Abner Small of Waterville, Maine, narrowly evaded capture at the Battle of Gettysburg, only to be taken prisoner of war 13 months later.
He was first incarcerated in Richmond, Va., at Libby Prison, infamous for overcrowding, malnutrition and disease. He survived his ordeal and was exchanged for Confederate prisoners in time to lead his regiment in the last days of the Civil War.
Battle of Gettysburg
Abner Small was 25 years old when he enlisted in the Maine 3rd Infantry Regiment on June 4, 1861, according to the Maine Historical Society.
He was mustered out of the 3rd Maine and commissioned an officer in the newly formed Maine 16th Infantry Regiment, famous for its heroism at Gettysburg. The regiment’s delaying action on June 1, 1863, allowed the retreat of 16,000 Union Army troops, but at a dreadful cost. More than 200 were killed, captured or wounded. Only 38 lived to fight another day. Abner Small was one of them.
After the battle, he wrote how the men of the Maine 16th prevented the Confederates from capturing their flags – the regimental flag and the Stars and Stripes — as they overran what was left of the regiment:
“For a few last moments our little regiment defended angrily its hopeless challenge, but it was useless to fight longer. We looked at our colors, and our faces burned. We must not surrender those symbols of our pride and our faith.” The color bearers “appealed to the colonel,” Small wrote, “and with his consent they tore the flags from the staves and ripped the silk into shreds; and our officers and men that were near took each a shred.”
He won special notice for his bravery during the battle.
Battle of Globe Tavern
Thirteen months later on Aug. 18, 1864, Abner Small was captured south of Petersburg, Va., at the Battle of Globe Tavern. After he suffered through Libby Prison, he was taken to Salisbury in Rowan County, N.C., then Danville Prison in Danville, Va.
“Our condition is humiliating, degrading & almost unbearable,” he wrote in his diary on Nov. 17, 1864. He complained of cold, hunger, filth, vermin and illness.
Money helped. The prisoners sold their possessions for Confederate scrip, which they exchanged for food. Small sold his watch and shared the proceeds with his men. Not all officers were so generous. Small complained about those who simply looked out for themselves.
I am sick & hungry & can borrow no money
have no money – by no money neither
can I find the virtue called charity
On Aug. 19, 1864, Abner Small wrote in his diary:
Captd (captured) on 18th with Capt. Conley, Lieuts. Broughton
& Chapman. Confined in lockup (negro prison) with E M (enlisted men)
until 11 A.M. 19th. Moved to island in Appomattox river
Sold watch for 150$ Confed. Scrip. Watkins scout
gave me 10$. While in Petersburg I gave
Lieut. Chapman 20$, Lieut [name erased] 10$
Wrote to Col T [Tilden]
Abner Small then spent six months in Confederate prisons.
On Feb. 15, 1865, incarcerated at Danville, he learned he and the other prisoners would be exchanged for Confederate prisoners. “The welcome intelligence has at last arrived!” he wrote. “[W]e leave for Richmond for ex[change] on Friday & Saturday. 3 cheers were given…”
The first 200 men in alphabetical order left the prison by railroad on February 17. Small got no sleep that night. He then left the next day, arriving at Libby Prison in Richmond, Va., at 2 p.m. on February 18. The next day, “Enjoyed luxury of hot coffee milked and sugared!” he wrote.
Not until February 22 did he win his release.
Left the southern hell
at 8 A.M. placed our
feet on God’s soil near
Cox’s landing 10 A.M.
got sight of Stars & Stripes
at Aiken’s landing at
11:30 — Left A L [Aikens Landing] in “Geo.
Leary” at 1:30 P.M.
Ham white bread and coffee
issued — 1/2 ra [ration] whiskey.
On February 24, he received $233 for his service during December and January.
Twenty-one years later, Abner Small wrote a history of the Sixteenth Maine Regiment in the War of the Rebellion. He married right after the war and then married again after his first wife died. Small and his second wife had two sons, and he worked as head bookkeeper at the Dunn Edge Tool Co. He became the company’s treasurer, then clerk and eventually corporate officer of the Somerset Railroad.
He died in Oakland, Maine, in 1910.
With thanks to mainememory.net. Photo Detail of Libby Prison by Alexander Gardner. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons. This story was updated in 2022.