Monday, May 18, 2015

A Soldier's Experience in Southern Prisons, Part I

A readers of this blog have likely figured out, I'm a sucker for first-accounts of history or ancestors' life experiences. It's what brings to life all those dates and places related to a person we work so hard to discover.

One of the treasured books in my genealogy collection is the Centennial History of Madison County by W. T. Norton and published in 1912. Volume I included the first-hand account of J. T. King, of Upper Alton, who was held in several Confederate prisons during the Civil War. His account first appeared in the Century magazine. It's quite long (for a blog) so I'll tell it in three parts. This series is part of my commemoration of Memorial Day.

A Madison County Soldier's Experience in Southern Prisons

The flank advance on Chattanooga and the battle of Chickamauga covered a month of forced marches, skirmishing and fighting over mountains and through thickets of timber and brush in rain and mud by night and day.

Crack! Crack!

"Surrender you Yanks!"

"Halt, there! Halt, or you're a dead man!"

Crack! Crack Crack!

"Now surrender, you Yankee son of Yankee Doodle!"

Seated on top of a staked and rider fence, I looked along a rife barrel into the right eye of a Confederate as he hissed the words through his teeth. My companion had fallen dead at the first fire and I saw that this fellow meant to shoot. My answer was conciliating.

Confederate troops advancing through the woods during the Battle of
Chickamauga; image courtesy of the Library of Congress

"Have you pistols, watch or greenbacks?"

"No -- no sir."

"Well, give me that hat. Here, Ill take that ring. That knife is mine."

Our pockets went inside out, and I was more surprised when they began to exchange clothing with us. Some of our party who were better clothed than myself were forced to give up their blue coats and take butternut instead; also to give boots in exchange for dilapidated shoes. When the dressing and undressing had been completed, but for the arms in the hands of our captors, you couldn't tell a Yank from Confed. They forced us at the point of the bayonet to repair the railroad about Chickamauga which had been burned during the battle. During these three days they gave us once daily a few ounces of meat and a pint and a half of meal. The latter we mixed with water and bake on a chip before a fire. The men who guarded us to Richmond had been in the thick of the fight a Chickamauga, and their humane treatment, in contrast with that of the authorities at Richmond and the stockades, was not forgotten. We were very hungry, and when the train stopped for wood they allowed us, after giving our parole, to break for the woods where we found wilde grapes and muscadines. at Atlanta we were searched by officers and relieved of such trifles as we had not previously given up, or such as, by slight-of-hand, we were unable to secrete. They did not spare us our tin canteens, tin cups and spoons. At Weldon we were surrounded by many persons of both sexes, who evinced much curiosity to know what battles we had been engaged in and the circumstances of our capture. One elderly gentleman remarked: "Yankees can't stand up against our southern soldiers; we whip you on every battlefield."

"Look-A-Yeah, old man," said one of our guards, "I can't have you talking to these men like that; you never saw a Yank with a gun in his hand and, __________ you, I tell you they were hard to ketch. Now you stand back."

Passing under one of the wagon bridges that formed a railway crossing and which was covered with people, we were assailed with a shower of sticks and stones. On our arrival in Richmond October 10, 1863, we were placed on the second floor of a tobacco building, overlooking the river. Extending from the corner across the sidewalk was this sign: Libby & Son, Ship Chandlers and Grocers.

Confederate soldiers in a Richmond prison; from Harper's Weekly,
18 January 1862

To inhale some fresh air, I immediately seated myself at an open window and was drawn in by a fellow prisoner, or I should have been shot by an outside guard. A little later we were drawn up in line and counted, and then listened to a speech from a man whom I learned later was 'young Ross.' He stated that for fear we might bribe our guards it would be necessary for us to give up what money, watches, jewelry and pocket knives we possessed. "We might," he said, "Keep what Confederate money we had, but greenbacks and coin must be turned over, all of which will be receipted for and turned over and returned when you are exchanged. And now, gentlemen, step up and get you receipts, after which you will all be carefully searched and anything that you have not turned over will be confiscated." It was surprising to see the amount of property that thus passed under Confederate control. I could not understand how so much had escaped previous seizure, but the sagacity of Mr. Ross brought it to light. It was never seen by the Yankees again.

We were soon moved to the Smiths' building, another tobacco factory. Here we were again searched, but the game was hardly worth the hunt. Our rations, we estimated at Richmond, at two to four ounces of beef and six to eight ounces of good wheat bread. To supplement this we made counterfeit greenbacks, which we were sometimes able to pass on unsuspecting guards. Once by cutting out the figures in a ten cent scrip, and with a little blood gluing this over the figure one in a dollar greenback, myself and three comrades bought with this bogus ten dollar bill ninety loaves of good bread, and it was the only time while I was in the Confederacy that I had a full meal.

The morning after this we were loaded into box cars for 'exchange;' but the train moved towards Danville, which, we learned later, was our destination. As we approached the Roanoke river it was dark and raining. I had succeeded in removing the cap from the gun of one of our guards, and, attempting to do the same for the other, found his was not capped. So when the river was crossed and we had cleared the houses, four of us jumped from the moving train and escaped to the woods.

Confederate prison in Danville, Virginia, from a drawing by Henry
Vander Weyde

After five days and nights of almost super human effort and suffering we were all recaptured and taken to Danville. While here our government sent, under flag of truce, clothing, a blanket and an overcoat for each of us. We learned of their arrival and there as great rejoicing; but on looking at next morning we saw our guards wearing blue overcoats and carrying new United States blankets. They gave us a portion, however, and our condition was much improved, but Danville looked like a Union camp. I saw here a number of recaptured prisoners undergoing the torture of buck and gag; and once when we had dug a large tunnel from the cellar, our rations were cut off for forty-eight hours, and we were all driven to an upper room, thus driving four hundred men into space formerly occupied by two hundred. We were headed thus for two days, one person at a time being allowed to descend to the yard below, and not until his return could another go. Entreaties, threats and curses were met with bayonets, and a scene of horror ensued not to be described. About half a dozen who lay on the opposite side of the room from me forced a window and leaped to the ground below; but they were riddle with buckshot and not one escaped. They brought in those who were not killed outright and we dug out some of the shot as best we could; but our remnants of knives were poorly adapted to such work and the operation was critical. A man near me held a can of soup through an opening in the dingo to pour off some of the bugs. He fell, with a bullet through him. He was not killed, but he had learned his lesson.

To be continued...

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