SWIGGETT - THE BRIGHT SIDE OF PRISON LIFE

C H A P T E R   X X I I I .

TO CAMP FORD AND JOY.

 

While we were in Shreveport my regiment was exchanged, and marched through on its way home. I tried very hard to be allowed to go with them, but Captain Burchard, who was in charge, refused to allow it. I had quite a row with him after pleadings and diplomacy had failed, but nothing did any good. It was decided that I must go back to Tyler on account of my two attempts to escape.

Shortly after this bitter disappointment the stockade got too full, and a lot of us were sent to Tyler under a heavy guard, Captain Rummel being left behind on account of sickness. These guards had special orders to shoot me if I tried to escape, evidently the result of my row with Captain Burchard. This fact was told to me by one of the guards, but I joked about it and professed not to believe it.

One of the guards was a boy, who seemed more inclined to general conversation than the rest. He walked and talked with me a good deal. In one of our talks he mentioned that he was from "Kasseder," in Davis county. As I knew several people in the place, having stopped there on my former return to Tyler, I at once surprised him by airing my knowledge. As I desired to amuse myself by quizzing him, I was mysterious and noncommittal. He was puzzled considerably, and went off and told his captain.
The officer rode up to my side a little later and entered into a conversation. I treated him the same as I had treated the boy, and when he left me he was almost overpowered with curiosity.

I now discovered that one of the guards was the man whom I had met with a wagon when we crossed the Sulphur Fork of Red River. We talked together, but he did not recognize me. At first I claimed to have seen him before, but he thought not. After bothering him to my heart's content, I reminded him of our having crossed Sulphur Fork together, when he said that he had been suspicious of us at the time. This was so much of the "I-told-you-so" order that I had a good laugh at him for his "hindsight."

The other officers kept dropping back to interview me, and I got their curiosity inflamed to a high degree by talking familiarly of different places and of an imaginary plan of an underground railroad. This caused the officers to become agitated, and I saw that they suspected me of something serious. When a detail was finally sent to take me before the officer in command I concluded that the matter had gone far enough, and, when questioned, I explained how I had become acquainted, on a previous runaway trip, with the people and places spoken of so familiarly. The matter ended in much laughter and some jokes.

During the rest of the march I talked negro suffrage and equality, at times nearly driving our captors wild by picturing the pleasures to come to them when these liberties should prevail. They got mad at times, but seemed to like hearing me talk, and evidently saw that I said more than I meant in some ways; yet I told many truths -- which made them mad -- about the actual practice by Southern whites of equality with negroes, as evidenced by the thousands of mulattoes among them.

Another source of amusement to me was to bother the guard at night by sleeping away from my companions and as near the guard line as I could. The guards would remonstrate and get mad, but I would blarney them a little and say that I had money on my person which I was afraid my companions would steal, and that I wanted to keep close to them for protection. They could not reasonably object to this, but. it made them keep an eye on me in particular, and the various characteristics of the different men were a constant source of study and amusement.

My feelings on this journey were of a kind that kept me constantly on the "qui vive" for something to divert my mind from reflections. To have escaped twice and been recaptured each time was bad enough, especially when one venture had been so nearly a success, and the failure through treachery of the last attempt to get away had seemed to cap the climax at the time; but to see all my regimental comrades file before me on their way to home and friends, while I was sent back to confinement, was the proverbial last straw -- only, in this case, it did not break the camel's back; but it was a close call.

I had no interests in Camp Ford that I was not entirely willing to sacrifice for the salve of being at home or with my men, and the Confederacy was welcome to my rations if they would dispense with my presence; but, while my residence in Texas, with free board and lodging, was insisted upon so strongly as being necessary for the good of the country, I really could not leave the good people, not even for the sake of personal pleasures.

Talking to myself in this way when reflections crowded upon me, and by seizing every opportunity to amuse myself at the expense of the guards, I got the camel's back in pretty fair shape again, and resigned myself to the inevitable.

