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Chapter 6:

  • A New prison
  • -- murder of Lieutenant Bliss -- in irons-yankee ingenuity -- rebel ignorance -- Parson Rogers-faithful servants -- bold and successful escape of prisoners -- Captain Troy -- a Blindfold journey -- a traitor.

We were now conducted to our new quarters in the military prison, a description of which I will attempt. The side walls were of brick, twenty inches in thickness, and thirteen feet high. The ends were closed by massive ironclad wooden gates, extending the whole width of the prison. The room was about two hundred feet long, and forty in width. It was used formerly as a cotton depot. There was on either side a narrow shed-roof, sloping inward, extending two-thirds of the entire length of the building. Beneath this shelter were six hundred soldiers, and about one hundred and fifty political prisoners.

Near this prison, Lieutenant Bliss, of Illinois, one of the noblest and truest men I ever knew, and a minister of the gospel, was murdered. The circumstances of this cruel outrage are as [82] follows: One beautiful morning in May, the Lieutenant, being somewhat indisposed, and desiring to breathe the fresh and fragrant air without our prison walls, asked permission of the Captain of the Guard, to go to an adjacent house and get his canteen filled with fresh milk. With considerable reluctance the privilege was granted, and the Lieutenant and myself were allowed to go on our errand, under a guard of four armed men. Upon our arrival at the house, Bliss handed his canteen through the window, where a lady received it, and in accordance with his request, filled it with milk, and passed it back to him. At this moment, one of the guards muttered some undistinguishable order, which I was unable to understand, although I was nearer the guard than Bliss. The command, whatever it was, of course could not be obeyed; but the guard instantly raised his gun. Bliss saw it, and remarked pleasantly, though a little excited:

You are not going to shoot me, are you?

No sooner were his words uttered, than the gun was fired and the bullet pierced the heart of my gallant comrade. His last words were, “Brother, I'm shot!” I stood amazed and dumb with indignation over the bleeding corpse of my faithful companion, the three remaining [83] loaded guns pointed at me. From this scene of murder I was forced back to the prison. I felt it my duty to report this inhuman act to the commandant, and ask redress, by having the reckless guard punished. What was my astonishment and indignation to learn, afterward, that that very guard, for that very act, was granted thirty days furlough as a reward. The only apology offered was, that possibly the guard misunderstood his instructions! I ventured to tell the commandant, Captain Troy, my opinion of such conduct, and to his face called the outrage by its proper name, a bloody murder, committed under his guilty authority. As I might have expected, this plain language brought down his vengeful wrath, and he replied:

“I will put you in irons, sir.”

I could but reply, thinking of my dear, lost comrade:

“I'am in your power, sir, irons or no irons; but you murdered my sick friend, and are guilty of shedding his blood!”

For my impertinence, I was handcuffed and made to suffer the cruel spite of my hateful enemies.

These things occured in the city of Montgomery, [84] Alabama, among the chivalry of the South.

We often suffered for water in this cotton-shed prison. Some of our boys resolved to dig a well within the walls. In digging, they came to a stratum of potters' clay, by which, after the well was completed, they passed many a leisure hour in manufacturing little wares, such as pipes, rings, cups, &c., all of which found a ready sale among the rebels, and commanded a fair price in Confederate shinplasters. The ingenuity of our Yankee boys was a constant marvel to the stupid Southrons. We received sufficient pocket money by our manufactures to furnish us with many little conveniences and comforts. One of our comrades, who had formerly been an engraver, and who had no conscientious scruples about using the rebel currency to the best advantage, was very skillful in changing five cent scrip to fifties, and many of the fives that were passed in for our wares, passed out fifties for gingerbread!

One day quite a commotion prevailed among the rebel peddlers in our prison. A gaunt, gawking fellow had received one of these changed bills, but was not quite satisfied of its genuineness. A motley crowd were huddled around him trying to unravel the mystery. I was called [85] by the holder of the bill to explain. Said the puzzled critic, holding out the suspected paper and pointing to the redundant cipher at the right of the five:

Look here, Capt'n, at this tarnal round thing here, This thing ortn't fur to be here.

“Well, sir,” said I, “I can't help it; why did you put it there?”

“I didn't put it thar, nuther. I got it uv that thar feller,” said he, pointing to a brighteyed soldier about seventeen years of age, who sat looking on with apparent indifference, but who was greatly enjoying the confusion of the ignorant butternut, who had just sense enough to know that something was wrong, but no ingenuity to detect the imposition. I do not justify this money-making trick, but, under the circumstances, its sinfulness is somewhat diminished.

