Visions of Hell on Earth: Chatfield Story

Guest post from my cousins, Terry and Peg Chatfield-McCarty

The flood of memories, the details of countless events recalled at late evening fireside, the myriad of horrid private images never shared with anyone—we can only begin to imagine how this original O’Dea Andersonville Lithograph worked the mind of Kankakee’s Edward L. Chatfield from the 1885 date he bought it until his 1924 death at 82.

Edward Livingston Chatfield Apr 17, 1863

Edward Livingston Chatfield
Apr 17, 1863

Edward L. Chatfield was born 400 miles east of Kankakee—in Middlefield, Ohio, in 1842. He came to Kankakee as a 17-year-old, the eldest of seven, thriving on 172 acres of Pilot Township’s fertile soil. It was here in Kankakee that Ed honed his early skills in masonry—assisting his dad to build the Chatfield Stone House still standing eight miles west of town on Hwy 17.

Heeding Lincoln’s 1862 call for 300,000 three-year volunteers, Chatfield enlisted August 5, 1862, assigned to Co. B, 113th Illinois Volunteers. He regularly wrote home, maintaining three diaries while fighting in the Battles of Chickasaw Bayou, Arkansas Post, Vicksburg, and Brice’s Crossroads. He survived disease and imprisonment at Andersonville, Savanna, Millen, and Florence—all before he escaped! His letters and diaries tell the full story.

Un-cloaking this Lithograph in Arizona
The year was 1964. Peg’s cousin, Edaline (Chatfield) Rhea, had passed away earlier that summer. She was the only child of Edward Livingston Chatfield, the namesake of this book. Edaline had hidden something for safekeeping before she died, and the secret of its location was lost with her. The executor’s phone call invited Peg’s family to retrieve personal family items, and the two of us made the long hot drive from Los Angeles in earnest. ….

Against the back wall of the slender bedroom closet stood a rolled 40” x 60” lithograph of Thomas O’Dea’s famous picture of the Andersonville Prison—a bird’s eye view of the stockade and its surroundings, with perimeter pictures depicting prison events, including, in one of them, six men hanging from a beam. Thomas O’Dea, a captured private of Co. E 16th Regiment Maine Infantry, sketched the images from memory between 1879 and 1885. His original pencil sketch measured 4.5 x 9 feet. Chatfield’s lithograph copy had been etched on stone by T.J.S. Landis circa 1885, and distributed by Henry Seibert & Bros., a reduction measuring 39 7/8 X 60 ¼ inches.
~Terry McCarty and “Peg” Chatfield-McCarty, April, 2016

From Andersonville, visions of hell on Earth
 “Thomas O’Dea survived the harrowing conditions of the Confederate prison Andersonville before coming to Cohoes [NY] and sketching a famous drawing of the misery he endured there. O’Dea was a 19th-century Renaissance man who went from Irish immigrant to prisoner of war to labor leader to successful artist and businessman… [having created] an imposing 4 1/2-by-9-foot pencil sketch [of] Camp Sumter prison in Andersonville, GA, …the large bird’s-eye, panoramic view of the camp, along with 20 surrounding vignettes depicting disease, hunger and death within the prison’s walls.

Thomas O'Dea

Thomas O’Dea

O’Dea was a proud man who felt some of the first accounts from Andersonville inadequately captured its history. O’Dea started drawing in 1879 after seeing a report that portrayed the prison as orderly. He worked nearly six painstaking years, mostly at night after long days of laying bricks. His images of near-naked men in excrement, stacked dead bodies, and up to 35,000 desperate prisoners from August 1864 struck a nerve in the wounded nation, especially with veterans from the North. “It was the only visual that could express everything that had occurred in the camp,” Perreault said.

O’Dea sailed from Ireland with his family and settled in Boston as a young child. Turned away by the military as a 14-year-old, he ran away and joined the 16th Regiment of the Maine Infantry Volunteers in July 1863, about halfway through the war. O’Dea fought under Gen. Ulysses Grant in Virginia during the Battle of the Wilderness. He was captured in May 1864 and moved around Confederate prisons until he arrived at Andersonville in the summer of 1864.

