In 1861, George A. McGehee enlisted in the “Liberty Guards,” Company E, 22nd Mississippi Infantry, and marched off to
defend Mississippi. In the years that followed, McGehee saw the hard hand of war up close and very personally. He was wounded at the Battle of Shiloh, recovered, and returned to the 22nd Mississippi just in time to fight in the Battle of Corinth, where he was wounded again. By the time of the 1864 Atlanta Campaign, McGehee had been promoted to Sergeant in the Liberty Guards, and was involved in some of the bloodiest fighting of the war. But his time as a fighter abruptly came to a close when McGehee was captured and sent to Camp Douglas prisoner of war camp. On March 17 & 24, 1939, MCGehee’s memoir of prison life was published in the Gloster Record of Amite County, Mississippi. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.
Experience of Confederate Prisoner
Written by Geo. A. McGehee
On the 5th of July, 1864, on a line about five miles south of Marietta, Georgia, I was awakened by a charge of Yankees on our empty breastworks and on jumping up three Yankee soldiers on top of the breastworks cried out “surrender” and on looking to see if there was any chance to get away – one said, “Oh you cannot get away, I say, surrender,” which I did. They came to me and asked me when the army left and as I was left by the company sound asleep, I did not know which I told them as I certainly would have gone with them if I had known the time of departure.
They told me to leave my gun and cartridge box and the camp kettle as I would not need them, and one of them conducted me back to his company a part of Sixty-odd Ohio Regiment where they were preparing a breakfast of coffee and bacon and plenty of hard tack which they courteously asked me to partake of. Many questions were asked which I answered as far as I could, but the main question was “do you think you Johnnies will win this war?” My answer, “yes, I believe we will.” They seemed to like my answer and said they liked for a man to talk that way.
I was conducted to the provost guard, where there were other prisoners, and I am sorry to say a good many deserters, whom the yanks treated with scornful words; the guard moved in the rear of the advancing army for one day then we were marched to Marietta, a place where the inhabitants numbered 15,000 but 10,000 were dead Yankees, so a lady from Marietta told me about eight years ago.
The prisoners were placed on cars and shipped to Chattanooga, where we saw insolent negro soldiers and as we were suffering for water we asked that our canteens be filled, but our thirst was not assuaged nor did we ever see our canteens again, demonstrating that the negros natural propensity is to steal. We were put in the guard house and the next morning we were shipped to Nashville where we remained in the penitentiary buildings two more days. From there we went to Louisville and crossed the Ohio River to Jeffersonville at which place all the deserters were turned loose to shift for themselves. Possibly they were supplied by the officers with money but the soldiers in line considered all such as cowards and a disgrace to their country.
From Jeffersonville we were shipped to Chicago where we arrived July 16, 1864, being eleven days on this journey. We were marched out to “Camp Douglas” on Lake Michigan and in sight of Stephen A. Douglas residence. I here note that I had about three days rations in my havre sack and the Yanks forgot to furnish anything at Jeffersonville, and I having shared with a friend from east Miss., grew very hungry and began to grumble as I had not eaten anything in twenty four hours. The Yankee guard sitting in the door of the box car in which we were traveling asked me if what I said was true and I told him it was. He threw me two crackers saying “I cannot let a man suffer if I can help it.” I gave one of them to my friend, but there were others hungry.
At Camp Douglas the guards were told to search us but as they had been in front, they took my pocket book, merely opened it looked in and handed it back. We were then called off to barracks No. 7. There were four of these barracks to cross about sixty feet long and 20 feet wide with one door about the middle of the house with a kitchen on one end, kitchens were facing an alley about 20 feet in between there were streets between each row and there were 8 or 9 rows, the last row being the hospital row. The whole camp was surrounded by a plank wall about 20 feet high and a platform about four feet from the top was built on which guards were placed about thirty yards apart with orders to shoot anyone who crossed the “dead line” which was staked off about twenty feet from the fence. The camp was said to be 1500 yards in circumference and contained about twenty eight acres.
The inside guards consisted of a Yankee sergeant and corporal for each row and a private police guard, which was to see that all the prisoners obeyed the orders given. Also a Yankee was a kitchen guard or sergeant who attended to the kitchens as to sanitary conditions, and was considered the most exacting Yankee in the camp and of course was not liked by the prisoners. Besides each barracks had a Confederate as sergeant of the barracks who called the barracks in line when ordered by the authorities and attending any duties that might come up. There also was a kitchen sergeant whose duties with six others called cooks, prepared the food and distributed it to the men according to messes, which consisted of rations in a wooden box about sixteen inches square, for twelve men.
The barracks when full contained 180 men, and also running through the middle of barracks with frames for bunks on either side were for twelve men, four at bottom, four in middle and four in the top. There was a large stove in each end of the barracks and a fire was allowed in it all night especially when the night was very cold. The kitchen had a large kettle which held sixty gallons and was heated by a furnace. Plenty of fuel was furnished.
Confederate prisoners inside their barracks at Camp Douglas – Harper’s Weekly, April 5, 1862
About the middle of November, 1864, the Yankees sent in lumber dressed and tongue and grooved, and relaid the floor cross ways, thus making the boys more comfortable, and also recovered the barracks. The sick were attended by a physician and if a
George McGehee’s bunkmate at Camp Douglas was Andew J. Nixon of Company C, 9th Arkansas Infantry. He was sent to New Orleans for exchange in May 1865. – http://www.findagrave.com
case was considered dangerous was sent to the hospital barracks where the patient received good attention. There were several cases of small pox all of which were taken to the mess house, my bed mate, a 9th Arkansas man, named Nixon, had it broken out on him and the man on the other side of me had fever and both of them were carried out in the morning, I sunned our blankets that evening and used them afterwards but I guess I was immune as I never took it. I had had a spell of rheumatism just before this, and had gone through a course of medicine.
