From the Southern Opinion, 11/23/1867
CASTLE THUNDER IN BELLUM DAYS
BY J. MARSHALL HANNA
Those Within and Without – Sketches of the Commandant, Captain Alexander, Mrs. D. Mary Walker, Joseph G. Conner, The English Captain, Lieutenant Marie, and Caphart, the Executioner, etc.
Castle Thunder! What a horridly euphonious name for a prison place. So suggestive of doom and death. And so it proved to many a Confederate soldier, who, lying in the dungeons damp, or crowded into the common pens, for long weeks and months awaiting trial for some violation of army regulation, sickened, and were taken forth – not to the court martial, but to Oakwood Cemetery, where Death was recruiting another great Confederate army. Death finds little respects paid to its grim shape in stern war times, and as the dead passed the Castle doors day by day, there were no tears shed for the departing by those left behind. Such jocular remarks as these would be invoked by the appearance of the dead wagon at the gates, and the passage of the corpse thereto: “There goes a fellow with his discharge in his pocket.” “Wish I was him.” “Got his pine overcoat at last, bound for Oakwood.” “Good-bye, Johnny,” etc.
Thus did the living learn to mock the dead; but such are the teachings of war, and “Dies in Castle Thunder” is the entry upon the tablets of scores of anguished hearts in Southern homes today.
But there are, we suppose, thousands of men throughout the South, who, as Confederate soldiers, were at one time or another, during the four years of its existence, inmates of Castle Thunder. Not that they had committed grave offences, but that was not necessary, for the smallest ???? of military regime – such as neglect, [next two lines are illegible, but seem to list the crimes that might get one incarcerated in Castle Thunder] unfortunate offender to the Purgatory of Castle Thunder, for a period of time measured according to his offending. It will interest, we know, this large number to learn something concerning the place where they first experienced the hospitalities of a Confederate prison, though the remembrance of it be painful; and the great publick, in whose ear Castle Thunder was dinged through the Press during the war, until it became familiar over the whole South, will listen willingly to the reminiscences of an institution that is numbered with those of the past, its glory and its terror alike departed.
The first Confederate prison was located in a dingy alley, back of Franklin street, between Fourteenth and Fifteenth streets. Here John Minor Botts and other “Union” men were imprisoned for a short time in 1861.
Castle Godwin (for by such name it was known), was abandoned in 1862, and the large tobacco factory of William Greanor & Sons, on Cary street, between Eighteenth and Nineteenth streets, became the receptacle of the prisoners. This factory soon after came to be known as Castle Thunder – a term that had already entered into history and become historical. It was never known, and we believe never inquired into, as to who suggested the name. But before it became known as Castle Thunder, Captain George W. Alexander had taken command of the post, and we believe he applied or suggested it to members of the Richmond press, who did the rest through their respective journals, styling the post, in their reports, “Castle Thunder.”
Captain Alexander, the commandant, was of unusually fine physique, in height about five feet six inches, shoulders broad, and chest deep, limbs elegantly moulded and proportioned, and when set off by his Zouave leggings and Confederate uniform, his appearance was one to attract notice. His face was full, complexion olive, black hair, mustache and beard. In his youth, he was a sailor, which fact gave to him a natural, easy gait and swagger of carriage, which better became the deck of a ship than the wards of a prison. His voice was of the loud, rattling kind, and he loved to shout his commands as though delivering them through a speaking-trumpet. He loved to command and threaten, and there were qualities in him that greatly assisted him. In his moods he was capable of inspiring either hatred, love or fear. Whether sitting in his office or moving about through the Castle he always wore his sword and pistol – sometimes two of them His black felt hat was adorned with a feather of the same hue, and altogether he was a striking and unique figure.
