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[487]

Prison experience.

By James T. Wells, Sergeant Company A, Second South Carolina Infantry.

No. 3--concluded.

A great article of trade, crochet needles, was turned out by lathes made for that purpose; so also were pen handles, bodkins, &c. In fact, every little article needed could be made in our canvass city, even to the ingeniously constructed tools with which the men worked. There were the tailors, shoemakers, wash-men, barbers, &c. We also bad eating houses with very little to eat in them; but you could get a good cup of coffee and a piece of fried rat for twenty-five cents. This may seem a joke, but rats were eaten and with much gusto. The first engine made in camp excited much curiosity and wonder among the prisoners, and was visited by a large number of them. It was indeed a curiosity, and a description of it may not be out of place. The boiler was made from an old camp kettle, the mouth of which was plugged up with wood. The pistons and connecting rods were made of wood, and the valves and heads were contrived from old mustard boxes. It does not seem possible that this could be done, yet it was, and the machines were of sufficient power to drive turning lathes, from which pen handles, bodkins, &c., were turned out. The first of these wonderful machines was made by a Georgian, who could neither read nor write. In a short while there were seven of them in different parts of the camp, and as they would whistle every morning previous to commencing work, it reminded one of the machine shops in large cities. Another remarkable curiosity was a clock, the works of which were made completely of bone. When it was completed, it was placed inside of a Confederate canteen, and was exhibited to any one who wished to see it for a cracker. It would be an endless task to enumerate the many little curious and ingenious articles which could be seen about the camp; but it must be remembered that among fourteen thousand or fifteen thousand men there must necessarily be some of ability and ingenuity. Many of them were good writers, and the daily bulletins posted in different parts of the camp attested the fact that they had been accustomed to writing for the public. There were portrait and landscape painters, and many fine pictures were produced there. One, The prisoner's Dream of home, was greatly admired and coveted by many, but money could not purchase it from the owner. The [488] officers would frequently purchase articles from the prisoners, but they could not pay them in money. They would give pass-books to the sutler, upon which you were credited to the amount agreed upon. As you could not purchase eatables from the sutler, this mode of trading did not suit the prisoners; and here the “Detailers” from the camp were of great value to us. They would take out rings, chains, &c., and dispose of them for greenbacks to the runners on the boats plying between Point Lookout and Washington and Baltimore. These runners were great speculators in these little trinkets, which were readily bought by the citizens of the two cities, who sympathized with the South. There was quite a manufactory of wooden-ware, such as tubs, buckets, piggins and pails, carried on in the camp. These were made of cracker-boxes. The Yankees often wondered at the ingenuity and fertility of the prisoners, for they did not imagine that there was much of it among a parcel of Southern soldiers. Many a prisoner learned to read and write, for we had a fine school here, under the immediate control of a South Carolinian. About six hundred scholars attended, and books were furnished liberally by the Christian Commission and ladies in Baltimore. Of course, in order to get through with so many, different hours were set apart for different recitations. There were ten or twelve teachers, whose names cannot be remembered now. All the primary branches were taught, as well as those of an advanced character. An old dilapidated cook-house was set apart as a school-room during the week, and as a place of worship on Sundays. The Sunday-school was large and flourishing. We had divine worship nearly every Sunday, conducted either by the prisoners, or by some preachers from Baltimore. The music at the Sunday-school was always a subject of comment and praise, and it was really of a fine quality, for there were some fine teachers of vocal music attached to the school, and they had large classes. The prayer meetings in different parts of the camp was quite a feature also. There was a large class engaged in the study of phonography, and many of them, no doubt, made good reporters, as they were quite proficient at the time they left. While these good features were very prominent, there were also many bad ones. Gambling houses were very numerous, and the beach during the day presented a strange appearance, as the gambling booths were arranged in perfect order and were always crowded. They were generally decorated by a small, fancy-colored streamer flying from the top, and under them games of every kind were always in progress. [489] Cards, monte, roulette, keno, faro, chuck-a-luck, and, in fact, every game of chance known, was freely indulged in. Greenbacks and Confederate money were both legal, and passed at the regular rates of exchange. It is strange that the authorities allowed this, yet they did. Various kinds of currency were in circulation, the principal of which was “hard tack” and tobacco. With a hard tack you could purchase a chew of tobacco, or vice versa. Some men followed this business regularly. Whenever any one wanted a chew of tobacco, he could cry out, “Here's your hard tack for your tobacco.” Immediately some one would answer, “Here's your tobacco,” and this would apply to anything which might be wanted. It was only necessary to cry out the fact, and the article required could generally be obtained. It would have amused any one, not accustomed to it, to have heard this. The Chesapeake bay afforded a fine opportunity for bathing, and we were allowed to enjoy this privilege two evenings in each week. The distance to which we were allowed to go was marked by bouys, but the filthy condition of the bay often precluded many from enjoying this sport. A negro sentry, while watching the men bathing one hot afternoon, fell off the parapet and broke his neck.

