Confederate Soldier In A Yankee Army Prison Chapter Six

The following is Chapter Six of the memoir of Byron Smith, who served in the 1st Georgia Cavalry. It was published in the Gloster Record (Amite County, Mississippi), February 10, 1939:


(By Byron Smith, Peoria, Miss.)

(Chapter Six)

Speculation and gambling were common. At nearly every tent some poor fellow had something to sell. Tobacco dealers were

An original Civil War Era Tobacco Plug with matches -
An original Civil War Era Tobacco Plug with matches –

plentiful. A piece of plank, or a little stool, would do for a counter and a plug of tobacco for his stock in trade. He would make a pattern and carefully cut his tobacco into little squares, each square a chew and each chew worth a hardtack. Some men would go from one stand to another, closely examine the squares to see who carried the largest squares or chew in stock, and when he was satisfied that he had found the best bargain, he would lay down his hard tack, take up his chew, go away happy, and make it last him all day. The dealer would make about 3 chews profit on his investment. Another investor would buy a sheet of paper, stamp and envelope for 4c and sell them for 5c. The coffee vender would buy a peck or half-bushel of old coffee grounds from the cook houses, boil them over, sell the hot colored water as coffee charging a hardtack or a chew of tobacco for a pint of it. They gave us coffee every morning with our rations. I sold my cupful for hardtack. Hardtack was legal tender there as good as gold, five for 5 cts but it required the appetite of a hungry man to eat it.

The dealer in smoking tobacco would walk all over the camp looking for old chews and cigar stubs. When he found one he would secure it so slyly that if you were looking at him you would not detect him. He would put his foot close to it, stop and scratch his ankle, and walk on. He would carry his collection to his tent, dry it, mix with some bought of the sutler, and sell it for hardtack.

For sharp trickery the Yankees has always been given the palm, but he is not in it if you pen a Southerner up where he has to use his wits in order to live. Of course there are exceptions. In our pen we had men suited to every calling in life from that of President down to cut-throat. A great many prisoners employed their time in making finger rings, watch chains, necklaces, bracelets, fans, pen holders, etc. The material used were gutta-percha buttons, horse hair, wool and silver. It was wonderful what beautiful things they made. We had some fine carvers and some

Hand-Carved Civil War Era Ring -
Hand-Carved Civil War Era Ring –

of their jewelry was made of bone mixed with gutta-percha and mounted with silver. We made our saws from bones on the back of case knives. We made three different kinds of bits for drilling holes but of table forks. We made several turning lathes. A friend of mine and I made use one in a cracker box. We could turn anything not too large. We did a great deal of bone work, making pen holders, bodkins, rings, etc.The ring makers would bring their button to us to drill and polish as we could do it faster and better. Then they would inlay them with silver and make beautiful rings. We could find sale for everything as Sergeant Finnegan, the first sergeant of our camp was a nice clever man and he would buy anything we made and send it to a curio dealer in New York.

Jewelry Mady by a Confederate Soldier at Elmira Prisoner of War Camp -
Jewelry Mady by a Confederate Soldier at Elmira Prisoner of War Camp –

We sold a good deal also in the pen. Rings from 10c to $5.00. We had to hustle to get the material. The bone we bought from the cooks paying 5c for a shank bone, and sawing it to suit our purposes. Horse hair for making watch chains was scarce and high. You had to pay 25c for a little wisp the size of your finger. It had to be pulled out there was no sale for cut hair. If an officer on a tour of inspection rode a horse having a fine tail into our camp, he was sure to leave the most, if not all

Civil War Era Watch Chain Made from Human Hair
Civil War Era Watch Chain Made from Human Hair

of it in the hands of the hair dealers. The ring peddlers would approach him and offer their wares, and while he was examining them, the hair dealers would be getting in their work. Such treatment would make the horse restless, but a few jerks with the bit and the spur, would quiet him. The major rode into camp one day on a horse with a very long, beautiful tail, well kept. When he went outside, the officers began to joke him about his tailless horse. When he looked around he was mad, and walked back into the pen and tried to buy some horse hair but there was none for sale. He offered five dollars for the offenders, but no one would tell on them. If he had found them they would have to ride “Old Bald” all the week.

Nothing is complete unless Atlanta, Ga., is in it, and I must say an Atlanta boy was the genius of our camp. He constructed a small engine out of a camp kettle and the mouth piece of canteens, of a power, he said, equal to that of two Wharf rats. He bought a cracker box for fuel to run it, and it worked beautifully. It was a great show, and he made something every day though he only charged a chew or a hard-tack admission. At length the Yankees heard of it and some of them paid a plug of tobacco admission. Finally he sold it to Sergeant Finnegan for $35.00. Then he bought some watch makers tools and started a repair shop. The Yankees gave him all their work. He made a clock entirely of bone, except the case which was a cedar wood Confederate canteen. It was a good time keeper and he sold it to the sergeant I think for $15.00.
The ladies of Baltimore started a school in our prison, and supported it with all kinds of second hand school books. We had the largest school in the United States. Everything was taught from A. B. C’s to French and German. The only pay the teachers received was an extra ration that the ladies induced the commander to issue to them but they were to get that.
(Another chapter next week)

Confederate Soldier In A Yankee Army Prison Part Five

The following is Chapter Five of the memoir of Byron Smith, who served in the 1st Georgia Cavalry. It was published in the Gloster Record (Amite County, Mississippi), February 3, 1939:

(By Byron Smith, Peoria, Miss.)
(Chapter Five)

Every Sunday morning during inspection our tents were folded and all the blankets and clothing left in the tents would be

Confederate prisoners with their guard waiting for roll call - Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, Vol.53, No. 1)
Confederate prisoners with their guard waiting for roll call – Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, Vol.53, No. 1)

carried out in a cart brought in for that purpose. We determined to head them. We secured a barrel head, drew a line around it, and dug down four inches; then an inch inside of that, drew another circle, so the head would have a shoulder to rest upon, then dug a cave large enough to hold our extras. Then the head was fitted in nicely, and leveled with sand. The first thing on Sunday morning this would be packed and if we could get wood, a fire was built on it. We saved our things many times. You asked how we concealed the dirt taken out? We acted like ants, while some were digging, others would fill their pockets with it, take a walk, and slyly empty it as they went, watching for the corporals.