The constant attendant upon the commandant, lying at his feet, walking at his side, or ranging through the Castle, with the entrée of every quarter, was “Hero,” the Russian bloodhound, of massive size, terrible appearance, but peaceful in disposition. He acted only upon orders from his master, but then that action was quick as a thunderbolt. The person of the commandant was perfectly secure in his company, though he was unarmed.
The sagacity of Hero seemed to partake of the military character, and he fell readily into the routine of the Post. At the drum beat for parade in the guard room for mustering relief, Hero would walk through the gang-way, pausing for the sentinel to remove his musket, and leisurely ascend the stairway to the guard room. There he would seat himself on his haunches, and calmly observe the evolutions of the guard. Some of the guard on coming to a “present arms,” would pretend to salute Hero; whereat the dog would express delight, nod and yawn, as though he comprehended the movement, which doubtless he did, after a dog’s fashion. The parade over, Hero would descend to the great prison room, and attend the roll call of the prisoners, manifesting the same degree of interest.
In this way Hero inspected all the operations of the Castle, penetrating to the cook room and mess room, but never touching anything unless given him from the hand of the Commandant. He was afraid of being poisoned by some of the prisoners who were enemies to his master, and therefore kept upon his guard, eating his daily rations of raw beef and bread, prepared by his master.
The next figure that we shall introduce, is that of Miss Doctor Mary Walker. She was apprehended in General Johnson’s lines in Georgia, in 1863, we think, and sent to the Castle upon suspicion that she might be a spy in disguise. Her arrival in Richmond created a sensation, as well it might, as she was the most outré looking creature that could be well conceived. Her costume when she entered the Castle, blended the Bloomer with that of the Exquisite – blue frock coat, buttoning up to the throat, with brass buttons, blue trowsers, full Bloomer hat, and neat little boots. She exhibited the commission of a Surgeon in the Federal service, and the insignia of her dress also denoted that rank.
Good looking she was; face fair and oval, eyes blue, a figure petite and round, small and lithe. – Good humored she was too, and laughed instead of cried, and when brought into the presence of the Commandant, she saluted him with a “Hallo Captain! At your service, sir.”
She was unarmed with the exception of a small poinard she carried in her bosom. This she refused to give up, and when the Commandant made a jocular motion to take the weapon by force, she stepped back, planting forward her dainty foot, and flashed its blade against him.
We do not know how long she was detained at the Castle, but while she remained, she was treated by the Commandant more like a guest than a prisoner. At first she was granted the freedom of the office, where she would sit all day conversing and joking with the detectives and reporters, who she declared were a “horrid set” for having caricatured her so badly in their reports.
“I am a lady, gentlemen,” she would say, “and I dare any man to insult me.” And her delicate fingers would tap her poignard significantly.
After a time she was granted a parole, and frequently appeared upon the streets, followed by a rabble of hooting boys wherever she went. But she did not mind in the least that species of rough attention, but rather seemed to like it, if not positively enjoy it.
Finally Miss Doctor Mary Walker was sent North by flag of truce, but returned here after the evacuation, and on the 4th of July, 1865, was the reader of the Declaration of Independence on the occasion of the negro celebration of the day on Capitol Square. She is at present, or was recently, in London and Paris, making an exhibition of herself. She threatens a book on her Confederate experiences. Gracious!
[next two lines illegible] but at what particular time he was committed to the Castle we do not remember. He entered the Confederacy at Wilmington, North Carolina, on one of the blockade runners, and came on direct to Richmond. At the Passport office he applied for papers under the name of Stanton, but was recognized by the clerk as Joseph G. Conner, of Baltimore, and arrested as a Federal spy. Frequent and tedious examinations before Commandant Baxter failed to produce any direct evidence against him. But still his innocence was not clear, and he lay many months in the Castle. The writer of these Recollections and Colonel George P. Kane, with both of whom the prisoner was acquainted, being importuned by him, made unsuccessful efforts to obtain his release. The authorities were convinced that he was a spy, yet they could not convict and hang him as such without the evidence.
