Southern Historical Society Papers.
Vol. XXIII. Richmond, Va., January-December. 1895.
Southern Soldiers In Northern Prisons.
[From the Charlotte (N. C.) Observer, December 22, 1895.]
A VERY GRAPHIC DESCRIPTION.
Experience at Johnson's Island and Point Lookout-The following graphic story of the life in Northern prisons during the war is from the pen of Mr. Albert Stacey Caison, a native of Fayetteville, but now of Jefferson City, Mo. It was written while he was a resident of Lenoir, from which place he went into the army:
-Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg-
-The Cavalry Fight at Boonesboro, Maryland.
In the Century Magazine for March, 1891, there is a touching account of prison life at Johnson's Island, and the writer, in speaking of his short stay at Point Lookout, after his release, says:
"Thinking we had exhausted the capacity of prison life for harm, we were little prepared for the sight which met our eyes as we entered this place; but seeing these unfortunates, we felt that we stood in the presence of men who had touched depths of suffering that we had not reached.
"All along the route we were fearful that some evil chance should turn us back again to the old life, but that fear became secondary to the dread lest we should call a permanent halt at this point, and we drew a long breath of relief when we marched out of this place."
I was one of "these unfortunates," and, strange to say, survived seventeen months of the horrors he witnessed there, and neither time nor circumstance can ever efface the recollection of what I suffered.
Like all Southern boys, I believed that the war would be brief but glorious, and when the call came for volunteers I was one of the first to respond; and I cannot describe my feeling of disappointment and chagrin when my father--himself a volunteer--told me that I must not join the army, but must continue at school, my fear now being that the war would end before I could have any share in it. However, my enthusiasm did not cool in the least, and I found some consolation in drilling a company of my school-mates, and feeling that we were practicing to some purpose.
When I did go into the army I joined Company I, Twenty-sixth North Carolina regiment, and was as proud and happy as possible when I put on soldier's clothes, shouldered my gun, and marched away to share the danger and the glory of this courageous band.
But as I am to tell of my prison life I must pass over other events in camp and field, and commence with the Battle of Gettysburg, where all active service for my beloved South came to a bitter end.
THE FIRST SHELL.Well do I remember the first shell that burst in our ranks that first day. We were still in the road, and our boys wavered just a little, when our gallant colonel, H. K. Burgwyn, called out, "Steady, men!" which brought every man to his place, to waver no more, for we now fully realized what we must do.
We marched to the right of the road and formed in rear of our batteries, in order to support them, but in a short time we moved forward to a piece of timber at the foot of the hill, where we remained some time, watching the enemy masking their forces in another piece of timber in front of us, all impatient for the word "forward," well knowing that every moment's delay was giving them the advantage.
When the word "attention" was given, every man was on his feet and in position instantly. Then came the command "forward," and dauntlessly we charged across the open field, while three lines of the enemy in front of us poured a murderous fire into our ranks. Undaunted, we pressed on until we struck the timber, where we encountered the first line of the enemy and routed them, driving them and the other two lines out of the timber. But in doing this we lost many of our brave boys, and our dear, noble colonel, who was shot down with the colors in his hand, leading the charge. Fourteen of our brave men fell with the colors in their hands. Although they knew it was almost certain death to pick it up, the flag was never allowed to remain down, but as fast as it fell some one raised it again. I venture to say that our regiment suffered greater loss in that charge than any regiment on either side during the war. We made the charge with 986 men and muskets, and could muster only 220 the next day, which shows a loss of over 700 killed and wounded. This was the Twenty-sixth North Carolina regiment, Pettigrew's Brigade, Heth's Division, A. P. Hill's Corps.
The second day we were not engaged, but were exposed to the shells from the enemy's guns. I was detailed to look after the wounded, and a sad day's work it was.
In the evening we marched to the right and took our position for the third day's fight, and slept with our guns in our arms.
The morning of the 3d the chaplains held services in the regiments. When the artillery opened it was appalling, and all who heard it will agree with me that it surpassed any artillery fight during the war--I mean any field fight. I think our guns numbered 210, and it is safe to say the enemy's numbered more, for they never met us with fewer men or guns.
PICKETT'S CHARGE.When the cannonading ceased, the noble, brave General Pickett was ordered forward with as brave men as ever fought under any flag, and inspired with as genuine patriotism as ever filled any heart. We could see the mouth of the gaping cannon, only waiting for us to get in range to pour bushels of grape and canister into our ranks and mow us down like wheat before the sickle, and in line with the artillery was the infantry, masked behind a stone wall. We had to advance on them through an open field, with nothing to shield us from the murderous fire.
