From the Philadelphia Weekly Times, 5/18/1887
A Prisoner of War
LIFE AND EXPERIENCES IN SOUTHERN PRISONS DURING THE CIVIL WAR.
BY GENERAL B. F. FISHER [138th Pa. - MDG]
In accordance with my promise I give you herewith some recollections of the treatment of prisoners of war during the Rebellion. This paper would have been furnished earlier but for the fact that from the time I consented to prepare it I have been more or less disabled by inflammatory rheumatism, the direct result of my personal experience in and exposure incurred during my escape from Libby Prison is February, 1864.
The first prisoner of war was Lieutenant Manuel C. Causten, a member of the President’s Mounted Guard, a company organized in the District of Columbia. Lieutenant Causten was captured in June, 1861, while visiting a friend near the mouth of Seneca Creek. He was betrayed by his supposed friend to Sergeant White, who was in command of a picket post on the South Bank of the Potomac. The sergeant with a small detachment of men crossed the Potomac, surrounded the house in which Lieutenant Causten was sleeping, secured his prisoner, ad with him recrossed the river. Lieutenant Causten was sent to Richmond, and at first confined in the jail, but subsequently, as the number of prisoners increased, they were removed to a large building standing upon the bank of the canal, and which was used prior to the war as a warehouse by the firm of Libby & son. In this building the officer in charge of the various military prisons in Richmond had his headquarters; hence all official communications in relation to the prisoners of war in Richmond were dated at or addressed to "Libby Prison," and from this fact all the military prisons in Richmond, including "Belle Isle," became known by the name of "Libby Prison," though but a comparatively small number of all the prisoners of war held at Richmond were confined in the Libby warehouse.
THE ORIGIN OF EXCHANGES.
During the first year of the war no exchanging of prisoners took place. The Government hesitated to enter into any negotiations whatever wit the authorities at Richmond. England and France had already accorded to the "Confederate States" the rights of belligerents. This action on the part of England and France was deemed hasty and inimical, and the administration felt that England was simply watching for an opportunity to recognize the Confederate States as an independent government. The administration had refused to treat with the commissioners sent by the Confederate authorities to Washington in the Spring of 1861, as to do so might be construed as a recognition of a duly constituted power to appoint commissioners. To treat with the Confederate authorities for an exchange of prisoners was viewed in a like manner, and was feared would be taken as a justification by England and France for their action. But as the number of prisoners of war increased from month to month upon both sides an immense pressure was brought to bear upon the administration to take the necessary steps to effect an exchange. It was argued by the friends of the prisoners that common humanity demanded it. An agreement was accordingly concluded in the early Summer of 1862 which provided for the parole of prisoners immediately after capture, their status until exchanged and the manner of exchanges. This agreement was duly abided by until the Summer of 1863, the prisoners being promptly after capture paroled and sent home, where they remained without rejoining their respective commands until regularly exchanged by order.
In 1863, however, an element was introduced in the Northern Army which subsequently became an obstacle in the way of exchange of prisoners. The Government enlisted a large number of colored men into the army. History hardly records a more bitter hatred than that which was manifested by the Southern people towards the colored soldiers.. The massacre at Fort Pillow was the result of this bitterness. It was also shown in front of Petersburg upon that part of the line occupied by the Ninth Corps, in which was a division of colored troops. While in front of the corps, immediately to the left of the Ninth Corps, the pickets on duty on both sides walked up ad down in plain sight and in easy conversation distance, they did not molest each other, whereas a hand or cap above the breastworks on the Ninth Corps front immediately became a target for a number of sharp-shooters. The soldiers at that point being compelled to relieve each other by covered ways no man could show himself at any point without being shot forthwith. This was entirely owing to the presence of colored troops in the Ninth Corps. This hatred was also specially shown when colored troops were captured. The confederate authorities refused to consider the colored soldiers when captured as prisoners of war, refused to parole them, and treated them with exceptional harshness and indignity. The Government insisted upon the colored soldiers when captured receiving the same treatment and having the same rights that any prisoner of war was entitled to. The south refused to recognize the colored man as a soldier. There was but one honorable course open to the Government. Its soldiers, whether black, white, or red, must be protected. The southern authorities were thereupon informed that unless every man who wore the uniform of the soldiers of the United states when captured was accorded all the rights due a prisoner of war no soldiers of the South would be thereafter paroled when captured. The south stood firm, and the result was that the cartel regulating exchanges was deemed cancelled, and though the several commissions of exchange of the two powers seemed to strive earnestly to renew the old agreement or to make a new one, it was never accomplished, and with few exceptions all prisoners taken in and after the Summer of 1863 were held both North and South until the close of the war.
