Friday, August 9, 2013

A Confederate captain's war diary (2): 'The Confederate states will be successful and independent yet.'

This installment of the Civil War diary of Capt. Robert Emory Park of the 12th Alabama Infantry covers his weeks of captivity at Point Lookout, Md., a Union prison camp. The 2nd, 5th and 12th New Hampshire regiments spent several months as guards at Point Lookout. An earlier blogpost tells the story of a killing at the camp during their tenure.  

The monument at the cemetery at Point Lookout. Of the
50,000 prisoners incarcerated there, about 4,000 died. 
As Park notes here, two of his brothers were among the rebel force guarding Andersonville, the Georgia prison camp for captured enlisted Union soldiers. His hope that the prisoners there were being well-treated may have been genuine, but it proved tragically wrong. A chapter of Our War recounts the plight of a blinded 7th New Hampshire soldier lucky enough to survive Andersonville, but 13,000 prisoners died there of starvation, malnutrition and infectious diseases.

We pick up Park’s story upon his arrival at Point Lookout two months after he was severely wounded in the leg and captured at Winchester, Va.

Nov. 24 – Thanksgiving Day for the Lincolnites. Had a good dinner, better than any I have had since I left Winchester. We are anxious for a flag of truce boat to carry us to Dixie, and it is the perpetual theme of conversation. I bunk with Lieutenant Edmondson, of the Thirty-seventh Virginia, in order to keep warm.

Nov. 25 – This is an intensely cold place. The Point is very bleak in winter, situated between Chesapeake bay and the Potomac river. The privates in the “prison pen” must suffer terribly, as they are thinly clothed, many in rags, and are poorly supplied with blankets and coal or wood. The fare is much better than at West’s Buildings Hospital.

Nov. 26-30 – Weather continues freezingly cold, and no truce boat yet.

Dec. 1-9 – The officers have been separated from the privates, and put in ward “D,” a Swiss cottage. Lieutenant J. P. Arrington, A.D.C., and Adjutant W. B. L. Reagan, Sixteenth battalion Tennessee cavalry, and myself are in the same room.

They are very genial, pleasant gentlemen. Adjutant Reagan has had a leg amputated above the knee, and is in very delicate health. All three of us use crutches.

Dec. 9 – Letters have been received from Captain Hewlett, now at Fort Delaware; from Misses Lizzie Swartzwelder, Nena Kiger, Gertie Coffroth and Jennie Taylor, of Winchester, and Misses Anna McSherry, Mollie Harlan and Mary Alburtis, of Martinsburg. The dear young ladies who write me so promptly and so kindly have my warmest gratitude for their cheering letters. These charming, hitherto unknown “Cousins” contribute greatly towards relieving the tedious, unvarying monotony of this humiliating prison life. . . .

Private Sam Brewer, of my company, also wrote me from Elmira, New York, where he is confined as a prisoner of war. Sam was the well-known, humorous sutler of the Twelfth Alabama. He says that a poor, starving Tar Heel at Elmira, looking up piteously and pleadingly at him, as he sucked a bare beef-bone, said: “Mr., when you finish that bone, please, sir, let me juice it a while.”

This letter must have been overlooked or very hurriedly read by the prison inspectors who examine all letters and condemn hundreds of them, or I would never have been permitted to receive it. Sam says it is bitter cold at Elmira, and he has but one blanket. They have snows several feet deep. Poor Dick Noble, from “Big Hungry,” near Tuskegee, died a prisoner at Elmira. He was a faithful fellow.

A kind letter was received, too, from Mr. J. W. Fellows, of Manchester, New Hampshire, who,
Plaque at Point Lookout gives the prison's history. 
with Professor William Johns, prepared me for college at Brownwood Institute, La Grange, Georgia, in 1859. He is now practicing law, and is an uncompromising Democrat. He has lived among the Southern people, formed friendships there, and understands their peculiar institution – slavery. His letter is very kind and full of sympathy, and he offers to aid me.

Alfred Parkins, of Winchester, a prisoner in the “Bull Pen,” as the quarters of the privates is designated, came to see Lieutenant Arrington, having as a guard over him a coal-black, brutal-looking negro soldier, an escaped “contraband,” as Beast Butler styles the stolen and refugee slaves from the South. Parkins says there is great destitution and suffering in the “Pen,” their food is insufficient, many are in rags and without blankets, and very little wood is furnished for fires.

