War Memories of an Army Chaplain
H. Clay Trumbull
New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1898

CHAPTER XI - Page 253

PRISON EXPERIENCES


  From Charleston we were taken by a night train to Columbia.  We were in a comfortable first-class car, with our accompanying guard.  We slept and waked by turns as we rode, with an occasional glimpse of some peculiarly Southern sight of those war-time days.  At Branchville, an important junction, where we made quite a stop, lunch-tables in the open air were along the station platform, at which negro “mammies” were selling “snacks” of fried chicken and corn-cakes, with hot rye coffee, to Confederate soldiers, who were the only white men we saw on the route, while blazing torches of “light wood” (pieces of dense pitch pine), swung by negro men, or piled on standing mortar-boards on the platform, cast their weird glare over the picturesque scene, sending their clouds of smoke outward and upward as a relieving background.
  Reaching Columbia in the early morning, we were taken to the office of Colonel Preston, the post commandant, where we waited for his representative to appear.  On the arrival of the adjutant, he received us as prisoners from the Charleston guard, and we were taken to Richland jail for confinement.  It is not often that going to jail is a joy to a soldier; but, in view of my Charleston experiences in solitary confinement, it was with a glad heart that I passed the doors of the jail in Columbia, and found myself once more in the companionship of my friend Adjutant Camp, and his fellow Union officers.
  Prison life in Columbia was more tolerable than prison life in Charleston, although it was still prison life, and therefore hard for a soldier in war time.  The jail itself was more like a large private dwelling than like a fortress.  It was near the center of the city, on one of the principal streets, close by the Town Hall, underneath which was the city market.  The jail windows were iron-barred, but light and air had free ingress, and it was pleasant for us to watch the signs of life outside, day by day.
  A central passageway from front to rear divided the six rooms on the lower floor.  Back of the jail was an open yard, with rude barrack structures, on the one hand for laundry work and storage, and on the other hand for extra prisoners in an emergency.  Beyond this was a large printing and lithographic establishment, in where were prepared the treasury notes of the Confederate government, and through the windows of which were to be seen bright-faced young women at work.  Sentries paced their beat on all sides of the jail building, day and night.  Two connecting rooms on one side of the lower floor were occupied by our Union army officers at the time I entered.  In the third room on that side, at the rear, were Confederate prisoners, conscript deserters, and others under special charges.  Across the hall from our rooms there was a small room near the front, in which was a Union officer from Tennessee, under suspended death sentence as a deserter from the Confederate army.  He was watched day and night by a soldier chained, or secured, to him, so as to preclude all possibility of escape.  The back room on the same side was at that time used as quarters for the prison guard.  The middle room was just then vacant, but it was subsequently occupied by naval officers captured in Admiral Dahlgren's unsuccessful assault on Fort Sumter.
  On the second floor of the jail were confined for a time a hundred and more of our enlisted men, taken prisoner on Morris Island, and in another room various Confederate prisoners.  Enlisted men of the navy, captured in the assault on Fort Sumter, were, when brought in, assigned to the barrack buildings in the back yard.
  The only furniture in our two rooms was a rude two-story bedstead, or pair of berths, looking like one plain table set on top of another, capable of holding eight officers; also a long pine table, on which three more officers could stretch themselves at night.  The other officers slept on the floor, with such covering as they could obtain from outside.  If we had money, as some of us had, we could purchase little conveniences through officers of the guard.  Adjutant Camp and I purchased a bed-tick of common brown sheeting, and had it filled with dry pine needles; also a similar pillowcase filled with corn-husks.  An officer of the guard loaned us a blanket.  This fitted us out very comfortably for the night, and the bed, when rolled up, was a good seat by day.
  On the tower of the Town Hall near us was an iron-railed balcony, just below the clock face, where a vigilant lookout paced his nightly rounds.  At 8.45 the curfew bell was rung vigorously as a signal for the housing of negro slaves all over the city, and the making ready for the night.  Fifteen minutes later, when the clock had ceased its strokes of nine, the watchman's voice rang out in a peculiar tone that could be heard afar in the stilly night:
  “Pa-ast ni-i-ne o'clock!”
