The Rebel Army Ordered to Richmond, Va - The Troops Refuse to Cross the Mississippi - Invasion of Missouri - Rebel Soldiers Plundering their Own People - Burial of the Beef - Plot to Overpower the Guards - 1,200 Prisoners Exchanged - Their Condition When They 'Reached New Orleans - The Last Ditch - Foreign Intervention - Lee's Surrender - The War to Last Forty Years Longer - "The Gates Ajar" - The Homeward Journey - Under the Old Flag - Mustered Out - Description of Camp Ford, Three Months After our Departure - Destruction of Camp Ford.
Gen. KIRBY SMITH, who commanded the rebel forces west of the Mississippi river, received orders from Richmond, Va., during the summer of 1864, to cross the Mississippi river with his whole army, which, according to their own estimates, numbered 60,000 effective men, and march to the relief of Gen. Lee. Some of the troops were started in the direction of the points selected for the crossing, but the soldiers refused to cross under the fire of the gun-boats. The scheme was finally abandoned, and instead, extensive peparations were made to invade Missouri. In the latter part of August, all the arrangements were completed, and the expedition, consisting of three divisions of cavalry, under Maj. Gen. Price, started on the Missouri campaign, that ended so disastrously to the rebel army.
T. C. Reynolds, the rebel Governor of Missouri, accompanied the expedition, for the purpose of re-establishing his authority, if they were successful in holding the State, but they failed, and returned, defeated and badly demoralized, in November. After their return, Governor Reynolds published a letter in the Marshall (Tex.) Republican, of Dec. 23d, 1864, in which he reviewed the causes that led to the failure of the expedition. The principal cause he stated was the lack of discipline, for which he held Gen. Price individually responsible. As the rebels always stigmatized the Union soldiers as robbers and murderers, and exalted the Confederate soldiers as the "Southern Chivalry," therefore the following extract from Governor Reynolds' letter, may be of interest by way of contrast:
"MARSHALL, TEXAS, Dec. 17, 1864.
* * * "It would take a volume to describe the acts of outrage; neither station, age or sex, was any protection. Southern men and women were as little spared as Unionists. The elegant mansion of Gen. R. E. Lee's accomplished niece, and the cabins of the negro, were alike ransacked. John Deane, the first civilian ever made a State prisoner by Mr. Lincoln's Government, had his watch and money robbed from his person in the streets of Potosi, in broad day, as unceremoniously as the German merchant at Frederickton was forced, a pistol at his ear, to surrender his concealed greenbacks. As the citizens of Arkansas and Northern Texas have seen, in the goods unblushingly offered them for sale, the clothes of the poor man's infant were as attractive spoil as the merchant's silks and calico, or the curtains taken from the rich man's parlor. Ribbons and trumpery gewgaws were stolen from the milliners, and jeweled rings forced from the fingers of delicate maidens, whose brothers were fighting in Georgia in Cockerell's Confederate Missouri brigade.
* * * "The disorders still continued. They may be judged of by the fact, that at Booneville, the hotel occupied as Gen. Price's headquarters was the scene of drunken revelry by night; that guerrillas rode unchecked, in open day, before it, with human scalps hanging to their bridles, and tauntingly shaking bundles of plundered greenbacks at our needy soldiers; and that in an official letter to him there, which he left unanswered and undenied, I asserted, that while 'the wholesale pillage in the vicinity of the army had made it impossible to obtain anything by purchase, stragglers and camp-followers were enriching themselves by plundering the defenseless families of our own soldiers in Confederate service.
"On still darker deeds, I shudderingly keep silent. * * * God-fearing men trembled lest, in Heaven's anger at the excesses which had marked the campaign, some thunderbolt of calamity should fall upon our arms. It did fall, and like a thunderbolt. * * *
The Christmas and New Year's holidays came and went, but nothing occurred to break the monotony of our existence, excepting that, in addition to our regular fare, our mess feasted on sweet potatoes and black-eyed peas, which we had purchased from a friendly guard, at the rate of twenty dollars per bushel!
