Date in History: 1845 – 1933
William Noel was born in a log cabin in the Koshkonong area on September 24th, 1845. After the Civil War broke out in 1861, an eager 16-year-old Noel ran away from home to join the Union troops. His dad tracked him down, however, and had to pay $125 to get him released. When he turned 18 Noel joined Co. E of the First Wisconsin Cavalry and fell in with General Sherman’s men on their southern campaign. On May 9th, 1864 he was captured and taken to the infamous prison camp at Andersonville in Georgia. Noel often spoke of his horrific Andersonville experience. The following excerpt is from comments he made for a 1927 article in the Milwaukee Journal.
“There were 11,000 prisoners inside the stockade when I went there. The enclosure was later enlarged from 15 to 25 acres and the number of the prisoners increased to 37,000. The conditions were almost indescribable, and I saw many of the men go insane. We were given very scant rations of coarse meal – cobs and all. We dug into the ground all over the enclosure for roots of trees. From the bark we brewed a weak tea, and used the remainder for fuel.
When we entered the prison our clothes were taken and we were given ragged garments and worn-out shoes. We never received any more clothes of any kind. When I left Andersonville at the close of the war I was wearing just two small pieces of cloth, held on by wooden pegs.
In the summer we nearly died from the heat and in winter we froze for lack of shelter. We dug holes in the ground in which we would lie in hot weather in an attempt to keep cool and which in winter sheltered us slightly from the cold wind.
We worked out a system whereby the holes were made large enough in winter to accommodate five men. We lay in them ‘spoon fashion,’ on our sides. Whenever one would get so cramped he had to turn over, he would call, ‘Left about face,’ or ‘right about face,’ and all would turn at once. The three center positions were always warmer, and we would change places occasionally, to keep those on the outside from freezing. When it rained these beds became mud wallows, and we had to fill them in and make new ones after the rain.”
The stockade was made of hewed logs, 10″” square and set 4’ in the ground. They extended 15’ high and had a platform near the top that was patrolled day and night. A deadline was marked a short distance inside the stockade and if any prisoners stepped over the deadline, the guards had orders to shoot.
“Some of the poor fellows crawled over the line in order to be shot and end their suffering. Others pretended they were dead when the ambulance wagons came around and were hauled outside, but they were always caught when they attempted to escape. The prison officials had a pack of 40 bloodhounds, trained to leap at the throat of a runaway, and but very few ever escaped them.
The dead were carried by their comrades to near the gateway in the stockade where the wagons came to take them away. I remember well helping carry two of my pals over there, one from Hebron and one from Fort Atkinson, who died on the same night from scurvy.”
During the 14 months the prison existed, more than 45,000 Union soldiers were confined here. Of these, almost 13,000 died from disease, poor sanitation, malnutrition, or exposure to the elements.
Near war’s end, after 317 days battling scurvy and starvation, William Noel began his slow trek home. He traveled to Whitewater by train and then walked the final five miles to his father’s farm in Koshkonong. He weighed 80 lbs.
“Father didn’t know me at first. I was barely able to drag myself over the doorstep, and it was a year before I was strong enough to do any work.”
When William Noel died in 1933 at the age of 88 at his home at 513 South Main St. in Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin said goodbye to its last Andersonville Prison survivor.
The following excerpt aired on the radio as an Historic Minute on 04/26/2004.
In the spring of 1864, a young 19-year-old Fort Atkinson soldier was captured by the Confederate army and shipped off to the notorious Andersonville prison camp in the swamps of Georgia. When William Noel entered Andersonville in May of 1864 he weighed a healthy 170 pounds. But 317 days of scant rations and bouts of disease had reduced Noel to less than 80 lbs.
At the war’s end, counting his blessings to still be alive, Noel began his long trek home. After catching a boat to Annapolis Maryland, and then a train to Whitewater, Noel slowly walked the final five miles to his father’s farm in Koshkonong. His family, who hadn’t heard from him in two years and had presumed him dead, was shocked to see him.
Surprisingly, despite this awful ordeal, William Noel lived to the ripe old age of 88, dying in 1933 as Wisconsin’s last Andersonville Prison survivor.