Memories of War Times

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

by Reub Williams

And where are ye, O fearless men?
And where are ye today?
I call--the hills reply again,
That ye have passed away.
---Isaac McLellan

My last sketch recorded the escape from prison, and the much more difficult feat of getting out of the Confederacy and into the Federal lines, of the accomplished Col. DeVilliers, who soon afterwards was promoted a Brigadier-General. In fact, it was not at all difficult to evade the guards of the prison, who while not meaning to disobey their officer or the orders governing the prison, often became negligent of their duties and permitted whoever was intent on making an escape to grow familiar, never dreaming that "the Yank" with whom he was conversing was only laying his plans with an object in view, that is, to lull the guard into confidential conversation, and doing this repeatedly--several days, if need be--and when his attention was directed elsewhere, perhaps purposely called to some other point by a comrade or friend of the party proposing to escape, that latter would quickly walk past the guard and as he only had a few feet to go until he could turn the corner of the building, the escaping prisoner would be out of sight; and while his disappearance might be noted those prisoners in the secret would crowd around the guard, attract his attention for a brief moment, when he would even cease to think of the individual with whom he had been talking. Escapes from the prison were quite numerous during the time I was there, but unfortunately, the prisoners were caught in making their way to the Union lines, and returned to prison, where in a number of cases their escape was as yet unknown, the friends of the escaping soldier having answered to his name at every roll-call during his absence. There was no difficulty in breaking out of the tobacco warehouse, but getting out of the country was a different matter entirely.

It was well known and much commented upon in the newspapers of the North that Congressman Ely, from the Rochester district, N.Y., with a number of other prominent men had gone out from Washington to witness the first battle of Bull Run, and was very unfortunately captured and was an inmate of the prison when I arrived there, but it was very probable that there are but few who will now remember the incident. Gen. John A. Logan, too, was then serving his district in Congress from Illinois, but he having served in the Mexican war took musket and accouterments and served in the struggle as a private soldier--a volunteer to all intents and purposes. He soon afterwards resigned his position in Congress, was appointed the Colonel of one of the Illinois regiments then in progress of formation by Gov. Dick Yates, father of the present Governor of Illinois, of precisely the same name. Ely was unpopular amongst the rest of the prisoners and I found quite a feeling against him on my arrival at the tobacco warehouse. It grew out of the fact that he had informed the rebel authorities in charge of the prisoners of an attempt at an escape and this, of course, induced the prison regulations to be greatly circumscribed, and a more careful watch as well as a number of favors previously enjoyed by his mess-table had been withdrawn, and it was said that in order to curry favor with the rebel officers in charge of us, he made this disclosure to them. What the Confederate officers thought of him for doing this I cannot say, but there was a wide-spread dislike for him amongst the Federal officers and enlisted men--a point I ascertained directly after my arrival.

Among the seventy-two officers in the room to which I was assigned on reaching Richmond, the majority were young men, a number of them about my own age, quite a number of them about my own age, quite a number of Second Lieutenants being still younger; but there were a number of Colonels, old and gray-headed, amongst these Colonel Coggswell, of what was known as "The Tamany Regiment," of New York; Col. Henry Lee, of the Twentieth Massachusetts, and some others at the prison, but quite a number of men holding the latter rank had been removed from Richmond to Charleston, S. C., Salisbury, N. C., etc. Among those sent to Charleston was Colonel Corcoran, of the New York Sixty-ninth, an Irish regiment, and still others whose names are forgotten. One could go a long way and mingle with many crowds, and then fail to find as companionable a set of men as I found in Libby prison as soon as I became acquainted with them. Nearly all of them were from Pennsylvania and the New England States, the latter largely predominating. I have in a former sketch alluded to an old gentleman by the name of Pancoast who was among the oldest in the room, and he was one, of perhaps a half dozen of private citizens who had been arrested on various pretexts, inmates of the same room.

Pancoast was a wealthy iron dealer whose home was near Romney, where one of the very first skirmishes of the war occurred, Col. Lew Wallace, at the head of the Eleventh Indiana, capturing the town very early in the war. Pancoast was a quaker and operated a large bloomery where he made pig iron and was arrested for his Union sentiments, and was there when my party arrived, and is the same one whom I have already stated, took a very kindly interest in me, the same night we reached the prison. Among all of these pleasant and agreeable gentlemen was a young man by the name of W. C. Harris, who was a First Lieutenant in Baker's California regiment, who was taken at Ball's Bluff, where his Colonel--one of the finest orators of that period--was killed. An attachment grew up between Lieutenant Harris and myself that made us fast friends and this friendship was maintained for a good many years after the war through mutual correspondence. He possessed a fine college education and after we became intimate he showed me several pages of manuscript that he had prepared concerning the capture of Ball's Bluff, and subsequent events that had occurred since he had reached Richmond as a prisoner. I at once discovered that his articles were written in a very agreeable, and at times, eloquent and always racy style; as I urged him to keep on at his writing and when we were released to have them printed in book form. At first he scouted the idea; but I kept on insisting and he finally determined to follow my advice, on the ground that being a newspaper man I ought to know whether such a book would sell or not. So he sent to his home in Philadelphia and got a ream of what is known as tissue writing paper and on occasions I assisted him, sometimes furnishing a sketch of a few pages for his forthcoming book on my own account.

