Memories of War Times

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

by Reub Williams

Soul of the brave! when sounds the trump
'Mid red-browed battle's glorious pomp,
And rolled drum and thrilling fife
Lead on the dark and desperate strife,
While gorgeous banners rise and fall,
Majestic o'er the soldier's pall,
And eager nations turn their eyes
Upon the soldier's sacrifice.

Life in the tobacco warehouse in Richmond, early in the war, was not what it became as the war progressed, and each side drew the lines more closely--or, rather, in the very nature of things--each side espoused its own side so strongly that I presume the men on both sides felt their contention wholly right, while the reasoning of the other was that it was wholly and entirely wrong. In consequence of this feeling, as well as from the large accession of prisoners following the first year of the war, almost every month witnessed a change for the worse in their treatment. Before the war came to a close General Winder, who had full and complete charge of the entire prison affairs of the South, came to be known as almost a demon in human form in the treatment he accorded those who were so unfortunate as to be transferred from the well-clothed, well-fed ranks of the Federal army into his keeping by the fortunes of war.

With the beginning of 1862--or at least within a short time after--it was plainly perceptible that with a rigid blockade all along the coast that supplies would grow less and less in the Confederacy, as the war was protracted, and I have already stated that the ration of coffee was eliminated from the Confederate soldier's bill-of-fare as early as December, 1861, and as the weeks and months progressed, other articles grew so scarce as to become unknown as a ration, the scarcity of whatever the article might be accounting for its absence. During my incarceration in "Libby" or in the building which afterwards came to be called by that name, it was principally the irksomeness of prison-life that was so hard to bear, and the "homesickness" that followed such a state of existence. In the room into which my lot was cast, all of the seventy-two being commissioned officers, on that account were permitted to purchase any supply or article whatever that was not contraband of war, and as a consequence, we lived well during the four months that we were in confinement.

All these favors were restricted as the war progressed. The privilege of buying supplies was forbidden and all prisoners were put on a diet that would barely sustain life, and that meant for a hearty, vigorous prisoner on being captured, that he was to become a walking skeleton, with a hunger that was never satisfied until he again returned to the Federal lines either through a parole, an escape from prison, or an exchange; so that personally I cannot say only from hearsay the sufferings that the subsequent prisoners had to undergo; but the terrors of "Belle Isle," the agonies of "Libby," and the incarnate treatment bestowed upon prisoners in that hell upon earth, "Andersonville," had all been written up, and all over the country one can still come across an invalid soldier, the foundation of whose ailment was laid at one or the other of these life-destroying stations.

On my arrival at the prison the one great theme of conversation every day, at night time, all the time, in fact, was "exchange," and "when will our government demand an exchange of prisoners" was the one great topic of conversation. It should be borne in mind that the first Bull Run prisoners were captured on July 21, 1861, and here it was the middle of December and yet no attempt at an exchange. These young fellows were not-seemed not to be, at least--aware of the fact that an exchange of prisoners would be a partial recognition of the Confederacy, and up to that time nothing even squinting in that direction had been officially uttered. In my letter to Speaker Colfax asking him to send me a fifty-dollar gold piece, already referred to in these sketches, I also entered up the "theme of exchange" and urged that something be done to relieve those who whom prison life, if protracted, meant death. In his reply he spoke so favorably about the measure that I suggested to every officer in the room to write to his own member of Congress urging upon the government to do something on a question that meant so much to those who were confined in Richmond, at Charleston and Salisbury.

This was done, and the swooping down upon Congress with these missives had a wonderful effect, and many plans were suggested by members of congress and some bills were introduced on the subject; but we were to be released--that is, those prisoners confined in Richmond--were to receive their freedom from an entirely different source. The capture of Fort Donelson and Fort Henry near the mouth of the Tennessee River in Kentucky, so frightened the confederate authorities, that the rebel war department concluded to parole all who were held prisoners in Richmond, as well as some that were confined at other points, but I do not now remember, if I ever knew, what points were selected. When the great Federal victory in the west was announced in Richmond, through the morning papers, the enlisted men occupying the two floors above us, both of which were filled to almost overflowing, fairly went wild, they cheered, they sang, they hung out imitations of the old flag, made out of some colored window curtains which they found and improvised into flags.

About 15,000 prisoners were captured by the Federals at the two forts mentioned, and this victory placed the "boot on the other leg," as heretofore stated, and the Federals kept up their rejoicings over the victory until the prison authorities sent an officer with a guard to suppress the "disorder." That is what they called it, but many of us believe to this day that the confederate authorities privately feared at that time an uprising. There was a large union sentiment among the people of Richmond right then, and it continued throughout the war, and none knew this better than the prisoners in the tobacco warehouse. That there was a genuine scare in Richmond over the confederate defeat in the west is also shown in the fact that on the next morning the Dispatch of that place announced the fact that there were over four hundred applications to the Jeff Davis government for permission to go North within a few hours after the news of the fall of the two forts had been received in the Confederate capital. The Dispatch urged the government to grant all that applied for passes on the ground that it "would be better to get rid of the cowardly sympathizers with the Abe Lincoln government!"

That there was a big Union sentiment in Richmond at the time is borne out also by the fact that on Sundays from "early dawn until dewey eve" only there was snow on the ground at the time--the prison in which we were confined was surrounded by an immense crowd of people, ranging all the way from one to three thousand, at times, the Richmond newspapers reported. Nothing more delighted these people than to evade the guard who marched backward and forward along the street front of the big building, and interchange a few words with a "Yankee prisoner," which was sometimes a risky performance, as there were some guards who would readily probe them with their bayonets, as conversation with the prisoners was not permitted. Two of such persons I saw quite seriously hurt--one of them, at least, receiving a severe wound. Of course, there were many colored people among these Sunday crowds, but it appeared to be the white people most anxious to converse with "the Yanks."