We finally reached the familiar stockade at Tyler, and about 250 of us were in line when we fell in for roll-call. Each man entered the stockade alone as his name was called.

As before described, the entrance of prisoners was a noisy occasion, and one scene was very much like another; but, when I stepped into the enclosure, there was a movement of surprise and then a dead silence. Most of the men knew me, and their knowledge was communicated quickly to the rest. Seeing me come in after my long absence, and after my regiment had been exchanged, caused a sympathy that brought about silence almost as if by command.

I was not feeling particularly joyful anyway, and had had hard work to keep up my spirits on the road, so that this evidence of sympathy nearly caused me to break down altogether.

Soon after my return to the stockade I gained the title of Exchange Commissioner. I was familiar with the forms of all passes, furloughs, etc., and, as before stated, I could imitate almost any handwriting. As the new men in the place became acquainted with me and my accomplishments I was besieged with requests for different papers that would facilitate egress or escape.

The older prisoners were not as anxious for escape as the younger, or, rather, newer ones, as they had seen so many failures and punishments that they wanted a pretty sure thing before they risked an attempt.

Men even went so far as to ask me to get them out of the stockade, but I told them that I would give any papers they wanted, leaving to them the getting out.

My exchange or furlough business was conducted about as follows:

A man would come to me for the means of escape, or, rather, the means of avoiding recapture after escape. I would make out a written application from him to his captain for a leave of ten, twenty or thirty days, in which was stated the necessity for his going home to Upshur county, Texas, to procure clothing, which all Confederate soldiers then needed. On the back of this application would appear the approval of his captain, colonel and brigade commander, as well as the final and effective endorsement of Kirby Smith's adjutant, General Boggs, all the endorsements being made by me, except that of General Boggs, which was completely counterfeited by the adjutant of the 77th Ohio. Thus being fortified with legal authority to return to his regiment on an expired furlough, the prisoner would endeavor to appear as a dutiful Confederate soldier going to the front, get out as best he could, after receiving careful instructions as to his route and actions, and take his chances of success.

My escapes and experiences were talked over, and the men seemed to think that I could do most anything desired, the accidental character of our captures not being regarded as any reflection upon my ability in the attempts to escape.

Colonel Jamison was now the commander of the stockade, and the officer who brought us, in related to him some of my talks about negro suffrage and equality, which amused him very much.

One day he sent for me to come to him in order that he might hear some of my talk on these subjects. I evaded the topics as well as I could, but made so good an impression upon him that he gave me a pass to go in and out at will, with twenty men, upon my promise that I would not take advantage of it to escape myself or let any of my companions do so. My excuse for asking it was that we wanted to swim in the stream near by, gather wild greens and take proper exercise.

A few days later, as ten men and myself were in swimming under this pass in a creek about half a mile from the stockade we saw a couple of young negro boys watching us. I told the men to go ahead with their fun while I talked with the boys. One of these youngsters was about fourteen years old and the other nineteen. They knew who I was and all about my escapes, and were anxious to see me get away, urging me to break away right then, as there was no guard around, but I told them that I was out on parole and could not. They then told me that they had charge of the horses of the major at headquarters, and that I could at any time have a horse and uniform to help me get away, showing me the cabin where they lived and where I could come for this assistance.

I told the boys that I would take the first chance I had to get out without breaking parole, and they left me. I was greatly excited at the prospect, for I now knew the country so well that I had little fear of not being able to make my way to Little Rock with such assistance as I knew I could get along the road.

When we went back to the stockade I prepared some despatches from Kirby Smith to Gano, and planned the whole route and system which I would follow in general. My plan was simply to get out at night, get my uniform and horse, and ride for Dooley's Ferry as a dispatch-bearer, taking my chances on my presence of mind being sufficient to carry me through in any emergency.

Recollecting all that had been said to me by Captain Payne -- the guard who had let me ride his horse just after leaving Arkadelphia on the return trip -- I figured that I could make Little Rock in about five days by hard riding, stopping here and there on the way to feed and rest, and having an easy time after reaching Dooley's Ferry.