  At 9.15 his encouraging cry in the same tone was:
  “All-s we-ell!”
  At the half-hour his cry was as at the full hour, and at the third quarter as at the first.  This continued through the night.  It was a pleasant survival of the old English custom, which had its attractions because its suggestions of watchfulness.  If the Southern air had been cooler in July and August, and mosquitoes and vermin had been fewer and less active, we might have slept composedly on our prison-floor bed.
  Daily rations were furnished us of beef or ham, and corn-meal and rice.  These we must cook or have cooked for ourselves, and, if we desired anything more, we could purchase it at our own cost.  Slave women were coming and going, in the early morning, in the vicinity of the market, with supplies of fruits and vegetables, and coffee and its substitutes; and from them we could purchase what we would, with the permission of our guard.  We employed a slave woman to cook for our officers' mess.  After several experiments in this line, we settled down on “Old Maggie,” a typical Southern mammy.  She was perhaps seventy years old, a gray-haired, yellow-skinned, wrinkled granny, barefooted, and wearing a red-and-white checked turban, and a scant-skirted homespun gown.  Quite short, very thin, active, and animated, she was efficient and determined, and served us faithfully.  She had sixteen children, and grandchildren, and great-grandchildren in corresponding numbers.  Her owner lived up in the country, and she hired her time of him at two dollars a week, while she had a stall in the market, and did outside jobs.  Two of her great-grandchildren were her immediate attendants.  While ordinarily good-natured, she could, on occasion, scold and swear immoderately.
  Prices for fruit and vegetables in their season were reasonable; but those for coffee, milk, and sugar, were beyond all reason, in Confederate money.  Rio coffee cost seven dollars a pound; therefore it could not be afforded as a daily beverage.  We used in place of it ground parched-rye, or barley, or Indian corn.  The daily question was, “Shall we have Ri-o coffee or ry-e to-day?”  Milk was then fifty cents a quart, and butter was three dollars a pound.  Poor tallow candles cost us seventy-five cents each.  A common crockery plate cost two dollars, and a bowel the same.  Two iron spoons were bought by us for a dollar.  We paid three dollars for a horn comb, and two dollars for a tooth-brush.  Yet we were glad to have these things at even these prices.
  Each day we were permitted to have an hour in the yard for exercise, a few officers at a time.  This was a great relief.  We were like school-boys at recess.  Wrestling, quoit-pitching, leap-frog, hopscotch, and boys' games generally, were the order of the hour.  We also did our own clothes washing at such times.  There was a hydrant in the yard, but water from the pipes was too warm for drinking.  The special privilege was given us of going out, two at a time, under guard, to draw water from a cool well at a considerable distance from the jail.  This was a coveted service.  It was looked upon as a promotion to be “a drawer of water” for our comrades.  Little honors were great ones in prison.  After a while this privilege was taken from us, because of its offense to citizens, who disliked the appearance of Yankee prisoners on their streets.  One day, as Adjutant Camp and I drank from the bucket on the well-curb, two little boys were watching us.  As we turned away, one of them said feelingly:
  “I was goin' to ha' drinked, but them Yanks ha' spoiled the well.”
  And it was too bad.
  The officers of our guard were soldiers temporarily disabled for more active service. As soldiers they gave us soldierly treatment.  We were grateful for their immediate course towards us.  Yet we were their prisoners, and as such we were necessarily in a hostile attitude toward them.  We represented the Federal government; they represented the Confederacy.  They held us in confinement, without any promise on our part.  It was our duty to escape if we could.  It was their duty to prevent our doing so.  We were desirous of getting information from without.  They tried to keep it from us.  All this called for alertness on both sides.