CHAPLAINS AND SURGEONS.
It was my misfortune to be captured in June, 1863, immediately after the trouble concerning the exchange of prisoners commenced. The prisoners confined in Libby Prison knew nothing of this trouble in the way of exchange; we therefore expected from day to day to be paroled and sent home. We, however, soon learned that there was some hitch between the commissioners of exchange, though they both encouraged us with the statement that an agreement would be arrived at in a short time. But as week after week and month after month passed without any settlement of the difficulties in the way of exchange the prisoners settled down to the conviction that we were doomed to remain in captivity during the remainder of the war. This conviction nerved many to take advantage of every possible opportunity to escape, regardless of the risk or danger of recapture. The writer, with about fifty others, securing his liberty through "the tunnel" upon the evening of the 9th of February, 1864.
For four or five months during the Summer of 1863 even the chaplains and surgeons with their attendants were retained in confinement when captured. This resulted in much suffering upon the battlefields, which would otherwise have been relieved. The chaplains and surgeons had always remained upon the field after a battle to care for the wounded, but finding that they thus imposed upon themselves an indefinite captivity as prisoners of war they ceased to expose themselves to capture. This necessarily resulted in much suffering, and no doubt great loss of life. The wounded left upon the field were attended to, and the dead remained unburied. Every sense of right demanded that these non-combatants should not be rewarded with captivity for their efforts to care for the wounded and dying, and common humanity required them to remain upon the battlefield in the performance of their duty. In November, 1863, the respective authorities therefore released the chaplains and surgeons, and announced that they would not be thereafter held as prisoners of war. This announcement received the heartiest approbation from all sides.
While during the first year of the war those captured were detained in confinement there was no special suffering for the want of food or from exposure to the inclemency of the weather. It was only after July, 1863, that the South failed to furnish adequate provisions and proper quarters for the prisoners of war held by them. The commissioned officers captured were crowded into the old Libby warehouse until there were twelve or thirteen hundred confined therein. The space occupied gave each one only about two feet by seven, and yet those confined in that building were highly favored in comparison to the condition of other prisoners. The Libby building yielded at least dry, airy quarters with access in each room to water supplied from the mains of the city. Contrast our condition to that of the thousands confined on Belle Isle in the James River, opposite the centre of Richmond. Crowded in the miserable shelter furnished were thousands without any shelter whatever. Food of the coarsest character and inadequate in quantity. Vermin upon all sides, dampness above and around by night, and the direct rays of the sun when not raining or snowing by day. Blankets few, though the sanitary and Christian commissions in the North sent thousands to Richmond to measurably supply this deficiency. Sickness, suffering, too often death, were and could only be the result. All this in the presence of Richmond, the capital, and the authorities of the Confederate States. Cruel is a mild word to apply to this treatment. But what makes it especially condemnable there was no effort to relieve it. Te authorities knew it. Jefferson Davis could see the island with its mass of suffering humanity as he passed from his home to the capitol building. The only change made was for the worse - from Belle isle to Andersonville, from Libby Prison to the jail in Charleston under the fire of the Federal batteries shelling the city.
MEANS OF SELF-IMPROVEMENT.
It would make this paper too long to attempt to give details of daily life in prison. Many instead of allowing themselves to become a prey to their own thoughts sought to improve their time by reading and systematic studying. We had classes reciting to self-appointed teachers in almost all known studies of a well appointed university. While confinement and want in many instances seemed to induce selfishness, yet those endowed with mental accomplishments and attainments generally were ready to draw upon their store for the entertainment and edification of their comrades. The chaplains preached, General Neal Dow inculcated the principles of temperance, Richardson lectured, Henry explained mesmerism, Nash and his troupe outdid Carncross and Dixie, Randolph and his roughs kept circulation in good condition, Sanderson kept up the tone, Streight the esprit de corps, and Peterson cooked an elegant dinner after we received hopes from home, while the vermin aided the doctors in keeping us alive. I enclose as a postscript a copy of a letter which may contain something of interest by reason of its having been written from the prison and spoke from the surroundings.
