7 - PRISON
We were first taken to Rossville Springs where a strong guard was put around us. This was a very beautiful place. We arrived here in time to see Longstreet attacking Moccasin Point. This was protected by Rosecrans with artillery. The Rebels put fifty thousand men before the deadly fire of our men, in the rifle pits, and from the heavy artillery. But they were compelled to soon give way in the face of the awful fire of our men, leaving about three thousand dead and wounded on the field. They retired to Lookout Mountain at which they at once proceeded to fortify.
We stayed at Rossville Springs until about four o'clock the following day when we were taken to Ringgold by about fifty infantry. From there we were taken to Buzzard's Roost by about the same number of Wheeler's cavalry. They took clothes and everything that was worth taking from us. They took my boots and gave me an old pair of canvas shoes which were a mile too big for me. At that time it was a disgrace to wear canvas shoes. We traveled all day, and into the night, without anything to eat. Upon arriving at Buzzard's Roost, our fast was broken by a chunk of corn bread and cup of cold water. We were turned into a bull pen or a stockade. There were about as many in our crowd in the pen when we were dumped in.
Here we stayed until the middle of the next day when we were started to Richmond by railroad. We stopped every night and were put in bull pens for safe keeping. We were in route for Richmond from October 22nd to November 1st. We were put into Libby Prison for one night, but that was so much overcrowded we were moved to the Royster Building which had been a tobacco warehouse. In this building there were about five hundred of us prisoners combined, one hundred on each floor, as close as we could lie together. We had drawn only three days rations during the journey, so were quite ready for a decent meal. We had some Confederate money, which we hadn't been relieved of, and with this we managed to buy some food while in route.
In our new quarters we had one ration a day, this was at nine o'clock, and we had the luxury of white bread and meat occasionally. I was appointed to draw rations for the five hundred, and in other ways be responsible for the behavior of the household.
Soon after our incarceration in this miserable place and incident occurred which caused considerable of a stir. A fine fat dog, belonging to one of the Confederate officers, followed some of the officers in one day. Some of the boys immediately hit upon the idea of making a feast out of it. So while their attention were directed elsewhere, the dog was quickly captured and put into a kind of a closet.
After the departure of the officers, the boys confided to me what they had done. They were happy in the anticipation of the feast to be had of the valuable dog. The poor dog was soon cut up into a good many pieces and we soon had it cooking in tin cans, or anything else that would serve the purpose of a boiling pot. In this operation we made splendid use of the gas lights by cooking the meat over them. We were all just starving when the meat was ready to eat, and it surely tasted better to us than any meat we ever had. There was one thing we were sadly lacking in and that was bread.
The owners of the dog came back in search of the valuable animal. They were so sure that we had made away with it that they declared that there would be no rations given to us the next day unless the dog was produced the next morning at roll call. Of course it would be impossible to produce the dog. There was only one thing for us to do, and that was to quietly submit to the depravation of our day's rations. But, we were not going to be without food entirely on that account.
One of the guards was a good fellow, which facts we had happily discovered. So I proposed to him that we would give him one dollar bill for every one hundred loaves of bread that he would furnish us. He readily agreed to this, as one dollar greenback was worth ten dollars in Confederate money. Luckily I had secreted five one dollar bills in such a place the Rebels wouldn't think of looking for em. One of the 40th Ohio boys lost five hundred dollars in gold to the Rebels when we were taken. If he had only let us know that he had so much money, we could have hidden it in such a way that they wouldn't have gotten it.
We were lucky in having an expert penman engraver. He was so very expert that our supply of greenbacks didn't give out very soon. For three greenbacks we got three hundred loaves of bread, so we didn't suffer so much in being deprived of our day's rations. There was a little of the dog soup remaining, so that made the bread go down real well.
It must be remembered that the army contained many experts in all the arts and professions, and fortunately we had some of them among our number. One was a jeweler and he made his art highly useful to us in the time of need. Another was an expert carver, he was a Norwegian. We managed to get a laurel root from the guards at Libby, through one of their own guards, who had been a Union man, and was a friend to us. He had been pressed into the Confederate service. A Libby guard secured the Laurel roots for him to sell.
Out of these roots we made pipes and decorated them with gold, made from gold pins, which our captors evidently didn't know the value of, or else they would have taken them from us. Gold was a mighty precious thing in the Confederacy. Our carver and jeweler made pipes which were highly prized by the Rebels. We received one hundred dollars for each one of them in Confederate money.
