Southern Historical Society Papers/Volume 03/April/Diary of Captain R. E. Park

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Diary of Captain Robert E. Park, Twelfth Alabama Regiment.

[Continued from March Number.]

March 20th, 1865—I have suffered severely for several days from cold and hoarseness, with an occasional fever, and Dr. Hays, Chief of our Division, advised and obtained an order for my transfer to the hospital. I reluctantly consented to go, for I had a feeling recollection of my unkind treatment in other Yankee prison hospitals, and shrank from a renewal of my very unpleasant acquaintance with them. Thoughts of Knowles of West's Hospital, and of Heger of Point Lookout Hospital, have caused me to dread my treatment at the Fort Delaware Hospital. Growing worse, however, I went, and was registered in ward 11. All of my clothing was taken from me, and I was clad in shirt and drawers of coarse texture, belonging to the hospital, and which had probably been frequently used before by smallpox and other diseased patients. My crutches were also taken from me. "Doctor" Miller, a youth of perhaps twenty years, diagnosed my disease and pronounced it "remittent fevor." He prescribed pills. Judging by Miller's manners and appearance, he must be some medical student practicing to gain experience solely, or he has but recently graduated. The accommodations are as good as could be expected in a place conducted without regard to system, and where the patients are under the charge of such young and totally inexperienced physicians. At the head of each bunk or bed a card is suspended against the the wall, having on it the name and rank of the patient, character of his disease, and number of his bed. Corn mush, without salt or milk, composed my supper.

March 21st—Meals are quite scanty in quantity and uninviting in quality, and the officers from Hilton Head and Fort Pulaski, afflicted with scurvy, are constantly complaining of hunger, and wishing for meal hour to arrive. Mush made of yellow corn meal is the usual supper. The poor fellows suffering from scurvy are a sad sight, as they walk in their hospital garb of shirt and drawers (which are oftentimes either too large and long, or too tight and short for the wearers), from their beds to the stove. Their legs and feet are so drawn as to compel them to walk on tiptoe, their heels being unable to reach the floor. How necessary a few vegetables are to these helpless sufferers. The "best Government the world ever saw," however, is either too poor or too mean to furnish them.

March 22d to 24th—Among others whose beds are near mine are Colonel S. M. Boykin, of the Twentieth South Carolina infantry, a very dignified and intelligent middle aged gentleman from Camden, South Carolina, and Captain James W. McSherry, of Thirty-sixth Virginia infantry, from Martinsburg, Virginia. The latter is a physician of talent and fine standing, but preferred to serve the South as an officer of the line to accepting a place as surgeon. Captain M. is a cousin of my excellent friend Miss Anna L. McSherry, and is a bold and outspoken denouncer of the Yankees. He has scurvy badly. My bed is near the stove, and I have frequent talks with those who come around it to warm themselves, or to interchange opinions about the situation.

March 25th and 26th—I find myself much improved, my fevers being slight and rare and hoarseness disappearing. Smallpox, that most loathsome of diseases, has made its appearance in our ward. Colonel Montgomery, of Georgia, was sick with it for several days, with high fever, his face and body being broken out with pimples, but was not removed until several officers, fearing infection, urged his removal from their vicinity to the pest-house. Lieutenant Birkhead, of North Carolina, who lay next to me, showed me his hands, neck and face covered with pimples, yesterday, and asked me what was the matter. I took his hand and wrist in mine, and laughingly pronounced it "smallpox," little dreaming that I was correct. Today our young doctor decided it was a genuine case of smallpox, and ordered his removal to the smallpox hospital. I never saw nor heard of poor Birkhead again. Deaths from smallpox, pneumonia, scurvy, fevers, dysentery, and various other diseases, are alarmingly frequent. There is honor and glory in death on the field of battle, amid the whistling of bullets, the shrieks of shells, the fierce roar of cannon, and the defiant shouts of the brave combatants, but the saddest, most solemn and painful of deaths is that within prison walls, far from home and loved ones. The picture of his loved home flits across the dying soldier's mind; dear faces seem to look down upon him, but no gentle hands ease his pain, no loving lips whisper words of peace and comfort,—the suffering forms of his sick and wounded comrades are all the friends he sees, their groans all the prayers he hears. As he fights his last fight with the grim monster, no doubt he sees floating aloft the flag he has so often followed—he hears his commander's cheering words urging his men on to the fray; but they will urge him on no more, and never again will he behold the proud banner he has loved so well. With the roar of the cannon and rattling of musketry falling upon his ear, or with a fair vision of his dear childhood's home before his mind, and a prayer he lisped in days gone by at his mother's knee, his eyes close, his breath ceases, and the brave prisoner's life is ended. Horrid war has given another noble heart to death, and taken the sunshine from another happy home. The dead prisoner is carried to the "dead-house," stripped of his clothing, placed by strangers and enemies in a rough, unpainted pine coffin, hoisted in an old cart, and hurried to the burial ground, like the carcass of some dumb brute, without the presence or ministrations of a single friend. They are carried across the bay, when not sunk within it, and buried on the Jersey shore. The graves are seldom marked, or it is done in a very careless manner, easily erased in a short time by the action of the elements.

