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Prison life at Fort McHenry.

By Rev. Dr. T. D. Witherspoon, late Chaplain of the Forty-Second Mississippi Regiment.

Paper no. 1.

On the evening of the 4th of July, 1863, when it became apparent that the army of General Lee was in quiet and undisturbed retreat from its position before Gettysburg, I found myself in the midst of three or four hundred men of the brigade in which I served, who were too severely wounded to be transported to the rear. Two alternatives presented themselves, to leave these men in the hour of their distress, or to remain within the enemy's line. The decision was soon made; and the consent of superior officers having been obtained, I stood by the roadway waving adieu as the little remnant of the gallant brigade tramped silently and sorrowfully by; and then turned to the tenderest and saddest ministry of my life, as under open flies, on the bare ground, or a mere pile of straw, these gallant men lay heroically suffering or unconsciously moaning their lives away. For a few never-to-be-forgotten days this ministry was permitted me, and then our field-hospital was broken up, the few surviving wounded were removed to the field-hospitals of the Federal army, and the Confederate surgeons and chaplains transported to Northern prisons.

On the very day before the order came to break up our field-hospital, tidings had come to us that the Colonel of the regiment in which I served, Colonel Hugh R. Miller, was lying mortally wounded at a private residence in Gettysburg, and had expressed a desire to see me. I reached his bedside just in time to receive his dying expression of his faith in Christ and his readiness to depart. Through the generosity of the kind family (a Maryland family) at whose home Colonel Miller had been so assiduously and tenderly cared for, the services of an embalmer were secured, and the body skilfully embalmed and inclosed in a metallic case. The Commandant of the Post at Gettysburg, whose name I do not recall, but who was a true gentleman as well as true soldier, on application being made to him to send the remains through the lines by flag of truce, did all he could to further this end. For he not only sent the remains to Baltimore in charge of one of the members of his staff, but he allowed Edwin Miller, the youthful son of the Colonel, and myself, his chaplain, to accompany the remains as escort with a letter to General Schenck, the Commandant at [78] Baltimore, requesting that we should be permitted to accompany the remains by flag of truce to Richmond.

The scene on the arrival at General Schenck's headquarters in Baltimore was one that beggars description. The polite and gentlemanly Lieutenant who had accompanied us presented the letter from his superior officer, and it was handed to Colonel Fish, General Schenck's Adjutant. He read it, and asked, “Where is the body?” The Lieutenant produced the receipt of the Adams Express Company, who had it in charge, and the Colonel, receiving it, handed it to one of his subordinates, and said, “Go and get that body and have it buried.” “Where shall I bury it?” asked the surprised official — to which the answer was in substance that he did not care where, so as the body was put out of the way, adding that he had stood all that he was going to stand of this paying honors to Rebel dead. Edwin Miller, overwhelmed with the thought of the dishonor about to be done to his father's remains, plead most earnestly to be permitted to accompany the officer and see the remains interred, and it was only after a long interval, and through the intercession of friends of Colonel Fish, who were the witnesses of the boy's agony, that he was permitted to accompany the remains to their sepulture, and have them placed in a vault instead of being buried in the ground.

When the question of the disposition of the body had been finally settled, the Lieutenant in charge of us asked, “What shall I do with these men?” referring to Edwin Miller and myself. To which the reply was, “Let them go down to the guard-room.” Now this guard-room was a dark basement room of the hotel in which General Schenck had his headquarters, provided with an iron door and a small grated window to admit a little light, into which the provost guard emptied the sweeping of the streets. Drunken soldiers, deserters, bummers, et id omne genus, constituted its ordinary population. Hence the Lieutenant was startled by the proposition, and said, “But this man is a minister of the gospel; you won't send him there?” “Why not,” asked the now irate Colonel, “the preachers are more to blame for this war than any others. The best thing we could do would be to hang a few of them when we capture them.” And so without further ceremony I was marched down by a sentinel to the guard-room. The iron door swung open and closed behind me, and I found myself, as the shadows of evening were coming on, in one of the vilest dens in which any respectable man ever spent the night. [79]

The ribaldry, blasphemy, obscenity of these poor half-drunken creatures was horrible. But not only so; there were among the prisoners one or two stout, stalwart Baltimore roughs, Irishmen, whose sympathies were with the South, and who, true to the openhearted instincts of their mother-land, were outspoken in their sentiments, and not at all averse to a submission of them to the arbitrament of battle. And so every now and then some drunken Federal soldier would cry out amidst the darkness, “I can whip any man who is for Jeff. Davis.” And from across the room would come, like an ominous echo out of the darkness, “Hurrah for Jeff. Davis.” Then there would be a collision about the centre of the room, partaking at first of the character of a fisticuff between two, and then of a general melee with the idea of “wherever you see a head hit it,” and a very painful foreboding that your own head might be the next one to attract the attention of some accommodating belligerent.

It is hardly necessary to say that there was no sleep that night, or that, squeezing as closely as possible into an angle of the room, and protected fortunately by a kind of breastwork made of the bodies of those who were too much overcome with liquor and sleep to take part in the engagement, I maintained a strict neutrality, keeping ingloriously silent even when some besotted blue-coat would move up menacingly towards me and dare me to “chirp for Jeff. Davis.” Nor need I say how rejoiced I was when the morning came, and being abandoned now by all hope of return to the South, I was ordered to Fort McHenry, and the life enacted of which some account will be given in the following pages.