I was held accountable for the behavior of the whole house. We had some fellows from New York City who were disreputable and they gave me considerable trouble. Finally they took the property of some of the other boys and refused to give it up. So I was compelled to report them to the officer in charge. He threatened them with a "taste of hell" at Bell Island, if they failed to mend their ways - that was sufficient. We could see the prisoners at Bell Island from our position, and their condition was all the warning our mean ones needed to make them greatly improve their ways. The misery of the other fellows we could plainly see. They were almost naked and their tents were almost totally destroyed.
Those of our boys who had been addicted to the liquor habit were incessant in their ploy for that drink. The guards could get all the apple jack they wanted for ten cents a quart and they sold it to the prisoners, when they felt safe in doing so, at exorbitant prices. Had they been detected in this, they would have been very severely dealt with. For minor disobedience they could be sent to the front. I pleaded with the guards not to sell any of our boys liquor because it would make us very dire trouble. And in this, we really had very little trouble as the guards realized that it was a very serious matter for all concerned.
In our correspondence with the folks at home we were under close censorship, and oh, what a joy it was to get word from the loved ones at home. None but those who actually had such experience could realize what our longings for home was like.
An incident occurred the second day of our incarceration, in this place of misery, which helped us a great deal in our privations, in the way of getting news to the outside world, which gave us hope for better times ahead. I happened to look up, and across the street, when my attention was attracted by a lady waiving her hand to me, and soon saw she was trying to communicate with me in the deaf and dumb language. I made her understand that I would bring someone who could communicate with her. So I hurried upstairs to find someone there if possible, and in this I was successful. Immediately after calling for such a want, a young fellow from New York came forward and said, "Yes, I had a deaf and dumb sister and I learned to talk with her all right." "Well come, come along quick", I said, "there is a lady upstairs, across the street, who wants to talk to us." She was waiting for us, and looking up and down the street to make sure no one was watching her.
Our boy proved that he was quite proficient in the language. The first question was, "how many are there of you in the building and how are you being treated?", she asked, especially concerning our food. We told her that the most substantial part of our rations was cornbread which was served in bricks, or rather in pieces, cut to about the size and shape of the ordinary brick. Each brick to feed two men for two days. She then asked us if we would like to have some reading matter. This certainly delighted us for we had been forbidden to have reading matter of any description. She said she was a teacher of the dumb language, and she surely was an expert.
The next day she smuggled some newspapers and magazines to us by a guard whom she no doubt had to bribe. We eagerly devoured the news. We found to our surprise that there were about thirty thousand Union prisoners in Richmond. Libby was the largest prison, it was about three or four blocks distance from our prison, or the "Royster House" as it was known. From our lady friend we got Union newspapers which let us know what was going on throughout the South. We came to the conclusion that she was a Union spy, but of course it was out of the question for her to reveal her mission there, for our prison walls were full of ears.
Our first morning work was to do a skirmish duty. This was to make a very close examination of our trousers and shirts for greybacks. They became so thick that our situation was desperate in that alone. We had nothing to wash ourselves in. To wash our hands and face we just rinsed off at the faucet, there was one on each floor.
We had plenty of tobacco, which we got in the presses, which had been left un-emptied, but the Rebels thought they had them locked against us too strong for us to get at it. As necessity is the mother of invention, we soon found a way to get at the tobacco by opening up the presses. It happened in this way....one day as we were down at the cookhouse after the provisions, I spied an iron rod, and thought it to be just the thing to serve the purpose of a lever for opening up the tobacco presses. Of course the guards didn't suspect the use we were putting it to, or we would have been short in our tobacco for many a day. But as it was, we were plentifully supplied with it, as long as we were in the Royster House.
We found a way to get fresh meat beside the occasional chunk we got in our rations, which was mule flesh. There was a sewer that lead to the James River from our prison. Up this large sewer came the big, fat wharf rats which was the new fresh meat that we got. Pressed by a continuing gnawing hunger, we decided to try the rodents for meat. It is usually no small job to catch a rat, but fortunately I remembered how to make a figure four trap, which art we learned in the wilds of Pennsylvania. It was very successful. Those who wanted fresh meat stood at the block, got a big fat rat as he was caught in the fatal trap. It was rather hard for me to stomach the idea of eating such animals, but the truth is we found them really very palatable. But I must confess that I ate the meat as seldom as I could.
