Confederate Soldier In A Yankee Army Prison, Chapter Seven

At last it’s finally here – the seventh and last part of “Confederate Soldier in A Yankee Army Prison,” which was published in the Gloster Record (Amite County), February 17, 1939. I’m sorry it has taken so long, but I was preoccupied for the past four weeks teaching my enrichment class on Civil War research at Millsaps. It was a lot of work transcribing this seven part series, but all of the trouble was well worth the effort, as Byron Smith was a good writer, and his account of prison life deserved to be read and appreciated. Without further adieu, here is the last installment:

We had preaching every Sunday morning and prayer meeting in the evening, but I am sorry to say that a good many did not attend. To show you of what material some of the Rebels were made, I will give you an incident that occurred in our prison. When Gen. Grant took command of the Virginia Army, he issued orders forbidding any newspapers from entering our camp. A few, however, found their way in every day, and were read on the sly. One day while riding through camp, the major saw a Rebel in his tent reading a paper. The Reb tried to hide it, but was too late. The major asked where he got it. He replied that he did not wish to be disrespectful, but could not and would not tell. The major ordered him to bring the paper outside, adding that he knew one of the corporals had let him have it, and he should point him out. He answered, “Major, I am a Confederate soldier and true from head to foot. I would die before I would betray a friend.”

Sketch of the Union Field Officer of the Day at Point Lookout by John J. Omenhausser -
Sketch of the Union Field Officer of the Day at Point Lookout by John J. Omenhausser –

When they reached the outside the corporals were ordered to fall into line with Sergeant Finnegan at the head, and the Rebel was ordered to point out the offender. He replied quickly (as he told us afterwards to keep the man from betraying himself for he turned deadly pale) “I will die before I will do it.” The corporals color returned, the major said angrily, “I will make you do it.” The Rebel answered firmly, “Never.” The major ordered him strung by the thumbs with a cord, they threw the cord over “Old Bald” and drew him up till he had to stand on his toes. He stood the ordeal bravely for several hours until his hands and thumbs were swollen dreadfully, and the cords had cut through the flesh to the bone, then he was nearly dead and fainted. When they noticed his condition, they cut him down and sent for the surgeon. After the surgeon had taken the cords out of the flesh and dressed the wounds the man revived but did not know what had happened until the next day. Sergeant Finnegan and the corporals were very kind to him on the sly. In the course of time he recovered. A few papers still came into the camp but the boys were more careful.

There were several regular details that went to work every day. The only pay they got was an extra ration and what they could “flank.” They paid special attention to the latter. The wharf detail was composed of one hundred men. They unloaded vessels and loaded wagons that transferred the freight to the warehouse. It was a show to see them unload themselves at noon and at night of what they had managed to “flank” in hauling the freight. Their load was a promiscuous one, sugar, coffee, beans, peas, rice, irish potatoes: in fact anything they handled that was good to eat. If a barrel of sugar burst in moving it was the property of the detail, and they divided it among themselves. You ask how they managed to conceal it and bring it into camp? They had prepared themselves for accidents by wearing C.S.A. cavalryman’s jackets. These had strong linings and two inside pockets. The bottoms of the pockets were cut open, then they were ready. They would be sure the commissary officers were out of sight, then it mattered not how strong the barrel or sack might be it had to give way by an accidental fall. Then they would try to fill those jackets. One barrel or sack was enough to fill all but they had to be filled with something even though it required the mixing of many things. In that case some friends on the inside would get the job of sorting them.

Sketch of Confederate prisoners policing the camp at Point Lookout -
Sketch of Confederate prisoners policing the camp at Point Lookout –

Sometimes when jackets would hold no more they would tie strings around their pants at the ankles, and fill them. The guards would not care. They were clever fellows when the officers were not in sight. They were New Hampshire troops, had not seen service at the front and sent to guard prisoners in order to recruit. The bakers detail at first baked bread for the Yankees at Point Lookout only, but subsequently both planned the detail to enlarge their business. The boys made several little bake ovens in camp that were supplied by the flankers and their biscuits and pies found ready sale. One detail unloaded the wood and hay. Some of the bales would burst in handling and the loose hay was given to the detail. And every bale had six or eight strips of wood under the cord which would work out, the cords would break and the hay would scatter, so there was nothing for the detail to do but gather as many strips as each could carry, tie them and his hay with the broken cord and bring his load into camp. If he had more than he needed he could sell it. It was not expected that he give any of it away.

The corporal allowed us to get all the firewood we wanted. He continued and we gave him a goodly number of finger rings for his kindness. We also carried over the bundles of hay we had tied with cord. When the corporal had the axes gathered up several were missing. We looked for them but failed to find them. They had found their way into the bundles of hay. The men divided the wood and were happy over the prospects of having a fire. When my bundle of hay was carried to the tent and divided we found a new ax in it. We were so proud of it for we wanted one. We used the wood to boil our clothes and blanket and such a boiling as we had. When any one was using the ax, there was always some one on the watch. When not in use it was hid under the blankets and every Sunday morning it was hid in our cave.

Spoon and Ring Peddlers at Point Lookout - sketch by John J. Omenhausser, from the New York Historical Society Collections.
Spoon and Ring Peddlers at Point Lookout – sketch by John J. Omenhausser, from the New York Historical Society Collections.

Perhaps you would like to know if any persons ever escaped from Point Lookout. Several attempted it, but as far as I know only one succeeded in getting into our lines. The first that tried it were five men who arranged with one of the guards whose beat was over the big ditch that ran through the pen, that they were to crawl down the ditch so that the other guards would not see them, and they were to give them their watches and soon as they got outside they could turn them into money.


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