On an arm of the Patapsco river, some two miles below the city of Baltimore, and guarding the entrance to its harbor, stands this old fortress, in existence as early certainly as 1794, bearing, in honor of one of the heroes of the first revolution, the name of Fort McHenry.

Its chief claim to historic interest lies in the conspicuous part which it bore in the defence of Baltimore during its memorable siege by the British in the autumn of the year 1814. Ross, the British General, having completed his work of vandalism at Washington, had taken fleet with his army and entered the Patapsco, with the design of seizing the city of Baltimore and wintering there. The whole issue of the campaign, and with it, apparently, the fate of the war, depended on the capture of the city. To effect this, a passage must be forced under the guns of Fort McHenry, held at [80] that time by the heroic Colonel Armistead with a garrison of only 1,000 men and an armament of guns far inferior to that of the enemy.

The attack was made by the British Admiral at early morning, with a squadron of sixteen vessels, and the engagement lasted through the day, night closing upon the combatants in the midst of a terrific storm of shot and shell — not a single vessel having succeeded in cutting its way through. At midnight the British commander made an assault by land with a picked body of 1,500 men, hoping to carry the defences by storm, but the gallant band of defenders, though wearied with the long struggle of the day, met the assailants successfully at every point, repelling them again and again with terrific slaughter until at length the British General gave up in despair, withdrew his forces, and left the fort and the city to the peaceful possession of their heroic and gallant defenders.

On one of the British transports lying just outside of the harbor was Francis Key, a patriot of Maryland, held as a State prisoner because of his loyalty to the American cause. Confined between decks, where he could hear the din of the conflict, but could learn nothing of the results, he spent the long night in anxious thought of the banner which he loved waving upon the walls of Fort McHenry, and in earnest prayer that it might not go down before the enemy's furious assault. When the morning light had broken again over the scene, and the din of conflict was hushed, and his eye caught a view of the flag of his country still waving upon the ramparts of the old fortress, his exultation found expression in that hymn which has immortalized both his name and the banner he so loved--

O say can you see by the dawn's early light,
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming.

He little thought that the day would come when that same banner — the emblem to him of freedom from oppression — would still wave over Fort McHenry, and beneath its folds, patriots of Maryland, as pure and noble-hearted as himself, should, under a like stigma of rebellion, waste away their lives in dreary casements and under galling fetters of imprisonment.

All this, however, is merely by way of introduction to the old fortress, of whose hospitalities I was permitted, during the summer of 1863, to partake. At the time of my first introduction, it was [81] used principally as a place of rendezvous for detachments of Confederate prisoners on their way to permanent places of imprisonment at Point Lookout, Fort Delaware, Johnson's Island, &c.

Prisoners brought in from the lines of the Army of the Potomac in small detachments were here assorted and sent away, the officers to Johnson's Island and Fort Delaware, the privates to Point Look-out, &c.--detachments being often held for a week or two until suitable arrangements could be made for them at some of the more populous, if not more popular places of resort.

Now it chanced that after the battle of Gettysburg a number of surgeons and chaplains found their way along with other prisoners to this point d'appui, having either been detailed for hospital service and left behind on the retreat from Pennsylvania, or having voluntarily remained with the wounded and dying of their commands.

If any one should ask me how it came that surgeons and chaplains were held as prisoners of war by the Federal Government, I can only answer that I do not know. In all civilized warfare surgeons and chaplains being considered as non-combatants and their mission being regarded as one of mercy, are not reckoned as prisoners of war, but, when captured, are released upon their own parole and sent into the lines of the army they serve. But I also know that I was captured in the afternoon of a beautiful Sabbath day, the 5th of July, 1863, in a hospital tent, on the battlefield of Gettysburg, in the midst of a religious service, surrounded by the wounded on every hand, to whom I was ministering, and at whose urgent solicitation I had voluntarily remained within the enemy's lines.

I was sent, as already narrated, to the headquarters of General Schenck, and by him ordered to prison quarters at Fort McHenry, and although, through the influence of prominent citizens of Baltimore, General Schenck was induced to issue an order for my return to the South on the day following my incarceration, and I was actually taken on board the flag of truce boat to Old Point, yet orders were received at Fortress Monroe to return me to prison, and after a fortnight's confinement in Fort Norfolk I was returned to Fort McHenry, and kept there as a prisoner until, through the unwearied intercession of Colonel Ould, our humane and courteous Agent of Exchange, a cartel was arranged by which we could be exchanged.

Without stopping, however, to inquire into the hows and where-fores of this vexed question, suffice it to say that at the time to [82] which I refer about a hundred surgeons, with some thirteen or fourteen chaplains, had been collected from various points and were incarcerated at Fort McHenry. As they constituted a somewhat anomalous class, being neither, strictly speaking, officers nor privates, they could not properly be assigned to any of the permanent places of imprisonment, and therefore it was resolved to retain them as the special guests of the prison to which they had first been brought.

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