March 27th—All the paroled prisoners have had their "checks" redeemed or "cashed," and it is said a boat will carry them to Dixie soon. Oh! that I could be of the lucky number.

March 28th—I received a very kind letter from that true friend and noble woman, Miss McSherry, to-day, enclosing $12, which was paid me in checks. Her generous, disinterested kindness, commands my sincere admiration and warmest gratitude. Miss Mary Alburtis, of Martinsburg, also wrote me very kindly.

March 29th—Letters to day from Miss Nena Kiger and Miss Mollie Harlan, and wrote two letters to friends in Winchester, and two to Martinsburg. The only newspaper we are permitted to buy or receive is the "Philadelphia Inquirer," a very bitter, boastful and malignant sheet, full of falsehoods about the Southern people and Confederate armies. Its price to our Yankee guards is five cents, to the sick and penniless prisoners is ten cents. A young "galvanized" man—i.e., one ready to take the oath when allowed—named C., who claims to be from both Alabama and Kentucky, is one of the nurses in our ward. He had not the courage, fortitude and patriotic principle requisite to remain true to the land of his birth, and has signified his willingness to repudiate his first pledge, and swear allegiance to the Yankee Government. I have talked with C., and remonstrated with him upon his disgraceful conduct, but he seems resolved upon his course.

March 30th and 31st—My first letter from Dixie since my capture, 19th September, over six months ago, came to-day and rejoiced me greatly. It was from the Hon. David Clopton, member of the Confederate Congress, once a private in my company, and afterwards Quartermaster of the Twelfth Alabama. It was dated Richmond, Virginia, March 6th, and gave me some interesting news. He told me brother James was in Tuskegee when he heard from him last, about the first of February; that General Grimes, of North Carolina, was in command of Rodes' old division, and General Battle was at home on account of his wound. He had not heard of any casualties in my company lately. The letter closed by wishing I might be exchanged soon. Captain Clopton was a member of the United States Congress before the war, and is a leading lawyer of Alabama, as well as an amiable, Christian gentleman and fine scholar.

April lst, 1865—Sunday—Chaplain William. H. Paddock, of the United States army, stationed at Fort Delaware, passed through the ward, and learning that he was a minister, I asked for and was given a Bible, on the inside cover of which was pasted the following printed card, the blanks of which I have filled out:

"Bible House, Baltimore, Maryland, March, 1865.

"From the Maryland State Bible Society, to Captain Robert E. Park, soldier in company "F," Twelfth regiment, Alabama Volunteers. Should I die on the battle field or in the hospital, for the sake of humanity, acquaint my mother, Mrs. S. T. Park, residing at Greenville, Georgia, of the fact, and where my remains may be found."

Chaplain Paddock seems a very genteel, good man, but his visits to the prisoners must be very rare as to-day is the first time I have ever seen or heard of him. Perhaps the soldiers of the garrison require all his time and attention. The Inquirer gives news of the battle of Fort Steadman, which occurred on the 26th ultimo, and in which that unreliable sheet states that General Gordon made a desperate but unsuccessful attempt to capture the fort, but was repulsed with great loss. Gordon is cautious as well as gallant, and I believe he gained a victory. General Gordon began service as captain of the "Raccoon Roughs," a company in the Sixth Alabama of my brigade, from Jackson county, Alabama, was successively elected major, lieutenant-colonel and colonel, and promoted brigadier-general, major-general, and I hear is now commanding Early's old corps, with the rank of lieutenant-general. In his case, real merit has been promptly and properly rewarded. The confronting lines near Petersburg are stretched out over thirty miles, and the papers report numerous deserters, who relate doleful tales of scarcity, hardships and despondency within the Confederate lines. How chafing and irritating this protracted confinement in a Yankee bastile is to a Confederate soldier, who sees and keenly feels the great necessity for his presence in the Southern army by the side of his old comrades, now sorely pressed and well nigh overwhelmed by vastly superior numbers, and suffering from want of sufficient food and too great loss of sleep and necessary rest. If I could be released from this loathed imprisonment, I would gladly report on my crutches for duty with my company in the trenches around beleaguered Petersburg, the heroic "Cockade City." For, while I could neither charge nor retreat, should either be ordered, yet I could cheer by my words and inspire by my presence those who might be dispirited or despondent.

