Southern Historical Society Papers
Vol. VII.  Richmond, Va., July, 1879.  No.7.
Prison Experience.
By James T. Wells, Sergeant Company A, Second South Carolina Infantry.
No. 1.
    The following narrative is written by a gentleman of unimpeachable character, and will be read with interest. We propose to add from time to time a few chapters to our discussion of "the prison question."
    At the battle of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, July 2,1863, I was severely wounded, and, with many others, was unfortunate enough to be captured by the enemy. We remained at the field hospital until about the middle of September, when myself and several others were transferred to the Newton University Hospital, Baltimore, and afterwards to Fort McHenry. While at the hospital we fared very well, as we were all supplied with everything we needed by the kind and noble ladies of Baltimore. God will surely bless them for their kindness to the Confederate prisoners with whom they came in contact. Our treatment was not so good after we left the hospital; however, at the Fort we did not have much to complain of, as we were thrown into a heterogeneous mass of Federal and Confederate prisoners -- prisoners of war, oath takers, pick pockets and cut throats.
    We certainty had some scruples about being placed among criminals, but we were all treated alike and fared ditto. Our principal pastime at this delightful retreat consisted in scrambling for our soup and beans -- said pastime being diversified by blows on the head and shins from a hickory stick in the hands of a huge Yankee sergeant. The blows were only received by those who were unruly in the "lines," and tried to push others out of the way. Our quarters were in an old brick house, situated on the bank of the river, inside of the Fort enclosure. It was divided as follows: Front room, first door -- Provost Marshal's office; second room, first floor -- dark hole; third room, first floor -- Yankee prisoners of all descriptions. Second floor, front room -- prisoners of State; second and rear room -- Confederate prisoners. We had the liberty of the yard and to go where we pleased, provided the Yankee prisoners would permit us (and they were masters of the situation, owing to their superior numbers). In the dark hole, on the first floor, were confined some of the most villainous cut throats it has ever been my misfortune to meet. They were convicted of different crimes and had different terms to serve. All of them wore balls and chains, and they made night hideous with their curses, screams, and the rattling of the chains. An instance will suffice to show what manner of men they were. One day, a terrible fight was in progress amongst them. The sentry approached the door, which was an aperture about 4x4, and commanded them to desist. A blow on the head with a brick was the answer he received. An officer came in with a guard of three or four men, and as he came in front of the opening he also was felled by a blow on the head. He ordered his men to fire. They did so, when the most horrid groans and screams, interspersed with frightful oaths, issued from the opening. The firing checked the fight, and the result was observable. A few moments afterwards one dead and several wounded were brought out. It may be well to remark that the Confederates who were thrown together here formed attachments for each other which lasted until the end of their imprisonment. It was nothing more than natural -- situated as we were, in a strange land, amongst strangers and enemies. It was while we were here (Fort McHenry) that the South Carolina prisoners were notified that they could either take the oath or submit to the drawing of lots. Some weak minded ones yielded, but the majority remained firm. We were told after the drawing was over that it was for hostages to be retained by the United States Government for the safe return of three negroes, who, they affirmed, had been captured by the Confederate authorities in Charleston harbor. The unfortunate men selected by this drawing were Williams, McDowell and Cline, of the Second South Carolina cavalry, who were then confined in the old Carroll Prison, at Washington, District of Columbia. The writer did not know what disposition was made of them, but learned afterwards that they were retained in close confinement during the war, which impaired their health to such a degree that two of them died soon after they came home. From our quarters at Fort McHenry we had a delightful view of the city of Baltimore and suburbs; also of Fort Marshall, situated across the bay. The gallows, upon which the gallant but unfortunate Layfole was hung, was also in full view of our window -- left standing long after the event apparently to remind us of his fate. The famous New York Seventh regiment was stationed here awhile, and was often taken by new comers for Confederate soldiers. The dress parade of the garrison, with their fine music, was eagerly anticipated every evening. But I am consuming too much time with Fort McHenry, and must bid it good bye, with the hope that I may, at some future time, renew the acquaintance under more auspicious surroundings.