During the winter, our beef was blue and very lean. We notified the prison commander, Col. Perkins, who had relieved Col. Brown, that our beef was not fit to eat, but our complaints were not heeded. The rebels who guarded us, mutinied against receiving such meat, and took one day's rations, consisting of nearly a whole beef, dug a grave, and buried it with the honors of war, not forgetting to fire the parting volley over the grave. From that time their rations were changed to bacon. We could not think of committing such an extravagance as to bury even a single day's rations of tough beef, though we knew that they would be changed afterward for the better.
In the latter part of January, 1865, I received a notice to attend a secret meeting, in the cabin occupied by the officers of the 130th Ills. At dark, I went to the place where the meeting was to be held. I found the door strongly guarded, and sentinels posted outside, to give the alarm in case of any outside intrusion. After some delay I was admitted, and as I entered, a Kansas Captain was making an eloquent appeal to a crowded house, urging the prisoners to overpower the guards, mount themselves with the horses belonging to the guards, and others that could be found in the vicinity, and strike for the land of freedom. Quite a number of other speakers followed, who were the leaders in the plot, and any one who attempted to say a word against the proposition was hissed down and denounced as a coward. My opinion was that it was a very dangerous project. I had seen a portion of the rebel army after my re-capture, that would confront us, even if we succeeded in overpowering the prison-guards. But I dare not express my real opinion before such an audience.
At length I was called upon to express my views upon the subject. I remarked that they could depend on me in anything they would undertake, to get out of prison, but I would not go into anything blindly. I considered it a very serious business. I wanted them to investigate the matter in regard to the number of horses that we could get in the neighborhood, and how many arms were stored in Tyler, etc.; then we might talk of action, and not before. My remarks had the desired effect, and it was immediately moved that a committee of three be appointed to get all the necessary information, to enable us to make our escape "en masse." I was placed on the committee, and by making a show of great energy I had it all my own way. I kept putting off my report from day to day under various pretexts, in order to gain time, until finally I hardly knew what excuse to offer for any further delay, when orders were received to forward 1,200 prisoners for exchange, and the prospect was that more would soon follow, which nipped the plot in the bud.
Our Government sent us a lot of clothing, which was received on the first of February, and was distributed only to the most needy. From the boxes that the clothing was packed in, several new industries sprang up. From the strap-iron around the boxes, table-knives were manufactured, and from the lumber, violins were made.
To Lieut. Paine, of the 18th New York Cavalry, I am indebted for a fine violin. He plied his trade for two months to good advantage, on the instrument, his only tool being the broken blade of a knife. He presented the violin to me when he and Capt. Dill made their escape. They started for the coast, and got within sight of the gunboats, when they were recaptured and taken to Houston, Texas, and held until the close of the war.
Feb. 10th, 1,200 prisoners were exchanged. The following is an extract from the Cincinnati Commercial, of March 11th, 1865, written by their New Orleans correspondent, which gives a faithful description of the condition of the prisoners when they reached our lines:
"NEW ORLEANS, Feb. 28, 1865.
"The first prisoners of the new regulation for exchange, were received here day before yesterday, the 77th Ohio, 36th Iowa, and portions of other regiments, arriving here from Texas.
"From Capt. McCormick, 77th Ohio, and the Prison Hospital Steward, T. J. Robinson, of the 36th Iowa, I have learned a few facts, regarding the situation and treatment while in prison at Tyler, Texas. It is an oft-told tale - the same sad narrative of abuse and privation which has become in this war, alas ! so common.
"Most of the men were taken at Marks' Mills, Ark., and as soon as they had been marched to the rear, they were systematically and completely stripped of everything - hats, blankets, boots, etc. Arrived at Tyler, 4,300 were crowded into a stockade of four acres, on a hill-side, without anything to protect them from the dews, rain or sun. Without a blanket, or a shingle, or even a dry bough of a tree, to screen themselves, they were told, in mockery, to "make themselves as comfortable as possible."
