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Incidents of prison life at camp Douglas—Experience of Corporal J. G. Blanchard.

By Rev. William G. Keady.
[The following interesting narrative is from the pen of a gallant soldier who lost an arm while serving in the trenches at Vicksburg, and whose empty sleeve tells as eloquently of his devotion to the Confederate cause as his voice now pleads the cause of the ‘Prince of Peace’]:

Amongst the prisoners captured at Island No.10, and sent to Camp Douglas, Illinois, in April, 1862, was Corporal J. G. Blanchard, of the celebrated Pointe Coupee Battery, of Louisiana. Though then barely seventeen years of age, he had already been over a year in active service; and the restless activity, untiring energy, and unbounded enthusiasm characterizing his course from the time of his entry into service, bespoke unmistakably of how lively he would make matters if circumscribed for an indefinite term within the boundaries of a prison camp. When the news of the capture of his native city reached Chicago, restraint broke loose, and his one expressed determination was to escape from prison and rejoin the Southern army.

For several days his efforts were bent towards effecting a quiet escape. Realizing, however, the impossibility of so doing, he determined on an attempt at any hazard, and on a dark and stormy night, early in May, he scaled the lofty fence inclosing the camp, within a few feet of the sentinel, the report of whose gun drew upon him the concentrated fire of half a dozen more, so incessant were the lightning flashes at the time. Having reached the outside walk, without a moment's hesitation he walked to the very gate of the prison camp, where all was excitement, and entered a street car which was just starting for the city.

Whilst the Federal soldiers were roaming for miles and miles around Camp Douglas in seach of young Blanchard, he was enjoying the comforts of a Chicago hotel, busying himself in the meanwhile in ascertaining the best method of leaving the city and returning South. The second day after his escape he met a former acquaintance who professed the deepest solicitude for his escape, and offered to further the same by every means in his power.

The next day he became suddenly convinced of his supposed [270] friend's treachery, and immediately took passage on a two-masted vessel bound for Buffalo, N. Y. Arrived at Detroit, Mich., the vessel was boarded by a military officer, who called on the captain for the delivery of ‘that New Orleans boy.’ The captain, ignorant of Blanchard's antecedents, and never for a moment suspecting that he was an escaped prisoner, denied having such a passenger aboard, and seemed paralyzed when the Federal officer exclaimed, ‘There he is!’ pointing at the same time to the young man, who was standing near the wheelman, in doubt whether to jump overboard and attempt to swim to the Canada shore. Under guard of the Federal officer he was taken to jail and placed in a cell. The captain of the vessel, at the same time, was released on his parole that he would appear at the jail the following morning.

It happened that young Blanchard was the only prisoner in the jail at the time, and no sooner had the Federal officer departed than the jailor, without any cause or provocation, commenced abusing and vilifying his prisoner. This unexpected assault so angered Blanchard that he challenged the jailor to open the cell door and dare to repeat his insults. The jailor then left, but returned in a short while accompanied by another man, and having opened the cell door, pistol in hand, ordered Blanchard to stand up. His hands were then pinioned behind his back with handcuffs, and he was ordered to sit down, and shackles were then riveted to his legs just above the ankle. In this condition he lay on the bare bench of his cell all night. The following morning, on the arrival of the Federal officer and the captain of the vessel, the shackles were taken off, but the officer refused to take off the handcuffs, for the reason that he had received a telegram from the commanding officer at Chicago to keep the prisoner handcuffed.

At about 10 o'clock the same day, under the escort of a company of infantry, Blanchard was taken to the United States Court to give testimony in regard to the assistance rendered to him by the captain of the vessel. It is needless to say that his testimony secured the honorable discharge of the captain, who, in solemn earnestness, implored the judges to have the handcuffs removed from the youth. The court, however, disclaimed jurisdiction in the matter, and Blanchard was brought back to Chicago in handcuffs. Here he was incarcerated in the celebrated White Oak dungeon, in Camp Douglas, where he remained for some forty days.

Immediately after his liberation from the dungeon he set to work to escape again, and on the fifth day thereafter he proposed to make [271] an attempt. The time selected was 1 o'clock in the afternoon, and the ruse adopted was to feign a fight between two Confederate prisoners, which, experience had shown, would be sure to draw some of the guards away from their beat. At such a deserted beat Blanchard successfully scaled and cleared the fence, and was about fleeing to the lake shore when he heard a heavy thud and a groan behind him. Looking back he discovered a fellow-prisoner (not a soldier), by name Carico, lying on the ground apparently unable to rise. When Blanchard took hold of him to assist him Carico groaned again and said he was badly hurt. In a few minutes the guardswere again on their beat, a plank fence alone between them and the two prisoners.

Realizing the danger of attempting even to crawl away from the fence, lest the crackling of a dry twig should betray them to the guard, Blanchard lay alongside of Carico, waiting for night to approach, when they could take advantage of the tramp of the relief guard to deaden the sound of their footsteps as they proceeded to the lake shore. But when the relief came, at 7 P. M., Carico was unable to move, so great was his suffering; and at his earnest solicitation Blanchard agreed to remain with him until the next relief, at 9 o'clock. At half-past 8, however, they were startled by the discovery of a corporal's guard approaching them, the corporal holding a lighted lantern. Hoping that the course of the march of the guard would take them some distance from the fence, Blanchard and Carico lay perfectly quiet; but when about ten feet from the spot where they lay the corporal incidentally held his light toward the fence, the glare of which revealed the two prisoners. Quickly the guns of the guard were levelled at them; but Blanchard exclaiming immediately, ‘Don't shoot, boys—man badly hurt here,’ the guns were brought back to a carry, and the corporal approached the prisoners. Finding that Carico was seriously hurt, a litter was sent for and he was carried to the hospital, whilst Blanchard was once again taken to the White Oak.

