A Doctor's Letters from Andersonville
by Jean Cleveland
A collection of five “very scarce” letters written by a Confederate physician at the Andersonville prison in the summer of 1864 have been given to the University of Georgia Libraries by Betty Traver of Greensboro.
“I met up with Dr. Credille, raised in Greene (County), who asked me to walk with him to the Yankee hospital,” Dr. John McKinney Howell wrote to his wife, Emma, on July 29. “I did so, and such objects in the way of men I never saw before. Sick and emaciated, naked, ragged and dirty – some on straw with a blanket under them – some without either – some that will die tomorrow, some today – some dying with another who face is turned toward him breathing his last. I saw too some awful cases of gangrene – cases where the flesh had been destroyed to the bone. But before you can imagine such pictures, you must first see some sufferings like these. I can give you no idea of them. In comparison an ordinary death is pleasant to contemplate.”
The doctor describes the physical condition of the camp and living conditions of the prisoners in great detail. “Howell describes several of his own daily duties among the sick prisoners and some administrative duties and observations, too, such as head counts and escape attempts,” said Frank O. Walsh, an antiquities dealer in Atlanta. “He remarks on news of invading Yankees in Georgia, with specific towns and battles. He mentions Captain Wirz, the camp commander. Also his food rations and housing and so forth. Howell’s remarks seem to the reader to bring the very moments he describes back to life, in some horrible way.”
Traver, Howell’s granddaughter, said the letters were passed down from her grandmother through family members. “They were just family treasures.”
Because of mail disruptions, Dr. Howell and his wife’s letters were often delayed and it is in the fifth and final letter in which he answers many of the questions from home – White Plains -- where his mother and wife were waiting his return with the Howells’ two young sons.
“Her letters to him were not preserved,” Traver said. “He was very ill most of the time he was down there. I heard stories (while growing up), but I never heard stories about Andersonville except they thought it ruined his health. He never practiced medicine again.”
Howell became the county school superintendent, called the commissioner of schools, but lost re-election because he wouldn’t join the Ku Klux Klan, which he found to be “un-Christian,” Traver said.
Image from the Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library Image Archive
He died the following year, 1889.
Howell and his brother joined the Confederacy in 1862 in Virginia. Among the stories she was told was of a “contest” held to see “who could get out of Virginia and go to the new place in Andersonville. I guess the idea was they weren’t getting shot at and could practice medicine instead of infantry.”
Howell makes mention several times of not having medicine for the prisoners. Traver has no way of knowing whether her grandfather was aware of it at the time, but Dr. Credille, the head of the hospital, later was sought for war crimes for selling the drugs; he escaped to France where he lived for years before returning to Greene County where he again practiced medicine. Traver said her grandfather’s letters have been used by an historian to prove the Dr. Credille in Greene Co. was the same person at Andersonville.
In his last letter, August 29, 1864, Howell writes that he has come to the last of his supply of “white paper.”
“This is my last page, dear, so I must soon bid you good bye,” Howell wrote. “I want to see you all very much and hope the time is not too far distant when I might be allowed that privilege. Is there not now some sign of promise? Whether there is or not let’s not pine but suffer and be strong. We have learned to labor and also to wait.”