New England Magazine 1895

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From The New England Magazine, Volume 18, Issue 2 (April 1895); pp. 177-184


By William C. Bates.

IT was very easy to be a taken prisoner at Bull Run. It was mostly a matter of legs, and the more one thinks of it, after all the later experiences of grim-visaged war, the more likely it seems that had the battle of Bull Run occurred four years later, both armies would have been taken prisoners, - each would have captured the other. Monday morning, the morning after the battle, when, shortly after daylight, two young “three-months men,” hunting for their regiment, reached Centreville, the Federal army had vanished, and Confederate scouts had the right of way as far as Fairfax Court House. We were prisoners of war in a jiffy, and were marched to a rendezvous at the edge of a piece of woods. Rain had set in, and a dreary day it was to a hundred Federal soldiers who were brought in during the day. My comrade, Childs, tried to bribe the guard to put him on the way to liberty and home, offering his fine gold watch as a temptation, but it was waved aside with high-toned Virginia chivalry. We saw no cases of theft or undue harshness at this time. Much plunder from the Federal army was brought in — muskets, blankets and army biscuit. We took care to keep a supply of the last, and each secured a blanket.

At dark we were marched to Manassas Junction, where we remained two or three days. In spite of our surroundings, the uncertainty of our future, the contrast to the circumstances of our comrades who must already be homeward bound, and our anxiety for those at home who could not know our fate, as a general thing we kept up our spirits and were plucky.

After these few days at Manassas Junction, we were sent on to Richmond, and stored in the tobacco factory, which became known as Prison No. 1. It was a three-story building, about seventy feet in length by thirty in width. The second and third stories were filled with private soldiers in as large numbers as could lie upon the floor. Great suffering at once followed the lack of any proper sanitary arrangements. Cooking was done in the rear by blacks and later by a detail from the prisoners. Breakfast was brought in about nine o’clock, consisting of bread, beef and water; supper was at four, of bread and soup; the soup was the water in which the beef had been boiled. When this supply was regular, it was wholesome, though meagre, but every few days the “Dutch sergeant” would say: “You d—d Yankees haf noting but bread and wasser till I find that d—d Blydenberg” — or some other name found absent at roll-call. The “Dutch sergeant,” as he was then called, was the notorious Wirtz [Henry Wirz, commandant of Andersonville Prison]; and no prisoner who was under him at Richmond would have lifted a hand to save him later — the universal verdict would have been that he deserved a dozen deaths.

On our first arrival at Richmond we could send out into the city for any small articles within our means, and for a short time a prisoner was taken out to the market each morning by a guard, and re- turned with cakes, tomatoes and tarts to help out the rations; but this privilege was soon taken away. A few packs of cards, a set of chess-men and a few books had been introduced into the prison. We were naturally the subject of a good deal of comment by the newspapers — we occasionally procured a copy from a good-natured guard — and of curiosity on the part of the citizens. The Examiner held that the proper use to put us to would be to set us at work upon the fortifications or in the mines. Officials visited the prison occasionally. In front of the prison, especially on Sundays, citizens gazed at the windows from the opposite sidewalk; though at that distance but little could be seen of the Yankees.

I recall a little romance in this connection. A fellow in my mess had lived in Richmond a year or two, leaving shortly before the war began. He enlisted in the Fourteenth New York Volunteers, and was now a prisoner. He managed to notify the young woman to whom he had become engaged the winter before that, if she would be on the sidewalk on Sunday afternoon, he would be at the middle window of the third floor; and so they held their silent tryst for several weeks. All the world loves a lover; and the tenderness with which those rough men forbore their jests and left him alone at the window endeared them to me forever. In those early days of prison life, the general opinion, I think, both of prisoners and captors, was that we should be soon exchanged. For a few weeks, indeed as long as we remained at Richmond, the prospect of exchange was eagerly canvassed. Gradually there came to view some of the difficulties in the way of our release, so that the feeling gained that perhaps we might in reality be “in for the war,” and the men settled down into a sort of daily routine of trifling occupations.