The carelessness of the negroes in handling their arms was notorious. One of them, in looking at the prisoners one day while bathing, placed his chin upon the muzzle of his musket, and rested his foot upon the guard. His foot slipped, the gun was discharged, and blew off the front part of his face. They would often endeavor to show their dexterity and skill with the musket before the prisoners, and, on one occasion, one was shot and killed. The summer had now passed away and we were still on this desolate spot. More “Exchange news” became rife, and our spirits became bouyant again, but only to sink again, for only one boat load was taken off. We saw that we were doomed to spend another winter in prison, and with our experience of the previous one we began to make preparation to meet it. We made brick as well as we could, and dried them in the sun, and put our tents in a more comfortable condition. Some were enabled to purchase empty cracker-boxes from the commissary and build themselves little huts. But these were limited in capacity, and rendered somewhat uncomfortable by the restrictions placed upon them. The authorities would occasionally tear them down to see that nothing contraband was in them. Our treatment had not improved; on the contrary, it grew more severe, and the cruelty of the United States officials towards [490] us seemed to know no bounds. Every day or two fresh orders were issued forbidding some privileges and abridging others. It would be a very difficult matter to describe our sufferings and privations during this terrible winter. Hunger and cold again forced many to forswear allegiance to the “stars and bars” and enlist under the flag of the enemy. All who did so were formed in a regiment of cavalry and sent to the Western frontier, and very many of them, as soon as an opportunity presented itself, deserted and returned to their native land. Nothing of importance occurred this winter. In the month of January, another boat load was taken from camp and sent to Dixie. This had occurred so often that it did not affect us much. About this time our suffering grew so intense from hunger and cold, that it did not seem possible for us to endure it. But the hope of seeing our dear old Dixie cheered us up, and the meeting with the loved ones at home was uppermost in every man's thoughts. On the 8th of February an unusual commotion was observed near the main entrance into the camp, and shortly after an order was posted on the bulletin board bidding the Gettysburg prisoners to hold themselves in readiness. With fear and trepidation we proceeded to obey the order, for we did not know what disposition was to be made of us. We were taken into a pen adjacent to the one we had occupied for the past eighteen months, and there we received the joyful intelligence that we were to be paroled. Several days were consumed in the process, and the night of the 11th, at 2 o'clock A. M., we were marched on board the steamer “City point.” At daybreak on the 12th we were well underway, and the place of our long and cruel captivity was fast receding from view. At noon, at that day, we passed Rip Raps, a barren rock where some of our gallant boys had been sent for some imaginary offence. A severe gale delayed our progress very materially, and the ice in James river was another obstacle. We had passed the grim walls of Fortress Monroe, and began to realize familiar scenes and places. About noon, on the 15th, we arrived at Varina Ferry, and were immediately transferred to our own boats, under the command of that courteous officer and gentleman, Captain Hatch. The officers of the boat had some difficulty in keeping the men in their proper places, for the river was full of torpedoes, and the boats had to be piloted very carefully. At 4 P. M. we landed at Richmond — dear old Richmond — and a happy day it was for us. The merchants near the wharf opened boxes of tobacco for us, and gave us bountifully of it. It would be difficult [491] to imagine a more joyful party, and the Provost Guard experienced much difficulty in maintaining order along the streets. By night we were all housed at Parole camp or in some of the hotels, and in a few days were furloughed to go to our homes and loved ones. Thus ended our captivity, which will never be forgotten by those who were unfortunate enough to be compelled to participate in it. But there is no cloud, however dark, without a silver lining, and the many friendships formed during our long imprisonment will last till life shall end. Our parting was trying, for it was sundering the ties which had been formed during months of suffering and privation, but we were consoled by the thought that we were soon to meet our loved ones at home.

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