Col. Sweet was in charge of the camp and most of the soldiers had seen service on the firing line and they were as a general thing kind to the prisoners, but woe to the ones who transgressed any rules for _____ punishment would follow and that of [the] most excruciating kind.
Many of the prisoners became experts in the manufacture of gutta – perch rings with gold and silver settings which some of the guards would carry out and sell. Besides we had games of chess, seven-up and other games, and some teaching especially arithmetic and algebra.
In December, 1864, the kitchen sergeant removed the cooks and sergeant of the kitchen for some cause I never found out, and he chose seven others to take charge of the kitchen and by the request of the barracks I was put in charge. In assuming this responsibility, I allowed the opposite kitchen sergeant to divide the rations sent as it had been done before. But as we were all required to retire to sleep at sundown and not get up till sunrise I had plenty of time to make a rule of division which in less than ten minutes I saw there was nothing in it except partnership rule and strange today there were college graduates there who had not seen it.
A great many of the prisoners were Gen. Morgan’s command and captured in the raid through Ohio. The rations were sent in a cart for barracks 7 and 8 and had to be divided. I was told that all kitchen sergeant’s adopted the same rule – The rations for a man was 7 loaves of bread for 10 men, 14 oz. beef, 2 oz. Irish potatoes, some salt, and every tenth day 10 oz pickled pork, also a few beans, and soap, as all were required to keep clean. In preparing the rations the meats were boiled in the large kettles and when boned gave each man a fraction over 4 oz. of meat or beef to the man which with ½ loaf of bread was issued through a draw window to the men in the barracks for dinner. The balance of bread was cut up and put in the liquer where the meat was boiled and was issued to the men for breakfast, the potatoes and beans was put in with the bread and pork liquor, and was much relished by the boys, only once in the 6 months that I was in charge did they (Yankees) fail to give us the full rations. I reported same to headquarters and in a short time a cart brought us the balance due.
I here remark that after a time the kitchen sergeant of barracks was removed and Enoch Carruth was put in charge of that kitchen, thus forming a friendship between us that lasted as long as he lived. He was a man and true Christian. One of the cooks with me was F.M. Martin from Pike County, who after coming home studied medicine, while Enoch lived in Lincoln County near Adams Camp Ground.
[Editor’s Note: Enoch Carruth was Joseph Enoch Carruth, Sergeant Major of the 45th Mississippi Infantry. He was captured at Franklin, Tennessee, on November 30, 1864, and sent to Camp Douglas.]
As I found when I was captured that as I had my hands in the lions mouth, it was best to go quietly along and do nothing which would cause me to break any rules. I therefore was not punished in any way, but acquired the good will of the sergeant and corporal of barracks and also of the kitchen sergeant, for whom I did some clerical work.
When Lincoln was assassinated the prisoners were much excited and some of the boys lost all discretion and showed their joy so plainly that an old guard said to have been a preacher, lost control of himself and soon showed that Lincoln was the Idol of the Yankee army and all our demonstrations of joy led to the severest kinds of punishment, while some of us did not show it, yet I do not doubt that every Confederate rejoiced in his heart that the great bulwark of the war was broken as we thought, and I at this time can not see that Lincoln was such a great president.
About June 1st, 1865, the camp officials began to parole the prisoners, commencing with those who had been longest there. Before this all the prisoners had asked in petition some very unwillingly, especially Morgan men, not to be paroled but the paroling continued day after day, each prisoner taking the Amnesty oath, and on the 11th day of June 1865, my name with others was reached and under guard we were marched to the depot of a railroad and put aboard passenger cars, and shipped to Cairo, where we arrived the next day late in the evening.
I met Johnnie Walker and J. Monroe Whittington, Elaine’s son, from Fort Delaware, who had been prisoners about eighteen months. The guards there were negro soldiers, and no doubt but the men suffered many indignities that the Wisconsin men did not put on their prisoners. Johnnie, Monroe and I were put aboard a steamboat for Natchez, June 1865, where I met a dear school mate, who formed a guard of ex-Confederates and conducted us to my father’s house about 12 miles. My father came in about 2 p.m., and told Monroe that his father was in town, and he and Johnnie came back to old Amite free and independent men.
On the 6th day of July 1865, I came back to Amite and I trust that I have been a true and faithful citizen of this my native county. Born January 1st, 1842 on the same hill where my mother was born in 1818, May 18, on land entered by Angus Wilkinson her paternal uncle in Zion Hill neighborhood.
The reason I slept so soundly the morning I was captured was that I had been first a picket on July 2nd, remained till about 12 midnight on 3rd, marched in line till daylight, had charge of squad digging ditches on the 4th, and was simply worn out when I went to sleep and our orderly overlooked me when he woke the company to leave.
GEORGE A. MCGEHEE
George McGehee took the Oath of Allegiance to the United States and was discharged from Camp Douglas on June 16,
1865. He went home to Amite County married Josephine A. Cotten, and had a house full of children. In the 1870 U.S. Census, George and Josephine were living in Amite County with their two children. George was making his living as a schoolteacher, and told the census taker that his personal estate was valued at a modest 100.00.
George A. McGehee lived a long life, and was active in his local United Confederate Veterans camp. He died on January 4, 1924, and was buried in Liberty Cemetery in Amite County.