  We could almost always depend on the slaves to aid us to the extent of their ability.  They tried various ways of getting to us the daily papers, which we were denied by the authorities.  At first they concealed a paper in their garments, and managed to deliver it under the eye of a corporal or sergeant of the guard, who always came in with our cook.  Some of us would get between him and her, and engage him in conversation, or arrest his attention by some altercation, while she passed over the paper.  When this plan was discovered, the cook was searched before she entered, and we had to try another way.  For a time the small newspaper, closely folded, was put inside of a large loaf of corn-cake, hollowed out for the purpose; but when they learned of this, they cut open every loaf before it was given to us.  Then we tried a new plan.
  Picking up in the back yard a tin blacking-box cover, we fitted its plate into the lid of the coffee-pot in which “Old Maggie” brought our steaming-hot rye coffee.  The blacking-box plated served as an inner liner to the coffee-pot cover, being secured in place by the bending down of slots in the rim of the cover with corresponding notches in the plate.  The newspaper, closely folded, was packed in the space between the two covers thus secured to the coffee-pot.  When the coffee-pot was opened, as it always was, for examination, before our guard would leave it with us for the morning, the outcoming steam would so far confuse his sight that he never suspected there was anything contraband there.
  Of course, the paper was wet with steam when taken out, but it was handled carefully and dried thoroughly before we read it.  Thus, in one way or another, we had the news of the day, with very rare exceptions, during all our imprisonment.  
  Although we were supposed to have no direct communication with prisoners in other parts of the jail, we had little difficulty keeping up full correspondence with them.  By a series of agreed signals with the Confederate prisoners in the room back of ours, we knew when it was safe to pass a word along.  Then we would send a letter from our room to theirs, through a break in the plaster of the intervening partition near the floor.  That letter would by them be attached to a bent pin, lowered by a thread through the ceiling and floor above, and be drawn up by our enlisted men.  In like manner a letter would come back to us, or be lowered to our naval officers on the opposite side of the hall.  In this way plans for escape were considered, and important information was communicated.
  In sight from our jail windows was the office of one of the daily newspapers.  Its bulletin-board was near by, at the corner of two of the principal streets.  The conduct of those who stopped to read these bulletins gave us a pretty good idea of the nature of any fresh intelligence.  When men read slowly, and moved off with downcast heads, we took courage as to the progress of affairs in the great struggle.  When they showed delight at what they saw, and evidently congratulated one another on the good news, we were correspondingly depressed.
  We saw reinforcements for General Bragg at Chickamauga, on their way from General Lee's army, passing in sight of our windows, and it was hard to be unable to notify our commanders of this movement of troops.  Prisoners from the army of General Rosecrans, in the battle which followed that movement, were taken toward Salisbury, before our eyes but beyond our greeting, when we longed to give them words of sympathy and cheer.  News of Federal losses and defeats, and rumors of retaliatory measures which should cause the wholesale execution of prisoners of both sides, were inevitably depressing, and it was so hard to be inactive while intense action seemed the only life worth living.
  We had our occupations and diversions in our jail rooms.  Two German-American officers gave us lessons in German.  Two others were our instructors in phonography.  We whittled out a set of wooden chessmen, and had a series of competitive chess games.  Adjutant Camp was a fine player, having been president of the Yale Chess Club while in college.  He was sometimes personally matched against all the other good players united, while the rest of us watched the contest with interest.  As we were shut up to our dull life in common, with not opportunity to work off surplus feeling in any outside effort, it was easy to get up an excitement without much seeming provocation.  Some of our more mischievous fellows would take advantage of this, and stir up an unexpected breeze when there seemed a dead calm.
  One of our phonographic teachers was an enthusiastic admirer of Pitman's system, the other inclined to Graham's modification of Pitman.  Often they discussed the rival systems earnestly.  The rest of us took no part.  One evening, when things inside were peculiarly dull, the Pitman man ventured a remark in praise of his favorite.  A waggish young officer whispered to me:
  “Who is that other fellow that they talk about?”
  “Graham,” I answered.
  Then he spoke aloud:
  “I've understood that Graham's system is a good deal better than Pitman's.”
