Sunday, July 28, 2013

My Ancestors were Prisoners of War ~ Just like on “Who Do You Think You Are?”

Samuel Mears
GAR member
Beverly, Massachusetts

I was fascinated with the opening episode of the 2013 season of “Who Do You Think You Are?” on TLC last week.  When Kelly Clarkson found out her ancestor was a prisoner of war, I was jumping up and down yelling out “Me, too!”    I wonder how many Americans did the same thing?  Do you have prisoners of war in your family tree?

Over the years I've found the following eight prisoners of war in my family tree:

 1.       William Munroe (1625 – 1718) My 7th Great Grandfather was a Scotsman, captured at the Battle of Worcester during the English Civil War.  He was sent on a prison ship in 1650 to be auctioned off as a servant in Boston, Massachusetts.  His descendants lived in Lexington, Massachusetts.

   2.    Johann Daniel Bollman (abt 1751 - 1833) My 4th Great Grandfather was a Hessian soldier.  At the Battle of Saratoga he was captured, but since he was an officer and a surgeon he was exchanged quickly.  He removed to Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, which was a German settlement, married a German widow, and left many descendants in Canada and the United States.

   3.    Levi Younger (1786 - 1858) My 4th Great Grandfather was a mariner from Gloucester, Massachusetts.  He was "impressed" during the War of 1812, and offered himself up as a prisoner instead of doing service for the British.  His father, (4) Levi Younger, my 5th Great Grandfather, was also captured as a seaman during the Revolutionary War and sent to New York on a prison ship. He was kept at Forten Prison in Portsmouth, England. He was released during a prisoner exchange.  This was a very lucky father and son!
5. William Stacy (1734 – 1804) My 2nd cousin, 7 generations removed, was a shoemaker from Gloucester, Massachusetts.  He served in the militia during the American Revolution and was taken prisoner by Indians in Cherry Valley, New York in 1777.  He was a prisoner for four years, survived the war and went to Marietta, Ohio in 1788 with most of his children.

6.   Moises Rojo (1902 -1936) is my husband's Grandfather.  He was captured as a civilian (not a combatant) during the Spanish Civil War for unknown reasons.  All the men who had been rounded up were imprisoned in a wine cellar beneath the streets of the city of Aranda de Duero, in Burgos, Spain.  One day in 1936 they were taken to a forest, executed, and buried in a mass grave.  

7. John Ross Roberts (1925 – 2003) My father’s first cousin was a nose gunner of a B-17 Liberator in WWII.  He was captured on 28 February 1945 and served the duration of the war a prisoner of war in Germany.

8. Rufus Elvin Mears (1841 – 1864) My 3rd Great Grand Uncle, brother to Samuel Mears (1823 – 1904), my 3rd Great Grandfather.  Both brothers served the Union in the Civil War. Rufus was 21 years old when he enlisted in the 39th Regiment, Company A, under Colonel P. S. Davis and Captain George S. Nelson.  He was in the Battles of Mine Run, Wilderness, Spotsylvania, North Anna, Tolopotomy, Bethesda Church and Petersburg.  He was taken prisoner at Wheldon Railroad on 18 August 1864, and died in the rebel prison at Salisbury on 26 October 1864.

It was the story of Rufus Elvin that I remembered most when I saw the TV show WDYTYA.  The story of the suffering at Andersonville Prison is notorious, but I remembered researching the Salisbury Prison years before this television show aired.  I was horrified then at the conditions, and those memories all came back to me when I saw the TV show.  

The Salisbury Confederate Prison was built in 1861 after the first battle of Bull Run at Manassas.   Prisoners from that battle joined Southern political prisoners, conscientious objectors and Confederate deserters. The prison was an old cotton mill with a large yard.  At first conditions at Salisbury prison were tolerable, but when it became overcrowded and there were no supplies to feed the prisoners, the conditions deteriorated.

In the stockade there was a creek that supplied water to the prison.  The lower end was a latrine.  In those days they didn’t know that bacteria could flow upstream to the area where the prisoners took drinking water.  You can imagine what happened next…

Many of the prisoners who died were buried outside the walls of Salisbury Prison, which became the Salisbury National Cemetery.   11,700 Union soldiers are buried in 18 trenches, each 240 feet long.   These mass graves are now marked by a head and foot stone for each trench.

At the end of the war, the prisoners from Salisbury had all been transferred to other places.  The Union forces burned the prison, and the commander, Major John Henry Gee, was tried for war crimes and found innocent.  The commander at Andersonville, Major Henry Wirz, was found guilty and hanged.

It is sad that young Rufus Mears died at Salisbury Prison, and exciting for Kelly Clarkson that her ancestor escaped Andersonville and lived a long life and left descendants.  My 3rd Great Grandfather, Samuel Mears, the brother of Rufus, was a proud member of the GAR for the rest of his life.  His portrait still hangs in the GAR Hall in Beverly, Massachusetts. (see above)

For more information:

Salisbury Confederate Prison Association

Wikipedia article on Salisbury Prison

Salisbury National Cemetery, Salisbury, NC

Wikipedia article on Salisbury Cemetery

The GAR Hall, Beverly, Massachusetts 

Copyright 2013, Heather Wilkinson Rojo


  1. As I read through your list, I was wondering why I didn't see the Civil War, and there it was at the end! So many (maybe just about all!) of those Civil War prisons are notorious for overcrowded and unsanitary conditions. I'm re-watching Ken Burns' documentary, where I'm reminded again that 2 men died of disease for every 1 man dying on the battlefield in the Civil War. There is no excuse for the prisons, but that's the way it was. Terrible.

  2. Hi Heather-- my 3rd great-uncle Daniel Mace, who married your distant relative Mirinda Wilkinson, was a POW at Andersonville too... didn't you love how they showed the grounds? I have one other known POW relative, this one a direct ancestor: Ensign Johann Julius Specht, of Brunswick, Germany, who was sent here to fight with the British during the War for American Independence. He got wounded and captured early on near Bennington, and spent the remainder of the war as a prisoner. After it ended, he was released; rather than go back to Germany, he settled in New Brunswick, Canada and settled down, raising a large family.

    1. Hi Karen! I forgot we had the Mace/Wilkinson connection. And you have a Hessian, too. That's fun to research. Have you found the Johannes Schwalm Historical Society helpful?

    2. I haven't heard of the Johannes Schalm Historical Society-- I assume it's for descendants of Hessian soldiers? Will have to check it out-- thanks!