Thomas O’Dea was born in Ireland in 1848 and came to Boston as a young man. When the Civil War started he was adamant about serving and ran away, enrolling as a drummer in the Maine Infantry Volunteers. He continued in the war and was captured in May 1864 during the Wilderness Campaign in Virginia. After being moved from one prison camp to another, he was finally taken to the infamous Andersonville Prison, also known as Camp Sumter. The prisoner of war camp was located in Georgia and operated during the final 15 months of the Civil War. It was designed to hold 10,000 prisoners, but when O’Dea arrived there were 35,000 prisoners of war at the camp.
The severe overcrowding resulted in starvation, sickness and death. Forty percent of all Union POWs who died in captivity during the entire war died at Andersonville. O’Dea would have encountered a truly desperate situation at the prison, with insufficient food, polluted water and a near-complete absence of medical care. Capt. Henry Wirz, the Confederate commander of Andersonville, had a cruel disposition and a lack of empathy that led to the high death rates at the prison. He became the only Confederate commander convicted and executed for war crimes after the Civil War.
Thomas O’Dea was released in February 1865 and eventually returned to Boston in July. He was physically and emotionally shaken by his time at the camp and was heartbroken to discover that his family had disappeared without a trace. He searched in vain for 25 years to locate his sister and parents. He left Boston and settled in the town of Cohoes, Albany County, New York.
In 1879, O’Dea saw a picture of Andersonville Prison which showed a well-organized and clean camp. He dedicated himself to creating a true depiction. Although he had never drawn before, he picked up the skill quickly and with an apparent natural talent sketched in pencil a detailed and accurate image of the prison from memory. He produced a 4.5’ x 9’ bird’s eye view of the site as he remembered it.
O’Dea’s main image captured the despair, hunger, disease and death at the camp. It is surrounded by 19 separate scenes including the modes of punishment, execution of raiders, the line of dead at the gate and a shooting at the dead line.
The “dead line” was a demarcation inside the main stockade wall. It created a no-man’s land into which no Union prisoner was allowed to cross. Any prisoner even touching the “dead line” was shot without warning by Confederate guards who lined the stockade walls on platforms called “pigeon roosts.” Due to the extreme manpower shortages in the Confederate Army near the end of the war, the prison guards were often just young boys.
There were only two positive scenes in O’Dea’s sketch. One was an image of Providence Spring, a bubbling spring of fresh water revealed one night during a mighty thunderstorm when a bolt of lightning struck the ground. Providence Spring was a saving grace for many thirsty soldiers. The other image of hope was of Father Peter Whelan, known as “The Angel of Andersonville,” ministering to the prisoners. At the bottom right corner is a self-portrait of the artist, Thomas O’Dea.
O’Dea’s panoramic pencil sketch became an immediate sensation. He set up a business and ordered 10,000 lithograph copies of his work. He sold the lithographs for $5 a copy, but provided them to Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) Posts for a reduced rate. Astonishingly, O’Dea’s brother George saw one of the prints at a GAR post in Alton, Illinois, and it led him to an eventual reunion with Thomas.
One of the Andersonville prints was sent to Col. William Distin at the GAR post in Quincy. Destin had spent several months at the prison but was able to bribe a guard and escape in April 1865. Destin had the piece handsomely framed and it was displayed in the Whig newspaper’s office window.
Destin sent Thomas O’Dea a message. In the letter he said, “I have examined the picture very closely and can easily locate my ‘shebang’ where I whiled away most of my time…your picture is certainly the best and most natural representation of that horrible pen that I have ever seen.” (Shebang was a term used in the mid-to-late 19th century to describe a primitive dwelling or rustic hut. It was used by Walt Whitman in Specimen Days in 1862 and later in 1872 by Mark Twain in Roughing It.) The letter was printed in the Quincy Whig on Thursday, Nov. 10, 1887.
The Andersonville print framed by Colonel Destin later ended up at the Illinois Soldier’s and Sailor’s Home in Quincy, along with a wooden plate and a spoon used by Distin while he was languishing at the prison in Georgia. The Home donated the O’Dea lithograph and the wooden plate and spoon used by Distin to the Historical Society of Quincy and Adams County. The items are currently on display in the Visitor’s Center across the brick alley from the Governor John Wood Mansion.
In May 1914, the 50th anniversary of his capture, Thomas O’Dea spent a week at Andersonville, which at the time was operated by the War Department. He was surprised to learn that his print had been removed because many Southerners objected to O’Dea’s sketch being on display.
Thomas O’Dea died in 1926 and is buried in Saint Agnes Cemetery in Cohoes, New York. Today, the Andersonville site is a National Historic Site operated by the National Park Service: There are no longer any attempts to hide the unimaginable cruelty of the Civil War’s most notorious prison camp.
Distin, W.L. "Andersonville Prison." Quincy Whig, November 10, 1887, 6.
"How Andersonville Looks." The Quincy Daily Herald, April 20, 1899.
"Land Mark of the War." The Quincy Daily Herald, September 22, 1910.
McPherson, James M. Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 1848-1865. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988.
Perreault, Paul. "O'Dea's Famous Picture of Andersonville Prison." STORIES FROM MALTA'S PAST | Malta, NY - Official Website (malta-town.org)
"Wirz." The Quincy Whig, November 18, 1865.