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  • Writer's pictureGordon Thorsby

The Challenge to Survive for Pvt. John Levi Maile

by Gordon Thorsby

The history of the Eighth Michigan Volunteers is one of the greater stories in regimental histories. They were in just about every theater at some point in time during the Civil War. They were in South Carolina in the Spring of 1862 where they experienced possibly their worst casualties in the entire war. The regiment transferred north just in time to cross Burnside’s Bridge at Antietam and later participated in the Fredericksburg Campaign. They moved on to Vicksburg and Jackson and finished in time to move on to fight in the Siege of Knoxville. Other fights included the Overland Campaign, the Battle of the Crater, and even the assault of Ft Mahone and the end of Petersburg in 1865.

For John Levi Maile, he took a slightly different journey as a private of Company F in the regiment enlisting September 2, 1861 and from the small central Michigan crossroads of Hastings. He fought with his comrades in each battle escaping a scratch where others became victims of wounds, disease and death. Just as Knoxville ended, John re-enlisted for another three years and continued the fight. In May, 1864 he accepted an opportunity at twenty for a lieutenant’s commission in the 28th United States Colored Infantry and this is where his life changed.

He was awaiting the papers confirming his discharge and commission when on May 6, he was captured along with approximately 1000 other soldiers on the second day at the Wilderness, his regiment was hit in flank while the IX Corps was advancing toward the Orange Plank Road. He was enroute to a unknown Confederate prison somewhere when his papers for the commission arrived three days later on May 9. Comrades immediately wrote home of him being missing and of his likely death. Funeral plans began in earnest when the family received a letter from John mentioning his capture and that he was okay considering the situation. John noted that “all memorial plans were placed on indefinite hold.” (The ability to send a letter home was due to the kindness of a Confederate lieutenant.)

His march into captivity was extremely difficult. From the field, they were marched to the Orange County Courthouse, then 65 miles by cattle car to Gordonsville, then 95 miles to Lynchburg, the 75 miles to the southern border town of Danville prison where some prisoners were offloaded, then onto to Salisbury where more POW’s were offloaded at the overcrowded prison camp there and then final 480 miles further south and delivered May 23rd, 1864 to Andersonville Prison.

Maile wryly reported he did not receive the usual diet regimen he was used to so he decided to institute fasting that his new prisoner diet was much more conducive in supporting. In addition, Maile was able to add significant amounts of exercise in long unending marches without rest and water. He was less sarcastic when it came to the rail transportation. He recalled that boarding at Gordonsville, they were ordered into cars that had just been emptied of its load of cattle but what the cattle had left had not been shoveled out. Each car was packed 50-60 men inside each car and an additional 20-30 men had to hold on and ride on top. Maile reported that the men were fortunate because they arrived at night and were not stripped of outer clothing, pocket knives, cups, haversacks and other accoutrements. Meanwhile, back in Washington, Maile was discharged in August because he did not show up for his lieutenant's commission.

Maile described in his story how soldiers were served meals, of the rules of the dead line and the increasing scarcity of food and even more, water. He contracted scurvy, one of his cheeks swelled up on his face, his gums bled, teeth loosened and he felt increasing despondency that he would survive. All prisoners needed water. Maile very desperate decided to try something new.

The prisoner population mushroomed from fighting and slaves were brought in to expand and dig new walls. The old walls were falling apart and the wood from the walls were sold to the prisoners for those that had some money. Maile traded some of his food to be able to get enough wood and other materials to fashion a water bucket and so he was started harvesting a regular supply of water. He didn’t stop there. Others laughed when he first started his effort realized the benefit and bartered vegetables for Maile’s small water buckets. His scurvy lessened. He created a second product when the slaves in the nearby fields were having their shoes fall apart from natural wear and tear. He acquired by trade and barter materials like gum tree sap and other products to be able to perform she repair service. For that, Maile received sweet potatoes the slaves pilfered from their slaveowners' fields.

The war approached an end and the men of Andersonville were transported to Goldsboro, NC. In March, 1865, Federal cavalryman lined the road and wept while survivors of Salisbury and Andersonville walked by and for those that could not walk rode in ambulances. With tears in General Terry's eyes viewing the site, he ordered the camp to use every means to aid the suffering men. Suffering badly and unable to walk or stand, John Maile went trough additional infections, fevers, digestive failures, nightmares, reappearing skin lesions and other maladies as doctors and nurses tried to stabilize his situation. He had a maddening need to eat and the staff had to be careful to rebuild his diet slowly. Eventually, John did stabilize and fully recovered at Camp Chase, OH.

After the war, Maile became a doctor and went on to lecture at various professional and social gatherings, universities and other places interest in scars of war. He eventually wrote a book, “Prison Life in Andersonville with the Special Reference to the Opening of Providence Spring. In personal life, he married Angie Godsmack in Michigan and went on to raise seven children in the Los Angeles, CA area. John outlived his wife by thirteen years and died in 1934 at 89-90 years of age. The entire family, seven kids included, now rest in Forest Lawn Cemetery, in Glendale, CA .

John Levi Maile was built to survive the worst that life presented and he did very well., don't you think?


Prison Life in Andersonville… , Maile, John L., Grafton Publishing, 1912.

Historical Data Systems, Inc.: John L. Maile, 8th Michigan of Hastings, MI.

American battlefield Trust.

Sons of Union Civil War Veterans, John Maile.

Library of Congress.

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