Memories of War Times

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

by Reub Williams

Twas not in vain our martyrs sighed-
And not in vain our heroes cried,
'Tis sweet for one's own land to die!
The soul of yore, the soul that gave
Their glory to our soil and wave,
From Vernon's mount and Ashland's grave,
Still lightens through the sky!

Those of the readers of these reminiscences who were old enough to remember the capture of Fort Donelson and Heary--the main defenses of the Confederates at the mouth of the Tennessee River, or near it--will bear in mind that in coming into the possession of the Union forces, a vast region was opened up by way of that river into the Confederacy. In fact, within only a few days thereafter United States gunboats penetrated the Southern States as far up as Florence, Alabama, and would have gone much farther, save that what is known as Mussel Shoals prevented the passage at that point, gunboats, it must be remembered drawing a great depth of water on account of their armor and heavy guns, so that it was not so strange as it might seem that the Jeff Davis government was terribly frightened over the capture of the two forts, and the ease with which the Yankees went up the Tennessee River a couple of hundred miles, or more afterward.

In fact, the effect of the great victory was to flank Nashville, the capital of Tennessee, and complete its evacuation. I remember that before the close of the war I got hold of a book written by a Frenchman who had joined the Confederate army as an officer, that gave a description of the widespread disorder that prevailed in Nashville after the country was thrown open to the advance of the Federals, following the capture of the two forts. The book was racily written, and as the French officer had held a position in a Confederate cavalry regiment, and had become so disgusted with the service on the Confederate side that he resigned his commission and afterwards published the book referred to. A copy of this book fell into my hands in the fall of 1863, and I deeply regret that it was lost on "The March to the Sea," for its criticisms of the mob that took possession of Nashville, and literally tore things to pieces for two or three days in that town, was a piece of very vivid writing as we remember it. Reports that the Federal army was on its way to Nashville came to the citizens frequently, and as is usual on such occasions in the most exaggerated form pandemonium reigned, the mob, as is frequently the case took to robbing; fire was added to the miseries of private citizens; all the stores and groceries in the town were robbed and many of them gutted of everything they possessed, even men belonging to the Confederate army becoming mutinous, riotous and disobedient and some of them, according to the Frenchman's story, joining the mob.

If I remember correctly, the author of the book gave this as one of the reasons why he resigned his position and went back to France after he found an opportunity to run the blockade, and as his glowing description of scenes that came under his view were so vividly described and so well told that I have always deeply regretted the loss of the book, and have even forgotten the name of the officer who wrote it. At any rate, it was easily discoverable, that if the Frenchman had ever possessed any love or loyalty for the cause for which he had been fighting, he had lost it all, and was very glad to be on the outside of the Confederate lines. He was, if I remember correctly, a Colonel of Cavalry, or it might have been a Lieutenant-Colonel, but at any rate the tone of his book conveyed the idea to the reader that he was heartily sick of the side he had espoused, although he did not express himself on the subject of the other side. I would be willing to pay a pretty big price for a copy of the lost book, because it was written from a perfectly impartial standpoint, and fearlessly discussed the cause of the war and criticized just as fearlessly and openly the Confederate officers and their failures, and predicted very correctly the final result--the overthrow of the Confederacy, and its immense cost in life, suffering and in property.

Rumors that we were to be liberated on parole had been rife ever since the great victory at Forts Henry and Donelson, placing as it did fourteen or fifteen thousand prisoners in the hands of the Federals and consequently all of the prisoners confined in Richmond, at least, were to be paroled. I have already alluded to the wonderful excitement that this victory for the North created in Richmond, the Confederate capital, and the fear almost openly expressed--was expressed, indeed, by a great many citizens of the place, when they felt that their remarks would not be repeated to the authorities--that the South was engaged in a hopeless cause, and I have never talked to any prisoner of our side who did not in his heart believe that had McClellan with the Army of the Potomac made a general advance toward Richmond at that time, the panic was so great both in Richmond and at Nashville and vicinity, that the latest Union sentiment that existed all through the South, but which had been held in abeyance, following what the Confederacy claimed was so great a victory at Bull Run. This sentiment would then have asserted itself under such men as Brownlow, Andy Johnson and many other prominent Union men all over the South, and they would have made the Confederate rear unsafe by the destruction of railroad bridges, blowing up of tunnels, etc., a subject that was quietly talked of in places, and greatly feared on the other or the Confederate side. However, it all worked out for the best, for, had a compromise occurred following the first Bull Run, slavery would have been preserved and the result would only have been staved off for a term of years to be fought out at a later period.

