Southern Historical Society Papers/Volume 01/April/Testimony of a Federal Soldier

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Southern Historical Society Papers, April 1876

We have received a paper from Mr. John A. Bateson, of Pioche, Nevada, one of the Federal guard at Rock Island, which is a strong confirmation of the above statement of Mr. Wright.

Mr. Bateson is vouched for by a district judge and a prominent lawyer of Pioche as a gentleman of "perfect truthfulness and reliability"; and he refers to a number of leading Republicans in the Northwest, with whom he has always been politically associated, "for an endorsement of his character as a staunch Republican and honorable man."

His, therefore, is not "Rebel" testimony, but that of a Union soldier, and "a truly loyal Republican," whom Mr. Blaine cannot dismiss with the cry of "traitor."


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Pioche, February 19, 1876.

During a period of ten months I was a member of the garrison of the Rock Island Military Prison. There were confined there about ten thousand men. Those men were retained in a famishing condition by order of Edwin M. Stanton, Secretary, of War. That order was approved by Abraham Lincoln. It was read before the inside garrison of the prison sometime in January, 1864. It was read at assembly for duty on the 2d, in front of the prison. It went into effect on the following day. It continued in force until the expiration of my term of service, and, I have understood, until the close of the war.

When it was read, Colonel Shaffner, of the Eighth Veteran Reserves, was acting Provost Marshal of Prisoners. I think that it was Captain Robinson who read the order. It reduced the daily allowance of the captives to about ten ounces of bread and four ounces of meat per man.

Some time in January a batch of prisoners arrived. They were captured at Knoxville. Sixty of them were consigned to barracks under my charge. They were received by me at about 3 in the afternoon. One of the prisoners inquired of me when they would draw rations. I told him not until the following day. He said that in that case some of his comrades must die, as they had eaten nothing since their capture several days before—the exact period I cannot state. That evening at roll call one of the prisoners exhibited symptoms of delirium. He moved from the ranks, and seemed to grasp for something, which I understood to be a table loaded with delicacies. I returned him to the ranks, where he remained until roll-call was over, when I left. On the following morning he and two others were dead.

The mortality report among the new Rebs was extraordinarily large. I think it amounted to about ten per cent. of the entire number. It created an interest among the company commandants, and was the subject of many expressions. From the Rebel orderlies I learned that the symptoms in each case were the same. There was no complaint; no manifestation of illness. Some dropped while standing on the floor; others fell from a sitting posture. All swooned and died without a struggle.

Some of the prisoners had money sent them. It was deposited with the Provost Marshal, and their orders on the sutler were at first honored, but supplies from this direction were soon prohibited; the sutler's wagon was excluded from the prison. Supplies from relatives of prisoners, consisting of clothes, food and stationery came for some. The parcels containing them were distributed from "Barrack Thirty." The boxes were examined, everything in the shape of subsistence was removed, and the box and its contents delivered to the prisoner; the food it contained was destroyed before the face of the tantalized captive.

Small tufts of a weed, called parsley, grew under the sides of the prison. It was over the dead-line, where prisoners dare not go. At their earnest entreaty I have sometimes plucked and handed it to some of them. They told me it was a feast. Squads of prisoners under guard were sent to work in different parts of the Island. They sometimes purchased raw potatoes and onions for their comrades suffering with scurvy. They were searched at the prison gate, and those articles taken from them.

I am ready to swear that in my opinion the Knoxville prisoners were starved to death.

As to the torture endured by the scurvy patients, the shooting of prisoners by the guards on the parapets, the smashing of their skulls with revolvers by officers of the prison, such misfortunes are incident to prison life, and neither the Government nor the Republican party can be held responsible for them.

The weather on January 1st was the most intensely cold I ever experienced; and from all parts of the prison came intelligence of prisoners frozen to death. One died in one of my companies. He was reported to me, and I placed my hand on the corpse; it was frozen. This is the first time I have mentioned it. I cannot say that he froze to death.

John A. Bateson,
115th E. V. R. C., Second Battalion.