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Prison experience of a Northern soldier.

By Rev. George T. Smith.
[We print with pleasure the following paper from a quondam Federal soldier, now a minister of the gospel, and about to go out as a foreign missionary:]

It is with some reluctance that the writer calls from the misty past, the images of his four years in the army. He would prefer to live in the future, but as every item of personal experience will be of value to the future and impartial historian, he makes this (his first) contribution to the press on that topic.

The echoes of the cannon of Manassas on Sunday, July 21st, 1861, had not died away before the writer was enrolled as a private in Co. G., Thirty-fourth Ohio volunteers, in the city of Cincinnati.

The first year was one of petty skirmishes enlivened by a severe engagement at Princeton, West Va. After the battle, the Union troops under General J. D. Cox fell back to Flat Top Mountain where they remained during the summer. Reports of a general advance by the Southern forces, caused the troops thus guarding the valuable salt works of the Kanawha Valley to fall back to [331] Fayetteville, and summoned General Cox to the aid of General McClellan with the larger portion of his command.

In September, General Loring advanced towards the Valley with a rumored force of 10,000 troops. On the 10th of September, they reached the outpost at Fayetteville, W. Va.; here were two regiments the Thirty-fourth and Thirty-seventh Ohio. The skirmishing began in the morning, but it was not until noon that we could see the line advancing, and were ordered to strike tents and prepare for battle. We started at a moderate pace but soon quickened our step, the dust arose so thick we could not see each other when the bullets began to whistle through our ranks. Knapsacks were peeled instantly; inside of mine was the picture of ‘the girl I left behind me.’ I never saw it again, and was it any wonder that she married the fellow I left behind me?

Suddenly we marched by the left flank, leaving the road for the grass and a heavier storm of bullets. Only a portion of the command was in this part of the engagement, and the enemy outnumbered us six to one. Of this we were ignorant as they were on a hill, and hid by woods. One man in three, of that band was either killed or wounded. The writer advanced with the front rank until it was broken into a skirmish line, when each man sought what shelter he could, yet going forward. The idea that we should not drive the enemy was not entertained by the writer, hence, in his ardor, he did not hear the bugle-call retreat. He was lying down with his head to the enemy, and some bushes between them loading his gun, when a ball passed under his shoulder and lodged at his feet. ‘They are getting the range of you,’ said a comrade. ‘Yes, and I will leave here,’ and that was the last he saw of his own men. Crossing a depression he lay down behind a log, replenished his cartridges, fired at the enemy two hundred yards away, and then ran with an empty gun for some bushes a dozen yards distant to his right and forward, where he supposed his men were. Judge of his surprise to find, as he dropped down exhausted, men in butternut uniform.

His first impression was that they were Union men driven in by the enemy; they had not seen him until he was near, and supposed that he was deserting. One said to him, ‘You are all right,’ but he responded, ‘I don't know about that.’ Another having hold of the muzzle of the prisoner's gun, said, ‘Give me this gun.’ ‘I will,’ was the reply, ‘if you will take good care of it.’ Another requested him to pass over his cartridges. ‘I have given you half [332] of them through the muzzle of my gun,’ was the response as the prisoner unbuckled the strap, ‘and if you had waited awhile longer I would have given you the rest.’ By this time the Confederates saw that the prisoner was not a deserter, and one raised his gun as if to shoot, ‘Hold on,’ said the Lieutenant, the only officer there, ‘He is my meat.’ To his intervention the writer considers his life due; his name was, if memory is correct, McIlvain, of Liberty Va., a third Lieutenant in the Sixty-First Virginia. ‘What do you want me for?’ asked the prisoner. ‘Oh, my sister wants a Yankee for a plaything.’ ‘What will she do with me.’ ‘She will put you up in a corner and spit tobacco juice in your eyes.’ ‘All right, I will stay there till the war is over.’ So jesting, they went back to the Lieutenant-Colonel in command of the regiment, who interrogated the prisoner as to the number of Union troops. The prisoner mentally multiplied them by as large a multiple as he thought they could stand, and answered accordingly.

The officer seemed satisfied, and led the prisoner to the Colonel in command of the brigade. He was a perfect gentleman, and generously said to the prisoner, ‘If you feel that in honor you ought not to tell me the truth, do not say anything.’

The prisoner never blinked, and assented to the righteousness of that course and then lied to him outrageously. Lied! What is called a mistake in a lady, a falsehood among the educated. A lie by plain men is merely diplomacy in statesmanship and strategy in war. The prisoner strategized. If he had told them the weakness of the two regiments, with no field artillery, they could have thrown a line across the only road out of the village and captured the entire number. Hence he said there were 4,000 in the village and 10,000 more below, about 10,000 too strong.

That night the Union forces burned their commissary stores, and marched unmolested to the nearest reinforcements—ten miles away.