Our time in prison was not all gloom at this early period of the war, by any means. Among the seventy-two fellow officers in the room occupied by the writer, there were a number of young fellows full of life and vigor and they seemed to take it on themselves as a duty they owed the rest to make fun for those predisposed to despondency, and by their jokes, jests and the pranks played upon one another helped to while away time that but for their efforts would have hung heavily indeed. Then, too, my time in confinement was on several occasions enlivened by the somewhat frequent attempts on the part of the prisoners to escape, among both officers and private soldiers, and some of these presented features of such singular adroitness in out-maneuvering the authorities and in evading the sentinels, as to occasion much merriment on our part when the news reached us of their adventures. Among these the escape of Col. Charles A. Devilliers, of the Eleventh Ohio regiment was so remarkable for skillful contrivance and devices for defeating all efforts at detection as to be worth mentioning, I think, at this point.

Col. DeVilliers was captured on the Kenawha River on July 17th, 1861, with some other officers of Gen. Cox's brigade--the latter afterwards becoming the Governor of Ohio. DeVilliers, it will be seen, was taken prisoner before the first Bull Run, and of course was there in confinement when my party reached Richmond. He was a splendid fellow; of a nervous temperament and a thoroughly drilled and accomplished soldier, and it was to him that a number of us prisoners became indebted for instructions in sword exercise, of which he was a thorough master. Knowing this, a class of officers was made up to take lessons under him in that branch of military tactics. Consequently, we were allowed permission to get a dozen or two of lath, and some one expert in the use of a pocket-knife gave these lath the shape of what is known as the straight sword.

Under the Colonel's instructions we went to work in such a way that it was not long until some of us became quite expert in the handling of those wooden swords, and besides it was splendid exercise for men in confinement, and for myself I can truthfully say that the exercise developed a strength of wrist, shoulders, and activity on foot that was really surprising. This was not all; for, feeling that we could not always be prisoners, and desirous of becoming worthy soldiers, we sent out and bought two dozen "Hardee's Tactics," --the mode at that time in use by both armies, although our side was about to change the drill at the time we were practicing "Hardee." DeVilliers delighted in teaching us, and I have already said there were quite a large number of regular soldiers in the prison, who also took part in Col. DeVilliers' instructions so that we came out of prison, when the time came, knowing a great deal more of military tactics than when we were first incarcerated.

DeVilliers, being somewhat acquainted with the practice of surgery, was detailed by the confederate surgeon in command of the prison hospitals, to assist in taking care of the sick and wounded prisoners at the Richmond hospital. In this capacity he enjoyed the freedom of the city on his parole of honor until on one occasion he grew tired and for some reason surrendered his parole and returned to close confinement in the officers' quarters. He afterwards sold at auction several articles of his military clothing and a short time afterward DeVilliers escaped from prison, but in what manner or through what device was never known, although it was pretty certain that some officer knew, for at roll-call when his name was called it was promptly answered, and the sergeant of the guard was kept unaware of his absence, and this was kept up for four days ere the guard discovered the absence of the prisoner, and that he had been hood-winked by some one responding to roll-call for four successive days!

It was conjectured, however, by some of our prison officers that the Colonel had fled in the disguise of a Confederate officer, and it was even surmised that two Confederate officers assisted in his escape, who supplied him with a fleet horse on the outside of the city and who furnished him with pistols, a carbine and food with which to pursue his journey, which, of course, was to be made at night. After his escape became known to the prison officers, great efforts were made by the rebel authorities to recapture him, if at all possible, and scouts were sent out in all directions. DeVilliers bent his course toward Norfolk, but before his departure, and being of French descent, previous to leaving Richmond, he provided himself with an outfit so that he could represent himself as a mendicant Frenchman desirous of getting out of "ze dam countree and back to his beloved Paree!" McGruder was the Confederate General at that time in command of Norfolk and by feigning illness the mendicant got himself admitted to the hospital there to await developments. In some way he had secured a white-haired wig and a pair of green-glass goggles and during the day time the hospital authorities permitted the old and infirm Frenchman to wander about the town wherever he chose, he only speaking in French.

Keeping up his disguise in this way the Colonel concluded he had been there long enough to establish the claim of a real mendicant, he determined to apply to the commanding officer for permission to go to Fortress Monroe under a flag of truce in order as he put it, that he might embark for his dear old home in France. The pitiful story of the venerable Frenchman, and his urgency to return to his home which he had left before the rebellion broke out, and the accommodating spirit of the Confederates manifested just at that time to both France and England, induced General McGruder to grant the request through charitable motives, but only after two weeks' delay put in by DeVilliers in persistent effort.

At last the "flag of truce day" arrived and the rebel boat steamed out to meet that of the Federals in open water, quite a number of friends he had made while at Norfolk were on the Confederate boat who assisted the poor infirm old Frenchman (at the venerable age of thirty-five) on board and bade him an affectionate adieu; but no sooner had he reached the deck of the Federal steamer than he coolly cast off the pack he had been carrying, wig, green goggles and all, and after thanking the officers for their politeness, he shouted a loud huzza for the Stars and Stripes and gave the Confederates the pleasing information that they had just parted with Colonel DeVilliers, of the Eleventh Ohio Infantry.

Warsaw Daily Times February 14, 1903

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