Prison Life, Ch. 3

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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 his mess-table.

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.”
Liver Fried.
Coffee, - when purchased by boarders.
Tea, - when purchased by boarders.

Black Bread.
Dry Toast “over gas-light.”


Boiled Beef.
Beef Boiled, “Secesh à la mode.”
Hoe-Cake, made with boarder’s meal.
Roast Beef, - if you can beg any from outsiders.
Tomatoes and Potatoes, - if you purchase them.
White Bread.
Stale Bread
Annual Pudding, - “only made once a year.”


Codfish Fried, - if bought and sent to cook.
Cold Boiled Beef.
Boiled Beef, turned over seven or eight times.
Cold Coffee, warmed over.
Bread, sure.
Water, sure.

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 strength.

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,
And let the poor prisoner go home, go home!”

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 earnestness.

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 becomes quiet.

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