From the National Tribune, 8/16/1900, p. 1

Dread Days in Dixie
By Silas W. Crocker, Co. I, 6th Pa. Reserves, and Co. E, 191st Pa.
COPYRIGHT BY AUTHOR, 1900

A Sojourn at Belle Island.

Late in the afternoon we were taken out of Libby and marched over to Belle Island, where we found several thousand other Yankee prisoners, most of whom had been there since the early days of the fighting around Petersburg. They greeted us as we filed into the pen with loud cries of “Fresh fish! Fresh fish!” Some of our fellows got mad at the jeers of these older prisoners, but I remember that I was too tired and hungry and disgusted generally to pay much attention to them. We were counted off into squads of 100 each as we went in, and each squad was placed under command of a Sergeant of our own number, after which we were regularly assigned quarters. This consisted merely in marching to a strip of unoccupied ground, being told the number of our squad, and that each man must keep his place and be ready to answer to his name when called or he would get no rations. The older prisoners had already drawn their day’s ration when we arrived, and but for the action of our Squad Sergeants in going to the commandant of the prison and insisting that we had not been fed since our capture two days before we would have gone to bed hungry again. At all events we were soon supplied with a regular prison ration. This ration at Belle Island was a piece of very god cornbread about the size and nearly in the shape of half a brick, a small piece of fair bacon and a half pint of buggy pea soup. I thought that I had never been real hungry before, and devoured my share in short order. It did not satisfy my hunger, but I felt much better.

For several days the thought was constantly in my mind that I could not stand it long there. This feeling was shared by all, and I could see depicted in the faces of my comrades the despair I felt in my own breast. After a time, though, the natural buoyancy of my disposition asserted itself, and I contrived to keep gloomy feelings down part of the time, and I even remember having several hearty laughs while on Belle Island. The change from the full rations, excitement f our recent active campaign and the comparative freedom of life in our own army was so sudden and complete, however, that I never quite recovered from the shock.

Soon as we had settled down in our new quarters and had time to think matters over one of my comrades summarized our experiences so far thus”

“Taken prisoner on Aug. 19, robbed on the 20th, and sent to hell on the 21st.”

This explains our situation exactly, and whole volumes of privation and cruelty were contained in those few words.

Our food was issued regularly once each day, and, except the soup, was of good quality, but the quantity was altogether too small to satisfy the craving of my appetite. My ration for a day did not contain as much nutriment as an ordinary eater usually consumes at a single meal, but after leaving the island I often wished in vain for as much.

A REBEL SANITARIUM.

Belle Island, viewed under favorable circumstances, must have been a pretty place, but to me it was not altogether lovely. It is situated, as I remember in James River, just above the city of Richmond, and is or was then reached by what was called the Long Bridge. I do not know its size, but thought it quite large for a river island. The prison did not include the whole island, but was perhaps six to eight acres in extent, and was inclosed by a bank of earth, except the gates and a short space adjoining a lane leading to the river, where the wall, which was of sawed lumber about 12 feet long, stood on end. The guard was posted on the top of the bank and on a platform near the top of the lumber part of the inclosure. The bank was made of dirt thrown from the inside, making quite a ditch, which we were not allowed to cross. The lumber part of the pen was newly made, as was the lane spoken of, when I went there.

When we reached the prison the drinking water was obtained from four shallow wells inside the pen, but these soon went dry or nearly so, and we were forced to get our water from the river, which soon became very low also. Our only means of reaching the river was through the lane spoken of. Plain river water is a beverage in only limited demand during the months of August and September, and when polluted from the camp, as this became because of the apparently purposeful insufficient and terribly unhealthy arrangements, would remain untasted if the consumer had a choice. But we had to dink this water or none. I am forced to the conclusion that the arrangements were made out of pure cussedness, designed to induce disease. We managed by the use of Yankee ingenuity to overcome some of the evil effects of the arrangements. Some of us had tin coffee cups with bails; others had boots, from the legs of which strings were made which enabled us, by throwing the cup far out from the edges of the stream and then pulling it in quickly, to get a tolerably fair sample of river water. I was so lucky as to have a quart cup, and by loaning it to those having a string was always able to drink as good water as the market afforded. Many of the prisoners, though, had nothing of the kind, and must depend on the humor of those who had for their supply. I used to secure a cup full of water just at night and keep it till next morning, when it would be much cooler, for while the days were oppressively hot, the nights were quite cool, and water kept his way seemed much better. Then, taking a good drain early, I could do with very little drink during the heat of the day.

