Sergeant James Wolfe POW Account
The Scioto Gazette, Sergt J. Wolfe, Co. H, Prison Story
In and Out of the Jaws of Death.
Recollections of Fifteen Months Experience in Rebel Prisons.
By James Wolfe, of the 89th O. V. I.
Dr. Miller: -
According to your request I shall endeavor to give you a short history of my imprisonment. I kept no journal while in prison, because I had no paper, and consequently I shall, in writing this, be obliged to trust entirely to memory.
I believe it is generally known that upwards of one hundred and seventy enlisted men of the 89th O.V.I., were captured at Chickamauga, on the eve of the 20th of September, 63, after holding the rebels at bay until our ammunition was exhausted and darkness had begun to cast its shadows over the battlefield. The troops on our right gave way about four oclock P. M., as well as I can now remember, and thus the rebels were allowed to come immediately in our rear, cutting off all means of escape.
After the surrender we were marched back over the field where the dead and dying were lying scattered in every direction, until we came to Genl Buckners headquarters, where we were permitted to lie down to rest for the remainder of the night; and rest was sweet to us, for we had been on picket the night before and had been marched and countermarched until we were fatigued almost beyond endurance. The next morning we were turned over into the hands of a new guard, consisting in part of old citizens on horseback, armed with shotguns, and were soon on our way toward Ringgold, where we arrived some time in the afternoon. Here they took our names, rank, Company and Regiment, after which we were started in the direction of Tunnel Hill, where we arrived late at night and received our first rations in the Confederacy, which consisted of meal and pork. The next day we were searched, and guns, blankets, canteens and knapsacks, were taken from those who had not destroyed or otherwise disposed of them, and were again started on the march for Dalton, where we arrived late in the evening, and again had rations issued to us, consisting of flour and pork. The flour we baked on boards or in the ashes and the meat we ate raw or roasted on sticks.
The next morning we were put on freight cars and taken to Atlanta, where we were put into a pen and again searched, and great coats, woolen blankets, knives and pocketbooks "confiscated." We were then sent to Augusta and on through Columbia, Raleigh, and Petersburg to Richmond, where we arrived September 30th and were put into a large brick building, the name of which I did not learn, and the next morning the Provost Marshal came into the prison and said to us "if you will give me your money I will take your name, rank, Company and Regiment, and when you leave here it shall be refunded to you, but if you refuse to give it up and it is found on your persons or elsewhere it will be confiscated." After he thought he had got all he was likely to get in this way he ordered every man to strip, preparatory to a search, which was begun, but finding it would not pay he soon ordered us to put our clothes on again. We were then taken to Pemberton prison, which is opposite the Libby, and on the street nearest to and running parallel with the river. It is a large three-story brick, with a basement and has a partition running lengthwise through the center. Here they issued rations to us consisting of wheat bread, pork or beef and bean soup in quantities scarcely sufficient to sustain life. Those who had managed to save their green-backs could buy bread from the guards at night and thus get along very well, but those who had no money were most certainly in a bad fix. When they issued beef to us we would take the bones, cut them up in small pieces and boil them, very often three and four times, in order to get all the substance out of them before throwing them away. One man there once got so hungry that he went to the spitbox, picked up the bones which had been cast into it, boiled them again and drank the broth.
The boys would very often get so hungry that they would "raid" on those who had been able to buy bread, and often black eyes and bruised faces was the result. I remember that a row of this kind was raised one night about eleven oclock, and the rebel officers hearing it and thinking perhaps we were about to "make a break," came rushing in with a guard, ordered us up in line and then ordered the guards to keep us standing there until morning and if we dared to sit down or move from our places to shoot us down. But the officers had scarcely left the room before the boys, one by one began to sit down, and it was not long until very few of them were standing. Presently we thought we heard the officers coming back, when the guards raised their hands as a signal to rise up, and every man was instantly on his feet. They entered and spoke as though they thought something had gone wrong, but the guards assuring them that all was right they returned, though seemingly not very well satisfied. Before day they came in again and this time caught one of the guards trading with the prisoners, and took him off, as we supposed, to Castle Thunder for punishment.
