Prison Life, Ch. 1

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ON the 21st of October, 1861, the battle of Ball’s Bluff was fought. Sixteen hundred and ten Federal and five thousand Rebel troops were engaged. The former were defeated,  two hundred and fifty-two killed, wounded, and drowned, and six hundred and seventy- eight taken prisoners. The defeat and heavy loss on the Federal side were owing to inefficient transportation, retarding the arrival of reinforcements, and pre venting retreat from a vastly superior force of the enemy, the engagement occurring on: the Virginia bank of the Potomac River, within two hundred feet of the water’s edge.

The history of the war will record no military blunder so fatal, nor futurity witness more heroic valor than was displayed by the Federal troops at the battle of Ball’s Bluff.

The following Federal officers were taken prisoners by the Rebels: -

M. Cogswell,   Colonel  42d N. Y. Regt. and Captain 8th U. S. I.
W. Raymond Lee,  Colonel  20th Regt. Mass. Volunteers.
P. J. Revere, Major 20th Regt. Mass. Volunteers.
Chas. L. Peirson,       Adjutant 20th Regt. Mass. Volunteers.
E. H. R. Revere,         Asst. Surgeon 20th Regt. Mass. Volunteers.
Geo. B. Perry,           1st Lieut.      20th Regt. Mass. Volunteers.
John Markoe,             Captain         Col. Baker’s California Regt.
Francis J. Keffer, Captain    Col. Baker’s California Regt.
William C. Harris, 1st Lieut. Col. Baker’s California Regt.
Chas. M. Hooper. 2d    Col. Baker’s California Regt.
George W. Kenny, 2d    Col. Baker’s California Regt.
Frank A. Parker, 2d    Col. Baker’s California Regt.
William H. Kerns, 2d    Col. Baker’s California Regt.
John M. Studley, Captain    15th Regt. Mass. Volunteers.
Henry Bowman, Captain    15th Regt. Mass. Volunteers.
Clark S. Simonds, Captain    15th Regt. Mass. Volunteers.
George W. Rockwood, Captain    15th Regt. Mass. Volunteers.
John E. Greene, 1st Lieut. 15th Regt. Mass. Volunteers.
J. Harris Hooper, 2d    15th Regt. Mass. Volunteers.
Bernard B. Vassall, 2d    15th Regt. Mass. Volunteers.
Timothy O’Meara, Captain    42d Regt. N. Y. Vol. (Tammany.)
Samuel Gibeson, 1st Lieut. 42d Regt. N. Y. Vol. (Tammany.)
Charles McPherson, 1st Lieut. 42d Regt. N. Y. Vol. (Tammany.)
Henry Van Voast, 2d    42d Regt. N. Y. Vol. (Tammany.)

The majority of the officers were taken at dusk, and immediately marched under guard to Leesburg, a distance of three miles from the field of battle. Arriving there, the usual rejoicings of an elated and frantic town were performed around us, the town-people appearing perfectly maddened in their yells of ecstasy and derision, crowding and shouldering each other in herds to catch a glimpse of us. “We’ve got ‘em this time!” “Oh, you infernal Yankees!” “Make way, Jim: I want to see a ‘Yank’!” were cries that greeted us on every side; and it was not until we were marched into the presence of General Evans, the Rebel commandant of Leesburg, that the wild uproar of the furious multitude became comparatively silenced. Federal officers and privates were here separated, - the officers ushered into a room occupied by General Evans and his aids, and the privates confined in the courthouse.

We were here introduced separately to General Evans, a man of tall, brawny frame and unusual length of limb, (he is known throughout his command by the euphonious sobriquet of  “Shanks.”) His manners are courteous and dignified, being to a certain extent free from that peculiar mixture of supercilious pride and conceit which characterizes many of the officers in the Confederate army. He tendered us the following parole, stating that, although it gave the liberty of the town, it required us to report in person to General Beauregard at Centreville in a few days: -

“We, the undersigned, officers in the army of the United States, do hereby pledge our oaths and honor not to bear arms against the Southern Confederacy during the war, unless sooner exchanged.”