    On the 15th of September we embarked on the steamer John J. Tracy for Point Lookout -- an extreme point of land, distant about seventy five miles, and situated between the Chesapeake bay and the Potomac river, just opposite the Eastern shore of Maryland -- Our number was about one hundred and sixty; consequently we were not much crowded, and the steamer was quite comfortable and clean, being one of the bay boats, and not a Government transport. One of our number, a Tennessean, died on the passage, and was buried in the bay. Weights were attached to his body, which was placed upon a plank, one end of which was raised, and the Confederate passed away. The solemn spectacle was witnessed by our men with much emotion. He had some friends, no doubt, who informed his command of his death. That night we lay upon the upper deck of the steamer, many of us thinking of the death of the stranger. Accustomed as we had become to death on the battle field and in hospital, it had lost much of its dread; but this mode of burial was something new, and made a lasting impression upon us. I was somewhat surprised, next morning, to find myself addressed by one of the guard (Twenty fifth New York artillery) -- He proved to be an old schoolmate of mine and a near neighbor, who had been induced to take the oath on account of the drawing previously referred to. He remained North during the war, but not as a soldier, having been detected in some smuggling correspondence and thrown into prison. He visited his home at the close of the war, but soon enlisted in the United States army, and is now stationed in the far West. Upon arriving at Point Lookout, he gave me what money he had, and promised to aid me whenever he could; but he did not have an opportunity afterwards.
    This camp had been but recently established, and there was not many prisoners here. They yelled to us to "grab your pocket books," as we came in sight. This referred to the strict search to which all new comers were subjected, in which everything, even to a few Confederate dollars, was taken from you. It was labeled and put away, to be returned to you when you were leaving; but the valuables were never returned, as they could not be found. We were now regularly initiated as prisoners of war, and began to feel all the rigors and severities of such. We were divided into companies of one hundred men each, and were allowed for some time to draw and cook our own rations, each company sergeant being supplied with the necessary utensils. Soon, however, large numbers of prisoners began to arrive, most of them from Fort Delaware. They were in a most destitute and deplorable condition -- many of them not having sufficient clothing to clothe them, and all were without blankets. The severity of a winter on this barren place can only be imagined by those who have been there, and our prospects were now gloomy indeed. Our camp had formerly been a corn field, and consisted of about fifty acres. The Federal authorities conceived the plan of fencing in the camp, and erecting cook houses, a commissary, &c., and for this purpose secured the services of several good carpenters. They employed about two hundred prisoners to assist, paying them in extra rations and tobacco. When these were erected the camp was thoroughly reorganized. The men were divided into divisions of one thousand men each -- each under a Yankee sergeant -- and the division into companies of one hundred men each, under a Confederate sergeant. We were compelled to keep the camp clean, well drained, &c., and for this purpose carts and barrows were furnished. Each company street was well drained, and made as hard and firm as pebble and sand could make it. Each drain ran into the main drain, which ran through the centre of the camp, and from which all the refuse water was thrown into the bay. Our tents were miserable affairs, being full of holes, and very rotten. They were of the "Sibley pattern," and into each one of these sixteen men were crowded. In order to lay down at night, the men were compelled to lay so close together as to exclude sleep. The winter of 1863 was now approaching, and gloom, privation and starvation were staring us in the face. On the 9th of November, snow fell and there was not a stick of wood in camp. The day was bitter cold, most of us were but poorly clad, and very few of us had shoes of any description. We were compelled to stand in our damp tents, and "mark time" to keep from freezing. This scarcely seems possible, yet it can be attested by hundreds who were there. Previous to this time -- November, 1863 -- we had no reason to complain of our rations, but now we began to feel the pangs of hunger. Shortly after the cook houses were finished, a detail of ten or twelve men, under a sergeant, was assigned to each house, whose duty it was to cook the rations and issue them. Each house was furnished with three huge boilers - - holding, perhaps, forty gallons apiece -- thus enabling them to feed about five hundred men at once. Our rations were now reduced as follows: for breakfast, half pint coffee, or, rather, slop water; for dinner, half pint greasy water (called soup for etiquette), also a small piece of meat, perhaps three or four ounces. For bread we were allowed eight ounces per day; this you could press together in your hand and take at a mouthful. Our water was of such a character that we could scarcely use it, being so highly tinctured with sulphur and iron as to render it almost unbearable. Clothes which were washed in it were turned black and yellow. To our suffering from the cold and the want of pure water was now added that of hunger. To those who have never suffered in this respect, it is almost impossible to describe the sensations. The writer has known large, stout men to lay in their tents at night and cry like little babies from hunger and cold. We were not allowed to walk about, but were compelled to retire to our tea[n]ts at "taps," which were sounded quite early. Even the poor privilege of keeping ourselves warm by walking up and down in front of our tents was denied us, and we were compelled to lay in the cold. The supply of blankets was very scant, and "bunks" were unknown. The cold ground was our bed, and pillows we had none. To add to our discomforts, the tide from the bay occasionally backed into the camp, and compelled those whose tents had been flooded to stand all night. Midwinter was now upon us, and the intense cold we suffered may be judged when it is stated that the Chesapeake bay was frozen hard full twenty feet from the bank.
