National Tribune, 10/23/1902

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From the National Tribune, 10/23/1902

Adventures of an Iron Brigade Man

By CAPT. R. K. BEECHAM, 2d Wis.


As Belle Isle was our abiding place for some time, and as it soon after became in every sense of the term what it was even then fast becoming, one of the “death traps” for Union prisoners, of which the South developed several, I will endeavor to give a fair idea of how it appeared to us that July day in 1863.


The island seemed well shaded with trees and fair to look upon, but the soil was a bed of sand and the island was low and level. The prison pen was adjacent to the river, and comprised three or four acres of ground surrounded by a wide, deep ditch and an embankment, within which enclosure there was neither tree, nor shrub, nor plant, nor flower, nor blade of grass; nothing but a bad of sand. In or near one corner, where the water came close to the surface, were three or four excavations about six feet deep, with sloping sides. These were our wells of living water, and the green scum that covered the water made them very inviting. There were also a number of old tents, all badly dilapidated, pitched in a promiscuous cluster in the center of the enclosure, occupied by several hundred Union prisoners of war captured in part from Milroy’s command at Winchester in June, and others at some earlier date. No extra tents were furnished for the additional prisoners, and we found shelter as best we could or went without. During our whole imprisonment I never once enjoyed the luxury of a change of clothing or the opportunity to wash a garment.

For sporting men our island had one attraction that must not be overlooked; Belle Isle abounded in small game. There was more hunting to be enjoyed to the square inch on that island than anywhere else in the wide world, and the beauty of it was that the hunter could always find his game, and if he refused to hunt the game would soon find him. The little animal was too small to be of any use in the economy of nature in supporting life, but it was a great life destroyer, and would boldly invade our camp in broad day. Very few of us were lovers of the chase, and we did not hunt them in wanton cruelty, but for the same reason that British soldiers hunt tigers in India - to free the land from a blood thirsty enemy of mankind. These animals would never hesitate for a moment to attack a man, and frequently I have known comrades to be badly bitten by them. In short, they were death’s myrmidons, the tigers of Belle Isle, and although these Southern “grabax” were not as powerful, singly and alone, as an Asiatic tiger, they were just as blood-thirsty, and through their combined efforts would kill a man just as surely, if not driven off or destroyed.

Need I say this continual round of pleasure became irksome and monotonous? That we were not content with our delightful sand-lots? That the days dragged wearily by? Talk not to me of your long June days in the North - they are as but moments. The longest days ever experienced by man were those prison days of July and August in the sunny Southland, within a stone’s throw of the court of Jefferson Davis.

I will not attempt to depict the scenes I witnessed there; I could not if I would; I would not if I could; but death was among us, gathering in his victims from day to day. There was not the semblance of a hospital in connection with the prison, and everything was arranged to invite disease and increase the death-rate. Yet we saw only a fraction of the horrors of prison life - or prison death, as it afterward became, when all exchange of prisoners had ceased, and the doors of hope were closed. At that time the oldest prisoner on Belle Isle had not been there to exceed 60 days, for exchanges were being made at irregular intervals. We all expected to be exchanged, and hope is a wonderful invigorator.


The statement has oft been made and published that the clergy, especially the Catholic clergy and Sisters of Charity, were frequent and almost constant visitors of Southern prisons, doing all in their power for the temporal as well as the spiritual welfare of the prisoner, but during my imprisonment neither Catholic or Protestant clergyman, or Sister of Charity ever darkened the gate. The hearts of the clergymen of the South in those days were too full of treason to leave any room for the Gospel of Christ.

The cooking establishment for the prison was situated just outside of the pen, on the bank of the James River, and 20 or 25 rods above it, at the other corner of the pen, and out over the river a few feet, were situated the prison sinks. The water supply for cooking purposes was drawn from the river, and of the relative situation of our kitchen and the sinks I have no further statement to make, except that the statement of their relative positions is true.

The quality of our food was not first-rate, but fair - at least it was our fare. On this question of the fare of prisoners generally in the South, the effort has been made of late years, both in the South and in the North, to show that prisoners were treated as well as it was possible to treat them, and that any starvation of prisoners that may have occurred was unintentional and all owing to the fact that a state of destitution, akin to famine, existed all over the Southern country. Not long since an article headed “Libby Prison” went the rounds of the Northern papers, being first published in the Cincinnati Enquirer. I give the article here in full as published:

“Talk with Capt. Jack Warner, Commissary of That Notorious Place.

