Confederate Soldier in a Yankee Prison: The Memoir of Byron Smith, 1st Georgia Cavalry

In 1910 Byron Smith of Peoria, Amite County, Mississippi, published a memoir of his service during the Civil War. He

gave his tome the rather ponderous title of Reminiscences of a Confederate Prisoner: Scott’s Cavalry, Composed of 1st Georgia, 1st Louisiana and 3d Tennessee Regiments. A True Story Full of Interesting Events. A reminiscence of his time spent as a prisoner of war at Point Lookout, Maryland, Smith’s reminiscence is a very well written account of life in captivity during the Civil War.

Byron Smith’s book is long out of print, and I could find only about 15 copies of the work in various libraries scattered across the United States. There are a few quotes from the book on the internet, but the entire reminiscence has been, for the most part, unavailable to the public. Fortunately while doing some research, I found that Smith’s entire book had been serialized in the Gloster Record in 1939. Published in seven parts, I will post these articles the same way, one each week for the next seven weeks.

Bryon Smith was born on July 20, 1843, in Morgan County, Georgia, and was the son of Wiley and Sarah Smith. In the 1860 U.S. Census for Georgia, Byron was living with his parents and siblings in Cass County, Georgia, and the 16 year old listed his occupation as farmer. On May 1, 1862, Byron and his brother Langdon both enlisted in Company G, 1st Georgia Cavalry for “Three years or during the war.”  He served faithfully until June 3, 1863, when he was captured at Falls Creek, Kentucky. Byron was sent initially to Camp Chase, Ohio, then transferred to Johnson’s Island, Ohio. In October 1863 he was sent to Point Lookout, Maryland, where he spent the remainder of his captivity. I hope you enjoy this reminiscence as much as I did.


Part 1

By Byron Smith, 1st Georgia Cavalry

Published in the Gloster Record (Amite County, Miss.,) January 4, 1939

It sometimes surprises us when we recall our experiences during the Civil War, to find how fresh and vivid those buried

memories are. It seems as though they were burned in as with a pen of iron, never to be effaced. Especially is this true if we were prisoners, shut out from the world, with so few exciting events to crowd out impressions once made. Yet for the most part, Southern soldiers have been silent, preferring that the memories die out with them. But comrades, is this right? When so much has been written of the horrors of Andersonville, Libby, and other Southern prisons: is it just to the Southern prisoners who were treated so kindly, they had no cause for complaint? We will soon all pass ‘over the river’ and if we remain silent, a true history of what we suffered can never be written, and for this reason I will give an account of my experience while a prisoner.

I belonged to Scott’s Cavalry Brigade, composed of the First Georgia, First Louisiana and the Third Tennessee regiments, and

John Sims Scott of Wilkinson County, Mississippi, commanded the brigade to which the 1st Georgia Cavalry belonged -
John Sims Scott of Wilkinson County, Mississippi, commanded the brigade to which the 1st Georgia Cavalry belonged –

the Third Tennessee battalion. In the spring of 1863 we were ordered back into Kentucky to get beef cattle. After passing through Monticello, the First Georgia, (our regiment), camped at Rankin’s Mills on the Cumberland River and kept pickets at every ford, as the Yankees were camped on the other side below us. Some of them would secure guides who lived in the neighborhood and knew every path, go down the river at night, cross over, and capture some of the Yankees pickets. They would generally parole them on the promise not to re-enlist.

In a few days the Yankees tried their hand at the game, but the ones they captured were sent back to prison. On the second day of June, 1863, John Roberts, Alfred Bryant and myself were detailed as pickets. Our post was at an old crib in an old clover field. After dark the pickets would draw from the crib and stand by trees in a little hollow nearby. Our orders were, not to shoot unless it was necessary.

During the night, six or eight of the enemy slipped about through the woods hunting us. They came within thirty feet of us. We could hear them, but it was so dark we could not see them. The next afternoon, while grazing ten or twelve horses on the clover, one of the pickets said, “Look at the Yankees” there were about five hundred of them about a mile down the river on the other side coming in a run. I ran to drive the horses to the gap, but before I could get them, Yankees had dismounted and were firing at us. The horses were so excited they passed the gap, and I took to the crib for shelter. John Roberts and Alfred Bryant had gone to a farm house near the crib they were there and said that that the farmer had just told them the Yankees could not cross nearer than three miles up the river. They were mounted infantry, and were armed with Colts five shooter cylinder rifles and while we were watching them shoot at us, they tore the roof of the crib into splinters.

Union Cavalrymen skirmishing with the enemy - Library of Congress
Union Cavalrymen skirmishing with the enemy – Library of Congress

About one hundred of the First Kentucky Yankee cavalry crossed the river about a mile above us, and were on us before we knew it. The Lieutenant asked us what command we belonged to, and when we told him he said, “It is a fine thing for you that you do not belong to that…Tennessee battalion.” One of his company told me afterwards that the night before, some of that battalion had captured the lieutenant’s brother, and when he attempted to escape, they had shot and killed him.

They had captured our horses, and told us to mount. My saddle was near, so I put it on my horse, and went across the river. The banks were steep and high, and it was difficult to cross. While we were crossing one of our pickets, who had gone to the woods, fired on the Yankees. Oh then there were hurrying times with those in the river. They went three miles up the river, crossed over, and came up in the rear of those pickets and captured them. They were John Free, David Seller, and Frank Chadwick of the Third Tennessee. They carried us two miles to their camp, which was located near where Zollicoffer was killed. It was my last ride on my noble horse that had carried me through so many dangers and close places and it was a sad parting. I told the Yankee that got him to take good care of him, that there was not a better horse in the army and I hoped that I could recapture him someday.