AN ALMOST HOPELESS SITUATION.

Toward the close of August our number was increased by the arrival of 3,000 Second Corps men captured at Ream’s Station, and now all the space in the pen was occupied, till we had scarcely room to lie down, and it was with difficulty that one could walk around for exercise. I believe that my mental suffering was more intense during the first month of my imprisonment than at any other time, and this was perhaps the case with all. A few squads of prisoners who were there when we arrived had been supplied with tents, which sheltered them from the sun in the day and the cold dew at night, but the great mass of us had no relief from either and I had nothing to do during those long, hot days but to sit or stand around, sweat, swear and ponder over my bad fortune.

I have a theory which I do not remember having heard advanced by anybody writing of prison experience, and it explains fully to my mind why confinement was harder to bear by Union soldiers in the late war, aside from the unusual privations they were subjected to. The soldiers of our army were as a rule members of the more intelligent families at the North, and were readers uniformly, most of them being accustomed to reading something every day, either for pastime or to gain information, and with the large majority letters from home at least once a week was the rule. Thus our minds were kept from brooding constantly over the horrors of war. When made prisoners this means of employment and pastime was suddenly denied us and the mind had nothing to do but contemplate the utter hopelessness of our situation. This, coupled with the exposure, bad food, and general disadvantages we labored under, made confinement unusually hard for us to bear, and soon fitted us as easy prey to the diseases which soon appeared among us.

Another thing which I observed was that in almost every case of death among my personal acquaintance while in prison the victim first went crazy. Several whom I knew and noticed were raving mad for several days before death. This was especially true of those who had families, and in their delirium they always imagined themselves at home with their families. I had a copy of a New York story paper when captured, which I read so often that I could repeat nearly every word of it. Our rations were usually issued about 10 o’clock, and the share of two men was left together and this the two divided for themselves.

A COMRADE WORTH HAVING.

My messmate and comrade during all the time was Delos Dubois, of my own company, a rugged youth of about my own age, and we agreed splendidly all through. He, like myself, had a disposition to look for the brightest side of every phase of human life, and it was a great comfort to me to observe how well he “stood the racket.” (Dubois is still living, and has a very pleasant home near Granville Center, Bradford Co., Pa.) I admired his grit, and always tried to keep an equal supply on hand for my own use. We would talk over the situation often, and spent hours in cursing the Confederacy generally, and that part of it called Belle Island in particular. We would also watch our guards and notice any peculiarity I their speech, manner of walking their beats, carrying their guns, etc., and then speculate as to what had been the occupation of each of those near us before enlistment.

I tried every possible way to pass the time off easily, and thought I succeeded as well as any, but with all this I cannot find language to express how horribly it dragged. It seems laughable now to think over some of the incidents which came under my notice there, but it was cold (or, rather, hot) earnest then. I have said that I was the happy possessor of a coffee cup which was amply large to draw buggy pea soup in for Dubois and myself, but many poor fellows had nothing of the kind. Each man must be ready to take his soup when his name was called or do without. I have seen men often take off a shoe, receive their soup in its heel, and drink it off with apparent relish.

SOME YANKEE TRICKS.

Our guards were forbidden to talk to or have any intercourse with us whatever, and most of them obeyed this order literally. Some of them, however, did not hesitate to speak with us when none of their officers were in sight, and indeed were anxious to do so, and more anxious to get hold of any greenbacks or other valuables that had escaped the “confiscation act” of Libby. One member of my regiment had held quite a wad of money in his mouth while being searched, and had brought his wealth safely to Belle Island. Among his money was a $2 bill, of which we made many copies by greasing a plain piece of white paper, then drawing the face of the genuine bill on it with lead pencil and marking an outline of the impression on the back. This was a rather clumsy way of counterfeiting, but in the dim twilight these imitations resembled the genuine so much that we exchanged five or six of them one night with a greedy guard for their equivalent in corn-pone bread and meat. The trick was discovered, of course, and soon “played out.”