“Captain Jackson Warner, Quartermaster and Commissary of Libby Prison during the war, was in the city during the past week and left for his home in Illinois last night. Capt. Warner is now enfeebled by age. He has nearly reached the 73d mile-post, but his mind is as clear and as bright as ever. The old gentleman was a conspicuous figure in Richmond during the most exciting period of the rebellion. It is difficult to engage him in conversation about the prison, but when once started he talks freely and relates many interesting incidents which hundreds of Union prisoners will remember. From letters in his possession it is evident that Capt. Warner was as humane and considerate to unfortunate prisoners as circumstances would permit. He made scores of friends by his kindness, and is in regular correspondence with several army officers who boarded with him during the late unpleasantness. ‘I was Commissary and Quartermaster at Libby Prison from 1861 to 1864,’ he said, when requested to give some of his reminiscences to the Enquirer. ‘It was not a pleasant duty, but I have the consciousness of feeling that I never treated any man harshly or cruelly. When we had good provisions the prisoners got them. Sometimes they fared better than the men in the confederate army. I have seen Lee’s soldiers pick up and eat crusts of bread thrown out by the prisoners.’”

That last sentence shows Capt. Jackson Warner to be unworthy of belief. I did not make the gentleman’s acquaintance while in Richmond, and possibly his heart was full of the milk of human kindness, but when he deliberately states that he has “seen Lee’s soldiers pick up and eat crusts of bread thrown out by the prisoners,” he states what he knows, and what every prisoner who was ever in a Southern prison knows, to be false. Never a crust no a crumb, nor anything that could possible be eaten by an Eskimo dog was thrown out by the prisoner. Starving men do not throw away crusts of bread, and the fact, which is a matter of history, that out of 94,072 Federal prisoner who passed through or into those horrible slaughter pens, 50,000, or 53 percent of them, died; while out of the 227,580 Confederate prisoners held by the United States during the same period, only 30,152, or 13 1/3 per cent., died, is proof positive that 37,50 deaths were the direct result of exposure and starvation; and in the face of such facts to talk of prisoners throwing away crusts of bread.

The idea that there was a state of famine or anything approaching it in the South, or that Lee’s soldiers were starving, is preposterous. There were at times, owing to lack of transportation facilities, a scarcity of provisions in Lee’s army, and in every army, for that matter. I have seen hardtack worth a dollar apiece in greenbacks, and none to be had at that price, in the Army of the Potomac, where it is generally supposed we lived on softbread and butter when we were short of short-cake and honey; but that fact does not prove a scarcity of provisions in the North. In the South, provisions of the substantial kind used in an army, such as they produced in the South - beef, pork, cornmeal, rice, beans and vegetable - were just as abundant. What earthy reason can be given why such should not have been the case? Did they not have, in the South 4,000,000 slaves, every one of whom - men, women and children - were compelled to till the ground to produce food for their lords and masters? While everything sold at fabulous prices in depreciated Confederate rage money, one could buy for 25 cents in silver as much food as could be bought in the North for the same money, which fact I have demonstrated more than once.

During the last year of the war Sherman marched an army of 60,000 men from Atlanta to Savannah, a distance of 300 miles, in dead of Winter, subsisting upon provisions they found in the country, and Sherman’s men did not starve, but came through fat, saucy and in splendid fighting condition.

This starvation of prisoners was a savage, inhuman and cowardly policy, inaugurated by a set of men better qualified by Nature, and by their education, to become henchmen of the prince of darkness than the rulers of a nation which they sought to establish.

The people of the South, generally, may be exonerated from complicity in this wicked and cowardly policy, but it is useless for them to deny that such a policy existed; that it was planned after cool and deliberate consideration by Jefferson Davis and his Cabinet; that it was approved by such men as Lee, Johnston and Jackson, who commanded the Confederate armies in the field; and that it was executed in cold-blooded cruelty by Winder, Ould and their minions.


On or about Aug. 5 an order came to the prison authorities to exchange or parole several hundred prisoners. First, all the sick were selected, without regard to priority, which amounted to about half the quota. Many of the sick were so far gone that they held to life by a thread, and these were the men the Confederates wanted to exchange without fail; but as many well men were trying to play the sick dodge in order to get exchanged among the first, the Confederate official, Dick Turner, I think, then in charge of the prison, took his station in the gate with a long butcher knife in his hand to keep back the surging crowd, and selected the sick from the well as they were exhibited before him.

