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)

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