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Prison experience.

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

No. 2.

About this time (January, 1864) General B. F. Butler was made Commissary of Prisoners, and in the discharge of his duty he paid us a visit. He was welcomed in such a manner as a parcel of defiant “Rebels” could welcome him, with hisses, curses and groans; notwithstanding which, he made us some good promises. Among others, that we should be better treated, have more wood, more food and plenty of clothes. As we knew this to be so many idle words, it produced no effect upon us. He did not seem to have formed a favorable impression of the Confederate authorities. One of his first acts towards better treatment was to relieve one of the white regiments as a guard, and place in its stead the Thirty-sixth North Carolina colored regiment. This was a severe blow to us. On the 25th of February they arrived, accoutred in their military glory. They were quite a curiosity to many, as they had never, previous to this time, seen any colored troops. The first day they came on guard will long be remembered by every prisoner in the camp. At the usual hour, they marched in with knapsack, haversack and canteen, equipped as for a march. They proceeded with military precision to unsling their knapsacks, and place them upon the ground, to mark the ends of their beats. The main street, along which they were stationed, was crowed with prisoners, all anxious to see the “monkey show.” We knew their intense hatred to us, and we were well aware that the slightest demonstration on our part would be used as a pretext for firing into us. Notwithstanding this, some fellow, on mischief bent, deliberately crossed the line, and stole one of their knapsacks, which he tossed into the road, and the dismay and chagrin evinced by this ebony son of Mars can be imagined better than described. After calling in the officer of the guard, he related his story in the following pathetic style: “Fore God, if I bin here six monts, I never tief anything from dese buckra. I wouldn't care, if dey give me back dat garytype. Dat's all I wants.” These are, as near as can be remembered, the exact words he used on the occassion. He never recovered his knapsack, nor his “garytype,” for it was seen, long afterwards, in the possession of a prisoner, who used all kinds of expedients to keep it concealed, for had he been discovered his life [394] would have paid the forfeit. A guard of negroes was sent through the camp to search for it, and the manner in which they performed that duty was observable in the number of bleeding heads among the prisoners. They had beat them over the head in order to compel them to tell who did it. For this conduct, their officers praised them, and told them to shoot whenever they felt like doing so, and right well did they obey this order, as will be shown hereafter. Matters were thus proceeding from bad to worse. The shooting of a prisoner was looked upon as an every day affair, especially when said shooting was done by a negro. The colored troops came on guard only once in three days, and the day of their coming was always dreaded by the prisoners. In accordance with General Butler's promise, to give us more rations, our meagre supply of coffee was cut off. This was not so much of a deprivation to us as might be supposed, for the coffee was “slop water” in every respect. Some of the prisoners went so far as to say that the Commissary actually shook a small bag of coffee at each kettle (about forty gallons of water). This was a grim joke, but it had much the appearance of truth. Shortly after cutting off the coffee supply, our rations were reduced in other respects. Bread was issued in the afternoon. The men would eat it as soon as they received it. It does not take much time to consume eight ounces of soft bread. They would then, of course, be without bread until the following afternoon. About two or three ounces of meat was given for breakfast, and a cup of greasy water for dinner. Hitherto the sulter had been allowed to sell provisions in limited quantities to those who had the money with which to purchase. This privilege was also abolished, and we were compelled to rely upon the Government rations. As the United States officers used every means to induce the prisoners to take the oath, it is fair to presume that the “best Government the sun ever shone upon” was now reduced to the policy of starving men into allegiance to it. There was much work to be done on the outside of the pen, and the prisoners were induced to do it by promise of extra rations and tobacco, and the privilege of getting out every day. There were several of the details, each numbering about thirty men. One was sent to the wharf for the purpose of loading boats, another to the quartermaster's warehouse, &c. The Government never made anything by employing these “rebels,” as they invariably “flanked” more than they received as pay. They were very useful to the men in camp, as by their aid many little comforts and articles of necessity were brought [395] in, when they were not overhauled and stopped. Our spirits were very much rivived, about the 1st of March, by seeing several paragraphs in the papers relative to the exchange of prisoners, which had been broken up at the battle of Gettysburg by the United States officers, who flagrantly violated the terms of the cartel. This was a most interesting subject to us, especially the Gettysburg prisoners, who had been told that they were retained as “nest eggs,” and that they would have no more fighting to do. On the 3d of March, the First division left for Dixie, and the 10th, the Ninth division, and on the 17th, five companies of the Second division left. We now began to regard an early return to the sunny South with some certainty, and many were the plans laid out for amusement and fun upon our arrival at home. These were all, however, doomed to bitter disappointment, as the next week brought us the news that Butler's plan of “swapping man for man” would not work. We now began to look forward to the termination of the war as the only end to our captivity. On the 23d and 30th of April, two boat loads of sick were taken off. Shortly after this our situation began to get worse. Warm weather was approaching, the camp was crowded, and hospital accommodations were very poor. The water, which could be used in the winter in moderate quantities only, was now in such a condition as to be totally unfit for use. In May, large numbers of the wounded from Grant's army were brought to the hospitals, situated on the point outside. This water was used to wash their wounds, and gangrene made its appearance. They were compelled to send to Baltimore for water, and it was brought in casks which had formerly contained vinegar, liquors of all description, and even oil. Our number now had increased to about 15,000 men, and we had a city of tents. The health of the men began to fail rapidly, and soon the prisoners' hospital was crowded. Fever in every shape abounded, and smallpox was epidemic. Nearly every tent contained one or two cases of this loathsome disease. It had become