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Florena Budwin (died January 25, 1865) was an American woman who, during the Civil War, disguised herself as a man and enlisted in the Union Army with her husband.
They were both captured and confined at Confederacy's most notoriously brutal prisoner of war concentration camp, Andersonville, where her husband died. She remained at Andersonville until it was threatened by Union forces, and was then transferred to the Florence Stockade in Florence, South Carolina. Less than three months before the end of the war, her gender was discovered by a doctor when, during an epidemic, she became ill, and eventually died. As a result of her wartime service and ultimate sacrifice, she became the first woman to be buried in a national cemetery.
- Sifakis. Who Was Who in the Civil War, page 86
- Blakey, Arch Fredric. General John Windor, C.S.A, page 4
During the Civil War, Florena Budwin was a Philadelphia woman who disguised herself as a man and joined the Union Army to be with her husband. They were captured and sent to Andersonville Prison in Georgia, where her husband died.
When General William Tecumseh Sherman began his march through Georgia, Florena and many other prisoners were transferred to the Confederate prison at Florence, South Carolina, a stockade built by local slaves. Confederate authorities feared that General Sherman would try to liberate the Union soldiers that were living in horrible conditions at Andersonville in southern Georgia. Florence was chosen because three railroads connected in the town, which would facilitate the transportation of the prisoners.
On September 17, 1864, Florena wrote:
"Finally we escape Charleston! No shelter, barely any food, smallpox, yellow fever, the intolerable heat and humidity. It’s a wonder that anyone survived. Now I am not sure where we are going. The Rebs just piled us onto these freight cars and started rolling. At first the countryside was flat and smothered with trees, but now it is becoming a bit swampy. All the guards do is bring in fresh water twice a day and dump out the dead bodies."
The construction of the prison at Florence had barely begun when 6000 prisoners arrived from Charleston, as Florena explained:
"We reached our new pen sometime last night. The guards pushed us out of our cars and herded us into a cornfield to spend a cold and restless night. Our suffering ended around nine in the morning when we were finally marched ten miles to the Florence Stockade. It looks just like Andersonville, four huge walls enclosing about 15 acres and a small stream, a gate in the west wall, a road, and of course the narrow ditch that means death to any one who steps over it – the dead line. Only here, the guards walk around the outside of the walls on an embankment, where they can harass the prisoners and lure them over the dead line to shoot them. There is not much in the way of anything inside, just several stumps left from the construction of the walls. I was among the first to get in, so I dug up some stumps and built a little hovel. There was even a little left over to use as fuel, I think I will need it this winter."
The prisoners were suffering from smallpox, yellow fever, hunger and exhaustion. Conditions in the stockade in Florence were horrendous, as Florena wrote on September 29, 1864:
"This place gets colder ever day, and it does not help when your clothes are falling apart. The vermin are still a huge problem, as well as the hunger and insanity. To make things worst, some of the women of the town come stand on the embankments and mock us in their taffeta and silk. Typical Southern hospitality! I can not be too harsh though. One woman used to come by with a basket of food and throw it over the walls to us. The guards kept trying to stop her and finally banned her from ever coming back."
By October 12, over 12,000 prisoners were being housed at the stockade, with a death rate of more than 20 per day. The majority of the prisoners had no blankets. Fortunately, a supply of clothing and other supplies arrived from the Union Sanitary Commission in the middle of October. One corner of the stockade was made into a crude hospital.
Florena wrote on December 23, 1864:
"The year is almost over and there is no end in sight to the suffering. Every day men drop like flies. As I was walking through the companies the other day, a man stuck his blackened foot out of his dugout and asked me to cut his toes off! He was not brave enough to do it himself, but he knew it had to be done to save the rest of his foot. Some men are not so lucky, John January had to hack off both of his feet in order to save his life. Last week the pen was inspected, so we each received a mandatory check up. There was no way to avoid it and I could not hide my identity, so the Rebs finally found me out. To my surprise they treated me well and I am now in my own partition of the stockade, with my own special rations and clothing provided by the women of Florence. Now, I work in the clinic with the sick men. I know their suffering better than any Confederate doctor could, so I try to give them an extra measure of comfort. Most of them are too far gone to save, so I just try to ease them on their way."
In January 1865, she wrote:
"This winter seems never to end, I get the feeling it will outlast me. I managed to pick up pneumonia from the hospital, and I have been in bed for weeks. The Southerners have all been very kind towards me, but I do not think it will help. I just have no will to return to the horrid life I had been living. I am sick of the hate and the fear and the needless death and suffering. This place is enough to make anyone lose her faith in humanity."
Florena died on Jan. 25, 1865, a little over a month before the prison at Florence was closed and the prisoners were sent to North Carolina where they were paroled to the North. She was 20 years old.
An estimated 16,000 Union prisoners were held captive in the Florence Prison Stockade between September 1864 and February 1865. In that short period of time, well over 2000 prisoners died from malnutrition and disease. The owner of a plantation adjacent to the prison allowed the dead to be buried in trenches on his property. This area was later established as the Florence National Cemetery. A plain marble headstone there bears Florena's name and the date of her death. She is believed to be the first woman to be buried in a national cemetery.