We were then more than a thousand miles from home, surrounded by a bloodthirsty and infuriated mob, robbers of our government, and oppressors of our fellow-men. We were dragged to that prison half-starved and moneyless. Our rations consisted of a bit of spoiled beef not larger than your two fingers, a small slice of coarse corn-bread without salt, and this only twice a day. Whatever more than this we [86] received, we were compelled to buy at fabulous prices. While in Montgomery I became acquainted with a clergyman named Rogers, a member of the Methodist Church South, who had spent many years in the itineracy, and who was a chaplain in the Mexican war. Mr. Rogers was a man of fine talent, vast experience, and apparently of great piety. He had been an intimate friend, in other years, of Parson Brownlow, which circumstance made his acquaintance an interesting one to me. He had been arrested, and, without a trial hurried from his motherless children to this gloomy prison. The old divine gave me an account of some of his sufferings. He had been frequently imprisoned for his loyal sentiments; and in a few instances made hairbreadth escapes from lynching. While he was in prison he preached for us. The gospel sound was glorious to hear, even beneath the cloud that rested upon us. Though in bonds, we could listen to the voice of truth — the truth that makes us free indeed.

I was here again amused and benefited by the ingeniousness of the colored people, of whom so many wiseacres are constantly seeking to prove a natural imbecility. Very often these shrewd observers would anticipate our wants, and bring us such articles as we really most [87] desired. Sometimes an apparently careless lounger would lean himself against our prisongates, as if to rest himself, and while facing the guards, his skillful fingers would slip a file or a knife through some small aperture to an inside Yankee. These implements were always in demand for the purpose of making rings and trinkets from refuse beef bones. And in case of a contemplated escape from prison, such helps as these are invaluable. It was a constant perplexity to the “Clay-eaters,” to see the negroes so well posted on war matters. Though the unhappy race have been downtrodden and abused to an outrageous extent, which nothing short of eternity will adequately punish, yet they are more intellectual and virtuous than the majority of the whites in Secessia. With Anthony Benezett, the philanthrophic Quaker, I sincerely declare that I have found among the negroes as great a variety of talent as among a like number of whites; and I am bold to assert that the notion entertained by some, that they are inferior in their capacities, is a vulgar prejudice, founded on the pride or ignorance of their lordly masters, who have kept their slaves at such a distance as to be unable to form a right judgment of them. [88]

While we lay in this old cotton-shed, thirteen of the prisoners conceived and executed a plan of escape. They succeeded in scaling the walls, and wandered about the country for some time; but being unacquainted with the geographical features of the locality, were all subsequently recaptured, and again brought to the prison. For this attempted escape, several were shot, and others were loaded with huge chains. In the midst of this severe punishment they never once repined, but looked forward with ardent hope to a period when they might again be permitted to defend the ensign of liberty they so dearly cherished. Many who had previously been “conservative” in their views of the peculiar institution, now realized a modification of their sentiments, while the universal conviction seemed to be that this system of human bondage had been the parent source of all our national dissensions.

Captain Troy seemed to derive special delight in practicing almost every species of deception upon the defenceless prisoners. He frequently cheered us with assurances that our imprisonment would soon terminate, and that we would be on our way homeward in a short time. All these hopes would as quickly give place to saddening disappointments, for in none of his [89] declarations was there the least shadow of truth! One day he entered and told us that we had been exchanged, and ordered us to immediately prepare for our departure. Then we realized “how deep a gloom one beam of hope enlightens,” and in our fancy, already treading the soil of liberty, lost no time in making all necessary preparations to quit the land of chains and cruelty. Nor had we much to prepare — a few moments only, and we stood ready for our exodus. The minutes dragged lazily on that were to introduce us to freedom; but what was our unspeakable vexation and chagrin to learn that we had been the victims of a cruel hoax, perpetrated through sheer diabolism.

One bright and beautiful summer morning, however, legitimate orders came for our instantaneous departure, and, as before, we were soon ready. At eleven o'clock, we stepped aboard the cars, and were soon whirled from this Sodomic city to await the gradual developments of our destiny unknown. Two hundred and fifty miles brought us to the city of Columbus, Georgia, on the Chattahoochee river. The crowd that met us here was composed of remarkably coarse material, and as far as we could perceive, seemed to be an average of the staple human product in that locality. They [90] saluted us with such epithets as “blue-bellied Yankees,” “dirty nigger-thieves,” &c., exhausting the entire slave-pen vocabulary, the reigning vernacular.

I regret that I am compelled to record the defection of one of our party, whom we had supposed to be in hearty sympathy with us, but, who, as the sequel will show, was cooperating with the enemy. Our first suspicions were aroused by the tender regard shown him by the rebel officials and ladies; but when we came to Columbus, his designs and character became more and more apparent. Of him we shall hereafter speak more at length.

The city in which we had temporarily halted quartered a large force of rebel soldiers, the majority of them better clad than any we had yet met. The place itself, extending one mile and a quarter in the direction of the river, and about half a mile toward the interior, and numbering a population of nearly nine thousand, was a beautiful one. I observed a number of unfinished buildings, erected most probably before the war, but now standing exposed and weather-beaten, with no roofs to protect them from the sun and rain. The people here seemed determined to prolong the war to the last, confident of ultimate success.

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