Religious services were held on several Sundays. Rev. Daniel Eddy, chaplain of the Second Connecticut Regiment, was a prisoner; and he obtained permission to go from room to room to hold services occasionally. He preached very acceptably.

The windows of the factory were usually opened for air. The guard was upon the street below and in the yard at the rear. It was forbidden to hang articles out of the window or to put hand or head out on penalty of being shot by the guard, who appeared to be quite willing to prove their vigilance. Occasionally a gun would be fired without any discoverable cause, and several times with fatal effect.

By the middle of September I suppose there were three thousand Union prisoners held in Richmond, in the tobacco factories which have since become known as Libby Prison. The care of these prisoners had become a heavy tax on the Richmond authorities. Much discussion had been held as to their disposal; and arrangements were made about this time to distribute the prisoners in different states. It was determined that five hundred each should be sent to New Orleans, Charleston, Tuscaloosa and Macon.

The first batch of two hundred and fifty were despatched under Wirtz, for New Orleans, September 21. The men were taken from the third floor of the Mallory factory, Prison No. 1, and a similar lot followed a few days later. It was my fortune, with that of my immediate companions, to be sent in the first detachment. It was not a cheerful outlook, that of going fifteen hundred miles farther from the Union lines. The prospect of release receded as the square of the distance. But we were stoical and had a heart for any fate. A few of the sick preferred to take the risk of travel to being separated from their companions. Our young lover was one of these. Racked by fierce fever, he held by his men, and was helped along to the railway station where we were to embark. By some intuition his sweetheart was on the watch, a mute spectator of his suffering. Just as we boarded the box-cars in waiting, there was, by the connivance of the guard, a hurried clasp of hands, a smothered moan, — and the fainting girl fell back into the crowd. It was their last meeting on earth.

It was not a holiday excursion, this trip to New Orleans under Wirtz. It seemed for all the world like an old-time slave gang, as I had heard of such. Two or three men escaped on the way, but they were recaptured. On the steamer going down the Alabama River a plan was talked over of seizing the steamer when near Mobile, and running past the batteries to the blockading squadron; but nothing came of it. A troop of fresh soldiers was taken on before we reached Mobile, and had the plan been matured this would have defeated it. We were of course objects of great curiosity in the various towns through which we passed, and were well advertised, to fire the southern heart. I think it was at Atlanta that, at two o’clock in the morning, we found an enthusiastic crowd of men and women, whose derisive cheers beguiled the tedium of our journey. At Jackson, Miss., we experienced the only Christian sympathy which fell to us on the route; the sick were sought out and helped, and many words of cheer came from the crowd of citizens. Wirtz delivered us to the provost marshal of New Orleans, General Palfrey, about September 25, and he escorted us with a strong guard to the Parish Prison in Congo Square. General Palfrey was of the well-known Massachusetts family; and he and I had met at the same table in the summer of 1860. He was one of the city guests at the Fourth of July dinner given by the city of Boston in Faneuil Hall, and a good-natured councilman had given me a ticket to the same banquet. George Sumner, brother of Charles Sumner, had delivered the oration, and he had been quite plain-spoken regarding our southern brethren. In the after-dinner speaking, General Palfrey responded to a toast, and took occasion to repel some of Mr. Sumner’s words. It occasioned quite a little breeze at the dinner, and was typical of the strained relations impending between the two sections. I reminded General Palfrey of the incident after some weeks had passed in the prison, and he seemed to enjoy the reminder. Some years later he was lost on the Evening Star, which foundered on the passage from New York to New Orleans.

One half of the Parish Prison was emptied of criminals and made to hold five hundred Union soldiers. The floor space of the cells was entirely covered by sleeping men. For about half of the twenty-four hours, we had the liberty of the yard, which had a tank of running water in one corner. The feeding of the men, we understood, was let out by contract to the sheriff. A criminal under life sentence had charge of the cook house; and other criminals had charge of the grated entrance door.

[remainder of article, detailing life in New Orleans and Salisbury prisons, was not transcribed.]

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