Confederate Soldier in a Yankee Army Prison, Chapter 2

The following is Part 2 of the memoir of Byron Smith; it was published in the Gloster Record, (Amite County), January 13, 1939.

CONFEDERATE soldier in a Yankee Army Prison

by Byron Smith, Peoria, Miss.

Our next stop was at Lexington, [Kentucky] where they searched us and took away my cord and pocket knife and put us in what they called “John Morgan’s jail.” The next day they sent us to Cincinnati [Ohio] and marched us to the barracks where they stored their deserters. The building was six stories high. They said they had 1000 on each floor. We were sent to the sixth floor where a lattice partition separated the Rebs from the deserters. There we found several of our soldiers, among them one of Morgan’s men. He was a jolly fellow and the guard called him “Kentucky.” He they and John Roberts talked and sang nearly all night.

Wartime view of Cincinnati, Ohio - Harper's Weekly, September 27, 1862.
Wartime view of Cincinnati, Ohio – Harper’s Weekly, September 27, 1862.

“Kentucky would sing “Zollicoffer’ and the guards, ‘We’ll hang Jeff Davis on a sour apple tree.’ One of the guards asked him if he was not afraid the court-martial would have him shot, and he replied, ‘No, if they shoot me General Morgan would retaliate by slaying a thousand of those who wear the blue.’

We were very hungry, having had nothing to eat since morning. Some lady sent Kentucky a large waiter of nice things to eat and he had us join him in eating them. The next morning he received another waiter and again he insisted on our sharing with him, saying he would enjoy it much better and could eat more, then if he was shot he would have a full stomach. At 9 o’clock they marched him out and riveted a chain to his leg that was fastened to a 60 lb ball he lifted the ball in his arms and with the six guards around him he left us to be tried by drum headed court-martial. We never heard of him again. We suppose he was shot. Such as war.

Fifteen of us were ordered to Camp Chase. While we were standing in line waiting for the cars, a nice-looking old man appeared in front of us and stood looking at us, and then began to cry. John Roberts asked him what was the matter. He answered “I have a boy in your army somewhere and to think I cannot help him almost breaks my heart.” John replied” my dear Sir, do not worry about your boy, he is all right and will not suffer for anything for he is among friends.” That seemed to do the old man good and he said, “I wish I was allowed to help you all.” Just then we were ordered into the cars and he told us goodbye. We tried to buy something to eat on the train but failed as a set our money was no good.

We arrived at Camp Chase just after ‘taps’ or 9 o’clock and were allotted different rooms all in the dark as no lights were allowed after that hour. We were so hungry that the prisoners who were there felt around in the dark and found enough to save us from suffering to a great extent, but we retired hungry.

The Interior of Camp Chase  - National Archives
The Interior of Camp Chase – National Archives

The ‘Johnnies’ as the Yankees called the southern soldiers inquired eagerly the news from our army and told us to be

careful about the prison rules, as the guards would shoot you quick if you disobeyed them. There were about 200 prisoners there. Some of them were busy making rings of gutta-percha buttons and could sell all they made. We stayed there only one week. While there Col. John and Col. Jim Brownlow, sons of the notorious Brownlow of Knoxville Tennessee, and who were schoolmates of mine in Knoxville, came to Camp Chase to get recruits for a cavalry regiment to go west and fight the Indians. I liked them in school, but did not go to see them, as I did not care to renew the acquaintance. Several joined them, one of whom deserted and was back with his command in six months.

"Brownlow at Camp Chase," from Scraps from the Prison Table, at Camp Chase and Johnson's Island by Joseph Barbiere, 1868
“Brownlow at Camp Chase,” from Scraps from the Prison Table, at Camp Chase and Johnson’s Island by Joseph Barbiere, 1868

We were next sent by rail to Sandusky, [Ohio] then by steamboat for miles to Johnson’s Island. On landing we were marched to the pen which was enclosed by a plank fence twelve or fourteen feet high with a plank walk for the sentinels on the outside four feet down from the top. The pickets next to the wall 2 x 3 scantling, spiked onto the railing which was 4 x 4 scantling. In it was the officers and privates quarters, sutler store, blockhouses for the guard a 12 pound howitzer pointing to the inside of the pen and a little house where they kept spies until they were shot. They shot two while I was there. Fifteen feet from the fence was a ditch, the dead line which it was death to cross only at the bridge leading to the gate.

They gave each of us a little bedtick, which they allowed us to fill with straw. Our bunks were built one over the other, seven or eight bunks high next to the wall, with two tiers in the middle of the room upstairs. For breakfast they gave us coffee, pickled pork and one small loaf of bread. That was all the bread I received for a day. If you ate it all for breakfast you had none for the other meals. Sometimes for dinner they would make a change and give us beef instead of pork with boiled potatoes. About once a week they gave us a rice soup.

