From the National Tribune, 1/25/1894
The Trick That Was Worked on Prisoners When Moving to Belle Isle.
EDITOR NATIONAL TRIBUNE: My Picket Shot of Dec. 7, relating
to Pemberton Prison and Belle Isle, has brought such a return volley of
questions that I am compelled to seek the aid of your columns for a brief reply.
I was a member of the 5th Pa. Reserves
(Reynolds’s Brigade). Our squad of prisoners assembled at the hospital near
Charles City Crossroads on the morning of July 1, 1862.
We marched to the bridge crossing at White Oak Swamp, and
there awaited the passage of Jackson’s Corps. After exchanging the compliments
of the season with this long line of dust-begrimed Johnnies, we proceeded to
Richmond. The roads leading from the city were filled with vehicles carrying
curious and jubilant citizens to the battlefields, and the conversation between
these people and our line of weary, dusty Yankees was very spirited, and
frequently called for the intervention of our guards to preserve the peace.
Arriving in Richmond, we were compelled to wait in the
street in front of the Pemberton tobacco factory until the building could be
fitted for our reception. This time was spent in animated discourse with a crowd
of citizens who were certain that Lincoln’s Government was “busted.”
In the prison we removed the fastenings from the tobacco
presses, divided the proceeds, and took a general “chaw.” A trapdoor leading
to the cellar was lifted one night to permit a scout of the premises, with the
result that a quantity of black-strap molasses was discovered and impartially
divided. Pending the arrangement of toilet convenient, we were passed across the
street to Castle Thunder as necessity suggested arranging the waiting candidates
in line near the door to pass at stated intervals. This plan would have been
satisfactory as a temporary expedient, had it not been for the fact that the
“black-strap” moved the previous question with more candidates than the
Tylers could provide for.
Of course graybacks abounded, and their extermination
became a daily duty. A picture of those rows of men seated on the floor, with
their backs to the walls, and shirts on their laps, would not fill the soul of
the ordinary pilgrim with poetry, but it would sharpen the memory and stir the
blood of the old boys who were there.
The cooking for Pemberton was performed in Libby. The
details of men from each floor appointed to serve our repasts and carry the soup
buckets were provided with the wooden yokes common in the sugar woods of the
North. The passage of the soup bearers between the prisons on their return trip
was severe on the flies, but added variety to our frugal meals.
Rumors of a speedy exchange were current every day, and the
prison officials were loud in their denunciation of the delinquency of
Lincoln’s Government. At last the announcement was made one morning that
“the first 100 men in line would be the first off.” How we scrambled for the
coveted places in that line, and as we received messages for loved ones in the
North, how we pitied the boys to be left behind. I do not think I would have
exchanged my place in that line for the best farm in the country.
Passing out of the prison we turned up the river instead of
down, as we should do to reach Varina Landing, where the exchange boats were.
Coming to a bridge, the situation was made clear that we were to cross the river
and take the train to City Point. Further speculation was soon cut short by our
arrival on Belle Island, which we were informed was to be our home as well as
that of our comrades in the city as soon as the camp was prepared to receive
them. We were simply a detail to clean up the grounds.
Well, boys, it is all over now, but I never want to try to
choke down quite so big a lump of disappointment as I swallowed that day. One
comrade who was in that squad writes me that he did not have anything to eat
that day. I fared better, for when we got tired of waiting for the Commissary
Sergeant to com over and issue our grub, and charged the pile of bread on the
river bank, I secured a chunk as sweet as pie.
But I must quit right here. I would like to stir up the
memories of life on Belle Island, our elections and debates, but space is
limited, and we old boys are garrulous. If any of you come this way we will go
down into the wards and fry a little bacon and drink a cup of black “Old
Government Java.” – C. F. FAULKNER, Soldiers’ Orphans’ Home, Atchison,
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