With an old ax, a saw and an auger, they built two wretched pens, covered partly with brush and partly with puncheons, for the accommodation of the sick. They had not a nail or a board, or any straw, with which to make bunks for them. In these miserable abodes, there were generally from 120 to 160 sick at a time. To these there was issued enough quinine and the commonest drugs, for about twenty men, and the rebel surgeon, appointed to have them in charge during the last six weeks, came to look after them twice.
"There was an absolute lack of every comfort. 'Many a poor fellow,' said the Steward to me, 'has died in the night, when we had not even the light of a tallow candle to close his eyes.' The rations, to all alike, sick and well, were corn-meal and beef. In the summer the beef was good, but after the frost had cut down the prairie-grass, it rapidly grew blue and lean. These men have arrived here just in the condition in which they left Camp Ford, and are now quartered at the camp of distribution. Three or four of them died on the way down, so worn and wasted were they, after months of suffering in that place of torments.
"It stirs one's blood like a trumpet, to grasp these honest veterans of many a battle by the hand, hard and bony though it be - these bronzed and battered lads - and hear their manly voices. But move on a little farther, and look on the other hand at the sad, wan faces of these others, who sit silent and gaze about them, or upon their newfound friends, with a look of vacant wonder - almost idiocy - demented, and brought to the edge of the grave by their captors. Is it strange or foolish, if strong men speak with a quivering voice, and turn away, that they may hide a tear, when they look upon these poor wretches? Let him not be thought weak or unmanly who is thus moved, for he must be indeed something more or less than human who could do otherwise. * *
"Maj. Bering and Lieut. Srofe, of the 48th Ohio, were detained by the rebel exchange officer at Camp Ford, he claiming that they had forfeited their right to be exchanged, in consequence of having attempted to escape. It will occur to most persons, that this is a singular pretext to advance for such a proceeding. Q. P. F. "
As spring advanced, our hope of release was based mainly on the prospect that the war would soon come to a close, which began to look like a possibility after Hood's defeat at Nashville, Price's defeat in Missouri, and "Sherman's March to the Sea." Their boast, to "die in the last ditch," rather than come back into the Union, was heard no more; but instead, they were eagerly looking for some foreign power to take up their cause, and deliver them from Yankee subjugation.
The rebel Gen. R. Taylor says: "There was much talk about setting up a government west of the Mississippi, uniting with Maximilian, and calling on Louis Napoleon for assistance.
Another Southern historian states :
"H. W. Allen, Governor of Louisiana, had dispatched Gen. Polignac with communications to Napoleon III., Emperor of the French, and it was desirable, above all things, to keep the Confederate flag afloat yet a few months longer. It has since been ascertained, that two or three months more of resistance would have brought recognition, and the salvation of the Confederacy."
They were prepared to bow the knee to the sceptre of any foreign monarch, who would have helped them out of the dilemma into which their short-sighted leaders had led them. Such was the sentiment of their citizens and soldiers, with whom we came in contact at that stage of the war. Yet at times, they were defiant as ever, and almost persuaded us that the war had but fairly commenced. The gloomy outlook of their cause had its effect on the prison authorities, which caused them to relax their severity, and occasionally they would grant us some favors.
North of the prison, was a field of about ten acres, but as the rebels had burned all the rails, the field was of no benefit to them. Capt. John Watts, of the 130th Ills. Vols., an old, grey-haired veteran, proposed to Col. Perkins, the prison commander, that if he would let him out every day, with twenty-five men, he would go the woods, make rails, carry them to the field, fence up a portion, and plant it in corn and beans, for the benefit of those who agreed to do the work. Col. Perkins gave his consent, with the proviso that every man give his word of honor not to attempt to escape while at work.
On the first spring day, "Uncle John," as the Captain was generally called, took out his men and went to work. In a short time he had sufficient ground fenced in to raise a crop. He then procured a plow, attached twenty men to it, and broke up the ground. But Gen. Grant spoiled the Captain's calculations about raising a crop in Texas, when he forced Gen. Lee and his army to surrender. "Uncle John" had to come away and leave his farm in a flourishing condition, and I suppose he has never forgiven Gen. Grant for not giving him time to reap the fruits of his industry.