The third day after his reincarceration three Federal deserters and a renegade Confederate of the Third Tennessee Regiment were also confined in the White Oak. It was proposed by the deserters to effect an escape by tunneling to the outside of the fence, about twelve feet distant, if a knife could be procured; which, being converted into a saw, would enable them to cut a hole in the floor of a dungeon. The knife was procured through one of Blanchard's friends, and in less than six hours a hole, eighteen inches square, was cut into the floor. The digging was accomplished with a spade (which [272] was one of the appurtenances of the dungeon), and the tunneling with pocket-knives, spoons and forks. One man worked at a time, by turns. When the officer of the guard visited the dungeon, morning and evening, a blanket was spread over the hole, the prisoners engaging in a game of cards seated on the edge of the blanket.

For three days and nights they worked like beavers. Foremost in the labor was Busy Bill, the renegade; he did yeoman's work. On the evening of the third day, realizing that but a few hours' more work would enable them to breathe the air of freedom, it was proposed to suspend work at 6 o'clock, and to resume at 9 o'clock, which would bring the hour of escape at about the dead of night. At about 8 o'clock, however, Busy Bill was apparently taken with violent paroxysms, and so intense seemed his suffering, that the Sergeant of the Guard was asked to take him up out of the dungeon and do something for him.

A few minutes after he was taken up the Sergeant of the Guard came down into the dungeon, and remarking, ‘Boys, your game is up—Busy Bill gave it away,’ walked up to where the hole was covered and kicked the blanket away. Busy Bill had actually betrayed his companions in the hope, doubtless, of some reward, which he received in the shape of a merciless castigation when he was returned to the dungeon. So badly was he beaten by his fellow-prisoners that he had to be sent to the hospital.

A few days afterward Blanchard was taken from the dungeon and ordered to clean the quarters of the Federal officers with bucket and swab. This he peremptorily declined to do, notwithstanding the Provost Marshal drew his pistol the second time he gave the order. He was then marched to the quarters of the commanding officer, who, after hearing the statement of the Provost Marshal, exclaimed: ‘Is it “that New Orleans boy?” Take him to the Black Hole, and starve him until he will work.’

The Black Hole was an iron-clad cell, three feet by six. Thus confined, Blanchard remained two days and nights, without a morsel to eat, being visited morning and evening by the Provost Marshal, who would merely remark, ‘Are you going to work?’ On the morning of the third day Blanchard was taken out of the Black Hole and marched to the Colonel's quarters, and being told that he was brought out at the request of several citizens merely to be given a chance to save his own life, the question was put to him sternly by the Colonel, ‘Will you or will you not work?’ His answer was simply, ‘Never!’ He was ordered to be taken back to the Black [273] Hole, whence he expected to come out again only ‘as a corpse,’ as he had been threatened; but, to his amazement, he was released a few hours after and returned to his mess.

The cartel for a general exchange of prisoners was soon thereafter effected, but Blanchard was destined for another exploit before taking leave of Camp Douglas. Through the instrumentality of some of the Federal officers who had taken quite a fancy to him, he was employed to do clerical work at headquarters regarding the exchange of prisoners. At this time, through the kindness of sympathizers in Chicago, he was enabled to dress in first-class citizens' clothes, in which garb he was not recognized as ‘a rebel’ by the mass of prisoners. It happened that whilst alone in the office he was accosted by a ragged prisoner, who, mistaking Blanchard for some Federal officer, stated that he wanted to take the oath. Blanchard questioned him as to his name, command, etc., and finally asked him why he had joined the Confederate army. The soldier replied that he had been forced into the service. As the regiment to which he belonged was among the first volunteers, Blanchard knew that this statement was false, and, springing from his seat he sent the soldier sprawling out of the room into the hallway, and as the astounded prisoner started to rise he was assisted by a vigorous kick which sent him headlong out of the halldoor into the arms of a Federal officer who was just entering. It is needless to say that for this well-merited chastisement of a renegade Blanchard once more visited the White Oak, whence he emerged only to be sent South.

The writer had no personal knowledge of Blanchard's military career after the exchange, as the latter received a commission in the Provisional army on his arrival at Vicksburg, and was ordered to the army of Tennessee. In 1864, however, we heard of him as Inspector-General on the staff of Major-General Cheatham, during the Georgia campaign, being severely wounded at Kennesaw Mountain. He was undoubtedly the youngest officer holding so high a position in the Confederate army. After Hood's defeat at Nashville he was ordered on detached service on the Mississippi river, where the writer met him once more, and remained with his command until his surrender at Jackson, Miss., in May, 1865. He is now living in New Orleans, as retired and quiet in civil life as he was dashing and enthusiastic in war.

W. G. K.

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