Johnson's Island Prisoner of War Camp -
Johnson’s Island Prisoner of War Camp –

If you had plenty of money you could get what you wanted from the sutler’s store, or those who kept little stands in the pen, if you had the money, but there was the rub. The absence of money was present with us, and hunger was also present. They gave us just enough to eat to keep us hungry, but perhaps that was best for some of us. It made us hustle about to find some job [that] would enable us to supplement our rations a little, but they were so few and they the most menial kinds. For instance I was so hungry, I hired to the Dutchman who came for the swill every morning, to help empty the swill from the barrels into the cart, for which I got five cents. This helped me to live but it was dirty heavy work. Then we put our wits to work to cheat so as to appease our hunger.

Yankee Guards at Johnson's Island -
Yankee Guards at Johnson’s Island –

The Dutchman sent milk in every morning to sell at ten cents a quart. I gave John Roberts my dollar bill and told him to buy a quart. He returned with the milk and ninety cents in sutler’s tickets. The tickets were made of colored pasteboard five cents yellow, ten cents green, fifty cents blue, and so on. We bought some biscuits, butter, and syrup, and out of [a] mess of six had a feast. Next morning I gave John my two dollar bill and told him to buy a half gallon of milk. He returned with the milk and changing tickets. We had plenty to eat as long as the tickets lasted, but we could buy no more milk. The next morning the boy called two or three times for the man to whom he had sold the milk to but no one answered. Finally John sauntered down to the cart and asked “Buddy what do you want with him?” He replied “the money he gave me was no good.” John said “let me see it.” Examining it closely he remarked, “I do not know what to think of the man who would pass that,” and walked off. I saved my last fifty cents for harder times.

One day I was coming from the sutler’s store I found an empty button box, a rascally thought came into my head. I carried it and my fifty cents sutler’s ticket to a young Kentuckian in our room. We compared them, the color was exactly the same. He said “I can make them, if you can get them off.” I replied “all right.” He made eighty fifty cent tickets. I gave one to John and told him to buy five cents worth of biscuits and five cents worth of butter from the sutler. When he came back I told him the secret. I divided with the Kentuckian. We would never buy but five cents worth at the time. We did not want to be suspected of having found a gold mine. Finally the sutler found he had too many fifty cent tickets in circulation. He had new ones made and called in the blue ones. We carried what we had left and exchanged for new ones.

Sutler's Ticket from Johnson's Island -
Sutler’s Ticket from Johnson’s Island –

When our tickets were all gone and hunger gnawed I hunted for a job of work. The men who cooked for the officers hired two dishwashers: one quit and I secured his place. We had to wash one hundred tin plates, 110 tin cups, and the mess pans, and carry water from the dump. Our salary was the scraps left on the table. As the officers bought a good many extras, we had more than we could eat. The other washer sold what he did not eat, I divided with my mess.

Many of the prisoners were refined, educated gentlemen, raised in luxury, and never knew what work or hardships were until they entered the army, and the richest government that the world ever saw would not give them enough to eat. After persistently refusing to exchange them a great many grew despondent and homesick and were sent to the hospital and died. Others tried to keep up their spirits by singing, dancing, playing bass and some playing cards.

Three men had long had their plans ready to try to escape. A skiff was moored to a bank about one hundred fifty yards from the east block house. They waited patiently for a suitable night. It came dark stormy and raining. After taps they started. Crawled down the ditch that ran through the pen, keeping about ten feet apart. The leader had a saw made on the back of a case knife. He sawed two pickets off just below the railing that extended to the bottom of the ditch. The sentinel stood in his booth and called, “Post No. 5, 11 o’clock and all’s well.” It was an awful storm the wind blew, the lightening flashed, the thunder rolled and the rain poured. When the sentinel called “Post No. 5, half past eleven and all’s well,” three prisoners were standing under his booth.

Among the prisoners was one from New Orleans, who set up a laundry and made money. He agreed to teach us so John Free and I started a laundry and made money. We made enough to buy us plenty to eat, and had some money [left] over. About the 15th of September 1863, all the privates were ordered to be ready to march to the landing to be sent to Savannah, Georgia, to be exchanged. How elated we were. What visions of freedom and loved ones floated in our imagination. Alas, only to be disappointed. Poor John Roberts was in the hospital too sick to go. I divided my money with him, and bid good-bye. I never saw him again.

(Another Chapter Next Week)

5 thoughts on “Confederate Soldier in a Yankee Army Prison, Chapter 2

  1. Thanks so much for sharing this insight into the life of a prisoner during the war. I am also reading a book by John Henry King, “Three Hundred Days in a Yankee Prison, Reminiscenses of War Life, Captivity, Imprisonment at Camp Chase, Ohio, written by Dr John Henry King in 1904. Linda

  2. I have been enjoying the articles, but one detail that is off, the author states the use of a “Case knife”, but Case Knife company was founded in 1889.

    1. Jim, when Smith talks about a “case knife,” he is not referring to a knife made by the Case Knife Company. “Case knife” was a common term during the Civil War period and could mean a knife used at the dinner table or a knife carried in a sheath.

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