From the National Tribune, 8/20/1891
How Union Officers were Confined in Rebel Dungeons.
EDITOR NATIONAL TRIBUNE: In a recent issue of your paper,
in “Personals.” I noticed the item pertaining to Gen. W. R. Lee, Colonel of
the 20th Mass., and his part in the rebel prison as a hostage. I
think there is very little known about that affair, and as I have heard Capt.
Rockwood, one of the 14 hostages, tell the story of their selection,
confinement, and escape (as escape they did), I venture on the patience of your
readers to give the story as he tells it sitting by my side; also, as an aid in
proving data, a volume of “Prison Life in the Tobacco Warehouse at
Richmond,” by Lieut. Wm. C. Harris, of Col. Baker’s California regiment,
published in 1862.
The book says: “On Sunday, Nov. 10, 1861, Gen. John H.
Winder, commanding Department of Richmond, accompanied by his staff, was
observed to alight at the prison office. It being an unusual occurrence for his
visits to be attended with such ceremony, much surprise arose as to its cause
and consequences; but we readily believed that it portended evil, as his visits
invariably curtailed our restricted prison privileges. A few moments elapsed,
and he entered the building attended by the staff in full-dress uniform.
Directing one of them to clear the room of all persons excepting the Federal
officers, he took a position in the center of the floor and announced that he
had a most unpleasant duty to perform. He then read the following order from the
Confederate War Department:
“‘CONFEDERATE STATES WAR
“‘RICHMOND, NOV. 8, 1861.
“‘SIR: You are hereby
instructed to choose by lot from among the prisoners of war of the highest rank
one who is to be confined in a cell appropriated to convicted felons, and who is
to be treated in all respects as such convict, and to be held for execution in
the same manner as may be adopted by the enemy for the execution of the
prisoner-of-war Smith, recently condemned to death in Philadelphia. You will
also select 13 other prisoners of war, the highest rank of those captured by our
forces, to be confined in the cells reserved for prisoners accused of infamous
crimes, and will treat them as such so long as the enemy shall continue so to
treat the like number of prisoners of war captured by them at sea, and now held
for trial in New York as pirates. As these measures are intended to repress the
infamous attempt now mad by the enemy to commit judicial murder on prisoners of
war, you will execute them strictly, as the mode best calculated to prevent the
commission of so heinous a crime.
“‘Your obedient servant,
“‘J. P. BENJAMIN, Acting Sec’y of War.
Brig.-Gen. J. H. WINDER Richmond, Va.’“
Capt. Rockwood says: I remember the scenes as but
yesterday. I think this was not the building known as Libby Prison, but a strong
three-story brick building. (Lieut. Harris says the officers’ room was 65 feet
9 inches by 45 feet.) The middle of the floor was filled with huge tobacco
presses so close together that we could not pass easily between. At roll call
the guard drove us all to one side of the room, an as our names were called we
passed the guard at the end of the room. Gen. Winder announced that from the six
Colonels one was to be drawn to be held as a hostage for Smith, and ordered the
names to be written on separate pieces of paper and placed in a hat. (Harris
says tin box.) And now Mr. Ely (Member of Congress from New York, captured at
Bull Run) was requested to draw one of the names. Col. Michael Corcoran, of the
69th N. Y. was drawn. There were six Colonels, two
Lieutenant-Colonels, and three Majors, making 11 field officers, and three
Captains, drawn by lot in the same manner, and Capts. Ricketts, McQuade, and
Rockwood were drawn. Nov. 12 another drawing was had to take the place of
Ricketts and McQuade, who were wounded and in the hospital, and Bowman and
Keffer were drawn.
The hostages were as follows: Col. Michael Corcoran, 69th
N. Y.; Col. W. E. Woodruff, 2d Ky.; Col. Orlando B. Willcox, 1st
Mich.; Lieut.-Col. G. W. Neff, 2d Ky.; Lieut.-Col. Sam. Bowman 8th
Pa.; Maj. James D. Porter, 38th N. Y.; Maj. Israel Vodges, U. S. Art.
These were all at Charleston, S. C., as they did not consider it safe to have
them so near the lines that separate them from the Union armies.
