Editor’s Note: This article was transcribed by Jackie Martin.
RECOLLECTIONS OF SOUTHERN PRISONS.
[After Lt. (Lester S.) Richards of Co. A, 11th Vt. Regiment (aka 1st Vermont Heavy Artillery), was paroled and returned to Annapolis, he whiled away some tedious hours by writing out some of his experiences with the Southern chivalry. At our request he has let us take this journal, and we extract from it below.]
On the 23d (that most unlucky day) [of June 1864] at about 9 A. M. our battalion, A, F, H, and K, commanded by Maj. [Charles K.] Fleming, was out as skirmishers and to hold a point on the Petersburg and Weldon railroad, which our sharpshooters had taken possession of, driving away the rebel cavalry. Our company was deployed fifteen paces apart across an open field, the right resting just beyond the railroad, the left near a piece of woods. Before noon we saw the rebels coming in force on the railroad, and when they arrived to within 100 rods they deployed, throwing out their skirmishers and soon commenced firing, and we replied in good earnest. At this time our battery was divided into two companies, Lieut. Parker commanded the right and I the left company, Capt. Morrill acting field officer. Very soon the rebels, advancing rapidly, pressed hard on our right flank with greatly superior numbers, which caused us to fall back, after losing several in killed and wounded. We fell back in good order, loading and firing as fast as possible. It was at this place that Corp. Burnham was mortally wounded, also that Granger was killed and several others killed and wounded. After falling back over the brow of a ridge or little hill, we halted, but the firing was kept up and soon the rebels had worked their way on our flank, so we were subjected to a severe enfilading fire for some time, until we fell back still further to a place where our troops had made temporary breastworks, and it was understood that we were to hold this point at all hazards.—The rebels soon came upon our right and then charged upon our left and rear with a terrible volley of musketry and that horrid yell, which I never shall forget. This caused us to abandon this position and take another a few rods distant, at the same time contracting our forces. We were now in no condition for defense, as our ammunition was completely exhausted. Very soon the rebels were about charging upon us again, when our force was surrendered as prisoners of war. It was here that Charles B. Sewell, and I expect Capt. Smith, lost their lives. I have thought many times that it was a miracle that we were not nearly all killed, as the bullets fell among us like hailstones. This occurred just at dark, and after being disarmed we were immediately started in charge of a strong guard for Petersburg. The number captured of our regiment was 18 officers and 238 men. There was also part of the 4th Vt., including Major Pratt.
Our men on this occasion behaved most heroically—I saw no one in our company but what was willing and faithful to obey orders to the letter; no man leaving or falling back until they had orders to do so, and being in the open field we were more exposed and suffered greater loss than the other companies.1
We arrived near Petersburg I think at about midnight, and remained there the rest of the night in an old corn field. In the morning the rebel officers took all our rubber blankets and fly tents from us, then marching us through and to the opposite side of the town, spent the day in taking the name, rank and regiment of each man, separating the officers from the enlisted men; and we were not allowed to communicate with them after that time. On the 25th [of June 1864] they freighted us to Richmond and put the officers in Libby Prison, and the men in some den near by. As soon as we entered we were ordered to take off our hats, coats, vests and boots and undergo a thorough search. They took from us all our money, also our haversacks, canteens, &c., at the same time informing us that if we secreted or kept back any money we should be severely punished. On the other hand they told us our money would be refunded as we should need it to use. We made many applications for it from time to time, but few ever received anything. I was one of the unfortunate ones, and the fact is, they had no intention to pay it back to us. It was nothing less than wholesale robbery.
They gave us no rations until the 26th (three days after capture,) and as but few of us had any rations with us, and no chance or means of procuring any, we suffered very much from hunger. The first ration issued to us was a little bit of corn bread about one-half the size of a brick, and a bit of rusty, maggoty pork about one-half an inch square, and about one gill of bean soup to the man. The pork had been boiled with the beans and the maggots came off into the soup, and great numbers of them were floating on the top of it. I took a spoon and skimmed them off and ate the soup, and I must say that I relished it as well as any thing I ever ate. This was one day’s rations, all of which was about one-half what I required for one meal. We remained here until June 29th. We were then taken out and started for Macon, Ga., by rail. It was here, on the night of the 29th, between Richmond and Lynchburg, that Capts. Morrill and Safford escaped from the cars, and I heard the shots that were fired at them, but it was a long time before I learned the result, in fact not until I arrived at Annapolis did I learn for a certainty that Capt. Morrill was killed.
