National Tribune, 6/13/1895

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From the National Tribune, 6/13/1895


A Veteran Refutes One of the Characteristic Lies About Good Treatment in Rebel Prisons.

EDITOR NATIONAL TRIBUNE: I noticed some statements in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch about the jolly crowd of prisoners on Belle Isle. I was one of those 6,000 “jolly” fellows there in August, September and part of October, 1864. I had charge of Squad 46, consisting of 100 men. It was my duty to preserve order as well as I could, receive and distribute the allowance of "the abundance of good bread and beef" allotted to my 100 men. With the exception of one week during my entire visit to that noted health resort, we had no meat of any kind, except the little Berkshire pigs that grew inside and fattened on the black beans or peas with which our soup was seasoned. I solemnly affirm that four ordinary wooden pails filled with this soup was the greatest quantity ever received at one time for feeding 100 men one day; sometimes two pails had to suffice.

In addition to this, we had one pound of cornbread to each man. The bran had not been taken from the meal, and no salt in the bread. The bread was baked in a quick oven; was nicely browned, as a rule, on top and bottom. The middle was raw.

It soon became my duty to take the sick to Surgeon's call, and from 10 to 16 from my squad had to be taken out for treatment each morning. Without reflecting on the character or ability of the Surgeons in charge, I must say little benefit was received from the visits to the quinine tent. Many of the sick were unable to walk, but usually such were taken across the river to Richmond hospitals by boats to the opposite shore, then in ambulances to the city.

One memorable day, when we had a battle raging fiercely on the north side of the James, and near the city, as we thought, the ambulances, being on duty elsewhere, failed to take the sick from the island, who had been left under a shed outside the inclosure. The next morning, when I again took the sick to the shed for treatment, we found four of the poor fellows cold and stiff in death. No mark was on them by which their identity could be determined. These were some of the jolly fellows.

As to the on week’s exception I stated, when speaking of meat rations, I will say that Wade Hampton’s cavalry captured 2,400 beef cattle from Grant’s herdsmen, and for one week we had beef. All the choice steaks were cut from the carcass, and then the beef was boiled in large caldrons, and bones, meat, and soup given us – one pail of this for 100 men. I can never forget the scenes enacted around me while I was trying to divide the small allowance into 100 rations. The men gathered around me, crowding and swearing at each other. If I had a bone in the bucket, I would scrape the meat off it and make a ration of the bone, which contained some marrow and other nutritive substances. On one occasion I found a bone six inches long, full of marrow. No sooner had it been brought to light than one soldier said, “Sergeant, I’ll take that bone for my ration.” “No you won’t,” says another; “you had the bone yesterday.” “You’re a liar!” and at it they went, fighting like dogs until separated by comrades. These were some of the “jolly fellows.”

I had in my squad an artillery Corporal, who, seeing clearly the fate awaiting him if he remained in prison, concluded to try escape. He selected a companion, and came to me and unfolded his plans, which were as follows: About a hundred soldiers were on parole of honor, and on duty outside the inclosure, in the cook-house, policing the grounds, boating wood from the other side of the James River to the Island. The Corporal said he intended to give his parole and get on duty outside, and when a favorable chance offered he would go to God’s country or perish in the attempt.

He and his companion had no trouble in getting detailed for duty outside, and, by close watch, they saw an officer’s servant bring his little boat to shore and tie it to a stake, and retire to the officers’ quarters. The negro, they believed, had forgotten to lock the boat. The night being dark, as soon as they heard the guard announcing, “Ten o’clock and all is well,” they silently stole their way to the coveted boats.

The boat was locked. They dare not risk breaking lock or chain, the close proximity of the guards preventing it. They cast about for something to aid them in their perilous journey across the James River, found a board, on which they placed all they had, tied in a little bundle, and pushed out into the stream. They were able to wade a distance of 50 yards from the shore, then they resorted to swimming.

The board on which their clothes were placed was soon lost in the darkness. They swam around in search of it and when found they were nearly exhausted, and coming to a large stone, many of which abound in the river at that point, they climbed upon it and consulted as to what should be done. They concluded that to go on in their exhausted condition would be certain destruction, and to try to reach the shore from which they had come was but little, if any, more likely to succeed.

They determined finally to call for assistance. Accordingly they yelled loudly till one of the guards informed those in command that somebody was in distress out in the stream somewhere. The officers, with suitable assistance, went out on the waters, and, guided by the cries of the boys on the rock, they soon came to the rescue. Then ensued an exhibition of Southern chivalry. The officers found the poor, naked boys on the rock, kneeling and begging not to be shot. The captors cursed and swore, fired their pistols, yanked the naked boys into the boat, proceeded to shore, and put the boys on wooden horses.

The horse was only one inch wide at the top. The soldiers were placed astride, their hands tied behind them, and their legs were anchored by ropes to stakes in the ground and drawn tightly so the men could not move, and thus for hours they were forced to endure great agony. All this for attempting to escape starving and death. Oh! those were “jolly fellows.”

One morning while we were all crowded onto the small part of the island outside the inclosure (a daily occurrence) to be marched back in single file and counted, two soldiers burrowed into the sand of which the island was composed, crowded themselves into the hole, their comrades spread a piece of old tent over them and covered them with sand. The boys intended to emerge from their concealment when nigh spread her mantel of darkness over the scene, and by swimming the river make their escape. There was an Irishman on parole outside who had been there for years, refusing a parole in 1863, when Milroy’s soldiers were paroled and sent home. He remained there, as we thought at the time, as a spy. This fellow took a fishing rod and strolled along the edge of the water and discovered the hidden soldiers, who had their faces exposed so as to be able to breathe. He passed by, seeming not to notice, but made his way back to Headquarters and made known his discovery.

The commandant took two armed soldiers, repaired to the place and there found the buried soldiers. With his sword he struck them on the head, cursing loudly the while. This occurred in the afternoon. The officer ordered his guards to watch closely, and not all the boys to move hand or foot. “D--- ‘em,” said he, “I’ll let them enjoy the beds they made for themselves. Give them nothing to eat nor to drink till further orders.”

All that day, all the following night and till after noon the second day did the poor boys lie in the sand, cramped, hungry and perishing with thirst, not allowed to move on pain of instant death.

As usual we were marched out again the next day, and when we came near the boys we found a circle described in the sand 10 feet from them, and none allowed to pass within to relieve them. One of the comrade threw a piece of cornbread to the boys, which was instantly grabbed by guards and thrown into the river. You may imagine the condition they were in when released. Those were “jolly fellows.” – D. J. MARTIN, 110th Ohio, Covington, O.

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