The pork that was given to us in our rations was positively unfit for even a starving man to eat. There was almost a salt famine in the South and the Rebels tried to preserve the pork by packing it in wood ashes. In this they failed miserably as was evidenced by the great quantities of maggots in the pork. The little portion of it that seemed fit to eat was so full of alkali that it gave us diarrhea in a good many instances. One young fellow had it so bad that he died of it.
We had another sad death about that time. A fine young fellow was scalded accidentally while cooking his rat. The boiling water, being spilled over his neck and shoulders, and burned him so badly that he died of it. His cries of agony, and pleading for to take him home, was heartrending.
Those of us who kept busy suffered least from homesickness. One occupation we found was to make bone toothpicks from the bones of the meat in our rations. This was done by sawing the bones into the rough dimensions of the picks and then smoothing them down by rubbing with bricks. We quite readily disposed of them to the guards for sweet potatoes and peanuts. We soon found a way to roast the peanuts. The sweet potatoes were worth ten dollars per bushel in Confederate money. So it may be seen that with our rats, our yams, our peanuts, and the prison rations, we were in no danger of starving.
There were many acts of kindness, and utter unselfishness, done to one another in this miserable place, which shall always remain in my memory, to soften my judgment of the selfish deeds of men to each other in other times. It is only too sad that the same generous spirit doesn't go in men in times of peace. We had one great big, strong, generous and kind-hearted fellow, Dan Dowd, who did so many acts of kindness as to the sick and helpless that it would surely seem that he was entitled to a better place than many in the next world. Many a night he cooked for and nursed his helpless fellows until the night was more than half gone. The memory of those splendid acts will never be forgotten by those of us who witnessed them.
Now and then we were cheered by a communication from our lady friend across the street when she indicated that our boys had just won a battle. Then those of us who had the strength enough to cheer did our best to make a demonstration for "old glory", and we had to be very much debilitated when we would not do this.
The next affair to take place while we were here, that always remained fresh in my memory, was when several officers came amongst us with rolls of writing paper in their hands. It was soon after the winning an important battle by General Grant. They tried every inducement to have us take the oath of allegiance to the Confederacy, but there was not a man who would exchange his misery for dishonor. We all vowed that we would stay in prison until the maggots ate the flesh from our bones, before we would desert our flag.
One day soon after this there were some officers who came to us to take a descriptive roll before sending us home, which they said would take place within the next few days. At this news, some of the boys were jubilant, but some of we older ones were not so ready to believe their lie. That day, as I passed Libby Prison, one of our officers who was confined there with the rest of the officers, dropped to me a little piece of folded paper in which was written "We go to Danville, Virginia, some old tobacco houses. Hell is what it is". Also adding, "It's all a lie that we are going home." While this was really no worse than I expected, I hadn't for a minute thought that there was a word of truth in their promise.
V - DANVILLE
The third night after this we were all marched out with much ceremony and stuffed into box cars. This was the 20th of December. The rain fell all night long. The trainman had trouble moving our train and frequently we heard the engineer and conductor cussing the Negro brakeman. The whole journey was absolutely miserable for us as we were huddled together like so many cattle. The transportation consumed about thirty hours.
Danville, situated at the end of the Shenendoah Valley, was a place of about four or five hundred population. As soon as we arrived there we were hustled into the tobacco houses, two-story high. The James River was frozen over so as to support us afoot. There was neither light nor fire in these miserable places. We lay upon the floor in rows, as close together as we could get, without anything to cover us. We lay "spoon" fashion so as to retain what warmth there was in our bodies, but we soon became sore and tired by lying in the one position. One would shout "spoon"!, and all had to obey the order. Then when we became too cold, we all had to arise, who were able, form in line, and double quick around the room. We placed the invalids in the center of the room and circled around them. We managed to get some fragments of canvas and we partly covered our suffering and distressed comrades with these pieces of harsh cloth.