On arriving at Lynchburg we were informed that on account of the railroad being destroyed, that we must march to Danville, a distance of 80 miles, and they issued us rations for four days—20 hardtacks and about one pound of pork to each man. It was a hard march, but we were compelled to make it in four days. The weather being very warm, and we having nothing to carry water in, we suffered very much from thirst. On arriving at Danville we were packed into box cars that were filthy beyond description, and without any seats. There was so large a number in each car that we could not lie down, but were obliged to sit or stand. In this way we were freighted to Macon, and on arriving there we were turned into a yard of about two acres, in which there were between 1500 and 1600 officers. A portion of them had open sheds for shelter, but were not enough for all, so those that came last had no shelter nor nothing to lie upon but the ground. Such was my lot. The rations issued us here were of very inferior quality, and the quantity much less than we required. It was not cooked, so we all had to learn to cook, and with comparatively nothing to cook in, or hardly wood enough to cook with. On the 18th of July, 600 officers were taken out and carried to Charleston, as they told us for exchange, but instead of that they carried us to Savannah. Here we were placed in a small field adjoining the naval hospital. The yard was enclosed with high brick wall and stockade. We were furnished tents here and were better treated and fed than any other place in the Confederacy. We had meat issued us, also rice and corn meal as much as we could eat, but no vegetables or sugar.
We remained here until the 13th of September , when the rebels told us we were going to Charleston to be placed under fire. They freighted us there and turned us into the jail yard, which was very small and of all places the most filthy. There were a few small tents in the yard, but not half enough to accommodate the number of men that were there. So it was my luck to again lay exposed to the weather. I shall long remember one terrible, rainy night that I sat there in my chair (one which I had made with my pocket knife while at Savannah) all night, as I could not lay down without laying in the mud. It was so filthy here that when we laid our blankets upon the ground to sleep on, the worms would eat holes through them, and some of them were nearly destroyed in this way. While here our rations were of very inferior quality and small quantity. It does seem as though they gave us nothing fit to eat; they issued us beans, but there was hardly a good one among them. They were full of bugs and worms, and the only way we could use them was to soak them until soft and then peel them one by one, and dig out the worms and throw away such portions of each bean as was spoiled. [All?] have labored diligently all the forenoon to prepare enough for a scanty meal. Those that could obtain money had the opportunity of purchasing necessary articles, but at very exorbitant prices. Sweet potatoes, which seemed to be more plenty than anything else, were $40 per bushel, and other things in proportion. As for being under fire we truly were, but received no injury from it; in fact it was a great comfort to us to see those death missiles pass high over our heads and plank square into that nest of traitors. Gen. Foster knew well our position, and had the exact range so we were in no danger except a shell exploded prematurely, as one did and a large piece of it cut off the limb of a tree right on the top of the wall. The officers that came here first after remaining in the jail yard several weeks had been placed in buildings.
One day while here we witnessed a case of deliberate and willful murder. A young negro, about 12 or 14 years of age, who was kept in and about the prison as a waiter or chore boy, by some little frivolous expression offended one of the guards, and he being one of the Southern chivalry, immediately called the boy to him and taking of[f] his belt whipped him over the head with it for some time, and not satisfied with this, took his gun and shot him through the body, causing immediate death. We understood that the case was investigated, but nothing was done with the sentinel as he was immediately restored to duty.
We remained here until the 5th of October , and were then freighted to Columbia, S. C. On the journey we were crowded into box cars almost to suffocation, and were in this condition for about 36 hours. On arriving at Columbia, we were turned into a small field for the night, and at about sundown there came a terrible shower with very heavy thunder, and it continued raining nearly all night, wetting us to the skin. Some were so tired and sleepy, having had no rest the previous night, that they laid down in the mud and water, but I sat in my chair or walked the yard all night. The next day was warm, and we dried our clothes and felt better. It was now the 7th of October , and that day they marched us out of the city about two miles, and there turned us into an old field that had been cultivated, but had then a small growth of pine upon it, which made a nice shade for us. The rebels never gave us anything for shelter at this place; all we had was what we made ourselves. A few officers purchased tents at the price of $100 for a small one. Very many built little bough houses, but they would not shed rain, and as the weather became colder we built little huts of poles, and some split out shingles and covered them.