In the basement on our side of the building there was a large quantity of salt and bran, and on the other side sugar, which I suppose the rebels had put away for safe keeping; and it didnt take the boys long to make the discovery. Those on our side would go down and get salt and trade it to the boys on the other side for sugar, and the trade was kept up until some one getting tired of so slow a business, cut a hole through the partition wall, and as soon as this was made known there was a simultaneous rush for sugar. Some took their haversacks and some their "dog tents" went below and brought up as much as they could carry. When morning dawned and revealed the sugar that had, in the general scramble, been spilled on the floor, we went to scrubbing to erase if possible all traces of the nights work; but after all the trick, was discovered, everything was removed and the Richmond papers, considering it quite a joke, told the people the next day that the Yankees had destroyed for them eight thousand nine hundred pounds of sugar.
Nearly every day it was rumored that we were soon to be exchanged, but time wore away and on the 15th day of November we were sent to Danville. As we went out of the prison that morning they gave each of us a small piece of corn bread I will not give its dimensions for a days ration, and I was so hungry that I ate mine up before reaching the cars and was hungry still, and received nothing more until late next day.
When we arrived at Danville we were put into a tobacco factory and received nothing but a morsel of bread each day for about nine days in succession, after which they gave us meat. They issued bread to us made, I believe, out of wheat, called "brown stuff," until about the middle of January, after which they fed us on corn bread made out of unbolted or unsifted meal, and the amount was small until the first of February, when the ration was more than doubled, and had the quality then been suited to the quantity we might have got along very well.
From the time we arrived at Richmond we had to lie down to sleep of nights on the bare floor, without any covering except an old piece of a "dog-tent," until Christmas day, when they issued to us blankets and clothing that our authorities had sent to us. The clothing I received amounted to shirt, drawers and socks, although I have since been told that a complete suit was sent for every man. We had no fire in the building through the winter, except what we built on tin plates, and it was about as hard to endure the smoke as to go without fire; and during the night the vapor arising in the room would condense and freeze on the tin roof, and when the sun would come out and warm the tin the water would commence dripping and make the floor in many places very wet. This caused the atmosphere to be continually damp and chilly, and it was a very common thing to see men walking the floor half bent the whole day long, shivering and shaking, like one with the ague.
Several plans of escape were devised but none of them succeeded so well in No. 3 as in No. 5. I believe two tunnels were dug and both failed. A plan was once formed to overpower the guards and seize the arsenal and a battery of artillery stationed there, but as it was considered a very hazardous undertaking it was finally abandoned.
On the 17th of March we were informed that there were boxes of "good things" for us at headquarters, where we were taken that day to receive them, and were obliged to receipt for them without knowing what was in them, but as it happened few things belonging to us had been disturbed, while others lost nearly everything. It was very generally believed that Maj. Maffitt, the prison commander, had stored away enough provision, which it was said he took from the boxes, to last his family at least one year. One thing I know, many of the boxes came into the building almost entirely empty.
December 4th John S. Beath and Adam Wilt were sent to the hospital and died, the former December 11th and the latter December 26h. Three others of the Company J. D. Nichols, L. Wroten and D. K. Waldron, went to the hospital, and Wroten was the only one who returned to prison. About the first of April Nichols was paroled and sent to Annapolis, where he died. I have never heard what became of Waldron. I got permission twice to go out to the hospital to see the boys, and found that they were much better off there than in prison. They had fire in the room, bunks to sleep on, and one of them told me that they got to eat wheat bread, beef, dried fruit, rice, and sometimes tea to drink.
May 16th we were started on freight cars for Andersonville, in Sumpter county, Georgia, where we arrived May 20th. They put upwards of seventy in each car fastened one door and placed four guards in the other, besides one on top, and by the cars being kept so close many fainted on the way. On the morning after our arrival Captain Wirts, the prison commander, came out to verify the number of prisoners turned over to him, and to see that we were properly arranged in messes of ninety and detachments of two hundred and seventy men each, after which we were turned into the stockade.
Upon entering this place of wretchedness and almost unparallelled suffering, we met several of our friends who had gone there before us, and about the first thing they said to us was "Look out for raiders." There was there an organized band of our men who would go about of nights, enter tents and tell the inmates if they opened their mouths they would "mash their heads for them" while they searched for blankets, clothing, watches and money, which, according to their mode of speaking, they "confiscated," and this they continued until at length they became so bold as to attack new prisoners coming in, during the day. This soon led to a discovery of their leaders and the rebel authorities taking it in hand they were arrested and tried by a jury selected from among our own men, and six of them being found guilty of robbery and murder, were sentenced to be hung on the 11th day of July. A scaffold was erected inside the stockade, and on the day appointed the prison commander brought them in under guard and delivered them up to the prisoners for execution. As I saw them swing from the scaffold I felt sad in my heart to think that such a thing should come to pass among us, but the thought of justice partly smoothered the feeling, and I returned to my quarters pondering on the depravity of man.