Both of us were at work upon the proposed book when Fort Donelson fell, the victory leading straight up to our release on parole. Harris then got frightened about being able to get his manuscript out of the prison, for it was practically certain that all the prisoners would be searched previous to their transfer to the United States "flag of truce boat," at Fortress Monroe; so I told him I would get it through. I had a Massachusetts overcoat that I had bought of a soldier in the prison and Robert S. Richhart, of this city then the steward of our mess, at my suggestion sewed the manuscript up in the lining of the back of the coat and it passed the guards without any trouble whatever. I feel I cannot continue this particular sketch in any better way than to give Mr. Harris' description of the way in which the prisoners celebrated Christmas, 1861 and it will assist in showing the racy style of the writer already alluded to. It is taken from the pages of the book and is as follows:

We determined to enjoy Christmas, as far as possible, according to our "auld lang syne" remembrances, and on Christmas eve active preparations were made for the celebration of the day. Sundry sly nudges and knowing twinkles of the eye bade the writer glance towards the nearest mess table. On it lay a turkey, bunches of celery, cranberries, four pies, and half a dozen contraband bottles. An unusual bustle among the stewards gave token of a might feast on the morrow; the old darkey who runs the errands for the officers was big with importance; and, as he passed in and out every few moments, it was evident that "Yankee" gold was gladdening the hearts of Secessia. Gliding on with unusual merriment, the evening closed, according to our "Hoosier," with "hearty good songs and jolly good stories from merry good fellows." The morning opened with sixty voices greeting, "A happy Christmas!" and bright faces and glad voices seemed to illumine the old walls, for they looked less chilling, and gave back our shouts with a clearer tone than before. As the hours rolled on, turkeys were prepared for the adjacent bakery, cranberries put on to stew, and busy stewards were seen flying about, bustling over their manifold household duties. The morning sped on with narrative and reminiscences. This one and that one, each and all, had personal sketches of an old Christmas spent at home--rich scenes of frolic and rollicking incidents, told with impetuous gaiety, or the quiet enjoyment of a home Christmas at the family board, surrounded by a cherished and oft-remembered group of loved ones. Many officers invited to their Christmas dinner a non-commissioned officer of their company; and as we sat around the mess table, covered with tin crockery and steaming with our costly meal, we presented a perfect picture of democratic luxury. What cared we for prison walls?--had we not turkey for dinner? What cared we for blockades?--had we not home luxuries? What if gold was at fifty per cent premium?--did not ours pass at prison-bars, and yield us six bottles of "contraband"?

After the cloth (which consisted of four copies of the Richmond Enquirer) was removed we pledged our country and our cause, our friends and loved ones, in bumpers of feeling, yet in moderation; for Virginia whiskey to one having a palate, is medicine and cure for all excess. Arising from the table, the hours, as usual, were passed in conversation, reading, etc. But it soon became apparent that Christmas was being celebrated outside, as well as within, the walls. The report spread throughout the room that our guards were in an intoxicated state, and that few were able to discriminate properly between friend and foe. Such a condition of things caused much amusements, and we crowded to the window to get a sight of the muddled sentinels, and laughed until weary at the ludicrous idea of being guarded by drunken soldiers of Secessia. In a few moments a brother officer whispered to the writer, "Taylor's out," a moment elapsed, and again "Wallace is out;" a short interval, and again, "McPherson's out;" until he actually believed that the whole building would be deserted; when, not relishing the idea of being the sole occupant of the immense prison, he drew on his heavy coat, and, passing to the outer door, motioned to the sentinel, with all of the Confederate officer's hauteur, to lift his musket--which was done--and once more the writer felt his lungs expand with free air.

Thoroughly at a loss where to direct his steps, and knowing it to be impossible to escape during mid-winter, he wandered up Main street, looking around him, and feeling like a countryman upon his first visit to a great city. He walked through the streets adjacent to the warehouse, and saw crowds of people, clouds of darkeys, drunken soldiers sans number (by-the-by, whiskey and the blockade will crush the rebellion), a rainbow group of Confederate officers, a fat woman, and a silver half-dollar with a crowd around it; but, fearing that his unceremonious walk, if known, might compromise the future privileges of his brother officers, he bent his steps toward the prison, where with a magisterial motion of the hand he caused the musket to give way, and passed into the familiar halls, absent one hour. One by one the excursionists returned; but it was not until 11 o'clock at night that all were again under the protection of the drunken guards.

During the evening a Federal officer, who is noted for quaint drollery and waggish humor, approached the sentinel at the door and proposed to stand guard, stating that he desired the soldier to purchase for him a canteen of liquor. To our astonishment, the proposal was accepted; and amid the chapter of startling Christmas events must be recorded the fact that the Federal prisoners of war in Richmond were guarded on Christmas, with the consent of a Confederate sentinel, by a United States officer, a prisoner of war. In a short time the guard returned and are liberally endowed with the "contraband" that he had so patriotically earned. Many will think it singular, on perusing these details of the loose system of guard-mounting that we did not escape; and by traveling through the country, reach the Federal lines. They will, however, bear in mind that it was mid-winter; that Richmond was one hundred miles from any United States forces; that the route taken would necessarily have been through the enemy's country; that night was the only time when progress could be made, which must have been through the woods, and not on frequented roads; that the weather was so severe that sleep in the open air would have been impossible, and that, owing to the country being filled with fugitive slaves, constant patrols crowded every avenue of escape. Christmas closed with much quiet enjoyment. We had the usual pastimes--cards, backgammon, checkers, etc., and the inseparable concomitant of Christmas sports--egg-nog. And such egg-nog!!--made without milk!

The next article of this series of sketches will contain the particulars of the excitement occasioned among the prisoners consequent upon paroling them; their departure from Richmond, their trip by boat down the James River, and their transfer to the Federal authorities in Hampton Roads at Fortress Monroe under flag of truce.

Warsaw Daily Times February 21, 1903

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