B. F. F.
LIBBY, Richmond, Va.,
Nov. 13th, 1863.
MY DEAR PARENTS: I send you greeting and love. May it find you happy and well. I have an opportunity to send letters North by the underground mail - a very uncertain route, but must be attempted sometimes. I wrote you by this route a few weeks since, but have some doubts whether the letter reached you. The surgeons are about being released. They expect to go North in a few days. They are a happy set of men. When they reach the North you will have another flood of accounts detailing the horrors of prison life in Richmond. Your papers seem to be full of them. Some reach us. The papers here complain of them as being false; but I do assure you that I know the accounts do not equal the reality. Language would fail them in attempting to give a living and dead description of it. Last night one of our surgeons, one who has been given some privileges on account of services rendered in the hospitals, visited a number of wards (in the hospital for the enlisted men), and from data obtained from the wardmasters he estimates that within the last few weeks they have died at the rate of about 1800 per month. Now, if you take into consideration that there are only about 12,000 confined here you can form some idea of the horrors of the prisoners’ situations. This is mainly owing to insufficient and improper food and lack of clothing and proper quarters. The officers so far have every reason to be thankful for their condition. But within the past few days their situation has changed very materially for the worse. Sweet potatoes have been substituted for meat. No more meat. A coarse corn bread for the wheat bread we formerly received. This corn bread is heavy enough to mould bullets from. For my part I have every reason to be thankful. My health is again good, and I am regaining the flesh lost while sick. I still remain in the officers’ hospital (the lower east room of Libby), and will be allowed to do so as long as it is not too crowded with sick. I am much better off in this room than I would be in the other part of the building. Comfortable beds, plenty to eat (from our boxes), fire, less confusion, and more comfort every way.
During the past week I have enjoyed my reading very much. With the return of physical strength the power of the mind are better. I have read two hours each morning before daylight, thus taking a fair start for a good day’s work without much crowding. Please do not forget the spermaceti candles. Have them in each box you may send hereafter. Do not send any more money (this meant by letter) to be detained by the authorities. They gave me $50 in their currency some time since. This is worth about $5 in gold. As the prices are here it purchases little. Flour is from $110 to $125 per barrel. Last week I paid $6 for a peck of potatoes, valuable articles. You can place money and a letter in a vial and bury it in a can of butter; or sew them up carefully in a needle case or something of the kind. I will find it no matter how concealed. You might put in your box a peck of corn meal among the other articles. Size of box is of no consequence. Captain Hatch, Confederate agent, says anything from a hogshead down will be delivered safely at the prison free of charge from our boat. Please send me with pens, ink, paper, lead pencils and envelopes, a memorandum book about five or six inches long and four wide. I wish to take notes while reading.
For fear you may not have received my former letter I will repeat what is most important in the contents of a box. Meat (ham and dried beef) and codfish, if they are to be had, condensed milk, butter, sugar, cornstarch, dried fruits and berries (such as apples, peaches, blackberries, currants, etc.), spices and apple-butter. These articles are of most value, and almost necessary to our health. Then, if you have room, such as cakes that time will not injure, cheese, cranberries, pickles, jellies (wines or brandies put in cans and marked "Worcester sauce"), and such luxuries as you might suppose would yet tickle the palate of a "Libby epicurean." You will see from this I still have some recollection of what is eatable. True, my stay here may have so changed me that if seen in the streets of London I would be in great danger of being transported as a vagabond. But the stamp of the former self is still here, and judging from appearances likely to remain "for three years or during the war." As long as I fatten on corn bread and its concomitants it matters not unless our captors turn cannibals. "Hip! hip! hurrah," the flag of the Union is still advancing, and Richmond may be taken before we are many years older. Though Meade’s last advance (Mine Run) was somewhat like the little boy climbing the hill in Winter time with a crust upon the snow, when reaching the top he found himself at the bottom. But I look for glorious results being attained by Grant. While I was sorry to hear of Rosecrans being relieved, I have not the slightest doubt it was a step in the right direction. Consolidation of our commands will aid much in accomplishing great results, and the want of it has hitherto been the main cause of our want of success. * * * [end of article]