Confederate forces built the prison in south central Georgia as their fortunes in the war sagged. The facility was meant to hold 10,000 men. Food and medicine were scarce, and the only source of water was a stream that also served as a bath and sewer.

Prisoners lived under the sun without barracks or tents. Order broke down. Roving gangs attacked and robbed other inmates. Those sick with dysentery, gangrene and other illnesses fell across the camp. Hungry Confederate officers stole food meant for prisoners. Nearly 13,000 prisoners died during the 15 months the camp operated.

O’Dea’s captors released him from Andersonville on Feb. 24, 1865. He left ill and emaciated, wearing only ragged trousers and broken shoes. He returned to Boston after months of recuperation, but his family had disappeared. He moved to Cohoes in the early 1870s and worked as a mason. He was elected general secretary of the Bricklayers and Stone Masons Union of America and the Cohoes Board of supervisors.

In the following years, Andersonville bombarded the nation’s psyche through photos and novels, but most of all, O’Dea’s drawing. Included in it were portraits of himself and Father Peter Whalen, a Catholic priest from Ireland who ministered to all at Andersonville. The poster became such a success that O’Dea set up a business and sold 10,000 lithograph copies for up to $5 each.

Thomas O'Dea Lithograph of Andersonville Prison

Thomas O’Dea Lithograph of Andersonville Prison

By 1887, the mason worker had moved from Summit Street in the town’s mill section to the more fashionable Walnut Street, and listed his job as “author and proprietor of O’Dea’s famous pictures of Andersonville Prison.” Reprints flourished across the nation and became the inspiration for poems. A copy of the drawing eventually landed in Aurora. Ill., which led O’Dea to reunite with his brother George after 25 years. He never found his sister or parents. O’Dea returned to Andersonville for a week stay in May 1914, the 50th anniversary of his capture. … O’Dea and his wife, Catharine McGuinnes O’Dea, had five children. Thomas O’Dea died March 18, 1926, and is buried with his wife and four of their children in St. Agnes Cemetery.”
(Excerpts–“From Andersonville, visions of hell on Earth,” by Dennis Yusko, crediting Paul Perreault, Malta Town Historian, for the story., May 6, 2012

The Chatfield Story FAGFrom Terry and Peg Chatfield-McCarty: Catherine, here’s the news on Ed Chatfield’s treasured documents:
1. Chatfield’s Civil War letters—more 100 original letters and related artifacts largely presented in The Chatfield Story—moved from our guardianship to that of San Marino California’s Huntington Museum on December 22, 2015, bolstering the Huntington’s impressive collection of correspondence from the common soldier. It was difficult to part with these treasures after having guarded them for fifty-one years, but we were thrilled with the knowledge that they are now preserved for the long-term and can viewed by the inquiring public for centuries to come.
2. Likewise, Chatfield’s personal original copy of the impressive O’Dea Lithograph of Andersonville—the notorious Georgia Civil War Prison Camp—transcended to the guardianship of Illinois’ Kankakee County Museum on April 19, only days ago. Again we are thrilled that this important piece of history is now assured prolonged protection and frequent public viewing.

Thomas O’Dea 1848 – 1926, Find A Grave memorial page
Edward Livingston Chatfield 1842 – 1924, Find A Grave memorial page
The Chatfield Story, by Terry M. McCarty and Margaret Ann “Peg” (Chatfield) McCarty

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  1. Wow. Kudos to the artist O’Dea and your ancestor Chatfield for faithfully recording – and surviving! – these horrors, through drawing and letter writing. We all need to be reminded of the stupidity of war and man’s cruelty to his brothers. Thanks for sharing this!

  2. This piece struck a deep chord within me. Such a fascinating personal look at Edward and then tying his story to O’Dea’s lithograph. I deeply feel we as genealogists must attempt to tie our ancestors to the history and times in which they lived. It is not always easy to dig out these stories but when someone does the bond to that ancestor and their real life struggles makes them come to life.

    • Linda, If you’ve not read the CHATFIELD STORY, you might. I laughed, cried, was awed, and deeply puzzled as to why, with all physical hardships men suffered, they rejoined, every time. It is an excellent read.

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