In the latter part of April, the rebel papers contained the news that President Lincoln had been assassinated. We considered it a joke, at the time, for the reason that they had published a similar report about six months previous; but gradually it came in such a shape that we could no longer doubt it. It cast a gloom over the prison that cannot easily be forgotten. Their papers were silent for some time in regard to Lee's surrender, which had taken place before the assassination.
At last it was whispered around among the guards that Gen. Grant had really captured Gen. Lee's whole army. At this news our joy knew no bounds, but in a few days afterward, their papers, in speaking of the disaster that had befallen their arms in Virginia, stated that it did not affect the territory west of the Mississippi River, and that they could "hold out for forty years longer!" The papers also contained the proclamation of General Kirby Smith, in which he stated that all they had to do was to hold out faithfully, and they would yet gain their independence. That was rather a damper on our buoyant spirits; but fortunately, our rebel guards could not see it in that light, but packed their baggage, and in the night of May 14th, like the Arabs of old, they "folded their tents and silently stole away." Our feelings can better be imagined than described, when on the following morning we found the "Gates Ajar" - not a solitary sentinel on guard, and the rebel camp deserted! But strange to stay, not a cheer was given, nor did a single yell awake the echoes of the surrounding hills. The prisoners went about with a dazed, stupefied stare. They were actually afraid to trust their own senses, for fear it would turn out to be only a delusion.
It was some time before any one ventured outside the stockade, and when we did find out that we were free to go where we pleased, comrades met comrades with a firm grasp of the hand, eyes moist with tears, and hearts too full for utterance, except a fervent "Thank God!"
But the great war of the rebellion was drawing to a close. Maj. Gen. Pope had already demanded the surrender of the Trans-Mississippi Department. Then followed the negotiations, but before a formal surrender could be agreed upon, the Texas troops held a conference, and resolved to disband and go home, and began to make preparations to carry out their plans. The cavalry disbanded next, and plundered the country on their route. The Government warehouses and manufactories were destroyed and set on fire. The extensive Government works at Tyler were threatened by a mob, but the rebel soldiers appropriated the bulk of the supplies for their own use.
On May 16th, some rebel officers made arrangements to send us to New Orleans, but before we left, a number of the prisoners volunteered to enclose the cemetery with a fence, where over 300 of our men lay buried, thus paying them the last tribute of respect that lay in our power. Among the foremost in this undertaking, was Lieutenant H. Wyman, of the 77th Illinois.
May 17th, all the prisoners, numbering about 1200 men, composed of the 120th Ohio, 77th and 130th Ills. regiments, and small squads from various commands, started for Shreveport, accompanied by a battalion of rebel cavalry, who volunteered to escort us to our lines, provided that we would intercede and get favorable terms of surrender for them. When we reached our lines, we found that our services were not required, as the conditions of the surrender of all Confederate soldiers were more liberal than they would have asked, if left to them to make their own terms.
We made very slow progress on our journey, for the reason that the country was full of disbanded rebel soldiers, returning to their homes. We had secured a number of teams, to haul our provisions and sick; but the rebel soldiers confiscated our mules and left us standing in the road, with our wagons. They said they had not been paid off for two years, and they were determined to have something. As often as we procured new teams, they were taken from us. Finally, after considerable delay, we reached Shreveport, and camped in the suburbs. The rebel soldiers had attempted to burn the city the night previous to our arrival, in which they had partly succeeded.
The following day, several of the Missouri officers, who had treated us so kindly at Washington, Ark., paid us a visit. They seemed to be very much depressed at the state of affairs, but more particularly as they expected harsh treatment, should they fall into the hands of the Federal authorities, and no doubt that was the principal cause of so many leaving for Mexico, before the surrender took place.