Several of the guards were swindled in this way and were naturally disposed to grumble about it, but as their orders forbade trading with us they dare not talk too loud about it, and as these exchanges were always made after dark it was impossible for them to identify the swindlers.

Most of the trades between prisoners and guards were made at one certain guard post near the end of the lane running to the river, and just where the board stockade and earthwork joined, and here it happened that there was quite a space between the bottom of the lumber and the ground, and one night while a crowd of prisoners were dickering with a guard he laid his overcoat down at his feet so near this opening that my friend Dubois succeeded in pulling it through to our side and carried it safely to our quarters. It was one of Uncle Sam’s blue coats, and we felt that we were only reclaiming what belonged to some of our own men and didn’t consider it stealing. This “draw” was a godsend to our mess, and during the following Winter aided materially in preserving our lives.

DEFYING THE REBELS.

The rebels were making cannon at the Tredegar Iron Works, which are situated on the bank of the James opposite Belle Island, and were testing guns almost daily there, often firing shells into the opposite bank and directly over our heads. When this was done our boys would raise loud shouts of derision.

For several weeks while we were comparatively good-humored, we used to sing patriotic songs every evening, hundreds of voices frequently joining in singing “Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean,” “Star Spangled Banner,” “Rally ‘Round the Flag,” or “John Brown.” We tried to sing loud enough for our songs to be heard over in the city of Richmond, and I am almost sure that we often succeeded in doing so. A house in plain view from our pen was pointed out to me as Jeff Davis’ mansion. It was, or appeared to be, nearly a mile away, and I recollect that one night just at dark a crowd of us were singing “John Brown” with more than ordinary vigor. The wind was just right to carry the sound toward this house, and when we began the verse beginning with “We’ll hang Jeff Davis to sour apple tree,” I remember wishing that the windows might be raised and the family listening, and I believe I should be pleased yet to know that this was the case.

So long as we had life and ambition left most of us used every means in our power to slur the rebels and their cause, and tried to make them believe we were holding out well under our privations and hard treatment, and some of us succeeded in keeping up a show of boldness and grit till the bitter end. I noticed all through my prison experience that the men who did this lasted longest and held out best, in every particular. The man who could muster courage to curse rebels and rebellion or who could appreciate a funny incident and laugh heartily over it amid the general horror f our surroundings often had a reserve of physical force and endurance which brought him through alive. On the contrary, those who gave up to homesickness and gloom usually made a failure.

A REBEL PHILANTHROPIST.

The question of what to do with their prisoners had come to be a serious one with the Richmond authorities at this time, and much eloquence and “wind” were expended by their Congress in trying to solve the vexed problem. It will be remembered that no exchange had been made for months, and the fierce fighting of the Summer both in the East and the West had allowed large numbers of prisoners to accumulate on both sides. Some of the plans suggested were laughable and ridiculous, and others were brutal in the extreme. Some time in September I chanced to get hold of a copy of the Richmond Examiner, which contained a speech on this subject by one whose name I have forgotten, but who was certainly quite a philanthropist in his way. He said, among other things, that if left to him he could dispose of the matter readily. He would take the Yankees now in Richmond to the foot of Belle’s Island, cut their throats, letting their blood run into the James River till it raised the water sufficiently to float the Yankee gunboats through Butler’s Dutch Gap Canal. I afterward learned that Gen. Butler, who commanded our forces at Bermuda Hundred, below Richmond, was at that very time anxiously watching for a rise in the river to enable his fleet to pass through this canal, that he might come up to the city and see if the people had any “spoons” left for him to confiscate, but I doubt if he would have been satisfied with this kind of flood, bloodthirsty as the rebels always represented him to be.

The sick were removed from the pen soon as the doctors pronounced them dangerously ill, and I believe were placed in hospitals in the city. Each morning there was “sick call,” and the rebel doctors examined all who came to the gate, and sent away such as they pleased to hospital and obliged the others to wait till they got worse.