Col. M. Cogswell, 42d N. Y.; Col. W. Raymond Lee, 20th
Mass.; Col. A. M. Wood, 14th N. Y.; Maj. T. J. Revere, 20th
Mass.; Capt. G. W. Rockwood, 15th Mass.; Capt. Henry Bowman, 15th
Mass.; Capt. Francis J. Keffer, Col. Baker’s California regiment. These were
all at Richmond.
Maj. Gibbs was the officer in command of the prison, and
the notorious Wirtz was Sergeant, then known as the Dutch Sergeant.
Nov. 14, about 3 p. m., we were called to be removed to the
jail, and Serg’t Wirz brought in a long chain, such as is used in chain-gangs,
and spread it out on the floor. Maj. Gibbs asked what that was for. He said it
was to remove the hostages with. The Major said he thought he could remove them
without the chain.
The Henrico County jail, our new prison, is a heavy stone
building in the part of the city near Manchester. As we went up-stairs and
entered the cell, a basket of hot rolls sat on a bench inside, sent by Miss Van
Lew, the Union prisoners’ friend in Richmond. The jailer seeing it uttered an
exclamation of anger, saying: “Well, you may keep that, but it is the last you
will get here.”
The cell we were confined in was 17 by 11 feet and lighted
by two windows, one foot by two, and guarded by four iron bars each, a grated
door swinging out a solid door swinging in.
From Nov. 14 to Christmas we did not go out of the cell.
Dec. 24, so late that it was dark in the cell, the jailer
came up stairs and called for a light from our cell. A candle was lighted and
held out from the grated door. The jailer entered with a citizen, and introduced
him as Faulkner. He said, “I have just returned from an imprisonment in Fort
Warren, in Boston Harbor, and I have visited our prisoners in New York and
Philadelphia and I know how they are treated and what privileges they have. Now
I want to know how you fare here,” and waited for answer or complaint.
Col. Lee, being the oldest and of good address, was our
spokesman. He deliberately spoke, and was not wishing to compromise our jailor,
said: “I suppose we get the same that they do there.” Seeing he could not
get from the prisoners any complaint, he turned to the jailer: “What do you
“Bacon, corn-pone, barley coffee.”
“Is that all they have?”
“Those are my written orders.”
“What exercise do you have?”
“Have not been out of the cell.”
“Do you have the papers?”
“Any reading matter?”
“I shall see Mr. Davis before I sleep and have this
I suppose he did, as the next morning an order was issued
giving us the liberty of the yard one hour each day, and that we might buy
anything we wished, except intoxicating liquor and firearms. About midday Miss
Van Lew sent us in a Christmas dinner - a turkey, hot rolls and Christmas pie -
and later several books; among them I remember were volumes of Shakespeare and
At the commencement of the war the house that Col. Lee was
connected with had considerable money in Richmond, and he drew from them $100 a
week, which he used for the comfort of the hostages.
Lieut. Harris says: “Seven warm hearts nobly responded to
the promptings of sympathy.” Probably about Jan. 1, 1862, an earnest and
affecting petition to the Confederate War Department was drawn up soliciting the
substitution of the names subscribed in lieu of those already confined as
hostages. It represented the increased ill-health of those officers, their age,
their superiority in rank to the privateers, and many other reasons. Their names
are as follows: Capt. John Markoe, Col. Baker’s California regiment; Adj’t
Charles J. Pearson, 20th Mass.; Lieuts. Wm. E. Merrill, U. S.
Engineers; Geo. B. Perry, 20th Mass.; J Harris Hooper and J. E.
Green, 15th Mass.; Chas. M. Hooper, Col. Baker’s California
regiment. In a few days a verbal reply came, “No.”
I might write columns of the incidents and insults that are
related of those three months in the jail, but it is not to be compared to the
sufferings endured at Libby and Andersonville, and I will close. At some future
time I would like to send the account of their escape, through the blunders of
drunken officers, 29 years ago. - L. W. BAKER, 9th Mass. battery,
Marlboro, Mass., for Capt. Geo. W. Rockwood, 15th Mass., captured at
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