The negro boy promised to keep the loss of the horse covered as long as possible, by pretending that the animal had gotten loose and strayed away, so that it was reasonable to assume that enough time would be spent in hunting the animal to render futile any pursuit from the stockade after my leave of absence became known to the guards. My despatches should take care of any ordinary obstacle in my way to the river, and, with my ability to "bluff" the average person or persons likely to be met, I felt confident that only an accident or extraordinary stoppage could upset my plans. Dooley would know me when I referred to Captain Payne, and my passage of Red River was assured if I reached that point, while he would also direct me to the captain's place, some ten or fifteen miles away, where I would be certain of concealment and assistance. The captain's neighbor, who had sons in the Federal army, would find a way to get me within our lines, with the assistance of horses from Payne's corral. Altogether, I could almost see myself at home again.

The thing was feasible, and I was anxious to try it, scarcely being able to sleep at nights for thinking about it.

The men about me all tried to dissuade me on account of the risk of capture with a horse in my possession, and because Lee had surrendered and the war could not last much longer, saying that I was foolish to take any risks at such a time.

There was much talk at this time, among the rebels, of Kirby Smith's holding out in the Southwest and being heavily reinforced by the scattered remnants of other armies. This had an appearance of being reasonable, as matters then looked to us, and I would listen to no arguments against my proposed scheme; so a day was set for my departure, and I fully, intended to go.

When I was sufficiently well supplied with food and really ready to start, my companions begged and pleaded with me so hard not to risk it till we were more certain of continued imprisonment that I compromised by postponing the date.

This thing went on for several weeks, I making postponement after postponement, until I finally settled it decidedly that I would go on such a day unless we got some favorable news.

Before the fixed time came around we saw Captain Burchard ride by the stockade and go to headquarters. Knowing that he was after some more prisoners for exchange, we sent out a man to learn who were to be the favored ones. The messenger came back, all in a flutter of excitement, and announced that all were to go.

The scene of confusion and excitement which ensued cannot be described. The men simply went wild. For myself, I had to sit down to quiet my nervousness.

The guards began to leave for home as soon as the news became known. Twenty-four hours after Captain Burchard arrived there were no guards to be seen anywhere, except the higher officers, and we could have broken out any time after that. We were not silly enough to do this, however, as it would have relieved the rebels too much, for they were bound to feed and escort us if we stayed.

We were kept three days in the stockade, awaiting the arrival of rations, and during this time we had no regular food, as the mill which the rebels had used to grind grain had broken down just at a time when they seemed to need it most.

The citizens flocked in to see us, and brought us food, or we should have gone hungry during this interval. They came to trade for the things which we would leave behind us, and we sold off the pots and kettles belonging to the Confederacy, until the authorities learned the fact and placed a guard at the gate to prevent any further depletion of their stock of cooking utensils. As the prisoners now had nothing to cook, they commenced to break up and throw into the cesspools all that was left of the cooking outfit, and before long there was not a pot or skillet to be found.

By this time the stockade was broken in several places, and we could pass in and out at will, but it was more the desire to feel that we could do so which prompted any egress than any desire to go anywhere, as we were all anxious to get home, and did not want to go by ourselves when all were going so soon.

An irrepressible Zouave prisoner got into the headquarters room one day, and, filled with enthusiasm and the conviction that the Confederacy was busted, nearly destroyed the records in the office before he was discovered and kicked out.

Finally, the rations not coming, the rebels got an ox-team with which to haul the sick men, and we made a start for Shreveport.

It is a matter of record that I was the last man to leave the stockade on this occasion, and consequently the last prisoner confined in it. I made it a point to see that every other human being was out of the enclosure before I departed, and to have others know the fact. I will not attempt to describe my feelings as the final exit was made; suffice it to say that it was one of the happiest moments of my life.



 

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3/19/2001