We understood that there was an occasional exchange of the sick, and this induced some of our boys to try to “play off” sick on the doctors, hoping thereby to secure an early exchange, but it was “no go.” A Yankee, to gain admission to the hospital, must be “sure enough” sick. My own health was good, and I flattered myself that I was standing the torment of the place better that the average. The plan I adopted and lived up to from the first of taking all the exercise possible and of drinking as little of the impure water I have described as I could make out with, together with my youth and naturally good constitution, aided me materially. Then, I used to get mad as often as convenient, and this helped to quicken the circulation of my blood and undoubtedly warded off disease.

Another thing which perhaps a majority of my comrades indulged in I studiously avoided. This was sleeping in the daytime. It was awful hard to keep from it when a fellow had nothing pleasant to occupy himself with, and when it was so difficult to move about as was the case in the crowded condition in the pen, but I managed to do so more or less every day, and to spend much time conversing with boys of my own temperament.

Still another point which may perhaps strike my readers as an inhuman way of relieving oneself was that I could see men on every hand who were infinitely worse off than myself, and I often found myself mentally comparing their situation with my own, and I always felt relieved and more hopeful after these reveries. But with all these things in my favor the thought would be uppermost in my mind many times each day that I could not possibly endure the strain much longer. At such times I used to grit my teeth together and declare to myself that I would not give up yet.

It seemed that the days were the longest and hottest I had ever experienced and that the wind never blew or a cloud moved between me and the sun. I often wished that an earthquake or wind storm or some other convulsion of nature would occur to vary the monotony of life, but to no purpose - each day seemed a little longer and a little hotter than its predecessor, and the whole situation more disagreeable.

RUMORS OF EXCHANGE.

Rumors of an agreement to resume exchange began to circulate among us early in my prison experience. I was always willing, even anxious, t believe these rumors, and several times the day was set when the new exchange would begin. The failure to start us toward City Point on these stated days made it more certain to my mind that we surely would go next time; so by one means or another I contrived to keep in tolerably good shape till on about Oct. 6, 1864, the commanders of the five highest numbered squads on the island were ordered to get their men ready to move at daylight next morning.

In a few minutes the wildest scene of excitement and enthusiasm imaginable prevailed among us. Men threw up their caps, laughed, cried, hugged and kissed one another, shouted themselves hoarse, and all seemed to forget past suffering in the supreme joy of the moment. Our hopes of exchange were now to be reality, and in imagination I fancied myself already on my way home.

Nobody in the prison tried to sleep that night. Nobody doubted that we were to be immediately exchanged, and the rebel officers who had created this impression among us managed to keep it up. One of them came into the pen that night and told a crowd of us standing near the gate that he was to take charge of the 5,000 who would start in the morning, and that 5,000 more would go in the evening, and so on, the same number morning and evening, till all were exchanged. After hearing his talk I was perfectly satisfied, and did not get over feeling good during the remainder of my stay on the island.

Some of the men whose squads would not go or several days tried to swap for places in those which would go first, and several paid considerable sums of money for the privilege of going next morning. I had nothing to give, so I contented myself to wait my regular turn. At last it came, and, as I marched out of the pen, I earnestly said good-by to Belle Island, and mentally promised myself that the rebels would never capture me again alive, and at the same time I promised to pay them with compound interest for all the suffering and anxiety they had caused me.

We marched over the Long Bridge and turned toward Manchester, where I had alighted from the cars on my arrival at the Capital. This seemed to be the right direction, and I did not “smell a mice” until we were ordered to board a train of cars with an engine attached all ready to start, “headed South.” I was thunderstruck, and said to one of the guards who was hurrying us into the cars that this was certainly wrong; that we didn’t want to go that way to be exchanged! His answer, “How are you exchanged?” hurt me worse than any words I had ever heard and when the train started I thought I should die of grief and disappointment, and really wished for awhile that I might do so.

A CUP OF BITTERNESS.

My feeling was shared by all the prisoners, and for several hours we were as gloomy a set of mortals as one need ever expect to see. The sudden change in my feelings completely unmanned me, and thinking now of how I felt it is a wonder how I ever recovered my accustomed equilibrium and natural good humor, but I did so, in a measure, and before night had become almost resigned to any fate that might be in store for me. I believe this kind of torture was hardest for me to bear, and I doubt any person who has not had like experience being able to understand how hard it was on us, and I may say here that this proposition is equally true of every phase of life in rebel prisons as I saw it.

(To be continued.)

 

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