Thursday, January 1, 2009

Remembering Andersonville

Gustavus Gessner

72nd Ohio Volunteer Infantry

For those who knew him, Gustavus Gessner was a successful, dedicated physician, pharmacist, and businessman. But beneath Gessner’s calm, capable exterior lay haunting memories of suffering and death.

Two decades earlier, Gessner, then 16 years old, was among the first to answer Lincoln’s call for volunteers. So outstanding was his military conduct that soldiers of the 72nd Ohio chose him as color bearer. His daring escape at Shiloh, after being seriously wounded, convinced many that he was the bravest man in the regiment.

Soldiering changed for Gessner when, in the spring of 1864, the 72nd received orders to join General Samuel Sturgis’ expedition against Rebel troops led by Nathan Bedford Forrest. After a grueling forced march in stifling heat, the 72nd met the enemy at Brice’s Crossroads. Just as the Union was gaining the upper hand, orders came to withdraw. Although shocked and confused, the 72nd did its duty, covering the retreat of the troops and the cavalry who acted as Sturgis’ personal bodyguard. When ammunition gave out, the men of the 72nd ran for their lives as the Rebel cavalrymen chased them down. Only a third reached safety some 90 miles from the battlefield. The rest - including Gessner - were destined for Andersonville.

Ohio Monument at Andersonville by the Hughes Granite Company
Clyde, Sandusky County, Ohio

(Photo courtesy of Dr. Wallace Eberhard, 2008)

Gessner survived the starvation and torture of Andersonville, but he was witness to countless murders and the suffering of dozens of comrades. He blamed only one man – “the shameless drunken coward” - General Samuel Sturgis. When the war ended, Gessner went on with his life, but he could not forget. “Always,” he wrote, “there was a world of bitter memories filled with scenes of the horror and death of Andersonville - days of torture and nights of agony."

(Photo courtesy of Dr. Wallace Eberhard, 2008)

When Gessner learned in 1882 that Sturgis was appointed head of the National Soldiers’ Home in Washington, D.C., he was outraged. How could the man responsible for the imprisonment, suffering, and death of brave soldiers be allowed to oversee their care in their final days? It was a cruel irony, and Gessner was having none of it.

He launched a massive letter-writing campaign and published editorials in newspapers throughout the Midwest. He contacted former prisoners of war from Ohio, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, and Michigan, telling them that “we owe it to our dead comrades to expose Sturgis’ cowardice.” Hundreds of letters poured in from veterans, recounting Sturgis’ incompetence and their own sufferings. Gessner’s former comrade and business partner U. S. Congressman Dr. John B. Rice printed their letters and presented them to the House Committee on Military Affairs.

Sturgis was embarrassed and humiliated by the scathing testimony of veterans who had suffered because of the disastrous battle at Brice’s Crossroads. Seeking help from his superiors, Sturgis fought back, defending his actions and leveling sharp criticism at Gessner. A regular Army officer, Sturgis was too powerful and politically well connected for Gessner and his comrades. He kept his position, but remained forever tainted by the words of those who had suffered and survived - and would never forget.


Pat'sBooks said...

Hi Nan,
It's always god to see the Gessners remembered in print. The ironic thing about Gus and this part of his war experience is that he is not listed in the official Andersonville records!
Pat Dwyer

Nan Card said...

You are so correct. Gustavus Gessner was one of those splendid soldiers admired by his comrades. Most importantly, Gessner carried on the fight for his comrades who died in Andersonville. He was relentless in condemning Sturgis for the debacle at Guntown.