Our captors were very kind and treated us as well as they could under the circumstances. They gave us a fly tent to sleep under, a luxury to which we were not accustomed. I could not sleep I was planning to escape. Finally I arose and went to the fire, and talked to one of the guards. They kept a bright light all night with fence rails. We talked pleasantly until two o’clock then I asked him to take a walk with me. I was active and strong, and intended if only one went to seize him by the throat as soon as we reached the dark and choke him until he would be unable to give the alarm, then make my escape. I knew where their pickets were and could have dodged them, but he had the precaution to ask another one of the guards to go with us. Then I thought when we reached a little thicket, I would turn rabbit and make a jump for liberty, but before we reached it they stopped and we returned to the fire.

Next morning a lieutenant and sixteen of the cavalry started with six prisoners to Sommerset, [Somerset, Kentucky] a distance of eighteen miles. Our guards were very kind to us, and let us take it time about with them riding. [and let us take our time with them riding] When we arrived, the provost marshal tried to get us to take the oath to the United States but we refused. The next morning we started for Stanford [Kentucky]. About half way we stopped, and were put upstairs in a vacant house to spend the night guarded by German infantry. After a supper of hardtack and pickled pork, and some time spent in talking and poking with our guards we prepared to retire. Our beds were easily made, all we had to do was spread ourselves on the floor, and use each other for pillows. Before I lay down, I told the guard if I walk about in my sleep not to wake me. He replied, “I does vake you mit dis ver,” pointing to his bayonet. I did not walk any.

The next day John and I were walking some distance ahead of the others and the guards, and found in the road about 30 feet of small rope or cord. I picked it up thinking someday I might need it. I wound it around my body so it could not be seen. When we arrived in town they marched us to the Provost Marshals office to take the oath. None of us felt like we could swallow it. John Roberts said, “Colonel with due respect to you we volunteered to fight or die for the South, or rot in prison.” He answered, “It takes that kind of men to make good soldiers. Put them in jail, we can feed them easier than we can fight them.”

That jail was strong, not only in structure but in other things. A dump cart could not have hauled at three loads the filth that was in the corner of the room. It was bad but we had to endure it. John said, “Boys, it won’t take us long to rot in this place.” Next morning John asked the Yankee who brought our breakfast to please set it on the platform outside, and tell the officer of the guard we wanted to see him. He came and we invited him inside. He said, “Boys, how can you stand this? John replied, “Lieutenant, we are Southern soldiers and can stand anything, but we will appreciate the favor if you will give an order for us to take our meals on the platform.” He said he would, if we would promise not to escape. We promised and ate our meals on the platform as we stayed there. Jno. Free was so glad when the door opened, to breathe fresh air once more, he jumped out, striking his head against the top facing of the door, and cutting a gash to the bone. We dressed his wound the best we could.

The third day after our arrival, I was looking out the window which was over the pavement, when I noticed a lady walking on the opposite side of the street. She wore a sun bonnet, carried a big market basket on her arm, and had a light shawl thrown over her shoulder, which covered the basket. She soon passed out of my sight. Directly I heard someone under the window say something about a cord or rope. Not thinking it was intended for me, I paid no heed to it. Again I saw the lady walking on the opposite sidewalk, and in a few minutes a voice under the window said, “Let down a cord.” I threw my cord out, held on to the end, and waited to see what would happen. I felt someone working with it, and after awhile two or three jerks were given it as a signal to haul up. When it came in sight I could scarcely keep from shouting with joy. I squeezed the load through the bars, and unloaded it on the windowsill. The attention of the other boys was elsewhere, so I kept quiet.

The first haul consisted of the nicest pies, with tea cakes rolled up with them. I saw my friend pass down the street again. I threw my cord and waited. This time I drew up a cake so large I had to mash it through the bars. I threw my cord again and waited, she sent up more tea cakes and pies, gave the signal and said “bye, bye.” When I had arranged the dainties on the sill I called the boys. They were amazed. “Where did you get all these nice things?” they exclaimed. “Never mind,” I replied. “I fish for them.” I wonder if my mother had not been praying that the Lord would prepare a table before me in the presence of mine enemies?

If that good lady could have seen how intensely those poor Rebels enjoyed their nice treat, she would have felt rewarded for her trouble. We had no way of finding out who she was or of returning our gratitude but during all those years her memory has been cherished in our heart of hearts and we hope Heaven repaid her in full measure. For three days she came and sent supplies. Then thirty prisoners were brought in, including five Yankee deserters, which so crowded our quarters that the next morning we were ordered into wagons and under a large escort of cavalry sent to Nicholasville [Kentucky]. On the way one of the Yankee deserters seeing I had Confederate money, offered to exchange greenbacks for it. Knowing I could not use the Confederate, I exchanged, giving him two for one.

End of Part 1

10 thoughts on “Confederate Soldier in a Yankee Prison: The Memoir of Byron Smith, 1st Georgia Cavalry

  1. I really enjoyed the read. My ggguncle wasa in the 3rd Tenn Co C. Is the book availble for sale?

    1. Glenn, the book has never been reprinted, as far as I know, but I will be publishing it in serial form over the next 7 weeks. This will include all of the material in the book.

  2. Thank you for this post! My g. g. grandfather, 2nd Lieutenant Alfred W. Sandlin was a member of Co. B, 1st Miss. Captured 8 July 1863 at Port Hudson, LA., sent to Cairo, Ill. then to Johnston Island, then to Fort Delaware.

  3. I was not expecting to see this online! He is my ancestor and I have a printed copy of this article but didn’t think many were left! Thank you for sharing is story with the world!

    1. I did not find a picture of Byron while doing my research for the article. If one ever turns up, let me know, as I would love to add it to the blog.

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