On the 19th day of February, 1862, we were informed that the Confederate Secretary of War had issued an order releasing all the Federal prisoners in the South. Coming as this information did, through the commandant of the prison, we hailed it with glad hearts, filled with joyous, although subdued emotions. Was it possible, was the thought of many, that at last the cherished hope of long weary weeks and months was to be realized--that our distant and loved homes in the land of our flag would see us free once more? The thought was freighted with an ever-present joy. The commandant of the prison could give us no information as to the day or the hour of our release. "It may be tomorrow or not till next week," was his usual reply to deeply earnest questioners; yet many of the prisoners might be discovered after his remark carefully packing up their few belongings and stowing them away into carpet-bags, boxes, and cotton-bags, or whatever "make-shift" could be procured for Confederate money, that would answer the purpose, the cotton-bags being made by the prisoners themselves out of a yard or more of coarse muslin, and when this preparation was in progress, every countenance in the big room was illuminated by the glad tidings.

Two days passed and the heart became almost sick with hope deferred; but at last on the morning of February 22d--Washington's birthday, by the way--we were informed by the prison commandant that the flag-f-truce boat would leave that evening at 6 o'clock p.m. for Fortress Monroe. Then came the bona fide and general preparation of all hands, and the big tobacco warehouse was to be left without an inmate except Samuel A. Pancoast, the old gentleman frequently referred to in these articles, as having been arrested for his Union sentiments. The reader of former sketches will remember that I stated that I slept on the bare floor after my arrival in Libby, with only my "roundabout" for a pillow and nothing whatever for a covering. This continued for about ten days, when one of the guards informed me that there was a vacant cot that belonged to a man that had died the night before, and I at once offered a Confederate dollar if he would get it for me. This he did and I then slept on the cot, though still without any covering; but as the days went by and in consequence of the changes made in some of the men I was finally able to buy a blanket, and during my stay there I had finally accumulated four blankets by purchase, plunder, and other methods. I have also referred to the fact that I had got hold of a Massachusetts overcoat. These were very fine coats, and, of course, as they were supplied to all the militia from that State, the button contained the State seal, and it was one of these in which R. S. Richhart had sewed up in the lining of the back, Lieutenant Harris' treasured manuscript, descriptive of the battle of Ball's Bluff and his subsequent prison life.

All of the baggage of the prisoners was gathered into the corner of the room under directions of a prison officer, where small trunks, bags, boxes and bundles and parcels were all piled up. Among these I put my overcoat with a string around it, and it was my intention, if the Confederate officers in their search of the prisoners and their baggage discovered the now greatly valued manuscript and trouble arose out of it, to just disown the coat, and prove it by the fact that I was from Indiana, and that I did not use nor could I own a Massachusetts overcoat. In that event the manuscript and trouble arose out of it, to just disown the coat, and prove it by the fact that I was from Indiana, and that I did not use nor could I own a Massachusetts overcoat. In that event the manuscript would have been lost, of course, but fortunately a search of baggage was not made because the Confederate officers were perfectly certain the prisoners had no means of purloining anything contraband of war. How long and dreary seemed the hours of waiting, but there was a sensation on the street on which the prison stood during these waiting hours. A few weeks before our government had obtained the favor of the Confederate authorities to send some clothing, shoes and underwear to her own soldiers in confinement. They were, most of them, captured during July, and many of them while the weather was warm had cast off much of their apparel, so that those in confinement were badly in need of warmer clothes. A supply had but recently been delivered to the prisoners, and they put in the forenoon of the day in putting on their new clothes and in trading one with another until "a fit" for the bargainer was secured. This done, they commenced throwing their discarded clothing out of windows. There was fully a hundred Negroes in the street when this begun, but before it was over there were probably a thousand colored people, among whom was a good many whites, wrestling and scuffling for the old garments, and to us lookers on the scene was exceedingly ludicrous, as when one Negro would stoop to pick up a piece of clothing another one would butt him over and in the struggle that followed secure the garment himself only to be similarly tumbled to the ground.

