In 1893 a book, Billy and Dick: From Andersonville Prison to the White House, was published by Ralph O. Bates, which detailed his experience in the infamous Andersonville Prison during the Civil War. The book detailed the capture, transport, and eventual escape of Ralph, or Billy, as he was called in the book, and fellow prisoner Richard King and their eventual arrival at Washington D.C. to meet President Lincoln. The book closes with Billy’s return to Mansfield and his reunion with his parents. It is a fascinating tale of bravery and struggle, and Bates traveled the country telling the story. But did it really happen?
It is hard to say for sure where Ralph Orr “Billy” Bates was born. In the book, he states he is from Mansfield, Richland County, Ohio, and was born on June 29, 1847. This information is also copied on FindAGrave.com. An article in the Mansfield News on January 27, 1922 also hints at a Mansfield connection. Bates’ widow, Rozella, placed an ad in the newspaper looking for anyone who may have known Billy to help her secure a Civil War pension. In the ad, she states “he was born in or near Mansfield.” What we do know is his parents, Calvin C. Bates and Kezia Fink, were married in Knox County on October 6, 1846. The 1850 U. S. Census shows the couple with a son, Ralph, living in Franklin Township, Morrow County, Ohio. Morrow County was organized March 1, 1848 from parts of Crawford, Delaware, Knox, and Richland counties. Franklin Township would have been part of Knox County before 1848. While only circumstantial evidence suggests the Bates family lived in Mansfield at any time, they were in the area and probably would have conducted business in and around Mansfield.
According to the book, Bates enlisted in Troop H of the Ninth Ohio Calvary on June 7, 1862 and was mustered in on June 29th. There are a couple of problems with this statement. There is no record of a Ralph Bates being connected to the Ninth Ohio Calvary. In addition to this, the regiment was not organized until December of 1862. It is believed that Bates served during the Civil War. There is a record of him entering the service on January 10, 1864 and serving in Company A of the 129th Indiana Infantry. However, this also contradicts his timeline of events in the book. According to Bates, he didn’t make his escape from Andersonville until March 2, 1864 and arrived in Washington D.C. on April 28, 1864 to meet President Lincoln. He does note in the book that he reenlisted and served in the 129th. Though, he notes, he doesn’t join his regiment until the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain which took place on June 27, 1864.
One of the more exciting moments in the book is when Bates writes about his experience in Andersonville Prison and his interaction with Confederate Captian Henry Wirz. After the war, Wirz would be charged with war crimes, found guilty, and hanged on November 10, 1865. According to Bates, a Southern woman was allowed to enter the prison and hand out “tracts” to the prisoners. The woman took offense to something in one of the prayers of fellow prisoner Rev. Hathaway and spat in his face. Bates escorted the woman to the gates and told the guard about the disturbance. The woman then spat in Bates’s face, causing him to push her to the ground. The woman reported the incident to Wirz and he had the men involved placed in a chain gang. Bates admitted to pushing the woman and Wirz gave him a particularly brutal punishment. He ordered Bates’s thumbs to be tied together by a cord and to be suspended from a beam, causing the flesh to be cut to the bone. When another prisoner tried to give him water, Wirz fired 5 shots into the man, killing him. Bates spoke up saying: “For God’s sake, if you shoot anyone, shoot me, and end this torture.” Wirz proceeded to empty his revolver with two shots hitting Bates in the left leg, one fracturing the bone between the knee and ankle. Bates was cut down and, a few days later, Wirz came back and said to him: “Well you little yank, I thought I had killed you.” Bates responded saying he would not die until he saw Wirz hung. This enraged Wirz and he shot Bates a third time, this time the ball struck the left side just above the heart.
Bates survived his ordeal and months later, on March 2, 1864, along with Richard “Dick” King, dug a 49-foot tunnel to the outside of the prison walls. “Billy and Dick” encountered many people on their journey to freedom, including an old African-American couple who hid them from Confederate soldiers. One of the most surprising encounters was their meeting with General W. T. Sherman. It was Sherman who, after meeting the men, arranged for them to be sent to Washington D. C. In Sherman’s memoirs, published in 1889, he wrote briefly about meeting men who had escaped from Andersonville. He gives no details of the men but does describe the conditions of the prison. These mirror closely the descriptions given by Bates in his book.
After they met with Lincoln, Bates and King headed home. King was dropped off at Harrisburg, Pennsylvania and Bates continued on to Mansfield, Ohio. Upon arriving at night, he was quickly taken to the “Wilder House,” most likely the Wiler House, where he was met by the Crosby’s who immediately recognized him as “Cal’s boy.” He was quickly reunited with his parents and returned home to recover.
Almost immediately, people tried to verify the facts and Bates was called a fraud by many. The G. A. R. investigated Bates after the release of the book and said he had been kicked out of the organization four years earlier “under not very favorable circumstances,” referring to him as a fraud and “dead beat.” Bates continued to lecture where he could until his death on December 27, 1909. Afterward, his widow, Rozella, continued to lecture and republished the book in 1910. The new edition contained testimonials by people who allegedly knew Bates, verifying his story. Debate on the authenticity of the book continued for years. The book in its entirety can be read online through the Internet Archive here.
- The Mansfield News, 27 Jan 1922, p. 17.
- Ancestry.com. Ohio, U.S., County Marriage Records, 1774-1993 [database on-line]. Lehi, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2016.
- U. S. Census, Year: 1850; Census Place: Franklin, Morrow, Ohio; Roll: 716; Page: 477a
- Sinko, Tuck. Ohio, Atlas of Historical County Boundaries. P. 130 & 170.
- Historical Data Systems, comp. U.S., Civil War Soldier Records and Profiles, 1861-1865 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2009.
- Sherman, William T. Memoirs, Vol. 2 (1889). p. 143.
- Roster and Proceedings of the … Annual Encampment of the Department of Ohio, Grand Army of the Republic (1898). p. 198.