so common, that prisoners did not fear it. The hospital could not accommodate all the sick, and they were left in their tents, many of them with a blanket only to protect them from the damp ground, and entirely destitute of proper nourishment. Men who were seen in the morning, apparently in health, were taken to the “Dead house” in the afternoon, and some have been known to drop in the street, and die before they could be carried to the tents. Notwithstanding the enforcement of the most rigid sanitary measures, diseases of all kinds continued to [396] spread with an alarming rapidity. Add to this the short rations which were meted out to us, together with their miserable quality and the cruel treatment which we received at the hands of the negro soldiers, and you have but a faint idea of the suffering to which we were now subjected. Fears of death, either by disease or the hands of the negroes, forced many true Southern soldiers to think of taking the oath. This could readily be done, by application to the proper authorities, and a released obtained — only, however, to be drafted in the United States army. An opportunity to take the oath, and go into the United States army, was now freely extended to all the prisoners, as the officials gave notice that a “drawing for hostages in retaliation for the Fort Pillow massacre” was to take place at some early day. Preparations were accordingly made, and finally the 20th of May was announced as the day upon which to determine the fate of many men. The ruse took remarkably well, and some hundred or so flocked to the gate, to swear fealty to “Uncle Sam.” After this furor oath-taking was not so prevalent. Later in the summer, it again made its appearance, and this time the prisoners determined to take action to prevent it. This, however, had to be done with great secrecy, as the participators in it, if known, would have been severely punished. Meetings were held in the tents of the most prominent men in camp, and various schemes devised to prevent the depletion of our ranks in this manner. None of them had any effect, however, and more vigorous measures had to be adopted. Whenever it was known that a prisoner intended taking the oath (and it was very difficult to conceal the matter from his tent mates), a party would proceed to his tent the night previous, call him out and administer a severe flogging. They even went so far as to clip off the ears of one. Of course the parties who did this work were completely disguised. Thus it will be seen that Kuklux existed at Point Lookout before it did in South Carolina. The enforcement of these harsh measures decreased the number of oath-takers very materially, and the United States were compelled to seek elsewhere for recruits. Summer was now fairly upon us, and we began to feel its effects most severely. There was not a shade tree in the camp, and the only shelter we had from the scorching rays of the sun was our dilapidated tents. The glare of the sun upon the white ground and tents soon produced what is known as “moon blindness.” This is a disease which affects one only at night. Then one-half of the camp, at least, were totally blind, and had to be led [397] by those who were more fortunate. Their fear that this might terminate in total and permanent blindness was a source of extreme .anxiety to most of the men, and began to tell most fearfully upon their health and spirits. Nothing was done by the authorities (if, indeed, anything could have been done) except the issuing of green shades for the eyes, and planting some small spots with oats, rye, &c., so that the eye might have a green spot to look upon. The health of the camp began to grow worse, and deaths were very numerous. Very little has been said so far as to the treatment which we received, and a few words on that subject would not be amiss. As a general rule, the treatment by the white soldiers was not so bad, and it would have been much better, no doubt, had it not been for the cruel policy of the United States Government, and the stringent orders to have that policy carried out. Our guards were relieved every morning, and fresh ones were mounted. A patrol of ten or twelve men was placed in the camp, whose duty it was to see that the prisoners retired to their tents at the proper hour and extinguished their lights. Their orders were to allow no one to walk about after “taps” were sounded, nor to allow any unnecessary noise or conversation in camp. The colored troops were very harsh in their treatment of us, and they were no doubt urged to do this by their officers, who were certainly the meanest set of white men that could be found anywhere. The negroes never let an opportunity pass to show their animosity and hatred towards us, and the man who shot a Rebel was regarded as a good soldier. They carried their authority to the extreme, and would shoot upon the slightest provocation. If a prisoner happened to violate even one of the simplest regulations, he was sure to be shot at, and should he be so unfortunate as to turn over in his sleep, groan or make any noise, which some were apt to do while sleeping, the tent in which he lay would be fired into. For instance, one night in Company G, Fourth division, some one happened to groan in his sleep. The negro patrol was near, heard it, and fired into the tent, killing two and wounding several others. These were killed while sleeping and were unconscious of having committed any offence whatever. None of the patrols were punished, but were praised for vigilance. Scores of incidents, similar in character and result, might be given, but it would only be consuming time. Suffice it to say that a man's life was in more danger than upon a picket line, for he was completely at the mercy of the cruel and malignant negro soldiery. Even the white troops were incensed against them, [398] and often “rocked” them while walking their posts — an act for which the prisoners were blamed, and for which they were fired into on more than one occassion. Shooting into the tents of prisoners became so common that the officers of the white regiments protested at last against their (the colored troops) being allowed in camp, and accordingly they were withdrawn at night, and white patrols substituted.

Desertions among the guard were of a frequent occurrence, and they often carried prisoners with them. One night, a sharp firing was heard on the bay shore, and next morning the bodies of severel Confederates and Yankees were seen lying upon the beach. One boat load had made good their escape, but this was detected and fired into. The prison pen was so closely guarded that it was almost impossible to escape. In addition to the strong guard maintained around the pen, a block house, with a barricade, extended across the point about a mile from our quarters. Gunboats were constantly patrolling the bay and river. To go up the point was impossible, as the barricade was strongly guarded, and the Virginia shore was twelve miles from us, while the eastern shore of Maryland was twenty miles distant. Notwithstanding these disadvantages some few managed to get away.

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