Three Times a Prisoner

By Reub Williams, Editor

I have so often been importuned by my many old army companions, but especially so by friends and subscribers, to write occasional sketches, at least, of my personal recollections of the stirring scenes, events and incidents of the late war that came under my own personal observation that I have, at least, reluctantly complied. I say reluctantly, because I do not feel myself qualified to do so in such a manner as will make them worthy of perusal, having had but little experience in anything of this kind. This, added to the fact, that I am connected with the paper in which they are to appear, as its editor, and my time being taken up in the weekly routine of the duties of that position, leaving but little to devote to the production of original sketches, when far better written, and much more interesting ones can be selected from the multitude which have appeared, since the close of the war, has led me to defer complying with the oft-repeated request from time to time. There have been numberless histories of the late war published, and many of them most excellent works, too. They, however, embrace only the facts as officially promulgated in orders, and give descriptions of battles, marches, sieges, etc., gleamed from official reports of commanding officers, and from newspaper correspondence. Indeed they cannot be expected to do more. Necessarily, their authors have been compelled to deal with generalities; for, to go into the smaller details would have involved a labor that no one could accomplish during a life time, and would make a series of volumes that would constitute a library in itself.

The full history of the war never will, nor never can be given the public. There is in fact, an "unwritten history" connected with the late war, that will never meet the public gaze, save in fragments torn from the pages of each Regiment's record, here and there, and given to the public in brief newspaper sketches. This is an additional, and perhaps the greatest reason why I have consented to comply with the request so often urged upon me, and I have selected for the first one, the incidents connected with

My First Capture

Three times it was my misfortune to be captured by the rebels during the late attempt to establish a "Confederation," the corner-stone of which was to be human slavery. It is comparatively easy, now, after the years have intervened since my last "surrender" to refer to the subject; but there was a time when I was exceedingly tender upon the point, as many of my most intimate friends hereabouts, who were more cognizant of the facts at the time, now quite well.

The first time I was taken prisoner it must be borne in mind that the term used at the beginning of this was, "taken prisoner," afterwards it was, "captured," and still later and finally, it was, "gobbled" was at Dam No. 4, on the Upper Potomac, and while the number of dams on the river at that time seemed few enough, had I been a swearing man, and it would have done any good, I feel quite sure that they would have been greatly multiplied, in my immediate vicinity, at least. As it was, my less morally inclined comrades who share my fate, did in fact swell the number largely, on that morning of December 11th 1861, when we unfortunately fell into the hands of Ashby's cavalry. Briefly it happened in thus wise:

The army of Gen. McClellan said at that time to be two hundred thousand strong lay on the Maryland side of the Potomac, with the exception of that portion encamped in and around Alexandria, Va., opposite Washington City, and perhaps a brigade which occupied Harper's Ferry. The bulk of that army was bivouacked at various points along the Potomac from Washington City on the east and south to Williamsport on the west and north. By common consent, the stream mentioned, which afterward gained such a world-wide famousness for the excessive "quietness" which prevailed along its banks, was the dividing line between the Federal and Rebel forces; the one side picketing one bank, and determined that it should not be crossed by the opposing forces, for strategic reasons and the other doing the same thing on the other shore determined that the "sacred soil" should never be pressed by the foot of the Northern Hireling. The four years and a half of war which followed, proved that both sides failed in the undertaking they had planned for themselves, in that early period of the war.

The main portion of the army to which I have referred, was held in camp during the year 1861, at some distance back from the river, special details being made, however, to establish picket-posts along the stream to watch the enemy, and give timely notice of any attempt of his to cross the river. The Regiment to which I belonged was a portion of this force detached from the main army for this special duty, and its headquarters were established at Sharpsburgh afterward rendered, famous, as the central point around which the battle of Antietam named after a small stream that puts into the Potomac near that place. The company which I commanded for a few weeks before this duty was assigned us, I was lucky enough to have two bars put into the unfilled shoulder-straps [where] I had previously worn none was sent to Dam No. 4, which was about eight miles up the river from headquarters, and which, with another, was to guard the Dam, a structure considered of great importance, as it created a feeder to the Ohio and Cheaspeake Canal, on which Washington City almost entirely depended for its supply of coal. The rebels under Stonewall Jackson, occupied Winchester, Va., with a brigade at Martinsburg, and Ashby's cavalry, running at will, along the banks of the Potomac, on the Virginia side. Stonewall had been casting a wistful eye forwards the Canal dams along the Potomac, and although winter was at hand, there were evident signs that something was in the wind. Sure enough one cold morning in December, our pickets reported rebels in sight, on the opposite shore. Instantly everything was put in shape to receive them, and every man of the two companies, was on the quirice to get a sight at the Rebs.