April 2d and 3d—The appalling news of the evacuation of Richmond and Petersburg has reached us, and the Yankee papers are frantic in their exultant rejoicings. We have feared and rather expected this dreaded event, for General Lee's excessive losses from battle, by death and wounds, prisoners, disease and desertion, with no reinforcements whatever, taught us that the evacuation of the gallant Confederate capital was inevitable. I suppose our peerless chieftain will retreat to Lynchburg, or perhaps to North Carolina, and there unite his shattered forces with the army of General Joseph E. Johnston. "There's life in the old land yet," and Lee and Johnston, with their small but veteran armies united, having no longer to guard thousands of miles of frontier, will yet wrest victory and independence for the Confederacy from the immense hosts of Yankees, Germans, Irish, English, Canadians and negroes, ex-slaves, composing the powerful armies under Grant and Sherman. Would that the 7,000 or 8,000 Confederates now confined at Fort Delaware, and their suffering but unconquered comrades at Johnson's Island, Point Lookout, Camp Chase, Camp Douglas, Rock Island, Elmira and other places could join the closely pressed, worn out, starving, but ever faithful and gallant band now retreating and fighting step by step, trusting implicitly in the superb leadership of their idolized commander and his brave lieutenants Longstreet, Ewell, Early, Gordon, Hampton, Pickett and the rest. How quickly the tide of battle would turn, and how speedily glorious victory would again perch upon our banners! It is very hard, bitter, indeed, to endure this cruel, crushing confinement, while our comrades need our aid so greatly. Still I realize the fact that while painful and harrowing to one's feelings to be pent up within despised prison walls during such trying times, it is no disgrace to be a prisoner of war, if not captured under dishonorable circumstances. Lafayette languished in prison, and so did Louis Napoleon, the present Emperor of France, and his illustrious uncle, the First Napoleon, and so did St. Paul, and so have the great and good of all ages. We are but mortals, and must yield to the fiat of remorseless destiny. There are here many splendid specimens of physical, mental and moral manhood, and in them we see the age of chivalry revived. Three-fourths of the officers are under thirty years of age; many are of the first order of talent, and will make their marks in after life. A large number are graduates of colleges and universities, and many have had the advantage of extensive travel over Europe and America, and are gentlemen of culture and refinement. Some, of course, in so large a body, gathered from so many States, are coarse and unrefined, illiterate men, promoted doubtless on account of their gallantry in battle, or through the partiality of their ignorant companions. A vast majority are brave, gallant and dashing soldiers, and are deserving of special mention in my Diary. Superior power has incarcerated these men in a loathsome prison, indignities and insults are daily heaped upon them, and they have no ability to resent them. Starvation sometimes almost drives them to reluctant submission, but the whole Yankee Government, with its immense army of more than a million men, cannot shake their confidence in the truth and justice of their cause, nor crush their resolute, undaunted spirits. For future reference I have bought a small blank book, and am getting the autographs of many acquaintances, with their military rank, name of their commands, and their home address. A great many officers in the pen, and a few in the hospital, have these autograph books, and are assiduous in collecting names.

April 4th—Mrs. Emma R. Peterkin, Mrs. Meeteer, and other ladies from Philadelphia, visited the hospital and our ward to-day by special permission. They brought us some vegetables, fruit, etc. Their gentle presence and kindly words of sympathy infused new life into us, and was a most delightful and charming incident in our cheerless prison experience. One of the ladies came to my bed, spoke of her friendship for Mrs. Professor LeConte, of Athens, Georgia, and gave me some nice fruit. She also gave me hastily a recent number of Ben Wood's excellent Democratic paper, the "New York News." This is a real treat, as Ben Wood is a "Rebel sympathizer," and tells the plain truth about the Yankee defeats. His paper is forbidden in prison, lest the prisoners should gather some crumbs of comfort and items of truth from its bold utterances. After reading it, it was passed from couch to couch, and read with great eagerness. These sweet, gentle hearted women, with their winning smiles and cheerful words, proved well springs of joy to us, and brought to mind tender thoughts of our homes and loved ones. Their coming was like a fairy visitation to the sick, wounded and mentally distressed soldiers, lying on their weary couches of pain. May God bless and protect them, and may the noble virtues of these good women be visited in drops of tenderest mercy upon their children, and their children's children, even to the third and fourth generation.