From the National Tribune, 6/13/1895
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
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
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
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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