In a few days, we embarked on the steamboats and landed at the mouth of Red River, May 27th, where we were transferred to our steamers, under the "old flag," once more. We had become accustomed to the slim diet of the Confederacy during our fourteen months imprisonment, and were well aware of the danger if we lost control of our appetites when we reached our lines, therefore quite a number resolved to eat very sparingly for the first eight or ten days; but when the gong sounded for dinner, after we had been transferred to our boats, the prisoners, without exception, could be restrained no longer, but rushed into the cabin, casting all their resolutions to the winds, and ate to their hearts' content.
The following day, we reached New Orleans, where the rebel Generals, Buckner and Price, who had accompanied us from Shreveport, surrendered to Gen. Canby, the Trans- Mississippi Department, which completed the transfer of all the so-called Confederate States, to the United States authorities.
The rest is soon told. The war being over, all the prisoners, with but few exceptions, were mustered out of the service and sent home. Among the latter, I was included, which terminated my military career.
The following letter from the New York Tribune gives a graphic description of "Camp Ford," three months after our departure.
NEW YORK, Aug. 18, 1865. - The Tribune's Tyler (Texas) correspondent describes Camp Ford, near that place, a prison-pen, second only to Andersonvile in the barbarism and atrocities inflicted upon Union prisoners for two years. The correspondent says:
"Scourged, beaten and tortured, these prisoners were too far off, and too closely guarded, for their groans to be heard by those in the outside world. Their sad story only became known from their own shrunken lips, after they had been exchanged. It is a stockaded enclosure of about, I judge, eight or ten acres. This estimate includes all adjuncts of the prison. It is situated on the side of a sandy slope, at the lower edge of which, and just within the stockade, is a spring that supplied water to the prisoners. The enclosure, which seems to have been enlarged at different times, to meet the requirements of rebel captures, is filled with huts and shanties of almost every imaginable shape, and constructed of every available material.
"Two barrels, one on top of the other, form the chimney of a hut made of bushes, the limbs of which have been pressed together and plastered with mud. Near the point at which we entered, there is a number of grave-like mounds, scattered over the space of about one acre. I at first thought they were graves, but on examining, I found they were excavations in the ground, which had been covered, first with bushes, and then with dirt. They had been made by those of our men who had been captured last, and for whom there was no room in the huts above ground. Everywhere are blackened spots, which show where their fires had formerly been, by means of which those who had no shelter at all, cooked their daily mite of meat. Fragments of kettles and stoves, old cast-off pans, and flat rocks, the cooking utensils they had used, were strewn about, and, as I noticed in one of the huts, piled up with care to await future use.
"Toward the upper side of the enclosure, where there seems to have been a prison for the confinement of officers, are several stumps, on the top of which those who violated any of the prison rules were made to stand and mark time, for perhaps a whole day, while the guard had imperative orders to shoot any one who stopped, or fell off from exhaustion. The whole scene, with its associations, is a horrid illustration of the inhumanity that originated and carried on the rebellion until its overthrow. Perhaps I am raking a hurtful coal from dead ashes, so I will stop."
While writing the closing events at Camp Ford, a letter lies before me, from Lieut. W. J. Srofe, written at Galveston, Texas, Dec. 21st, 1865, in which he says:
* * "I saw Maj. Thos. D. Vredenburg,* of the 10th Ill. Cavalry, a short time ago. He had just arrived from Shreveport with his command, 'via, Camp Ford.' He made a halt at the stockade, and his bump of destructiveness was so great as to prompt him to leave it in ruins. Ah, my good fellow, it almost makes me shed tears to think of that master-piece of architecture, our old home, being thus ruthlessly destroyed by 'vandal hands.' When I think of the 'happy hours' spent beneath its roof, the 'delicious feasts' served up within its walls, and 'refreshing' slumbers upon its 'downy' beds, where we dreamed of pleasures, and the dear ones at home, it is too much to bear, and I think he deserves the censure of all the old residents of Camp Ford ! " * * *
* An old Camp Ford Prisoner.