Prison Life, Ch. 3
DAY IN THE OFFICERS’ PRISON.
AT an early hour in the morning we are
aroused from our slumbers by the cry of “milk! milk!” resounding through the
warehouse, and a stampede of stewards to the door, armed with tin cups and
five-cent pieces, where they receive from a piebald negro the necessary fluid.
This negro, is one of the outside prison-associations. Who of us can ever forget
the eagerness with which he seizes a half-dime, and the terseness of manner with
which he refuses to barter his commodity for a five-cent shin-plaster, which is
now and then tendered to him? In a few moments the milk-purchasers are joined by
a more eager, yet thirsty crowd, who seek to cull from the morning papers balm
for the past, hope for the future. A few heads may now be seen peering out from
cotton comfortables and overcoats, and husky voices heard exclaiming, “I say,
Wabash! any news about exchange?” The magic word “exchange” operates like
a morning bath, refreshing and reviving; for the dullard of sleep becomes at
once an animate and expectant soul. Slowly the scene becomes imbued with life.
Indiana robes herself; Wisconsin, half recumbent, gazes dreamily around; Ohio
arises, drawing around her the only robe de chambre in the building;
whilst California awakes from golden dreams, donning her shabby habiliments of
woe. The scene is full of life and animation, as each representative appears
upon the floor, wending his way, soap in hand, towel over shoulder, to the
wash-closet. Our ablution ended, an early morning walk, as an appetizer,
commences. Up and down, to and fro, at quick time, we march, avoiding tenderly
the soil of a portion of Pennsylvania and Massachusetts, who lie, as usual, in a
dormant state. In a few moments the steward’s cry of “bread!” warns us
that our breakfast is nearly prepared; the quickly succeeding cry of “meat!”
gathers us around our respective mess-tables. In those two monosyllabic cries is
comprised the bill of fare for breakfast, dinner, and supper; though many messes
who possess funds and can afford the dignity of a treasurer indulge in luxuries,
such as coffee, sugar, molasses, milk, and potatoes. The writer’s mess can
only occasionally luxuriate in a pint of molasses and a quarter of a peck of
potatoes. “Poverty hath its contentment, of which riches knoweth not,” -
(TUPPER, we believe,) - yet surely the poet never imagined poverty and a
prisoner of war in companionship.
As we gather around our mess-tables,
many are the remarks made of home and friends. How earnestly we wish such and
such loved ones could look upon our board, could partake with us this simple
meal! Breakfast over, some lounge on the promenade, others resort to
letter-writing. A few diligent officers have already abstracted the news, and,
among other subjects, are discussing the pros and cons of a speedy exchange; and
if a thoughtless editor should unfortunately have inserted in his paper a
news-item about exchange, he at once inflicts upon our “Confederacy” both
delight and torture, - delight at seeing the word “exchange” in print,
and torture at the indefinite nature of the item.
Standing at the north end of the room
and looking south, we photograph the following picture. On the right, within
reaching-distance, sit, silently engrossed in cards, a captain from
Pennsylvania, and four lieutenants, respectively from Maine, Wisconsin,
Massachusetts, and Ohio. Farther on, two army-chaplains are quietly discussing
the past, present, and future religious condition of the world in general, and,
for aught we know, their own present unfortunate condition in particular. A few
steps more to the right, and we find Lieutenant Peacock, of the steamer Fanny,
captured by the Confederates at “Chicamacomico.” He is surrounded by a
colonel, a quartermaster, and a doctor, whose attention he is engrossing by an
animated account of the Fanny’s surprise and capture.
His description is graphic, and occasionally illumined with touches of
humor that convulse his audience.
Looking straight before us, we see
Congressman Ely bending over his “mess-table,” seemingly buried in the mass
of documents around him. Every day, for hours, he is occupied with his pen,
assisted by young Hale, of the Navy, (nephew to Gideon Welles, Secretary of the
Navy,) who has volunteered as his secretary. Near Mr. Ely, a lieutenant sits on
a bench, busily engaged in patching a pair of seedy pantaloons, whilst another
is observed acting as housemaid, washing dishes, and sweeping the floor around
On the left may be seen the fine, manly
form and handsome face of Colonel Cogswell, of the United States Regular Army,
who is pacing to and fro in deep study. Upon him devolved the command after
General Baker’s death at the battle of Ball’s Bluff.
He is reserved, but possessed of many qualities that command respect and
esteem from his prison-associates. At the lower end of the room, we see the
slight but agile figure of Colonel Lee, of the 20th Massachusetts
Regiment, (taken at Ball’s Bluff,) who is earnestly engaged in conversation
with two visitors, one of whom is the Episcopal Bishop of Virginia, the other a
divine of note from the same State. Colonel Lee has a warmth and an earnestness
of manner which endear him not only to his brother-officers, but interest all
who come within the sound of his genial voice. He is beloved by the junior
officers of his command, - four of whom are prisoners here, having preferred to
share his fate rather than desert him when the hard-fought field was lost.
Pages could be occupied in describing
the varied characters within the room. Each have their distinctive grades in our
social circle, yet none have caused a jar or created a discord in the good
fellowship of our community.
Occasionally letters arrive from home;
and then the excitement is almost painful to witness. The “Penny Post” is
surrounded by an eager crowd, jostling shoulders for even a glimpse of the
letters. Name after name is called, repeated, and re-echoed through the room,
and the fortunate receiver is looked upon as a Crœsus. The last name is called,
and sober, disappointed faces gaze wistfully into each other. Often, as the
letter-carrier is leaving the room, an earnest, anxious voice may be heard,
“Are you sure there is none for me?” “None for you, sir,” is the reply;
and the sad inquirer moves away, feeling that there is but one link left between
him and home, - the consolation of affection in his own strong heart. Those who
receive letters are surrounded by the disappointed, who gladly absorb news from
the North through any channel that re-minds them of their own firesides.