We all declined a parole that conceded no privileges except one, - that of paying our own hotel-bills.  We were then informed that in a few hours ambulances would be provided to convey us to Manassas. 

A large wood fire burned briskly in the room, at which many of us dried our clothing, which had been thoroughly wet in attempts to swim the river. A supper consisting of coffee, bread, beefsteak, and pre serves was provided, to which full justice was done, many of us having eaten nothing since early morning.

After midnight we were marched two miles from Leesburg, where we joined our men, drawn up under guard in a large open field. A wagon was here furnished the officers, and, by close packing, two-thirds of our number were accommodated. The march was now continued, the prisoners having been formed four abreast, and guarded on the front, rear, and sides of the line. The roads, from recent rains, had become ankle-deep with mud, rendering the march slow and doubly tiresome.

As the morning broke, the scene was a sad one to look upon. From our position in the front, we were enabled to overlook the entire line of prisoners, who, jaded and worn out, were making the strongest efforts to keep their position in line. Occasionally a poor fellow would stagger up to the commanding officer, piteously exclaiming, “I can go no farther!” Some were without shoes or stockings, having lost them in attempting to swim the Potomac. Others were with out overcoats, - now doubly needed, as the rain commenced to fall. All were smeared with mud; and as they marched over the slippery road, requiring constant efforts to secure a foothold, the scene was dreary indeed.

Gradually the officers’ wagon became filled with sick and weary privates, the officers trudging cheerfully through the mud to relieve them.

At a cross-road ten miles from Leesburg, we were met by a cavalcade of rather a grotesque character, which excited much laughter, even amidst our distress of body and dejection of mind.

On a very small mule an immense raw-boned negro sat, whose broad grin and great glaring eyes actually illumined the inanimate countenance of his master, by whose side he rode. The master possessed a gray homespun suit) large slouch hat, great iron spurs, rope bridle, and a gigantic white horse, the liliputian form of whose rider appeared to fade into air, he sat perched upon the immense animal. A lady rode by his side, on a small horse, with sleek limbs and stylish though gentle gait. The lady herself presented a strange contrast with the beast, as her figure was large, her raiment gaudy, and her general appearance coarse and masculine. On meeting the front of our line, they halted: the negro’s eyes popped, the master’s face freshened slightly, and the lady burst forth, in a stentorian voice, “ Is them the Yanks?” Without waiting for a reply, she continued, her loud voice reaching the entire length of the line: - “Oh, if I had my way, I’d kill you, you bloodthirsty villains you!  You come down here to murder us, did you? What are you doing in that wagon, you sneaking Yankees ? Can’t you walk? I’d make you walk!” And so she continued until we had moved beyond the reach of her voice. We were subjected three times during the day to insulting and abusive language, - on two occasions from old women, and once from an elderly gentleman, when a request was made by the officer in charge of us for the loan of a wagon to convey the sick and wounded privates. The old fellow not only refused, but showered a tirade of abuse on the officer for making the request, winding up by thundering out, “Let them walk and die!”

Onward we marched until four o’clock in the afternoon, when, having reached a large mill near Bull Run, we were halted: the privates were placed in the mill, and the officers accommodated in the miller’s dwelling. Here we expected rest and food, having marched without halting (except for a moment or two to enable the line to be closed up) for sixteen hours, during which time we had not received a morsel of food.

We were disappointed, as in a few moments orders came from General Beauregard, and we were again formed, and marched three miles nearer Manassas, to an old stone house on the battlefield of July 21.  This house will always be an object of interest, as it was here our wounded were brought, and on a large field directly in front of the house the main struggle of the day was made. It now bears the marks of cannon and rifle balls. On the west end a rifled-cannon ball has gone entirely through the building. At the stone house we halted, the privates bivouacking in the open air, the officers in the open house. At eleven o’clock at night, we were furnished with rations of fat pork and corn bread. We had been for forty-eight hours without sleep, twenty-four hours without food, and had marched seventeen hours without halting to rest, - the march being immediately preceded by the fatigues and struggle of the battle of Ball’s Bluff, lasting from early morning until dark. At daybreak on the 23d October, our march was continued to Manassas, a distance of seven miles, where we arrived at ten o’clock A.M.