    Point Lookout is situated in Saint Mary's county, Maryland. The Department was commanded by General Barnes, United States army. Major Patterson was provost marshal and had charge of the prisoners. The Second, Fifth and Twelfth New Hampshire constituted the guard, with two batteries of artillery and a squadron of cavalry. These troops were housed in comfortable tents, and as we saw the smoke rising from the innumerable stove pipes projecting from their tents, we could not but indulge in bitter thoughts of their cruelty. If this man Patterson still lives his conscience must burn him. He was the impersonation of cruel malignity, hatred and revenge, and he never let an opportunity pass in which he could show his disposition in this respect. Of the guards we could not complain, as they acted under orders and were not responsible for any of the cruelties to which we were subjected. As might be inferred, our Christmas was a dull one, and we passed the day in thinking of "Dixie" and the loved ones at home. About the 10th of January, our suffering had grown so intense that a party formed a plan to escape. It was a bold one in conception, and required men of determination and courage to undertake it. Sergeant Shears, a man of about sixty years of age and a member of a Virginia cavalry regiment, was placed in command. A tunnel was to be dug from the rear of Company A, first division, to the fence, a distance of about twenty feet, and was commenced in a small tent. This work was extremely dangerous, and had to be carried on with great caution. It was large enough for a man to crawl through. It was worked by detail, and as the dirt was dug out of it, it was drawn to the mouth of the tunnel in an old haversack, and distributed over the bottom of the tent. At last it was completed, and the party was divided into squads of ten each. The squads were to make their exit on separate nights. After getting beyond the enclosure, each party was to choose its own mode of proceeding. The first party made the attempt. They were betrayed by a sentinel, whom some of them had most foolishly bribed, as there was no necessity for it. The alarm was given, and the prisoners who had succeeded in getting out had taken refuge behind the protecting banks of sand on the beach. As soon as the officers reached the spot, they called upon the prisoners to surrender, saying they would not be harmed. Major Patterson (the Provost Marshal) stood at the gate, and as each prisoner came up, he deliberately shot at him. One was shot in the head, from which he never recovered, and the last account we had of him he was in a lunatic asylum. Another was shot in the shoulder, and another in the abdomen, from the effects of which he died. The remaining seven managed to get into the camp again, without being hurt, for which they could thank the darkness of the night. The tunnel was fired into several times, but no one was in it. The next day it was filled up, and the men in whose tent the opening had been made were confined in the guard house, on bread and water, for ten days. The shooting of these men was without any excuse whatever, as they had expressed a willingness to surrender, and were proceeding to do so; besides, it is a recognized principle that a prisoner of war has a right to escape if he can, and the capturing party has no right to punish, but simply to remand to proper custody. This event stopped all idea of escape for awhile, and we became resigned to our fate.
    The intense cold weather at this season induced the authorities to give us some wood, and for this purpose a detail of four men from each one hundred was allowed to go, under a guard, to a point about a quarter of a mile above the camp for it. An idea can thus be obtained of the quantity of wood each company obtained -- as much as four men could carry a quarter of a mile. This, too was for three rations.
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