The first ration served here was cornbread, or johnnycake, cut into bricks, one brick to each man. This was to feed him for twenty four hours. During the whole day I ate very little of my ration because I saw so many of our comrades who were really starving and needed it worse than myself. We were also served with mule meat twice a week, and we found it to be mighty good meat. We made soup with it, and oh, how good it was! Some would eat up their entire ration at once, that was intended to do them for twenty-four hours. But some really needed much more food than others did. One of our companions, Dan Dowd, a great big fellow who had always worked hard at his trade as stone mason, required twice as much as the average man to live on.
We were soon put to work to get our own fuel, which we got from the fine timber across the Jim River. Before the river was frozen strong enough to permit the crossing of loads on the ice, the wood was hauled by Negroes for the Confederates - it was dumped on a vacant lot. As soon as the ice was strong enough to support us, we were sent across in squads, under guard, to get our own wood. I was allowed ten men but they hadn't the efficiency of half that number under normal conditions to do much work.
There was a fireplace on each floor of the house we were in, but some of the houses had none, so dirt was laid on the floor for a fireplace. We hadn't gas burners as we had in our former prison, so we did our cooking on the fireplace also. They later built a baking oven for us in which we baked our cornbread.
Those in command of this prison were North Carolinians; a regiment who had been cut to pieces to furnish the men to take charge here. They were really humane fellows in their treatment of us. They realized what it was to be a soldier and so were capable of sympathy - unlike many who performed this same work in the southern prisons. The home guard we detested with all the power of our souls because of their lone, mean inhumanity. So we had comparatively good treatment at the hands of our guards here. Even had medicine given us to relieve those in distress of sickness.
John Boothby and Billy Ingersoll, two of our company, died while here. Boothby was one of the brightest boys in the regiment. Trained in newspaper work and giving extraordinary promise in that field. The poor boy died of pneumonia. Billy Ingersoll, a farmer boy, died of small pox, or the infection of the vaccination. The "dead wagon" took the bodies to old field, which is about a half mile distance from the prison, and there dumped into a hole as if there were no more than the bodies of brutes.
During a very cold spell in January, when the river had become very low, it was discovered that the sewer from the prison, where it emptied into the river, was large enough to permit the passage of a man's body, and it was above the water line. When this discovery was made, there was a scheme immediately made by some of the desperately homesick, and also daring ones, to avail themselves of this means to escape presented to us. Four of those men determined upon an attempt to escape by crawling down the sewer pipe upon their bellies. The way we happened to discover this sewer outlet, was while we were out on an expedition for brush for brooms. We had to measure the size of it by hurried glances so as not to betray our discovery. We found some Laurel roots in the vicinity which were valuable to us for making pipes.
The head of the sewer in the prison was not large enough to admit a man, so they got busy and tore out the brick and mortar and scraped out the dirt with canteens sufficiently to allow one to squeeze through the opening. When this was completed, four men undertook the dangerous escape. About a month later we got word that two of them were found in such a frozen condition that they probably died later, as we never heard of them after they were taken to Rebel headquarters.
The other two men were exhausted, and about ready to give up, when one night while warily making their way, they heard the crowing of a rooster. Their suffering had been so intense that they felt compelled to believe, who they supposed was a Rebel farmer, to be their captor. But joy! They were saved by a Union family who provided them with food and clothing and started them on towards the Pennsylvania line, well equipped for the remainder of their journey to the land of safety. One of them was from Michigan, the other from Illinois. In Pennsylvania, they were cared for with all possible kindness, and sent on their way homeward rejoicing. But first they were required to report to the Provost Marshal to allow them to go to their homes for thirty days. After that time to report to the Parole Camp, if their examining surgeon gave them a certificate of good health. But many would prefer to return to their regiment at the front rather than go to the Parole Camp, because of the grafting and the authority loving official.
About this time some more men were added to our prison numbers. Of these, one was added to my quota - a big, fat fellow of the state of Michigan. He made himself conspicuous by his haranguing over something to eat continually. He was so persistently mean, that it finally culminated in a fight when he insisted on taking a frying pan from me that I was using. Upon my determined refusal to let him have it, he kicked it into the fire. I could not forgive such an insult, so I jumped upon him, knocking him down. But he finally managed to get me under. Then my friends came to my rescue and knocked him off in a mighty rough fashion. I then jumped upon him again and then it was that I got one of the worse scars of my whole war experience by breaking the second finger, hitting him on the back of his head. We all then gave him a hit, or a kick, to settle his ill humor. He then shamedly went away and troubled none of us further. This was the only trouble I had with our men in prison.