It is one o’clock, and dinner-hour.
As we draw near our “mess-table,” we find that a jovial wag has pasted on
the wall the following bill of fare:-
Fried Liver, “with crumbs.”
Codfish Fried, - if bought and sent to cook.
Gentlemen will find this a first-class
hotel; and it is kept on a Southern plan. The beds are well aired, - if. taken
care of by the boarder himself. All extra meals can be sent to the boarder’s
room, - if purchased by him outside of the hotel. The proprietor earnestly
requests that no money be given to servants, as he pays and clothes them
liberally for their services.
This bill of fare comprises the entire
delicacies of our hotel. But a more practical illustration of our daily diet is
as follows, viz. (the messes being numbered according to amount of funds in
treasury:) Mess No. 1, bread, beef, and water; No. 2, bread, beef, and pint
bottle of molasses; No. 3, bread, beef, and butter; No. 4, bread, beef, butter,
and molasses; No. 5, bread, beef, butter, coffee, and potatoes; Nos. 6 to 10
inclusive, bread, beef, butter, coffee, molasses, and potatoes.
Simple as this fare is, wanting delicacies and condiments, we have become
thorough epicures, and challenge Anacreon from his Shades by the delicate skill
with which we discuss the tender qualities of sirloins, ribs, chucks, and shins
of beef daily set before us; and we assure our friends who imagine that living
skeletons are the inhabitants of the officers’ prison in Richmond, that as
each hour passes its sluggish length away, so grows our substance, if not our
The officers taken at Ball’s Bluff
are all getting fat: yet it is not upon the goodly things of “Secessia,” but
rather from the rich storehouse of vivacious and buoyant spirits. Dinner over,
the promenade is again the resort of many. The promenade is twenty feet long by
six feet in width; yet, by a nice system of pilotage between mess-tables,
benches, and beds, a few of us can manage to prolong our walk around the entire
room. Whist, reading, writing, and conversation occupy the afternoon. Supper is
generally accomplished as per “bill of fare.”
When evening comes, every eye seems to
brighten and every heart to gladden with social familiarity and jovial converse.
Over in that corner a cluster of young officers are culling scenes of
college-life from the garner-house of memory. How their hearty roars of laughter
make the old prison echo, until the bare walls appear to freshen with the sound
and look less grim! Old walls, ye have held no warmer hearts than these.
Desolate and sad are ye to look upon; yet ere long ye will be one of the links
to chain the past to our memories.
Around the stove are gathered a knot of
officers, who are sketching grim incidents of war, narrow escapes, cunning
escapades, precipitate retreats, and heroic charges. The scenes are laid amidst
the mountain-ranges of Western Virginia, the bluffs and plains of the Upper
Potomac, the rolling hills of Centreville, and the blood-ploughed fields of
Manassas. On the latter many of the
officers were wounded. A few of them lay upon the field for forty-eight hours,
without food, water, or blanket, - with bleeding limbs, and mangled and dying
companions around them, whose cries of agony come moaning to-night around their
hearts, and whose death-struggles are vivid in every flash of thought to that
fatal field. How deep the interest shown in these sad details! how closely that
little crowd draw around the earnest speaker! With glistening eye and mellowed
heart, they absorb the sadness of his own, as he sketches, with painful
experience, the harrowing scenes of the battle-field when the struggle is over.
Yet as the same officer, in glowing language, depicts the wild charge, the
rattle of musketry, the echoing thunder-boom of artillery, the rout, the
capture, and the victory, see how every eye burns and flashes, every feature
starts into life, and every voice commingles in the wild enthusiasm!
The old room resounds, during the
evening, with the chorus of the prison-song: -
“Roll on, roll on, sweet moments, roll on,
Sixty voices blend in the rolling
notes, with an earnest, hearty will that causes the shivering sentry to start,
shrieking out, “Corporal of the guard!” The passer-by stops and peeps
through the bars, the negro cooks cluster around the outer door, and the young
officer of the day looks in, at a loss how to act. Indifferent to all, the
chorus swells, until every nook and corner of the old warehouse is filled with
the melody. We have many fine
voices among us, and during the evening may be heard songs of sentiment,
patriotism, and humor, wild glees of college and bivouac life, “Benny Havens
O!” - the resort and reminiscence of West-Pointers; and, as the evening
closes, we often raise the sweet, plaintive notes of “ Home, Sweet Home,” in
which every heart, if not voice, mingles, - it may be sadly, yet with tender
At nine o’clock the officer of the
day looks in, and commands, “Lights out!” Cots are put in position for the
night, books are closed, ink-bottles, pen, and paper placed in our general
reservoir, - the window-sill, - the lights are turned down, groups gather closer
together, in an under-tone stories are told and impromptu enigmas and conundrums
given, and the little band does not disperse for an hour or two. Gradually all
It is a strange and solemn sight, to look around the room where sixty human beings are sleeping within a prison’s walls. The dense - almost stifling - silence awes the senses. Could we but gather the dreams of all, what a volume would be unfolded of agony, love, hope, and despair! Solemn and silent the night passes on, - unvaried except by the rough tramp or hoarse challenge of the sentinel at the outer door.
Page last updated on 02/12/2008
Copyright © 2008 Civil War Richmond Inc.