November 5, 2012
A Miracle in Andersonville Prison Saved POW David Earley's Life
While I’m on the subject of miracles, and with Veterans Day coming up, I thought I’d share a miracle involving a veteran. The young man was named David Earley and grew up in Mottville, St. Joseph, Michigan, the oldest son in a family of 6 children.
David Earley must have been anxious to fight in the Civil War. In September 1862, when an infantry group came through nearby St. Joseph, Michigan, he lied about his age and enlisted in Company D 25th Michigan Infantry as a Private. He said he was 19, but later admitted he was only 15 years old. His mother tracked him down in Louisville, Kentucky a few months later and had him discharged on December 12, 1862. Somehow she got him an honorable discharge for disability. He was home for Christmas, but still restless. David later testified, “I was in Co D 25th Mich Infantry. Served in said regiment about  months, was discharged for disability, was only 15 years of age. My mother got me out of the service on Disability.” Just after his birthday in September 1863, he enlisted again, this time with Company H of the 1st Michigan Sharpshooters. In the intervening time, he had learned how to shoot!
His regiment first served in Chicago, then joined the Army of the Potomac in Annapolis, Maryland. David fought with his regiment at Spotsylvania, Virginia in May of 1864. That engagement left many dead and wounded. Soon after, David and his regiment were involved in the siege of Petersburg, Virginia that began in June 1864. During the bloody assault on the city on June 17, 1864, David was captured by the Confederate Army. He was marched with the other prisoners of war to Andersonville Confederate prison in Southern Georgia.
Andersonville was little more than a large-scale open-air chicken coop. Tall timbers enclosed an area teeming with tattered soldiers. Guards on turrets shot at anyone going within a 20 foot fenced buffer near the wall. David Earley, like the other prisoners, had only what he carried in with him to help him survive. Almost 30,000 people were kept in this 26 acre compound when he arrived. That amounts to just a few square feet per person. It was cold in the winter and muggy hot in the summer. They camped in make-shift tents in groupings by state. Michigan soldiers camped on the northern rise. Adding to the hazards, desperate roving thieves terrorized the prisoners in gangs.
The worst part of living there was the lack of food and water. The south was low on food, there wasn’t much to offer to the prisoners. And by the design of the prison, the only water coming into the compound flowed in from the upstream barracks and animal pens of the Confederate officers. It was terribly polluted before even entering the camp. The polluted water spread dysentery; a poor diet caused scurvy. Both of these diseases affected David Earley. Disease and malnutrition killed over 12,000 soldiers interred there, and reduced the others to skeletons. David Earley recalled, “I contracted scurvy and diarrhea caused by poor and insufficient food, lack of shelter and poisonous water taken from its swamp.”
The stream that flowed into camp nearly ran dry in the hot summers of Georgia. Getting to the stream, prisoners had to wade knee-deep into the swamp surrounding it. A bridge was built leading to the center of the stream, with ‘latrine holes’ along one side. So many prisoners needed fresh water that the soldiers took to praying for rain. They prayed often for rain to wash out the river and dilute the waste. And often after prayer, it rained.
A miracle occurred after the largest group of Christian prisoners had prayed for rain in August 1864. Prison population now had topped 33,000, and 3000 were dying monthly from disease. That’s roughly 100 deaths per day. The believers vowed that they wouldn’t stop praying until the rain came. They prayed most of the day. Later in the day, clouds formed above the camp. Lightning flashed and struck near the camp. With so many people crowded together, the first miracle was that no one was struck. The bolt struck the earth on a hill just outside the outer wall, near where the stream entered the compound. Fresh water erupted from the hole and flowed freely into the camp under the timbers, rushing downhill until it took out the wall and washed out the polluted stream. It cleaned out the swamp completely. One prisoner remarked, “When the almighty cleans house he puts housekeepers to shame.” Men crowded around the fresh water pouring in, gulping in water and praising heaven. This spring remained active for the remainder of the war, providing a small amount of fresh water to the prisoners. They named it ‘Providence Spring.’ It may have been what kept David Earley alive.
Near the end of 1864, most of the prisoners were moved to a new facility at Millen, Georgia when Sherman was marching toward Savannah. Those too weak to be moved stayed. Conditions eased at Andersonville as the population decreased. When David could travel, he was moved to NE Ferry near Wilmington, North Carolina, where he was paroled on February 26, 1865. He spent the next several months in hospitals in Maryland before he was sent to a hospital in Ohio. He weighed just 63 pounds! At 5’ 3” tall, he would have looked like a walking skeleton. He was discharged from service there in Camp Chase, Ohio in July of 1865, and sent home to his family in Constantine, Michigan.
Comrade in the prison camp Samuel Plank (of Co H 13th Michigan Infantry) said, “Earley was there a mere skeleton and most dead from scurvy and diarrhea.” After David came home, neighbor Wesley Leckner said, “He could barely walk. He was unable to do any labor. I didn’t think he would live.”
But live he did. Slowly he regained his strength, although he could never rid himself of the disease of the mouth and the chronic diarrhea. Eating was difficult without any teeth, and what he could eat didn’t agree with him. He was just a young man when he enlisted; he was like an old man, sick and disabled just a few years later when he was discharged. He truly had given his healthy life and future for our freedoms.
The miracle of Providence Spring may have saved David’s life. It is tangible evidence that God hears and answers our prayers. And after reading so much about how hard it was to survive in Andersonville, that David survived is a miracle too. He even grew 4 inches taller after his discharge and recovery.
I am grateful for David Earley and for all the other veterans. Many of them made great sacrifices so that we could have the liberty we enjoy today. I am proud to claim David Earley as a part of my extended family.
I recommend a visit to the Andersonville National Historic site where one can walk where these soldiers were held captive. There is now a marble monument at the head of Providence Spring, which still produces fresh water. Other monuments dot the now grassy lawn where soldiers once only had a few square feet in which to live. I walked the spot where the Michigan soldiers camped. The visitors center honors all POW's from all wars with artifacts and a touching video with interviews of POW's.
David Earley’s pension files #453331, marriage certificate, obituary, Soldier's Home records, etc.
Illustration courtesy of John McElroy’s memoirs of 1879.
Burnett, William G. “The Prison Camp at Andersonville.” National Park Service Civil War Series. Eastern National Pub, 1995. Print.
Civil War Academy.com. "Civil War Timeline" 4 Nov 2012. n. pag. web.
Cree Vicar Dave. “Providence Spring—A Miracle at Andersonville.” Sucker Creek Saddle and Gun Club. 4 Nov 2012. n. pg. web.
Hickman, Kennedy. American Civil War: Andersonville Prison. 4 Nov 2012. n. pg. web.
Pierce, Byron Root. Civil War Regiments From Michigan, 1861-1865 "1st Michigan Sharpshooters Regiment" n. pag. web.