Memories of War Times

Personal Reminiscences of Happenings That Took Place From 1861 to the Grand Review

by Reub Williams

But to the hero, when his sword
Has won the battle for the free,
Thy voice abounds like a prophet's word,
And in its hollow tones are heard
The tanks of millions yet to be.
---Fitz Green Halleck

When the party reached Richmond, the Confederate capital, the shades of the late afternoon were falling, and as it was in the middle of December, the days were approaching their shortest, and as the weather had been murky all the day, night fell upon us so quickly that on arriving at our destination, the prison was already lighted up. We prisoners and a portion of the guard were ushered into the prison office presided over by Major Gibbs, a sedate, gentle, manly officer, who was in charge of the prison there under the control of General Winder, who had been placed in charge of all the prisons in the South, located then at Charleston, S. C., Salisbury, N. C., Richmond, Va., and at other points. Andersonville had not yet been established, if we correctly remember, nor was that terrible spot in the James River, right in the city of Richmond, where many a Federal soldier afterwards pined his life away, known as Belle Isle, yet assigned to General Winder's command as a prison. All of the starving, the persecution and the cruelty practiced during the succeeding years of the war, were to come later.

Here I was separated from the rest of the prisoners, they being assigned to other tobacco warehouses located in different parts of the city, while I was conducted to a large room on the same floor of the office, and on entering which, I found myself in company with seventy-one officers, ranging from Colonels down to Second Lieutenants, and nearly all of them captured at the First Bull Run and at that uncalled for disaster known in history as Ball's Bluff, with a few, a very few "gobbled up" at other points; for instance, Captain Isaac Hart, quartermaster of the Twentieth Indiana, who was captured on board the little steamer "Fannie," a vessel attached to what was known as the Burnside Expedition, which within a few days previous to, or about the time of our arrival had captured Roanoke Island, on the Virginia coast, with all its forts and war material, the confederates having fortified the island, intending to hold it if possible in the hope of making that immediate vicinity a point to receive goods that could be smuggled through the blockade which was then being established all along the coast of the Southern States, beginning in Virginia and extending all the way down the Atlantic and through the Gulf of Mexico as far west as Galveston.

Of course, I at once became an object of interest to every one of those prisoners who were so anxious to hear from home that even what brief intelligence I could convey to them was listened to with deep attention and the entire evening was spent until 9 o'clock at least, the hour that the prison rule compelled the shutting off of gas and the compulsory retiring to whatever sort of bed the prisoners might be in possession of. In this officers' room the rule had been adopted to divide the entire number into "messes of six," and it so happened that there being a vacancy in the one known by the name of the "regular mess," for the reason that it was composed of officers belonging to the regular army, and who were, at the breaking out of hostilities stationed in Texas, under General Twiggs, of the United States army, who basely surrendered them as prisoners of war to the Confederacy without the knowledge of either his officers or men, I was informed that I must take the vacancy referred to.

The prisoners; in order to preserve their health as far as lay in their power, had drawn up and signed a set of rules governing the sanitary features of the prison, to which every officer's name was attached, and at least while I remained a prisoner, were religiously obeyed and lived up to by every one of the inmates of the big room. The sink was located at the west end of the long building, and fortunately for the prisoners it was connected with the city waterworks, so that we were enabled to preserve cleanliness, that as the war progressed and prisoners became so numerous on both sides that there was scarcely floor space for them all to lie down at night for want of room, cleanliness became an impossibility. The rules forbade, too, the playing of cards or games of any kind, on Sundays, and as there was a chaplain among the prisoners, belonging to a Maine regiment, religious services were held every Sunday forenoon, the speaker being always sure to have every one of the seventy-two of his audience always present. There was no way, although there might have been the strongest desire to avoid being present.

One of the rules governing the individual messes, was to select one of its _____________ night. The Confederate government at that time furnished us with Texas beef, bread, baked in ovens established especially to supply the prisoners; salt and pepper. I'd add to this bill-of-fare other edible articles was the duty of the caterer, and on Saturday evening he would make out his expense bill, which was always promptly paid, and varied according to the liberality or closeness of the individual in charge for each particular week. I was pleased at the time of being assigned to this "regular mess" for the reason that although up to this time I had lain awake many nights in camp studying army tactics, these officers, being all gentlemanly fellows, and graduates of West Point, I was enabled to absorb no small amount of military information and I am sure I acquired many points that I could not otherwise have done, and hence I regarded it as a schooling of value to me.

I had not been there over two weeks when it came my turn to act as caterer, but during this time I had learned that a First Lieutenant, who belong to the Fourteenth Brooklyn regiment, by the name of Grumman,whose photograph still occupies a place in my war-time album was about an expert with a pen as any one I had ever known up to that time and I might add even since, for he could do almost anything if given ink and a pen, even to the drawing of a very fine individual likeness of any one on both sides immediately after the war.

Gold and silver actually disappeared entirely by the beginning of its second year, and consequently business men, cities and small towns all issued their fractional "script" for use in making change. Many first class business houses did this, and what is more it passed, grumblingly. It is true, but nevertheless, it was made to serve the purpose.