I was within thirty yards of the stone wall when I received two wounds--one in my hand and one in my hip--which disabled me. Believing that our boys would rout them, I lay down to shield myself from the bullets that were flying like hail around me, and when I found, to my dismay, that we were retreating, I got up and attempted to get off the field; but found I was cut off, and when I saw twenty guns turned upon me, there was no alternative but to throw up my hands and surrender.
Neither brush nor pen can ever depict the awful grandeur of that battle--only those who were in it can ever realize what it was.
We prisoners were marched to the rear, and put in camp. I had picked up an oil-cloth and fly-tent, and rolled up in the oil-cloth was the roll-call of the Seventh New York volunteers. I had some letter-paper and stamps, also.
About midnight I was aroused by some hard kicks, and when I asked what it meant was told to "Get up and hurry, for Stonewall Jackson is in our rear." I said, "Stonewall Jackson is in his grave"; but the man laughed, and said: "You can't stuff that into me; we've heard that before, but don't believe it." We were started for Westminster right away, in the pouring rain, and marched all next day, and besides being wet, tired, and hungry, I was suffering acutely from my wounds, which had no attention until several days afterwards. On the 5th we were marched to Fort McHenry, and on the 6th we were given our first rations, only three hard-tack.
FORT DELAWARE.After two days and nights in the pouring rain we were taken to Fort Delaware, and received our second rations. We were put into barracks, stripped, and searched, even to the seams of our clothing. My wounds received no attention until the 8th. Our rations consisted of three hard-tack, a cup of weak bean-soup, and a very small piece of salt pork for dinner, and only two hard-tack and a cup of coffee for breakfast, so the "gnawings of hunger" was a chronic complaint, one from which there was never any relief.
The officers of our regiment, especially Colonel Burgwyn, were so strict in enforcing cleanliness that there were neither filth nor vermin among us, and now, to my horror and disgust, I was covered with both. I had never seen body vermin until I reached this place, and it was perfectly awful to feel them crawling over one, and to be powerless to prevent it. The barracks swarmed with them, and every tuft of grass was covered with these loathsome objects. Bathing was out of the question here. The island was below tide-water, and I have seen the water recede and leave the soil as black as tar. I still shudder when I recall my suffering during the three and a half months' imprisonment there. We were exposed to every disease, and the mortality among the prisoners was thirty per day while I was there.
Our joy was unbounded when, on the 13th day of October, we saw the old Ashland anchor out in the bay, and heard the call for "Gettysburg prisoners." We were to go to Point Lookout; had never heard of the place, and knew nothing about it; but we knew it could not be any worse than the place we were in, and were glad of any change. At Point Lookout we had tents--seventeen men to a tent. Our rations were no better, but we could bathe, and that was a great luxury to us.
HE WAS KIND.Captain Patterson, of the Third or Fifth New Hampshire regiment, had charge of our camp, and was as kind as he was allowed to be, so we became warmly attached to him. I have always believed that it was his kindness that caused him to be removed and sent to the front, and Major Brady to be put in his place. To us he was the impersonation of cruelty and meanness, and soon earned the title of "Brute Brady." I have seen this man have a guard at the gate, call for a detail, and when the men came crowding around the gate to get out, which all were eager to do--poor fellows, because they would get extra rations for their work--he would have the gate thrown open, put spurs to his horse, charge in upon them, calling them d--d rebels, and ride right over them before they could get out of the way. This is only one instance of our usual treatment while under this man. He had command of two negro regiments, and if I were to tell half of the suffering and indignities to which we were subjected they would fill a good-sized volume. We all suffered for any misdemeanor on the part of one, so glad were they of any excuse to deprive us of our morsel of meat and cup of soup and put us on hard-tack and water.
Ladies would visit the prison and call out so that we could hear them, "Major, how are Jeff Davis's cattle getting on?" How any woman could deride such abject misery, even in an enemy, has always been a mystery to me.
No blankets were given us and we had only two well-worn ones for three--two good friends beside myself, who kindly let me "sleep in the middle," and with one blanket under and one over us we shivered the long nights through.
We had been here fifteen months before we got any clothing. My jacket and trousers were in strings. I had had no shirt for months, and was barefooted. When we were called out to get some clothes I had to stand two hours on the frozen ground before my turn came, and I am sure I never felt so comfortable in my life as I did when I first put on the coarse blouse, pantaloons, shoes, and socks. I often wonder how we lived to tell of the cold and hunger of our prison life.
I had been in prison twenty months, three and a half at Fort Delaware, and seventeen at Point Lookout.
We were paroled in March, and a pitiful set of men we were. I weighed barely ninety pounds, was almost a skeleton, and so weak I could hardly walk. But I was free, and going home, and that was the best tonic I could have.