There were many here who had no shelter and during the month of June it rained more or less every twenty four hours for twenty-two days in succession and these poor fellows were obliged to take the rain and sunshine which came alternately during the day, and at night lie down on the wet ground to sleep in spite of the rain and chilling night air.
Some in order to have shelter from the storms would dig square holes in the ground probably six or eight feet deep and dig little caves out in different directions from the bottoms of these in which they would sleep of nights. Those of us who had blankets or "dog-tents" for shelter considered ourselves lucky. There was a branch running through the stockade on either side of which was a swamp that was covered with the filth of the camp which was continually running down into the branch where we had to wash and get water to drink. The water always had to me the smell of an old pig-sty, and it finally became so bad that the boys all over camp began to dig wells after which we had better water. Many of these wells were dug with half canteens and old knives or axes.
During the months of July and August the mortality was fearful. Very often the number of deaths in twenty-four hours exceeded one hundred, and from the time that camp was first established, which I think was about the last of February, to the 10th of Sept. about eight thousand nine hundred died from scurvey and other diseases.
About the 15th June we took Wroten out to the hospital where he died about the first of July. Next Sergt. McKell, of Co. D, who was with us took sick, and after we attempted twice to get him out to the hospital he died in prison without a murmur, like a patriot tried and true. By this time Jno. W. Johnston, Wm. K. Latta and Jno. McDowel were very sick, and on the 8th day of August Johnstons spirit "shuffled off its mortal coil" and the next day Latta followed him to the spirit world. The day before Johnston died he said to me "It seems hard for me to die here in this miserable place so far from home and friends, but it must be so;" and as he spoke his eyes met mine with a look I never shall forget. We managed to get McDonald out to the hospital, but he lived only a short time.
Let me say to the friends of these boys that they were unfaltering in their devotion to their country, and preferred to die rather than bring reproach upon the cause of freedom, and disgrace themselves and friends by taking the oath of allegiance to the Confederacy, as many did in order to save their lives.
Some one perhaps will ask, "Why couldnt you get all those boys out to the hospital?" I will tell you. At that time there were about thirty thousand men there and about five thousand of them were sick many of them perfectly helpless, and when the doctors would give out word that they intended on a certain day, to take the sick out, those who had sick comrades would as soon as roll-call was over, take them on their backs or in blankets and start for the gate, and by the time we would get there the crowd was so dense that it was almost impossible for us to get to the gate before it was closed; and besides we were so weakened by disease and starvation that we were scarcely able to walk about camp. Several times we stood out in the hot sun nearly three hours trying to get them out and then failed.
About the first of August Sergeant Brown and Wm. Kerns felt that disease was taking hold on them, and by the 15th Browns limbs had become so contracted that he was unable to walk, but luckily he had a fine English-lever watch which he sold for ten dollars with which he purchased Irish potatoes and by eating one raw every morning and evening his limbs were soon straightened and he could walk nearly as well as ever. Mr. Kerns limbs did not contract so as to hinder him entirely from walking but diarrhea fastened itself upon him, and when our detachment was ordered away from Andersonville he was unable to go with us, and as I never heard from him afterward I am unable to say whether he is dead or alive.
That horrible disease, scurvey, with which so many thousands died, works in various ways. On many it made its first appearance in the mouth and would sometimes become so bad as to make it difficult for them to keep their teeth from falling out. The limbs of others would swell, turn purple and contract until they could not touch their feet to the ground without great pain, while on others it would break out in running sores, and very often while in this situation diarrhea would take hold on them, and then there was but little hope of recovery.
When a man died in prison the Sergeant of his mess had orders to write his name, rank, Company and Regiment and pin it on his breast, after which he was carried out to the Clerks office, where his name was put on the dead register and numbered. He was then carried to the deadhouse, where all were loaded into wagons like logs of wood and hauled to the burial-place where they were laid side by side in one common grave.
Inside the stockade, and about twenty feet from the pickets, a line was established over which we had orders not to pass, and should any one attempt to go over it the guards had orders to shoot him down. I have known men to step over this line, unthoughtedly, or in running to fall over it, when the guard would fire on them instantly and sometimes instead of hitting the one fired at wound one or more several yards from the line. One day one of the prisoners reached his arm over the line, in order to get his pail filled water above where the filth was running into it, when the guard fired and instantly killed him. When he saw what he had done he commenced reloading his piece, while a smile played upon his countenance which reminded me more of a fiend than a human being possessing the attributes of the divine nature.