Before inspection those of our tent who were going to try for blankets, clothes, or shoes would fix up for it by putting on the worst he had, so as to show officers how needy we were. We took it turn about, and would not all try for the same thing at the same time. We had a little blue blanket that was good for a new one every time. The one who was to try for a blanket would “doctor” “True Blue” a little by tearing it and tying it with strings. Then it was ready. When the order was given to fall in line, the front rank would step four paces to the front “about face” and two inspecting officers would ride between the lines, one looking to the right the other to the left. If they decided a man needed anything they would say “Fall in line.” That column would march behind the officers between the lines and be followed by the corporals of that division. The Reb who carried the blue blanket would stretch it out, so the officers could see how good it was then they would say, “Fall in line.”

The order was to leave the old when you drew the new, but “True Blue” was slipped back every time. You are perhaps ashamed that Southern boys, raised to be upright and honest, and who were so honorable that they would endure any suffering and hardship rather than desert their cause, could condescend to cheat and swindle but we were driven to it by the way we were treated.

We were half starved, enduring the rigor of a cold climate and only allowed one blanket. If we bought another one it was taken from us, then we determined to beat them, and succeeded. There were sixteen of us in our tent, none of us were in the hospital, none of us would take the oath. We were a hard set. We had a friend in the hospital who was going with some more convalescents to be exchanged. He agreed to take a letter from us and have it published in “The Southern Confederacy” and “Atlanta Daily.” It was written, and all the boys in our tent signed it, hoping it would let our friends know where we were. We had a bulletin board in the pen on which the names would be written of those having letters in the office outside. So many a poor fellow would be disappointed that their names were not written there.

Prisoners Being Issued Rations - National Park Service
Prisoners Being Issued Rations – National Park Service

We had with us a good many sons of Southern merchants whose fathers had bought goods from firms in the North. Some of them would write to these firms and request the loan of a few dollars. Some of the letters were never answered, a few were. The money however, was not given to the writer. It was placed in the Sutler’s hands, who gave him a little book with the amount sent credited to him. He could buy from the Sutler until his accounts balanced.

If one of the boys in our tent received a letter, they all rejoiced with him, and all had to read it for letters were a rarity. Every letter was examined and a good many burned, because they contained news the Yankees did not wish us to know. One day one of my tent mates saw my name on the board. They ran a race to tell me, and then raced with me to get it, seeming as much rejoiced as I was. The postmaster tantalized me with questions. I was afraid I would not get it. Of course, I could not tell him who it was from. Finally he asked if I had any relatives in Covington, Ga., I said yes. Then he asked their names. I told him, and he gave me the letter and we hurried back to read it. The boys said it contained more news than any one page letter they ever saw. It was read and re-read by all that belonged to our tent and a good many that did not belong to our tent. It ended with “Love to you and your mates, Affectionately, Your Cousin Occie Livingston.” I cannot tell how much good that letter did us. John Free read it nearly every day for three or four weeks, and said it made him love the South better, and carried him back to his home in Switzerland.

There was a man with us from Covington, Ga., Joe Barber an Englishman who belonged to the 3rd Ga. Regiment. He was sergeant of the police detail whose duty it was to keep the camp clean. When he found out a cousin of mine had once been the orderly sergeant of his company, he was very kind to me. He said, “Ah, you did not know that cousin like I did. J.W. Livingston was a grand soldier, who never shirked his duty, his company loved him. I was with him when he was killed.” I told him I had a letter from my cousin’s sister. He came to my tent to read it and when he read it the tears rolled down his cheeks.

He was allowed a hundred men for his work, their pay an extra ration each when the days work was done. After my cow was captured, he gave me a place on the force who emptied the kitchen slops. For this I received an extra ration. There were so many hungry boys there that would eat almost anything that a dog would eat, even if they had to hold their noses to do it. This is saying a great deal, but i can prove it. Each company had a slop barrel, that was emptied and washed every morning. Sometimes a man would get a little money, buy some loaf-bread, and throw the crust in the barrel. It would not be there long before some poor fellow would fish it out and eat it. The hardest fight I ever saw was over a rotten hog. It had died on a schooner and had been thrown overboard, and had floated in the water until the hair had come off, like it had been scalded. When tide washed it toward the beach and it was near enough for them to wade out to it two men who had been watching it for sometime, started for it and hauled it on the bank. They both claimed it. While they were fighting, others came up, cut off big pieces and carried it to their tents. When these two had fought till they were exhausted, the hog was all gone.The fellows who had it soon made it in hash with the aid of a little hardtack, and were going through the camp crying, “Here’s your hot hash!” and selling it for five and ten cent quantities according as a prisoner was able to buy.

(Another chapter next week)