  This was an unlooked-for friend of the enemy.  The Pitman man was aroused.  Like a flash he sprang to the defense of his hero, and the follower of Graham replied vigorously to his opponent.  Soon the air of the jail was thick with excited controversy, and it was more like a theological or scientific combat between friends and foes of Higher Criticism, or of Evolution, than like a quiet military prison.  Meantime the waggish officer who set the thing agoing was laughing in his sleeve – if he had on a sleeve just then – over the combustibility of tinder under flint and steel.
  Occasionally we had a share in a special entertainment in the neighboring Town Hall.  Our stage-box in the jail was secured to us for the season for whatever performances went on there, and we had no fear of being crowded out by a rush of other spectators.  We could hear the speeches in political meetings there, and no one took more interest than we in what was said.  A negro minstrel performance by imitation negroes seemed to us a poor substitute for the genuine article, as we had been familiar with it in New Berne and on St. Helena Island; but it was a great deal better than nothing, and we retained our box through it all.
  By and by there came a Madame Ruhl, a refugee from New Orleans, with a corps of good assistants, and gave several concerts.  We were all on hand those nights.  Every jail window-seat that looked toward the hall was crowded.  Earnest faces were pressing between the bars above and below.  Strains of stirring and of plaintive music coming through the still air across the starry night, with their thrilling associations of former times in other places, touched our hearts with unwonted power.  We held our breath at her sweetest strains, and we dared not show one another how deeply the music moved us.  When at last she sang “Home, Sweet Home,” it was more than we could bear.  It was harder than ever to sleep that night in the dreary jail, as we tried not to think of home.
  With all the occasional lights on its gloom, our life in prison was still gloomy prison life.  With all the soldierly treatment of their soldier prisoners by the Southern officers immediately over us, we were subject to the caprices of their enlisted men, volunteers, or conscripts, sometimes coarse, ignorant, and even brutal, in spirit and conduct, who were on guard in charge of us, and even the officers themselves were at times compelled to carry out orders from those above them, which they could not but regret.
  The Confederate prisoners on the floor above us were even more severely dealt with than ourselves.  They were forbidden to stand near the iron-barred windows looking out into the yard.  One afternoon we heard several shots in succession and a subsequent commotion in the rooms above.  In a few minutes we learned that one of the guard, concealed in an outbuilding in the yard, had, without warning, fired at Confedesrate prisoners who were quietly looking out of their windows, and killed two of them within five minutes.  The sergeant of the guard told us boastingly that that man had killed two men in firing only three shots.  As there had been no outbreak among the prisoners, but merely careless looking out of the window into the jail yard, we chafed indignantly under this cruel severity on the part of those who were over us.  When the bodies of those dead prisoners were brought from the upper floor past our room doors, it was hard for us to contain ourselves in our helplessness.
  A few days later, one of our fellow-officers, who had been severely wounded, and had lain several weeks in the hospital, had taken his seat in one of the windows looking toward the Town Hall, in order to get a little fresh air on a hot afternoon.  We had not been forbidden to keep back from the windows, but a brutal sentry came up from outside and told the wounded captain to get out of his place or he would shoot him.  Our poor weak companion attempted to comply with the sentry's demand.  But one of our number sprang up into the window-seat, and, putting his body in front of the captain, said indignantly:
  “If you want to shoot anybody, shoot a well man; don't be so cowardly as to shoot down a poor, sick, wounded officer.  Take a well one, if you must shoot anybody.  We shouldn't be in here as prisoners if we hadn't been willing to face shooting.  Shoot away, then, it you want to.”
  Instead of firing, the sentry lowered his musket from his shoulder, and moved off on his beat.  The noise of the altercation was heard by the lieutenant on duty.  He came in to inquire its cause.  Learning the facts, he put another man on that sentry's beat, and said that we might occupy the window-seats as we pleased.  These incidents were not composing to the intense nature of a soldier prisoner, and it was hard to keep an equable frame of mind.
  For a while two of our naval officers were held in irons in a separate room, as hostages for two Confederate officers held by our government on a charge of piracy.  Two of our army officers were similarly shut away from their fellows, because of an attempt to escape.  Such things increased and intensified our prison-life trials.

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