During the month of August an organization of eight thousand men was formed for the purpose of trying to affect their escape. They tunneled out to the line of pickets which they undermined for some distance so that by rushing against them they would fall and allow them to pass over at a point nearest to the Artillery, which they intended to capture and turn on the rebels, but the night before they were ready to put their design into exception the trick was discovered, and dawning day revealed the rebels lying on their arms in line of battle all round the stockade. Other tunnels were dug, on a smaller scale, and when any of the boys would get out the blood-hounds were immediately set on their track and they were soon overtaken and carried back in triumph to prison or were shot down on the spot.
The rations we received here were sometimes cooked and sometimes raw. When they issued cooked rations to us the bread was made out of meal that looked as though it might be corn and cob ground up together, and the rice or beans, whichever we would get, were boiled, without being cleaned, in the water in which the meat was cooked; and when they gave us raw rations they didnt issue half enough wood to cook them; and besides many had nothing to cook in and I verily believe that many of these poor fellows died from starvation, where if they had had cooking utensils and wood enough to cook their food issued to them, they might have lived.
September 7th they began shipping the prisoners away from Andersonville, and the rebels told us that the old cartel had been renewed, and that the prisoners were being shipped to Savannah where they were paroling, and most of us were silly enough to believe it, notwithstanding they told us the same story when they shipped us from Danville.
Sept. 10h our detachment was ordered away, but instead of taking us to Savannah we were sent to Charleston and put out on the race-grounds; as before without shelter, but they gave us better rations here than we received any where else in the Confederacy; and when the citizens saw our wretchedness they said the way we had been treated would be a lasting disgrace on the southern people, and even the Charleston papers talked of our sufferings, and expressed a strong feeling of sympathy in our behalf. The women who were mostly Sisters of Charity, carried provisions cooking utensils and old clothing which they gave to those who seemed to be most needy. Here scurvy; which had been working on me for some time, came very nearly getting the better of me, and having in my possession a gold pen and silver extension holder I sold them for fifteen dollars in Confederate money, with which I purchased potatoes, and by eating them was made considerably better. This loathsome disease also began to make its appearance in large purple spots on the flesh of Mr. E. Rockhold, but it didnt seem to affect him quite as much as the rest of us.
Oct. 1st, we were sent to Florence, which is about one hundred miles north of Charleston and the next day we were turned into a new stockade containing about fifteen acres which was nearly covered with brush and fallen timber. Here as at Anderson there was another miserable swamp on either side of the branch that ran through the prison, but the prison commander gave the boys tools and they built a causeway over it and also policed the camp regularly, keeping it much cleaner than Anderson. But as before they had no shelter except their blankets or little hovels. The rations also were very short and about the 1st of Dec. for two days in succession no rations of any kind were issued to the camp, and the third day each man received one pint of rice and on the fourth one pint of meal. I think if some of our rebel sympathizers could only be dieted in this way for a short time, they would be brought to a sense of the obligations they owe to the government, and I imagine have a peculiar desire to taste some of "Uncle Sams" hard tack. About the 15th of Oct. a small stock of Sanitary stores arrived at Florence, which sometime in Nov. was followed by another lot, and Oct. 20th I was taken out on parole of Honor, and assisted in taking the names, rank, Company and Regiment of those who received the clothing. Lieut. Kimble who when captured on the Stoneman raid, gave in his rank as Sergt. Maj. afterward gave them his true rank and toward the last of Nov. was paroled for the purpose of taking charge of all government clothing or Sanitary stores which might be sent to the prisoners, and from what I saw of him I believed him to be honest and impartial. The hospitals here were nothing more than long sheds supported on forks set in the ground and covered and boarded up at the sides with clapboards. They had no bunks in them and the sick had to lie on the damp ground with nothing under them but a little straw or a blanket. Several made their escape from here, but most of them were recaptured and brought back to prison, when they were punished by being handcuffed and tied up by the thumbs.
Those who have never been prisoners of war can have no just conception of the miseries connected with such a life in which men are always pining for freedom, always suffering from cold or heat and starvation, or from disease contracted by long confinement. The only wonder is that so many get away alive.
Dec. 8, I was paroled and sent to Charleston where I was transferred from the rebel flag of truce to that of our own, Dec. 11, which I thought was one of the happiest days of my life, for it seemed to me a Providential deliverance from the "jaws of death."