He says that several of the negro soldiers guarding them were once slaves of some of the prisoners, and have been recognized as such. Some of them are still respectful, and call their young owners “master,” and declare they were forced to enlist. A majority of them, however, inflated by their so-called freedom, are very insolent and overbearing. They frequently fire into the midst of the prisoners, upon the slightest provocation.

One negro sentinel, a few days ago, shot a prisoner as he walked slowly and faithfully from sheer debility away from the foul sinks to his tent, simply because he did not and could not obey his imperative order to “move on faster dar.” Instead of being court-martialed and punished for the wanton murder, the villain was seen a few days afterwards exulting in his promotion to a corporalcy, and posting a relief-guard.

This employment of former slaves to guard their masters is intended to insult and degrade the latter. Such petty malice and cowardly vengeance could originate only in ignoble minds. . . .

Dec. 10-13 – Our meals are growing exceedingly scanty, and there is universal complaint of hunger. . . .

The prisoners are employed as laborers to empty vessels of provisions, coal, wood, etc., and to do all sorts of menial offices. Their small rations are slightly increased as a reward, and they enjoy a respite from the rigid confinement. They are glad to get on these working squads.

My brave men, one of whom is Wesley F. Moore, are true as steel, and, despite their sufferings and privations, are still hopeful of success, and resolved to remain faithful to the bitter, end. I write them encouragingly, send them some tobacco, bought from the sutler, and urge them to remain faithful to their cause, and never despair of ultimate deliverance from prison, and the final success of the Southern Confederacy. . . .

Dec. 14-17 – Have received a kind letter from Mr. James M. Coulter, of Baltimore, stating that he inclosed five dollars, and generously offering to send anything else I might need. The letter had been opened and money abstracted before it was handed me. . . . We have no redress, and must submit to the unpunished and unrebuked robbery.

Dec. 18-20 – Our cottage is some distance from the main hospital buildings. . . . My Dutch doctor has been sending my meager meals to me, but two days ago he ordered me to go to my meals. A painful accident happened to me on my first attempt, and I am now confined to my bed.

It had rained and sleeted the night before, and the long piazza was covered over with ice. The morning was windy and bitter cold; but knowing I could not afford to miss a meal, I took up my crutches and began my walk over the frozen ground to the nearest steps of the circular piazza. I was filled with dread on finding it covered with sleek, glassy ice, and used my crutches and right foot with great care and slowness. My left foot and leg were tied up as usual by a white cloth swing suspended around my neck, and I feared I might fall at any time. . . .

Just as I had reached within two buildings of the breakfast room, and was congratulating myself on my good fortune, some Yankee guards, composed of Irish and Dutch, met me, and as they did not offer to make room for me, I moved towards one side, and as I did so one of my crutches slipped on the treacherous ice, and I fell forward, throwing, without thought, my wounded foot and leg in front of me, breaking the thin cloth swing as I did so, and falling with all my weight on my disabled limb. . . .

My unfortunate leg was again seriously injured and my whole nervous system shocked and unstrung. The soldiers picked me up and assisted me to my room, where I have lain ever since in a state of helplessness and severe pain.

Dec. 21-24 – Our prison circle has been thrown into a state of feverish excitement by the perpetration of one of the most brutal and cowardly outrages ever inflicted upon unarmed, helpless, wounded prisoners of war and brave, honorable gentlemen and soldiers.

Lieutenant Morgan, of North Carolina, and Lieutenant Hudgins, of Virginia, were apprehended in a very daring and reckless attempt to escape from the Point, by seizing a small boat fastened to the river bank and rowing to the Virginia shore. Both of these officers had been wounded, and Hudgins was still on crutches, and the probabilities are, if they had not been swamped and drowned during the dark, blustering night, that the terrible cold and piercing wind would have frozen them to death, clothed as they were, before they could have reached the Virginia shore, said to be over two miles distant. . . .

While Morgan was striking at the chain which fastened the boat, the noise was heard, and he and his bold comrade were arrested and closely confined all night in a guard room, without fire or blankets. They were afterwards clad in a peculiar felon’s suit, made of blankets sewed up before and open behind, the close fitting body being joined to the covering for the arms and legs, all being one garment. They wore blanket caps running to a point, with tassels; a ball and chain, attached only to condemned criminals, was fastened to a leg of each.

This infamous and barbarous treatment of gallant Confederate officers, honorable prisoners of war, under no parole whatever, was a shame and disgrace to the authorities who ordered its infliction. . . .

