Southern Historical Society Papers/Volume 01/April/Letter of a Confederate Officer
|←Prison Life of Rev. Geo. W. Nelson||Southern Historical Society Papers: Volume 1, Number 4 (1876)
Letter of a Confederate Officer
|Narrative of Hon. A. M. Keiley →|
|Southern Historical Society Papers, April 1876|
We next give the following extract from a private letter, written August 4th, 1865, from Great Barrington, Massachusetts, by a Confederate officer, to a lady of Richmond, the full truth of which can be abundantly attested:
I was captured on Tuesday, the 4th of April, near evening. Some four hundred or more, that had been collected during the day, were marched a few miles and stowed away for the night in a small tobacco barn. The next morning we were told that if we could find any meat on the remains of three slaughtered cattle (that had already been closely cut from) we were welcome. No bread or salt was offered, yet it could be had for money. From Tuesday till Friday all that I had given me to eat was two ears of musty corn and four crackers! During that time we were exposed to the rain, which was continued for days. We were marched through mud and water to City Point, a distance of near one hundred miles by the route taken. The first sustaining food I received was from Mrs. Marable, at Petersburg, and I shall ever feel grateful to her for it. We arrived at Point Lookout at night, and mustered for examination next morning over eighteen hundred. After searching my package and person, taking from me nearly everything that my captors had left me, I was assigned, with two others, to a tent having already twenty-three occupants. I cannot describe the appearance of that tent and the men in it. If there is a word more comprehensive than filthy I would use it. It would require a combination of similar adjectives to give any description. There was given me a half loaf of bread and a small rusty salt mackerel, which I was informed was for next day's rations. I declared I would not sleep in the tent, but was told there was no alternative, as the guards or patrol would shoot me if I slept outside. It was a horrible night. Weary, exhausted, almost heartbroken, I ate a part of my scanty loaf, and placed the remainder under my head with the fish. I soon forgot my troubles in sleep. Waked in the morning and found I had been relieved of any further anxiety for my bread, as it had been taken from me by some starving individual, (a common occurrence). The mackerel was left as undesirable. A chew of tobacco would purchase two, so little demand was there for them—for many had no means of cooking them. A few hours of reflection—that ever to be remembered morning. There were none there that I had ever seen, except the few acquaintances made on the march. All looked dark, dismal—and the thought I might remain there for months came nearer to making my heart sink in despair than ever before. I thought that must be surely the darkest hour of my existence. While thus lamenting my fate, and almost distrustful of relief, a boy near me asked what regiment I belonged to. I told him the Washington Artillery. "Why," says he, "there is a whole company of them fellows here captured near Petersburg." I began to revive a little on that. For though the saying goes, that "Misery seeks strange bed fellows," I sought for old acquaintances, and soon found them. The surprise was mutual. By the kindness of Mr. Vinson, I had good quarters with him, and was more comfortable. We had a small tent, and only six in it. True, we were "packed like sardines" at night, but we were friends, and each one had a pride and disposition to keep as cleanly as we could. The food allowed was as follows: In the morning, early, the men are marched by companies (each about one hundred and fifty) to the "cook houses," and receive a small piece of boiled beef or pork. I do not think the largest piece ever given would weigh three ounces. There is no bread given at this time, and it is a common occurrence for the men to have eaten their scanty allowance in a few mouthfuls without bread. At or near twelve o'clock, M., there is issued to each a half of a small loaf of bread, (eight ounce loaves). The men can then go to the cook-houses and receive a pint of miserable soup. That is the last meal for the day. I never tasted of the soup (so called) but once. It was revolting—I might say revolving to my stomach. Sometimes, in place of meat, is given salt mackerel or codfish—never of good quality. The water at the "Point" was horrible, being strongly tinctured with copperas and decayed shells, &c. It was obtained from wells in different parts of the enclosure. Near the officers quarters' was one pump from which a little better water was sometimes received by favored ones. This location for a prison was once condemed by a Board of Surgeons on account of the poisonous composition of the water. Many persons were greatly affected by the water, and the food given would barely sustain life—in many cases it did not—and I feel confident that money deaths were caused solely from scanty and unhealthy food, and this too by a Government that had plenty.
Whenever any complaint was made of the food or treatment, the reply would be: "'Tis good enough for you, and far better than Andersonville." I depended very little upon the food issued, as in a week after my imprisonment I received money from my friends and was enabled to purchase coffee, etc., and lived well. Most of the Washington Artillery fared well, but it was by purchase rather than favor. The sutlers were most happy to receive our money, and charged more than double the market value for their supplies.
We were fortunate even thus, for there were thousands of that motley group that for months had not a sufficiency of food. I have seen them many times fishing out from the barrels (in which all the filth and offal of the camp is thrown) crusts of bread, potato peelings, onion tops, etc., etc.—in fact, anything from which they might find little sustenance. I had never before witnessed to what great extremity hunger would drive a human being. The discipline of the prison was very strict. The guard was most of the time of colored troops, who, when (as they usually were) badly treated by their officers, would vent their rage upon the prisoners.
Much is said in the papers of the "Dead Line," over which so many "blue coats" had "accidentally" passed and were shot for their "imprudence." In all prisons the penalty for passing the "Dead Line" is well known, and there can be no excuse in such attempt. At Point Lookout Confederate soldiers were shot for being at the pumps for water, which had always been permitted at all hours of night, till the self-constituted restriction of the negro guard caused several men to be severely wounded. I was an eyewitness of many disgusting scenes, almost brutal on the part of the guard, towards simple and ignorant prisoners. That prison was said to be the best of all the Yankee—prisons if so, I am truly sorry for those that were in the others. I know not what Andersonville was. I do not doubt but there was great suffering, but all was done by the Government that could be, and we had not the resources of the world as had the Yankees.
Thus have I given you some particulars. It is really an "unvarnished tale," but it is true, and I can safely challenge the denial of a word of it.