From the St. Paul (Minn.) Daily Globe, 9/28/1879, p. 6, c. 6
The Angel of Castle Thunder.
The burning of the famous Confederate military prison at Richmond, Castle Thunder, has called up the multitude of reminiscences of the building and its twin, Libby Prison. Major Batlen, a former warden of Castle Thunder, said to a newspaper correspondent: The burning of Castle Thunder reminds me of a sad and romantic episode interwoven with the history of that famous prison. It is the story of the “Angel of Castle Thunder.” The friends and sweethearts of the prisoners were constantly writing to them. I have witnessed many heart-rending scenes in the prison. In this prison all persons suspected of sympathy with the Union were confined, as well as Confederate prisoners. The meeting and separation between a mother and a child, or between a sweetheart and her lover, as they would cling to each other, and, with tears and sobs, separate, perhaps never to meet again, was truly sad and distressing. It was upon one of these occasions that I noticed a woman whose history I afterward learned, and as it was a remarkable one I will give it to you. She was beautiful, tall, slender, ladylike and spirituelle-looking. She attracted one’s attention at first sight. She called herself Emma St. Clair. Her features were finely chiseled, after the Grecian styled. Her eyes were large, lustrous and of melting blue, her form well proportioned, lithe and supple, and her pale delicacy of complexion, and her frail appearance produced the impression that she would soon be the victim of that fell destroyer, consumption. She called to see a young prisoner who was her lover, to whom she sent sumptuous fare every day. Once, while on a visit to him, she had a severe hemorrhage, and fainted. She was too weak to be sent away, and she was properly cared for at the prison. The attending physician had her taken to a room where she received proper nursing and medical care until she recovered. She was a courtesan, and her lover a Louisiana soldier, who came to Virginia at the outbreak of the war. She was of Creole extraction, and came from New Orleans to Richmond, where she might be near him and see him every now and then. She had $2,500 in gold when she arrived here, and she determined to devote her own forces and her money to soothe and alleviate the sufferings of our wounded soldiers. She became a nurse in Bird Island Hospital, and there for a long time she employed herself in nursing the sick and wounded. On one occasion a young soldier from North Carolina, badly wounded, was placed under her care. She nursed him carefully, but in spite of all that could be done for him it became evident that he must die. He was the only son of wealthy parents who doted on him. When he was told that he could not live long, he called the beautiful nurse to his bedside and told her he had one request to make, and that was that she would not let him be placed in an unmarked grave. She promised, and he died happy. She kept her promise. He was buried with pomp. A long line of carriages followed him to his grave. She bore all the expenses. In a few days thereafter the father and mother appeared, having heard that their only son had been wounded. The father went to the hospital, where he learned his son had died, and there he was referred to Miss St. Clair, who gave him all the particulars of his death and funeral. He and his wife were deeply grieved at the loss of their son, but their grief was greatly softened by the contemplation of the generous, unselfish conduct of his kind nurse, and they expressed to her their appreciation of her kindness in no measured terms.
They did more. After making inquiries about her, and learning her past history and true status, when they returned to Richmond again after carrying the remains of their son home to be buried, they sought her out and said to her; “We have come to make a proposition to you, which we sincerely wish you to accept. We want you to go home with us and be our daughter. We will adopt you as such. We are wealthy, we have no children, and nobody will have any right to complain of our conduct. We make this proposal after careful thought and considerations. We are acquainted with your past history, and know what is the opinion of the world in respect to one in your situation, but we believe any woman who has acted so nobly and generously as you have done can be reclaimed, and, forgetting your past life, we earnestly desire to take you to our hearts and our home and adopt you as our daughter. Will you come?” The beautiful nurse evinced great agitation. Her bosom heaved, and tears flowed from her eyes, and then, amid her sobs, she declined the offer, saying to accept it, “would, while beneficial to me, be doing an injury to you. I do not deserve such generosity, and my services to your poor boy were not given with expectation of reward, but to gratify my own feelings. I knew that you are sincere in your belief that you would ignore and forget my past life, and that you would treat me as if I were, in fact, your daughter, but the world, and your friends and acquaintances, would not let you do it. A ban is upon me; society calls me an outcast, not matter what trials, temptations and solicitation I may have encountered. I have fallen, and there is an unabridged gulf between me and society forever. You would rescue me, and your offer will be a source of happiness to me during all the few remaining years of my life, but as much as I would like to go with you, I cannot wrong you by accepting your offer. My doom is fixed, I regret alas, too late to say, and knowing that I shall never be forgiven by man, I must look alone to Him who is mercy’s self to pardon me hereafter.”
The old Confederate Major, as he reached this part of the reminiscences, drew his big bandana and wiped his eyes, saying to the correspondent:
“You see I witnessed that scene, and I tell you it was the saddest I ever knew. The old gentleman and his wife could not alter the determination of the beautiful girl. Finally they said: ‘Is there anything we can do for you to show our appreciation of your kindness to our son?’ She said: ‘Yes; I ask that you will bestow some of your means in purchasing delicacies for the wounded soldiers and prisoners of both armies.’ They did so, and hundreds of Confederate and Union soldiers, tossing upon their sick beds, blessed the outcast woman who gave them rare wines and cordials and delicacies out of the liberal means at her disposal, and so she became known as the “Angel of Castle Thunder,’ and at early morn amid the night shadows, she was to be seen flitting between Castle Thunder and Libby Prison. At the evacuation of the armies she disappeared, and has never been heard of since.”