Southern Historical Society Papers/Volume 01/April/Statement of Major Robert Stiles

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Southern Historical Society Papers: Volume 1, Number 4  (1876)  by Robert Stiles
Statement of Major Robert Stiles
Southern Historical Society Papers, April 1876

The following statement of Major Robert Stiles of Richmond, Virginia, will be received by his large circle of friends and acquaintances as the testimony of a gentleman "without fear and without reproach."

STATEMENT OF MAJOR ROBERT STILES.

I was a prisoner of war at Johnson's Island and Fort Lafayette from April to October, 1865, having been captured at Sailor's creek. During this time I did not suffer seriously to my own person from bad treatment, but saw and heard no little of the suffering of others.

The Southern field officers were released from Johnson's Island in May or June, but I was held a prisoner because I declined to take the somewhat remarkable oath propounded to us, and refused to give in addition my word of honor that I would say nothing against the Government of the United States.

At Johnson's Island all the formidable nomenclature and enginery of prison discipline were in vogue. We had our "dead line" within and up some distance from the tall fence which formed "the pen," which line, if a prisoner crossed, the guard, posted on a plank walk near the top of the fence, was under orders to fire upon him. We had our "lights out"—after which, if, for any cause, a lamp or fire was lit, the guard had orders to fire upon the offending light. These orders were sometimes executed with fatal result: and it was currently reported that at least one man of the guard had been promoted to a sergeantcy, for killing a wretched prisoner who, unable to endure the frightful cold, had risen to kindle a fire. We had our "black-hole" in which "refractory" prisoners were punished, solitary, dark, damp and cramped.

At this, as at all other Federal prisons, the rations of prisoners were at sundry times reduced below the amount confessedly indispensable to the maintenance of a man in full health—in retaliation as was alleged for the starvation of Federal prisoners in Confederate prisons. During my stay on the Island, the war being substantially over, the discipline and management were more liberal, and the ration, though meagre, larger than it had been; the sutler, too, was open, and the few prisoners fortunate enough to obtain money lived reasonably well, but the majority still suffered from lack of food. After being an inmate of the pen for a few days and observing the really pitiful hunger and destitution, I organized a system of collection from the messes who had money, and patronized the sutler and distribution among the less favored who starved on the prison ration. I fed from a hundred to a hundred and fifty men every day, and this moment can well recall the scene at the daily distribution. I would form them in line, count them off in squads or messes of ten, appointing an orderly for each mess, and then separating my provisions, consisting of scraps more or less fragmentary, into as many piles as there were orderlies, deliver one pile to each orderly for distribution among his mess. After this was done the poor fellows would break ranks and scuffle on the bare ground under the table for the crumbs. These men were all officers of the Confederate—armies most of them field officers.

The clothing issued to our prisoners was quite as scanty as the rations, the post surgeon's certificate, that it was absolutely necessary in each individual case, being required to entitle a man to an overcoat—and that for Southern men exiled on a bleak island swept by chill tempests, with the thermometer frequently more than twenty degrees below zero. In order to get one of these certificates, a man was required to stand in line in the open air scantily clad, waiting his time to enter the surgeon's office and submit to an examination to test the condition of his lungs, &c. It can readily be imagined how many were saved from pneumonia and consumption by this humane distribution of overcoats. It is well known that the supply of blankets was totally inadequate until the offer of our Government to trade cotton for clothing for our prisoners was accepted. Of course I did not personally suffer from exposure to cold, being on the Island only during the spring and summer months, but I not only heard of these scenes and regulations from many men who had wintered on this desert isle, but just before my release, I talked with a gentleman who had resigned or been removed from the place of post surgeon because of his repeated but fruitless protests that it was impossible to maintain men in health while half fed and half clad, and who in particular had attempted to evade the barbarous regulation about overcoats, by giving out certificates, as rapidly as he could write or sign them, that the bearer needed an overcoat on the score of health.

At Fort Lafayette we were well fed; but I have never been able to understand by what rule or principle of civilized warfare, an honorable prisoner of war could be immured for weeks in a stone casemate, among deserters, and prisoners under charges for violating the laws of war.

It gives me pleasure to state that I experienced great kindness from some of the Federal officers during my imprisonment, and especially from a Major Lee, who succeeded Colonel Hill at Johnson's Island. He had lost an arm I think in Gen. Sickle's corps at Gettysburg. The surgeon of whose humanity mention was made above, was not the only Federal officer who during my brief prison experience protested to his superiors against the inhumanity of the prison regimen.