The rations while in this town (which was over four months) were the poorest and least that we ever had while in prison, the whole ration being five pints cornmeal (not sifted), one-half pint rice, one spoonful salt, one pint sorghum and a little bit of soup for five days, all told.—For over four months that we were in this town, not a particle of meat, grease or vegetables were issued us except once, and that was a small ration of beef and potatoes, which was in lieu of sorghum that we did not draw. I am confident that no man could long retain his health if he were confined to the rations issued us; but fortunately for us we obtained money by giving bills of exchange and powers of attorney, authorizing persons to draw our pay from the paymaster. We used to get two dollars in Confederate money for one in greenbacks, and six for one in gold, and with their currency we could purchase at the following rates of the sutler: beef, $3 to $5 per pound; pork $7; butter, or rather grease, $12; lard, $12; eggs, $8; potatoes, $40 per bushel; rice, $3 per pound; chickens, $10; turkeys, $30; thick shoes, $100, and every thing else in the same proportion. It seemed a great sacrifice to purchase at such exorbitant prices, but a man will give all he hath for his life. We became very meat hungry, so much so that I think it would have been dangerous for a fat horse or mule to come within our lines. One day there came in a great old black hog, large of bone but poor in flesh, and no sooner had he entered within the lines than there were more than 200 men after him, some armed with axes, some with shovels, others with sticks, and they soon overpowered him, and in less than five minutes he was cut into small pieces, every man that ran after him claiming a piece. While there, for 45 days I tasted no meat or grease but once, and I can’t express the hankering which I experienced. Many officers escaped from this place; I suppose near 600, but many of them were recaptured and taken back to camp, yet a large number made our lines. Many were fired upon while passing the guard, but only one was killed and two wounded in making the attempt to escape. There were two others killed here, one while sitting by his little camp fire, which was claimed by the guards to be accidental, the other while walking along inside the dead line, with an ax upon his shoulder, going for wood. In this case the guard claimed that the prisoner was over the line, but there was abundant evidence that such was not the case. It was nothing more nor less than willful murder. There was great indignation among the officers, but we could do nothing. Officers escaping had, after getting out of camp, great difficulties to encounter. Many of them were chased and run down by blood hounds. I suppose it was on account of dog bites that Lieut. Parker lost his life, though the rebels said he died of yellow fever.
As the officers were escaping pretty fast, the rebels conceived the idea of keeping some hounds near camp, and every morning let them go around it and find whether there were any tracks leading from camp. It was but a day or two after this arrangement was made that early one morning, as the dogs were making their circuit, our officers called them into camp, and very soon there were two dead dogs. The rebels tried to ascertain who killed them, but they did not succeed.
On the 12th of December  we were informed that we were to be placed in buildings in the city and were marched there, but on arriving there instead of being put in buildings we were turned into an open field attached to the asylum buildings. It was now freezing cold weather and we had no shelter but to lie upon the freezing ground. Very many of us had but one blanket and some had none, besides most of us were thinly clad, and some were bare-footed. Some were compelled to walk all night to keep from perishing. It was then that we used to exclaim, “O, Father Abraham, hast thou forgotten us?”
The chances for escaping from this place were unfavorable, the yard being surrounded with a high wall and stockade; but the Yanks, as the rebs called us, were very busy in making arrangements to escape as soon as the weather would admit. We had some half-dug tunnels in progress, some of them nearly completed, and if we had not been moved there would have been a general stampede some dark night.
I shall long remember my suffering from cold and hunger while in this camp. Cold mornings, when the sun shone, I, with many others, would stand close to the shanty on the sunny side, and in this way get a little heat from the rays of the sun. On the 14th of Feb., 1865, part of us were started for Charlotte, [N]. C., the balance following the next day.
We stopped about four days at Charlotte, and then went to Raleigh and then to Goldsboro, N. C., and there on the 28th of February  we were paroled for exchange and started for the point agreed upon by the commissioners of exchange, which was nine miles from Wilmington, and on the 1st day of March we passed into our lines. Many of the officers had been prisoners nearly two years, but my time was only eight months and five days, and I had heard from my family but twice. I must say that this was the happiest day of my life, and as it was my birth-day I shall celebrate it. As soon as we passed the line there was such cheering as I never before heard; every man doing his best and the old hats, meal-bags, &c., were flying in the air in great numbers. We marched a little distance and then came in sight of the stars and stripes floating in the breeze, and the cheering was renewed. Here for the first time we received U. S. rations, including coffee, that being something many of us had not tasted during our term of imprisonment. After eating all we wished for once, we marched to Wilmington and remained there over night and on the next day we went on board boats for Annapolis.
