Dorence Atwater

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Dorence Atwater
DorenceAtwaterOval.png
Born (1845-02-03)February 3, 1845
Terryville, Connecticut
Died November 26, 1910(1910-11-26) (aged 65)
San Francisco, California
Nationality United States of America
Occupation Union Army soldier, merchant, entrepreneur, United States Consul to Tahiti
Spouse(s) Princess Moetia Salmon

Dorence Atwater (February 3, 1845 – November 26, 1910) was a Union Army soldier, merchant, entrepreneur, and United States Consul to Tahiti. He was born and raised in Terryville, Connecticut, the third child of Henry Atwater and Catherine Fenn Atwater. He was well-educated, and at 16 he joined the Union Army to fight in the American Civil War. In July 1863, Atwater was captured and found himself among the first batch of prisoners at Andersonville, Georgia. There, he kept a list of the dead and made a secret copy of his own, which allowed him, in cooperation with Clara Barton, to mark the graves of otherwise unknown soldiers. After persecution and prosecution by a small clique in the federal government, he was released from prison by President Andrew Johnson and sent to the Seychelles as a 23-year-old United States Consul. From there, he was sent to Tahiti to be consul there. He met and married Princess Moetia "Moe" Salmon, and was successful in shipping, pearl fisheries, and many other enterprises. He was a proficient businessman who worked with lepers and other charities and was beloved by the Tahitian people, who called him "Tupuuataroa" (Wise Man).

He died in San Francisco on November 26, 1910, and in 1912 his body was returned to Tahiti, where he was given the only Tahitian royal funeral ever to have been awarded a non-royal. He is buried beneath a 7000 lb. marker, next to his wife of 35 years.

Early life[edit]

Dorence Atwater was born in Terryville, Connecticut, in 1845, the third child of Henry Atwater and Catherine Fenn Atwater. As a child, he worked as a store clerk due to his fine handwriting and aptitude for numbers. His sister Fanny once said of Atwater's mischievousness, “Whenever he and I were playing at something we weren’t allowed, invariably I got caught while Dorr simply vanished into thin air.”

Entering the Civil War[edit]

Sixteen years old when the American Civil War broke out, Atwater listened to a Union recruiter of German nationality. Too young to serve, Atwater lied about his age and joined anyway. Although Henry hauled his disobedient son to Hartford to confess his lie, Atwater badly wanted to go to war. For over two years, he was a scout, delivered important messages, and was involved in many battles. He wrote to his father telling him how his outfit had taken out a bridge. “Imagine,” he said, “hundreds of men, each with his canteen full of turpentine. He pours out the turpentine as he gallops across the bridge, and last man across throws the lit match.”

Prisoner of war[edit]

One morning, Atwater was exercising his horse in the woods when he was captured by two Confederates disguised in Yankee uniforms. The battle at Gettysburg had just occurred. The prison named Camp Sumter, known to the prisoners as Andersonville and to Atwater as "hell itself," had just opened. Andersonville had a quota of 400 prisoners a day. They picked up Atwater on their way through Richmond, and he was among the first prisoners to be marched there. Atwater was ill when he arrived and was put into the prison hospital. Upon his recovery, his handwriting was discovered again and he was given the task of keeping the "Death List"—a list of those who had died at the camp. One copy was for the Confederates and one, he was told, would go to the Federal Government. He suspected the federal government would never see this copy and decided to keep his own list, hidden among the papers of the ones belonging to the Confederates. All the while, Atwater knew that if the prison leader, Captain Wirz, discovered what he was doing, he would be hanged.

Dorence Atwater.

When Atwater was released from Andersonville, the death list was completed. He dropped the huge list into his cotton laundry bag and walked through the Confederate lines with it.

The assassination of Lincoln and Henry Atwater's death[edit]

Shortly after Atwater arrived home, he pulled the Andersonville death list out of his bag and showed it to his father and siblings. There had been rumors that he had folded it and slipped it in the inner pocket of his coat. But as his brother Richard wrote, “First, the Union coats had no inside pockets, second, Dorence had no coat, and third, the huge, thick list was not folded.” Two days later, Atwater came down with diphtheria, typhoid, and scurvy. People rarely survived even one of these diseases, but Atwater did. Three weeks later, he was thin and weak but on the mend. He had just received a telegram requesting him to come to Washington D.C. and bring the list. On the train there, word came through that President Lincoln had been shot and was dying. Washington D.C. was in chaos, and Atwater was still quite weak. A telegram then came from home notifying him that his father, who had nursed him through his illnesses, had diphtheria and was dying. He returned home at the first opportunity. His father died that night.

After handling the funeral, Atwater returned to Washington to begin work as an intern. He was barely 20 years old. One day, he met Clara Barton, who had the means to mark the Andersonville graves but no names with which to mark them. Atwater told her what she needed to know. That visit was the beginning of a lifelong friendship between Atwater and Barton.

General service and court-martial[edit]

Atwater took the death list and traveled with Barton, Dr. James Moore, and forty-two headboard carvers to mark the graves. Upon his return to Washington D.C., he refused to reveal where his list was and was taken to be court-martialed. Clara Barton consulted with President Andrew Johnson, and Atwater received a general pardon. He later trained to be the U.S. Consul to the Seychelles Islands. The death list was printed by the New York Times. The federal government also printed a copy of the list.

U.S. consul to Tahiti[edit]

Moetia Salmon Atwater (1848–1935)

After three years, Atwater was sent to be Consul to Tahiti. There he met and fell in love with Princess Moetia Salmon, who had been educated in France and England. They were married in 1875. Princess Moetia, or "Moe," was the sister of Queen Marau, the second consort of King Pōmare V of Tahiti.

The Atwaters had a home in San Francisco as well as in Tahiti. Their San Francisco house stood on Market Street, and while they were vacationing in Mexico, the great earthquake of 1906 occurred. In order to create a firebreak, Market Street had to be demolished by explosives and with it, the Atwater home. In their house was the original death list, the one Atwater had copied at the risk of his life.

Death and legacy[edit]

Atwater, aged 65, died on November 26, 1910, in San Francisco.

Funeral of Dorence Atwater in Tahiti.

He was interred in San Francisco while the royals of Tahiti planned to have his body returned. Atwater was the first non-royal to be given a royal funeral in Tahiti. He was buried beneath a 7000 lb stone. On one side is carved “Tupuuataroa” (Wise Man). On the other side, the inscription reads, “He builded better than he knew that one day he might awake in surprise to found he had wrought a monument more enduring than brass.” Princess Moe died in 1935 at age 87 and is buried next to Atwater.

See also[edit]

References and additional reading[edit]

  • Safranski, Debby Burnett, "Angel of Andersonville, Prince of Tahiti: The Extraordinary Life of Dorence Atwater," Alling-Porterfield Publishing House, 2008, ISBN 978-0-9749767-1-6