This continued all the afternoon, and I am confident that such an act could not have occurred with any other class of people without ending in a dozen or more "knock-downs," bloody noses, severe injuries or it may be something more serious still; but the uniform good humor of the colored people prevented them from losing their temper in a single instance. The night before the officers among the prisoners in some way or other succeeded in sending the form of a parole that they might take as a precautionary measure, fearing that they might be induced to sign a parole that might mean more than our own government would sanction. The following is a copy of the oath taken by one and all, officers as well as enlisted men.

"We the undersigned, in the service of the United States, prisoners of war, pledge our word of honor, that we will not, by arms, information or otherwise during the existence of hostilities between the United States and the Confederate States of America, aid or abet the enemies of the said Confederate States, or any of them, in any form or manner until released or exchanged. Given at Richmond, Virginia, this 22d day of February, 1862."

During all the afternoon, there was a constant addition to the number of people that crowded the street in front of the "Old Tobacco Warehouse", the rumor having leaked out that the "Yankees" were to leave them that evening, and there was great curiosity to to see them start on the march for the steamer that was lying in the James River to convey them to Norfolk that evening. Six o'clock came, and as I passed out of the door--just before going through, I should say--I grasped the warm hand of Mr. Pancoast, the only remaining occupant of a building that on all its floors had just contained over a thousand men. Tears were standing in the grand old gentleman's eyes as I bade him goodbye. A half hour previously I had bestowed upon him my cot and its accumulation of six blankets, and a pillow I had bought, as a give for himself, or if he did not use them to divide the articles among his suffering fellow prisoners, who, like himself were confined only because the refused to take the oath of allegiance to the Southern Confederacy. I had, too, $600 in Confederate money that I also bestowed upon him that had cost me at the rate of about 65 cents on the dollar with like injunctions.

I may as well add right here that the true-blue old Virginian--bear in mind that he was said to be worth a million of dollars and over when the war began--was still confined in Richmond for two years after the event just related, but was finally freed from prison only in time to permit him to reach his home at Romney and die. Through prisoners who had been released from Libby afterward I kept in touch so far as information was concerned, for that length of time. Frequently he was offered a release if he would take the Confederate oath of allegiance, but his steady reply was, "No, I was born and lived under the flag which Washington and his heroes won the Independence of the United States, and as I have not got a long time to stay, I will not dishonor my few remaining years by doing a thing so repellent to my feelings and so false to a country under which I have so greatly prospered until this unholy war began." I wrote to his relatives in Philadelphia following the war and ascertained from Dr. Pancoast, a very prominent physician of that city, that the Confederates permitted him to go home so that he might die among his friends, and he lived but a few weeks after reaching there.

It was a dreary, cold, disagreeable, wet, sleety night, and as the steamer was greatly crowded, many of the men were compelled to use the deck with no covering whatever, and as they had been under shelter for months this exposure sat very hard on them indeed, but we arrived at Norfolk and moved out into the Hampton Roads where the Confederate steamer, carrying a white flag met the steamer George Washington, also flying white colors along with the handsomest flag the world contains, the glorious "Stars and Stripes." How those prisoners cheered, and cheered again! On board the George Washington there were piles upon piles of ham sandwiches and colored people were dishing out all the coffee the men could eat and hold. On passing Newport News all the soldiers there, over 5,000 were lined up to give us three cheers, and a tiger, while fully a dozen men -of-war vessels manned the yard-arms with "Jack Tars" in honor of our home coming, and that is the way we got back and set our feet once more on the soil of--"God's country."

Warsaw Daily Times February 28, 1903

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