After waiting a couple of hours, Major Hubler, then in command of the post, ordered the writer to take seven men, and cross over the river in a boat, and reconnoitre the enemy. I went, and didn't come back for about five months! My orders were to cross over; proceed cautiously, and return after I found what the enemy were about; their number, etc. I had reached the top of the very high banks on the Virginia side, and after carefully examining the ground in every direction, was unable to discover the least trace of even a human being let alone an enemy. In obedience to orders, I set out with my seven men to take further observations inland, and had proceeded about a half-mile through a field of wheat which had been sown but a month or two before, and the ground under foot was soft and yielding. All at once, right out of a ravine and close to our part, rode out eight or ten of Ashby's cavalry, fully as much surprised at seeing us as we were at seeing them. Two of them were shot almost instantly, and the rest ran away. I ordered a retreat to the river, knowing that if there were more in the vicinity, our escape would be among the improbabilities, and so it proved. Before we could gain the river bank, where we would have been under the protection of the guns from the other side, more than a hundred cavalry swooped down on us at full charge, and although my men emptied two or three saddles, we were soon surrounded; our retreat cut off, and in the hands of the enemy. We were taken to a stone church, about a mile distant, where fifteen hundred infantry, a battery of artillery, and the remaining portion of Ashby's cavalry command were drawn up in line, evidently expecting an attack. As may be supposed, we were the objects of much attention and curiosity on the part of the rebel troops, as we were marched up to Col. Ashby's headquarters. We were the first Yankees that many of them had ever seen, and although most of the rebel soldiery gazed at us in silence, here and there a joke was perpetrated at our expense, as we passed the line of troops as they were drawn up in battle array. I was closely questioned as to the number of troops under my command on the Virginia side, the rebel commander disbelieving me when I told him that it consisted of myself and seven men. Finally, a squad of sixteen men under the command of Capt. Baylor whom, I afterward learned, became a Colonel in the rebel service, and who, a year or two ago, was residing at Kansas City, Mo. was detailed to escort us to Stonewall Jackson's headquarters, at Winchester, Va. The party arrived at Martinsburgh, just after dark, and the report that a body of Yankees had been captured, and were then in the town, spread like wild-fire, and had the effect of collecting an immense throng of people around the hotel where we were to get supper. The crowd augmented every minute, and it did not take long for us to discover that we were in danger of being mobbed by the excited populace. The officer in charge of us discovered this, and gave them to understand that while under his charge we should be protected from bodily injury, even at the cost of his own life. Supper was soon announced, but I confess that the noise made by the hooting and yelling mob had the effect to take away a portion of my appetite. We were to go to Winchester that night, and in order to get us clear of the danger that menaced us from the angry crowd that surrounded the hotel, which by this time had armed itself with eggs and stones, with a view of giving us a parting salute when we left a ruse was devised to get us out of town without the knowledge of the mob. Accordingly a wagon had been quietly procured, and placed in the wagon-yard in the rear of the hotel, and after supper, the men of my command was ordered to get in a horse having been furnished me to ride. This done the guards were drawn up on each side of the wagon; the driver ordered to put his horses at a full run, and this is the way we went out of Martinsburgh, at about 9 o'clock, and escaped the fury of a mob that evidently meant mischief. Nothing but the good management of Capt. Baylor saved us from injury, if nothing worse, on that night, I feel sure.

We arrived at Winchester at about 2 o'clock in the morning, and entered the place, with the bugler of the guard playing that then popular air,"Away down South in Dixie."

We were turned over to the Provost Marshal of the place by Capt. Baylor, and then "trouble commenced." An old Sons of Temperance Hall had been pressed into service as a guard-house, and then contained fifty or sixty prisoners, about half of whom were deserters from the rebel army, the remainder being negroes and malefactors of various kinds. Into this den we were thrown, and although the weather was cold, not even a rag was furnished us for covering, or a spot save the floor on which to lie down, while it was fully four o'clock the next day before a bite was furnished us to eat, and then only a scrap of raw beef with a slice of bread for each person was given us. The next day we were summoned one at a time, into the presence of Stonewall Jackson and plied with innumerable questions in regard to the strength of our army; how it was clothed, fed, paid, etc.; who were its commanders, and a thousand and one interrogatories, the answer to which might prove of service to the rebel cause through the knowledge that might be gained. It is presumed that the information obtained did nothing to either prolong or shorten the war!

The day following that on which we were "interviewed" by Stonewall, we were taken to Richmond, via., Manasas, and Dordenville. On the way down we were often insulted by the people who assembled at the railroad depots, and strange to say, the women took a more active part in heaping abuse and invective upon us than the men.

We arrived at Richmond on the next evening, after leaving Winchester, and remaining in confinement along with the first Bull Run and Balls Bluff prisoners until the fall of Ft. Donelson something over five months. By the latter event, about fifteen thousand rebels fell into the hands of the Federal forces, making the preponderance of prisoners in favor of the Union cause for the first time since the commencement of hostilities. The fall of Ft. Donelson alarmed the rebels greatly in fact there was almost a panic in Richmond on the day following the news of the disaster. It was a God-send to the prisoners of war confined in Richmond, for they were all at once paroled and sent to Washington via., flag of truce to Fortress Monroe, and soon after were furloughed to their homes.

While the capture of myself and the men was anything but pleasant, I have no doubt that it was fortunate for all who remained on the other side of the Dam. It was the design of the rebels, as we afterwards learned, to open their battery on our camp from the front, and in the meantime, their infantry was to be crossed about a mile and a half above the Dam in boats, while the cavalry was to ford the river below, and the intention was to surprise the camp after nightfall, and the fact that we went over early in the morning. I have no doubt to this day, [we] prevented them from putting their plans into successful execution. So, it will be seen that good can come out of even being taken prisoner in time of war, though I should much prefer to designate who the prisoners should be.

This was the first time I had met the enemy and I was theirs! The second capture will be related in a future number of this paper.

Northern Indianian December 31, 1874 page 4

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