We had hardly been in town two hours before every officer had thrown off his old filthy clothes, and got a new suit throughout, and such a change in appearance I never saw before. I could hardly recognize those with whom I was well acquainted. The health of the officers as a general thing was good while they were prisoners, but very few deaths occurring; but no thanks to the rebels for it. If we had not obtained money we would have been in the same condition as the enlisted men, with the exception that there were not so many of us together, the largest number being but 1500 or 1600, but the rations issued us were no better, either in quantity or quality than were issued the men.
I intend to go into the field again as soon as exchanged, feeling that I owe a great debt to pay those rebels and traitors—a debt of revenge, and one which I hope to be able to pay. I don’t know as this shows a christian spirit, but I believe it is the feelings of every man that has suffered in their hands. It pains my heart to think of our poor enlisted men. It is enough to chill the blood of the stoutest heart to look upon them and see the poor, emaciated forms, many of them mere skeletons. No pen can describe nor tongue can tell the suffering they have experienced. The half will never be known. It is estimated that within three years 30,000 of our noble soldiers have died in the hands of the rebels, and not from any prevailing epidemic, but from exposure and starvation. There is no question in my mind but the rebels have made it their policy to kill our men in this way; to make a wholesale slaughter. But the suffering is no means confined to our soldiers, but extends even to the women and children in the South, many poor men being conscripted into the service and no provision made for their families. We were told by a Union man in North Carolina, that he had known several Union men after being conscripted, to desert and go to their homes and then hide themselves away in the swamps, and that the rebels had come in search of them, and had actually taken their wives and tied and lashed them (like they do the salve) to make them tell where their husbands are. We also learned that there were many cases where men had enlisted into the union army that the rebels had taken every thing from them including grain, stock, &c., leaving nothing for the families to eat. They were praying for Sherman to come. Since arriving here at Annapolis I have seen two men that were residents of N. C. and they informed me that in 1862, they with others were trying to organize a company of union men for the service, and the rebels getting intimation of it arrested the whole of them, 48 in number, and put them in prison at Salisbury and a portion of the time kept them in dungeons, in the meantime frequently trying to have them take the oath of allegiance to the government, which they refused to do; and on there being an exchange of prisoners, the survivors only two in number were sent into our lines as prisoners for exchange.
I don’t like to dwell upon such an unpleasant theme, but will relate one more circumstance. When we were at Goldsboro, N. C., there was a camp of our enlisted men about one half mile from us, and at the time we left (28th of Feb. ) they had all been removed except about 300 sick ones who were left there in the open field with no shelter, and many of them had no shoes, caps nor blankets, and comparatively no clothing, and they were so sick they could not get wood to build fire; in fact a large portion of them could not raise themselves from the ground, but lay moaning and calling for water, but the rebels would not aid or assist them, and they were dying at a fearful rate. Some of our officers visited them and saw five lying dead in one group; they also noticed one living man curling close by the side of a dead one trying to keep warm, the weather at that time being very wet and cold. When we left we sent them most of our blankets, all our mattresses and what few tents we had; these, I have since learned, were a great help and comfort to them, but here is no probability that one in ten of those unfortunate ones will ever see home and friends, and I do believe the miserable traitors will be held accountable for this suffering. I know were I their judge I should judge them harshly.2
- SOPO Editor’s Note: Lieutenant Richards was one of many Vermonters captured at the June 23, 1864 Battle of Jerusalem Plank Road, the darkest day in the brigade’s entire history. Richards, as an officer, was relatively lucky. He suffered, to be sure, bit it beat the fate of the enlisted men of the Vermont Brigade. Most were sent to Andersonville, and many died. For a detailed micro history of the Vermont Brigade at the Jerusalem Plank Road, see Davif F. Cross’ book A Melancholy Affair at the Weldon Railroad: The Vermont Brigade, June 23, 1864. ↩
- “A Soldier’s Last Letter.” The Caledonian (St. Johnsbury, VT). May 5, 1865, p. 1 col. 2-6 ↩