Many business men and firms in Richmond issued their "script" and on one occasion I discovered that Lieutenant Grumman had so perfectly counterfeited one of them that it could only be told from the genuine by the closest inspection, and even then I am convinced that it would require an expert. At any rate, I resolved to try it during my first week of mess catering. In addition to the mess of six, a private soldier selected by some member of the mess had been detailed to wait on the table, wash the dishes, and see to things generally. These men delighted in being thus detailed for the reason that they lived on much better food when attached to an officers' mess than otherwise, and applications for the place were far greater than the number of positions to be supplied. I had quite a quantity of Grumman's script and as we were allowed to do our own marketing at the prison-door, through our mess-boy, I met with ready success. Negroes were in the habit, as well as white men, of bringing oysters to the door referred to, for sale to the "Yanks," and this they did at 20 cents a quart. The consequence was that during my week of catering, the mess was supplied with that delicious bivalve at every meal; fried for breakfast, raw or stewed for dinner and just as you pleased for supper. All of these oysters and other delicacies besides, were paid for through our mess-boy with Grumman's script and consequently when Saturday night came and members of the mess expected to pay a much larger sum than usual, having had oysters every meal, they were thunderstruck to find it even a little less in amount than the former week, with no oysters. Not one among them know, to this day, not even the mess-boy who paid it out, that the script was a prison enterprise.

I have already stated that I was quite short of money, after paying out my $8 in gold for a shawl, so on the morning following our installation into the Richmond tobacco warehouse, afterwards known as "Libby Prison," I wrote to Schuyler Colfax, then speaker of the house, requesting him to send me a fifty-dollar gold piece by express and draw on Mrs. Williams at Warsaw for the amount. Within four days the gold piece arrived, on which there was a charge of one dollar and fifty cents to the express company for bringing it a distance of seventy-five miles. Prices had already begun to go up, you see, and what is more, just about that time the Confederacy ceased to issue coffee as a ration to their army. I don't know just how the Confederate soldier took it on being deprived of his coffee, but had it been done by the Washington government, such a howl would have gone up that would have compelled its restoration, no matter what it cost. I sometimes think the war would have been considerably prolonged but for coffee; for in a worn-out, played-out, wearied-to-death soldier, a cup of coffee went far-and-away ahead of a full meal in restoring him to his normal condition. A federal even yet cannot conceive how he could have survived what he passed through but for that restoring, consoling, strengthening, stimulating beverage. That the war made us a nation of coffee-drinkers, is quite likely, but coffee helped, and very materially helped, to crush the rebellion.

I sold my fifty-dollar gold piece for ninety dollars in Confederate money, and as this was at an early period in the war, when the Richmond markets were still fairly well supplied with _____we lived "like fighting cocks" during all of my stay, something over four months. On entering the prison I found an old many by the name of Pancoast, who was approaching seventy years of age. The old gentleman "kinder took to me on sight," notwithstanding the disparity in our ages, a thing that often happens, and for which there is no explanation, only that it so occurs. We became the closest of friends and remained so during all my time of confinement. While some of the officers in the big room were supplied with cots and blankets--one, sometimes two, there were others who just had a cot--a piece of coarse tow cloth, stretched over a frame on which to lie down at night. Others, like myself, had nothing at all, so at night I lay down on the bare, plank floor, with my $8 shawl under my head, and as it was late in December, 1861, the reader can readily surmise, for if he has perused the preceding sketches he will remember that I had "reduced to the ranks" my coat by having its tails cut off and making it a roundabout. Under these circumstances a coat with even partial tails would have been superior for the purpose to one with no tails at all.

Although the daily grind of prison life was at times almost insupportable, yet after all these years have flown by, one can even look back at the wearisome period as an incident in life not altogether wasted. I made, while there, some of the most pleasurable acquaintances of that ever-glorious four years for the bringing out of the best and truest patriotism known to mankind. for a good many years I kept up a correspondence with quite a number of them, and when the National Encampment was held in Washington City, the one preceding the last one, I inserted a notice in the Washington Star requesting that if there were any one of the four who nightly took their places at the table for a game of euchre, they should call at my rooms at the National Hotel. I had no idea at the time that even one of the other three might call. All of the great battles of the Army of the Potomac were still to be fought when we were released from prison in Richmond, following the rebel disaster at Fort Henry and Donelson, and the placing of the Federal army away up the Tennessee, even to Florence, Ala., the captures of which placed the preponderance of prisoners on the Federal side for the first time since the war commenced, and so frightened the authorities at Richmond, that we who were held in the Confederate capital were at once paroled.

However the notice was inserted with the hope, rather than the belief, that it might bring a meeting of two or more old comrades whose friendship was first formed within the grim walls of that old Richmond tobacco warehouse, afterwards the scene of so much want, suffering and death, and whose incarceration caused so much mourning, misery and sorrow in many a bright and sunny Northern home. Behold, on the next day at the hour fixed in my notice in the Star, I heard what I at once knew was the stumping of crutches in the long hall leading to the room occupied by myself, and on stepping to the door I perceived a man coming with only one leg left, the other off above the knee. It was a man by the name of Vassa of Boston, whom I had known in prison as a member of the Twentieth Massachusetts regiment. Well, the old veterans still surviving will readily understand that it was a pleasant meeting, although the man I now met was grizzled and gray and not at all the cheerful young fellow to whom I had bidden good-bye in Washington City upon our release from the tobacco warehouse at Richmond, when I was about to leave for my home in the West. He had lost his leg in the battle of the Wilderness, but had up to that time passed unscathed through many of the very hard battles that had preceded the engagement that had so badly crippled him.

He was a few years younger than the writer of these sketches. My after experience had been with the Army of the Tennessee, but we had kept track of one another by letter up to a few years previous to the Encampment we were then attending, and I can assure the reader--and every surviving veteran of the great war will know it intuitively--that while the meeting was in every way a pleasant one, yet feelings of thankfulness to the Great Giver of all good, that He had permitted me to come out of the wonderful struggle without a scar or a scratch, and when I once more bade my friend a second, and most likely a last, good-bye, tears came to my eyes, not so much of sorrow for the maimed condition of my old prison companion, but of gratitude to God that He had permitted me to come home with a whole body when the war was over.

Warsaw Daily Times February 7, 1903

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