The afternoon was spent by the prisoner in talking with officers about the war. They treated him well and endured some things which politeness should have kept him from saying. A man was led past the group of officers with a look of intense pain on his features, and a bullet hole precisely in the middle of his forehead. The Colonel expressed his sympathy, and calling him by name, said, ‘It will be an honorable wound if you get over it.’

‘It would be if gained in an honorable cause,’ said the prisoner. ‘It is an honorable cause,’ said the officer emphatically. ‘There's where we differ,’ was the reply. [333]

The next morning other prisoners were brought to face the writer with the question, ‘How is it that your accounts differ so much; one says 4,000, the others 1,200 to 1,500.’ The first prisoner, learning that the Union troops were gone, acknowledged the deception and told the reason of it. Some among the Confederates were for shooting him, some called him hard names, the only time he was insulted by soldiers, but others said he did right, and his life was in no danger.

The prisoners requested the privilege and were allowed to bury their dead. They were then placed under guard in the jail, a stone building, where they remained for two weeks, during which time others were added to their number until there were about one hundred prisoners.

This was but a meagre return for 10,000 men, and subsequently the writer saw in a Richmond paper that the Confederate Congress had passed a vote of censure on the conduct of the campaign in West Virginia. To that vote the writer may have contributed by his parsimonious use of the truth on the day of his capture.

The journey from Fayetteville to Dublin Station, on the Tennessee and Virginia railroad, about 100 miles, was made on foot, the guards riding. At Dublin Station we camped in a woody pasture, and two wagons were driven up with provisions in the way of meal and pork, for the prisoners. The writer had a companion with whom he messed. This companion went to a wagon, about dusk, and drew rations for himself and his partner, he then went to the other wagon and repeated the heroic action. The writer then went up and drew for two also, and they spent the larger portion of the night in rustic cookery. They had heard of Hotel de Libby. The next day the journey was made on the cars to Lynchburg. A number of Southern officers were on the train, who conversed with the prisoners. One, a Major in the Twenty-Ninth Virginia, sat down with the writer and they debated the question of the war keenly. The possibility of being overcome by the North (this was in 1862) he would not admit. ‘Then,’ said the writer, ‘will you, when you have gained your independence, allow the West to join your Confederacy? Our interests are bound up with yours more than with New England!’ ‘No,’ was the indignant answer. ‘You have tried to subjugate us, and we will have nothing to do with you.’

We concluded that the South would be harder to conquer than the North thought. He also told the writer that some ham, wine and other delicacies which had been sent from Cincinnati, directed [334] to Colonel A. Moore, Twenty-Eighth Ohio, had, at the battle of Princeton, fallen, unopened, into the hands of Colonel A. Moore, of the Twenty-Eighth Virginia, and the latter Colonel Moore presuming that they were intended for him, had appropriated them with thanks to his unknown Cincinnati friends.

The next day the ride was in freight cars fitted up with seats. A number of canteens belonging to the Confederate States Army were promptly appropriated by the prisoners as relics of the invasion. Alas! they never left Dixie. When the train reached Richmond, by some misunderstanding, we were marched up past the Capitol and around to our destination, marching into Libby after dark. ‘Pass up your canteens,’ was the order, and the thirsty souls passed up every canteen, not knowing that water ran from a hydrant, and that was to be our last sight of the canteens. In Libby we sang and enjoyed ourselves as best we could.

Every day we fell into ranks and were counted before rations were given out.

As to food, it was too delicate. To tell the square truth, we were not satisfied. The complaint was not that it was not good, it was only of its scarcity. Two meals a day were fashionable when we went there, and we readily fell in with the fashion. Not to eat till 11 A. M. was the custom of the majority, and we were suddenly convinced that it was the best plan. Another slight repast at five completed our attention to the gross act of eating, and we were ready for whatever else could take up our time.

The regiment to which the writer belonged wore the Zouave uniform. In passing through a little town on our march to the railroad, a generous citizen had given twenty-five dollars for our little party, this we were now allowed to spend for food, though it could not purchase much.

For a week every day had new reports of what was to be done. Fortunately an agreement had been made by which all prisoners should be paroled, and by it we were released.

Of cruelty or unneccessary hardship in Libby, I saw none; yet not one cried to remain. On a bright morning in October, after several times forming and breaking ranks, we started for a march of twelve miles, to Aiken's Landing, where a United States steamer waited us. It brought up 2,500 paroled Confederates, and strange to say, men in our ranks there met men who had captured them at the beginning of the battle of Antietam, and were themselves taken later. The meeting between them was most cordial.

Between the Richmond coveted by the North, and Aiken's Landing, [335] the writer saw but one or two lines of breast-works. After he reached Annapolis, he was inclined to write to the President, and to say that 10,000 men could take Richmond on a sortie. He did not write, however; if he had, the probabilities are that he would never have heard anything about it.

Two years later the writer was wounded and taken prisoner in the Shenandoah Valley. For two months he lay in the enemy's hands, but with all that could be given by brave men who scorned to take advantage of the helpless.

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