By this time my tent-mate, Frank Wilkins, was barely able to walk. He was, seemingly, nearer to death’s door than any man could be and recover, and for several days previously I had expected to find him dead each morning. I was not in very robust health or strength myself, but I could take Frank under my arm and carry him as I would a child, and when I arrived at the gate the butcherknife official thought he saw a man whom death had set his seal and he said: “Let that man pass through.” The official was mistaken. Frank Wilkins’s last day of service for the old flag ended when he tottered through the prison gate, but his heroic heart and vigorous constitution tided him over, and he lived for many years after the war ended. After the sick had been selected the remainder of the quota was filled in the order of priority. The oldest prisoners were called until all were taken, and there remained only the Winchester and Gettysburg prisoners. The quota lacked then 100 or more of being full. The Winchester prisoners were the next in priority, but the rolls had been mislaid, and the rolls of the Gettysburg prisoners were substituted.

This even caused an excitement that is easier imagined than described. It was like a death-knell to the hopes of the Winchester men, but it gave a new and unlooked-for hope to every man from Gettysburg. After getting my tent-mate through the gate I had gone back to my desolate den with no expectation of being exchanged on that day, but the moment I heard the call for the Gettysburg prisoners I joined the excited crowd and watched the result, with my heart beating like a trip-hammer. We had been enrolled by regiments, but we knew nothing of the priority on the rolls of our organizations. Usually there were only a few in each regiment, and we watched anxiously for the name of the next on the rolls. We held tickets in a great lottery. Our names had been shaken together, so to speak, in the box. Every name drawn out was to receive a prize, and that prize was liberty - life! Who were to be the fortunate ones? What wonder that excitement ran high - that men held their breath in suspense? Rapidly the names are read off by the clerk, to which fortunate one responds as he runs through the gate. The quota is almost filled; there are only a few more names to be drawn. The 2d Wis. is called. How that name thrills the very marrow of my bones, for my name is among the number on that short list. Then follows a moment of suspense that no living being who has not been placed in a like situation can imagine, a few seconds of time of almost endless duration. My heart stands still in an agony of hope and dread. Will the quota hold out? Will my name ever be reached? Live a thousand years, I cannot experience another such moment. At last the spell is broken, my name is called, then my heart gives a great rebound, and I stepped out from under the “Shadow of Death.”

A few more names, not to exceed half a dozen, were called after mine. They followed me through, and the gates were closed. We did not know it then, our comrades left behind did not know that so far as this world is concerned the gates of freedom had closed upon them forever.

This proved to be the last general exchange of prisoners until February, 1865, more than 18 months later. How many of the thousands we left on Belle Isle and at Staunton were alive at the end of a year and a half?

It is estimated that 90 days was the average life of prisoners confined in those places of torment during those appalling months. I was on Belle Isle about 15 days; add to that 75 more, which would have carried us up to the last days of October. No man with less than an iron constitution could have lived through it. But not in October; not until a year from the next February was there another general exchange, at which time these men were all in their graves.

When Gen. Meade refused to allow us to take the parole at Gettysburg, of course, he did not know that all exchange of prisoners was about to cease; if he had known it he would have been the blackest-hearted murderer the world ever produced. But Gen. Meade knew enough of the treatment of prisoners by the Confederate authorities to have touched the chords of sympathy and humanity in his heart, if they were there, and the lives of these men would have been saved.

On leaving Belle Isle we were conducted directly to the depot, where we boarded a train of palace box-cars, and an hour later arrived at City Point, where a flag-of-truce boat - if I remember rightly, the New York - was awaiting us.

As the train pulled up to the landing there fell upon our vision a sight that to my dying day I shall never forget. There upon the placid stream lay the good ship that was to bear us away from those inhospitable shores back to “God’s country.” It is our Saviour, a messenger from the happy land beyond the dark “dead line.”

There can be no mistake - there is no uncertainty, for at her masthead, floating grandly in the breeze - [the American flag. At this point, the author goes on a flight of rhetoric about how great America is, and how happy he was to see the flag again. Gives a brief description of his travel down the James and thence to Annapolis. Little of substance, and not transcribed.]


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