It is impossible to convey any idea of the appearance or strength of Manassas from the occasional glimpses we had of successive earthworks, camps, straggling soldiers, and field-artillery. Arriving there, we were halted at the head-quarters of the provost marshal, where the names, rank, and regiments of the officers were registered, - during which process we were surrounded by a dense mass of soldiers, civilians, and a few ladies. Although no abusive language was used towards us, a peculiar smile of delight, mingled with contempt, was on every lip. That smile to us has since become a Southern institution; for when we find a man without it as he looks upon the “Yankees,” we at once conclude that he is a “Union” man.

From the provost marshal’s we were marched into an old barn, where we found a few prisoners arrested by the Rebels “under suspicion” of Union sentiments.  Here we were visited by scores of Confederate officers and civilians, none of whom were in the barn a moment before they commenced discussing the political causes of the war. Conversing with that effervescing temperament so peculiar to the Southern-born, their manner soon became disagreeable and quarrel some, and we found it necessary to abstain from all conversation. A few ladies came to the barn-door, stood and gazed upon us, smiled their smile of con tempt, and then went tripping away to tell their friends “how dirty and nasty the Yankees looked.”

At seven P. M. we were placed under guard and escorted to the cars for Richmond, where we arrived, with out incident, at nine A.M. on the 24th of October. We found the depot and adjacent streets thronged with a dense mass of people. Men, women, and children were huddled together, each individual straining every nerve to obtain a sight of us. Looking from the car- windows, we beheld a tumultuous herd swaying to and fro, every eye fixed upon the cars, and, as one of us leaned forward to catch a glimpse of the scene, a hundred fingers would be pointed, and voices heard yelling, “There is one! See! there’s a Yank!”

After a short delay, we were marched out of the cars into the open street, eight abreast, into a hollow square formed by the guard.

As far as the eye could reach, the populace were thronging. In the street, pressing on the guard, on the side-walk, in the trees, on the balconies, on the house-tops, were crowded the eager people. Occasion ally a triumphant yell would be raised, and taunting voices heard: - “I say, Yanks, how do you feel?”

From the depot, - through the main thoroughfares, we were paraded, guarded by soldiers, escorted by the mob, until we arrived at our future prison, - a tobacco warehouse on Main Street.

As we halted, under guard, on the pavement of the warehouse, every window was crowded by Federal prisoners, eager for a sight of their brother unfortunates. Our names being called, we were ordered into the building. What a scene of sympathy and welcome! Hands grasped hands, brother met brother in misfortune, welcome in every eye and heart, and voices greeting, until the room re-echoed with the hospitable shouts.

As the warm gush of welcome mellowed down, loud voices were heard exclaiming, “What did you come down here for?” The question was taken up, repeated and repeated, until the warehouse rang with the merry cry. In a few moments we were seated at the various “mess” - tables, eating heartily of the warehouse bill of fare. They brought forth their choicest viands (butter and molasses) and set before us. Warm hearts were around, and the “fatted calf” was killed, each with the other contending for the pleasure of feeding us.

Our meal ended, little groups of earnest questioners and the now-comers might be seen dispersed over the room. Information was given and received, errors corrected in Secesh reports of the fight at Ball’s Bluff, with sundry details of affairs on the Potomac, which were gladly absorbed by the lonely exiles.

The day was passed in social communion and friendly interchange of thoughts, feelings, and opinions. The question prominent on every lip was, “Will McClellan advance?” We could not satisfy the earnest questioners, but heartily blended our hopes and wishes that he would speedily do so.

As the evening closed, and we lay upon the floor, - a few upon straw mattresses, - we but faintly realized that henceforth we were prisoners of war.

Page last updated on 02/12/2008