meat was always very good, the meat however, was mostly fore quarters. This I suppose is owing to the beeves all having four legs, yet we would not find fault at that if they would only be a little more liberal with the quantity. When we used to get flour bread I think I never saw better wheat bread in my life. I think a majority of the prisoners prefer corn bread, especially those who have no money."

Abraham's dysentery was the result of the water supply. His fellow prisoner recalled "In consequence of the long accumulating [sic] filth the water is getting to be very disagreeable. Formerly we had about twenty small wells or holes from 4 to 8 feet deep with a barrel or barrels placed therein. These failed to furnish the necessary supply as the prisoners [sic] increased. Then 3 or 4 wells were dug in various parts of the camp and boarded up inside to keep them from caving in, but these barely do their duty. Recently we got water from the river, many of us drinking but very little water from the wells. The river water in cold weather is splendid. The Confederacy never furnished us with any soap or accommodations for cleanliness what ever. . . . The sink [latrine] is down by the river side. Formerly we were allowed to go out to it during the night. But some took advantage of this and swimming [sic] the river escaped, after wich [sic] the gate was closed at dark and no man allowed to go out. As there were 6000 prisoners [sic] on 3 acres of ground you must know that the condition of the camp in the morning must be filthy beyond description. They had men detailed to clean the camp every morning but it was not half done, much of the offal being covered up rather than carried away. And I think I may safely say that one fourth of the filth is never touched at all. Again the cleaning is neglected entirely for days a time. Should the prisoners [sic] be kept on Belle Island until the return of hot weather, the health of the camp will be in a terrible [sic] condition and the mortality fabulous."

In addition, there were lice. "Lice are a great pestilence. No one that has never been a prisoner can really appreciate the blessing of a change of clothing with a chance to wash the same. I don't deny being lousy when I went on to the Island, but I was not alive with them. I had been there but a short time before every crevice and seam in my few remaining rags were full of lice and nits. I used to pick lice from one to two hours a day, and then it was with the most utmost difficulty that I keep them in subjection. On the ground they could be seen crawling in all directions."

Fortunately for Abraham Dern the exchange system for prisoners was still functioning. Prisoners were exchanged on the following basis:

  • 1 general = 46 privates
  • 1 major general = 40 privates
  • 1 brigadier general = 20 privates
  • 1 colonel = 15 privates
  • 1 lieutenant colonel = 10 privates
  • 1 major = 8 privates
  • 1 captain = 6 privates
  • 1 lieutenant = 4 privates
  • 1 noncommissioned officer = 2 privates

Following their release from prison Abraham Dern and his fellow prisoners went to Camp Parole where they were tended to, provided fresh clothes, and fed while a determination was made concerning where to send them. From Camp Parole Dern returned to Cole's Cavalry.

Roughly a year following his release from prison Abraham Dern was mustered out of the army on August 19, 1864. On August 24, 1865, Abraham married Ann Reddick at the Pleasant Glade Parsonage in Frederick County, by Rev. Steiner.


The Co. was in action Md, Sept 12, 1862 & Cacoctin Creek, Md. June 17, 1863  Regret hospital records are not on file died April 29, 1887

War Department – Adjutant General’s Office  Oct 8, 1888

On rolls from muster to June 30, 1862.

Presence or absence not stated.  Returns prior to June 1862,

Roll of co. dated Oct. 31, 1862.

4 months muster report him absent, paroled prisoner at Annapolis, Md.  Same Dec 31, 1862  Feb 1863 present same to April 30, 1863,

May and June 1863 absent without leave. 

July and Aug 1863 paroled prisoner absent at Parole Camp, Annapolis. Sept & Oct. 1863

Same Feb 29, 1864. March & April 1864 absent.  Halltown Va., since Apr 29, 1864 returns May, June, and July 1864, do not report him absent.  Detachment muster out roll dated Aug 19, 1864.  Harper’s Ferry mustered out on that date