Dec. 25 – How keenly and vividly home recollections come to my mind to-day! I see the huge baked turkey, the fat barbecued pig, delicious oysters, pound and fruit cakes, numerous goblets of egg-nog and syllabub, etc., etc., on my beloved mother’s hospitable table. My brothers and sisters are sitting around it as of yore, and my dear fond mother, with warmest love and pride beaming from her still handsome blue eyes, now somewhat dimmed by approaching age, sits at one end bountifully helping each plate to a share of the well-cooked eatables before her. . . .

Over three months have passed since I have heard from home and mother. What changes may have occurred since my capture, the 19th of September! Two of my brothers are members of the First Georgia reserves, now guarding the thirty thousand Yankee prisoners at Andersonville – one is major, and the other, a youth of sixteen years, is one of Captain Wirz’s sergeants. . . . I hope and feel that my brothers are civil and kind to the Yankees they are guarding. They are too brave to act otherwise.

My poor prison dinner was in sad contrast with my Christmas dinners at home. It consisted of beef soup, a small piece of pickled beef, some rice, and a slice of loaf bread. Lastly, to our astonishment, about three mouthfuls each of bread pudding, not very sweet, were handed us.

Dec. 29-31 – The last days of eventful, never to be forgotten 1864. All hope of a speedy exchange is now dying within us. The prospect is exceedingly gloomy. Savannah has been captured by Sherman, and Hood defeated in Tennessee. I am not at all despondent, however, and believe the Confederate States will be successful and independent yet. It is rumored we are to be removed in a day or two to Old Capitol Prison, Washington city. Our surgeon confirms the report. Point Lookout will be left with no regrets.

Jan. 1, 1865 – The first day of 1865 is far from bright and cheerful; it is snowing, cold and windy. Our little band of Confederates remain closely in quarters, discussing the past and speculating on the future, now apparently dark and gloomy, of our sorely pressed county.

Recently captured prisoners tell us of the great straits to which General Lee’s army around Richmond has been reduced, of the long, thinly scattered line of soldiers, pale and worn by hunger and constant watching, and of the gloom and despondency enveloping the heroic citizens of the beleaguered Confederate capital.

They confirm also the disheartening accounts of the dastardly conduct of Sherman in my native State, dear old Georgia, of his expelling the citizens of Atlanta from their homes, and the destruction of the entire city, and of his bloodthirsty letter to Honorable J. M. Calhoun, Mayor of Atlanta, declaring his purpose “to shorten the war by increasing its severity.”

The Northern papers, too, gloat over his cruel and boasted “march to the sea,” and of his capture of Savannah, December 21st. . . . Totally disregarding all the laws and usages of civilized war, unrestrained and uninfluenced by the humane and Christian conduct of General Lee, when in Pennsylvania, Sherman says in his official report: “We consumed the corn and fodder in the region of country thirty miles on either side of a line from Atlanta to Savannah; also the sweet potatoes, hogs, sheep and poultry, and carried off more than 10,000 horses and mules. I estimate the damage done to the State of Georgia at $100,000,000, at least $20,000,000 of which inured to our advantage, and the rest was simple waste and destruction.”

Here he confesses to have wantonly destroyed $80,000,000 worth of property of private citizens. Attila, Genseric and Alaric were not more cruel to the conquered Romans, than the brutal Sherman has been to the defenseless, utterly helpless old men, women and children of pillaged and devastated Georgia.

No wonder our reflections and conversation on the first day of the new year were of a sad character. Added to our gloom at the news from the South was the painful intelligence that all hope of our exchange was now at an end, and we are to be carried to Old Capitol Prison as soon as transportation is furnished.

Jan. 2 – After 9 o’clock at night all the officers at Point Lookout, except Major Hanvey, who was too sick to be removed, were put on board the boat “Johnson,” and at 1 o'clock in the morning were carried to the mail boat “James T. Brady,” bound for Washington city, and sailed up the Potomac.

The wind blew fearfully cold, and as we were compelled to sleep on deck and in the gangway, our suffering was severe indeed. Fortunately I got near the boiler, and fared better than the majority of the party. As we advanced towards the city, the river was blocked by ice, covering it several inches in thickness, from shore to shore. The passage was slow, as the ice had to be broken in front of the steamer every foot of the way.

Part 3: The toll of a losing cause

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