The following is Chapter Three of the memoir of Byron Smith. It was originally published in the Gloster Record (Amite County, Mississippi), January 20, 1939.
CONFEDERATE SOLDIER IN A YANKEE ARMY PRISON
(By Byron Smith, Peoria, Miss.)
When we arrived at Philadelphia there were train loads of Rebs from different prisons. They packed us on the transport “City of New York” until we barely had room to lie down on deck by lying very close together. One fellow was very careless about it and when he tried he failed to find space enough. He begged for space, no one paid any attention to him. He stood it awhile, and when nearly all had gone to sleep, he began to sing, ‘Oh Massas runned away, de darkies stay at home.’ When he started on the chorus, he tried to see how loud he could sing, and made more noise that any man I ever heard. He woke up most of the boys, and how some did curse and bemean him. One fellow told me if he didn’t hush, he would come over and cut his throat. “I would like to see you get to me.” He replied defiantly. Some got angry, some laughed at them for getting angry.
It was some time before quiet was restored and some began to snore. He began his song again “louder yet and yet more dread” it sounded. Some fellow a long distance from him cried out “Can’t some one kill that fool?” That started a laugh. Finally he stopped, and said “Boys, spoon up closer, and let me lie down.” No one moved. He waited until all were asleep again. Then if possible, his song rose louder than ever. They all woke up, and began to move as close together as possible, and managed to make space enough for him to lie down. Then all went well until we reached the Atlantic. The waves were running very high and a great many were seasick. Oh, such a time, such a time. So many paying tribute to Neptune in the darkness, and you could not move yourself. It was indescribable. The captain of the vessel said he told the officer in command not to crowd so many on board.
Two men on lower deck broke out with smallpox. When we landed at Point Lookout, everyone who had a United States blanket, had to lay it on the wharf. The weather was extremely cold, thick ice every morning. They marched us nearly a mile to the pen. Near the gate we were formed into line, and the command given for all who were sick to the front. About fifty stepped out. Some were real sick and some only felt bad from their recent experience. They were put in wagons and ambulances and carried three miles. They had no idea where they were going but found to their horror that they were put in the smallpox hospital. But they could not help themselves. When they had been there long enough they all took it and ten or twelve died. It was too cruel.
One man from each tent was sent out under guard to get firewood toward the smallpox hospital. While out there I witnessed the burial of some of those who died in there. They were thrown in a wagon by negroes like they were dead hogs, hauled to a big ditch, the wagon backed up to it the corpse seized by the hand or foot, whichever was handiest given a pull and into the ditch it went. As it fell so it lay. When they had finished hauling corpses for that day they would lengthen the ditch for the next day, throwing the dirt over those they had already dumped in.
At Point Lookout, they gave us at breakfast a pint of coffee and hardtack. For dinner a cup of soup and a piece of meat. In
the summer the beef and soup were dreadful. We suppose from the odor and looks it must have been in city markets so long that the people would not buy it, then it was sold to the government to feed Rebs on. When it was cooked it was covered with flyblows and worms. We had to hold our noses to eat it, we could not afford to throw it away. The other meat was very good, what there was of it. Every day someone would try to “flank,” we do not call it steal, a ration. If caught he had to take a whipping. Every kitchen kept a man especially for the purpose, called the cook house fighter. He was well fed, fat and strong, and able to fight, and could easily whip the weakly half starved fellows who would risk a beating for the sake of a ration.
One day a fellow flanked a ration and the fighter thought he had caught him but he caught the wrong man. He thought John Free was the one. In vain John tried to prove his innocence, he would not listen to him, nothing would do but he must be whipped. The fighter took charge of him. John handed me his rations and then went to the fight ground. They squared themselves for the first round. He struck at John, but he warded off nicely, and gave the fighter a dash on the nose that knocked it out of shape. The fighter then tried to give John a terrible blow, but he fenced it off and landed a right hand blow over the fighters eye, then he broke the rule and ran for shelter, John right after him, but was stopped by the cooks at the door. When the fighter started to run, you never heard such a rejoicing. The cook asked him why he ran, he replied, “I was not going to be killed.” John was the hero of the hour. He said that it was his first fight since he was a school boy. The fighter lost his job, another took his place.
There were three ways of flanking a ration. One was to be among the first counted in, secure your ration, hand it to a mess mate, crawl under the table, rise up in line, and be given another. The second was to try to get in with another company. The plan generally failed but sometimes the company sergeant would take pity on the poor fellow and count him in, but he had to take a beating if caught. Another was what he called, buying a cow. It was done by transfer from the company you were in to another in a different division. You had to answer to two roll calls. The corporals did not suspect anything wrong neither did they care. Nearly every day someone would go outside to take the oath, and go west to fight Indians. We took advantage of this to “buy cows.” Out tent was the first to start in.
(Another chapter next week)