When Richmond fell, Conner, among other prisoners, escaped, and then it was he proclaimed his true character, and threw off his false one, as no longer needful. He was a Federal spy, in the employ of the secret service of the United States Government.
Conner, at liberty among his Yankee friends, at once began his work of revenge, but those against whom his wrath most burned ha left the city, and he turned his attention to citizens, levying blackmail in some instances, and seizing property in others. For these and other crimes he was apprehended by the military authorities, convicted before Judge Mcintee’s Court, and served a term in the Penitentiary. He was released about one year ago, and disappeared.
One of those whom we believe suffered imprisonment wrongfully was Captain Greenwall, a young Englishman of the British service, who, like a few others of his countrymen, prompted by a love of adventure, or a real desire to aid the South, came over and landed at Charleston in 1863. Here he found employment in the corps of Topographical Corps of Engineers, but falling under the evil eye of suspicion, was arrested and forwarded to Castle Thunder. Here the writer made his acquaintance, and found him intelligent, and even learned to a degree only attained by the higher classes of English society. He was handsome as he was intelligent. He stated he had served in the Crimean and Indian wars, but unfortunately had nothing to support his professions save his own averments. A long confinement in the dreary Castle followed, varied only by his frequent examinations before the authorities. Nothing was proven, and he was discharged. But his proud spirits were broken; he was thousands of miles from home, penniless, and though his wants would, in a measure, have been supplied by entering the Confederate service, he had not the heart to aid in the defence of a Government that had so unjustly and cruelly suspicioned his first honest intentions, and injured his names and honor Many is the time we have seen tears come into his fine eyes when any allusion to the subject of his treatment was made in his presence.
In his great need he found a good friend in the late A. Judson Crane, of this city, who allowed him the use of a room in his office for a bed-chamber, and supplied him with money.
He was a strange young man, and there was a mystery about him that he would not, and nobody else could, explain.
One day an English advertisement appeared in one of the Richmond newspapers, calling for information of Captain Greenwall, and warning him, if that notice should reach his eye, to return to England immediately, as a fortune awaited him. – Whether this notice was the genuine emanation from his family, or whether it was a very clever ruse on his part, we never learned; but Captain Greenwald disappeared from his accustomed haunts, and we saw him no more. We trust he is at home, happy and rich.
St. Marie, the celebrated witness against John H. Surratt, who is reported to have tracked him in his wanderings over the world, encountering him in different quarters thereof, was an inmate of the Castle at some time during 1864, but under and assumed name, we believe. He was apprehended as a Federal spy, inside the Confederate lines, but in his case too, unfortunately, the necessary evidence to convict him was not available, and the utmost the Confederate authorities could do was to send him out through one of the blockade ports to Bermuda. He made his way thence to Canada, and his next appearance was in the character of the important witness against Surratt.
So far we have written concerning political prisoners only. There were others of the same class, but their cases present no incidents of interest. – Political prisoners were confined separately from all others, in cells located in the second story, the windows looking upon Cary street. There was a separate cell for women, fitted up expressly for the reception of Mrs. Patterson Allen, but refined society cried out against the humiliation intended for it, and Mrs. Allen was transferred into the tender keeping of the Academy of St. Vincent de Sales. – But other women, good, tender and innocent as she, have mourned their days, and wept their nights away in the gloomy apartment appropriated to their sex at the Castle.
Three or four executions of spies, counterfeiters and outlaws took place during the war. The executioner on all these occasions was John Caphart, who was attached to Castle Thunder in the capacity of detective for the commandant. Caphart was a man with a history. He was the same who, many years ago, in Massachusetts, when the Fugitive Slave Law was in force, brought off from that city to Virginia, an escaped slave named Burns, who had been remanded to his master by the Massachusetts courts.
The Abolitionists at the head of whom was the notorious Passmore Williamson, attempted a rescue as Caphart was carrying the slave away to the cars. Caphart clung to his man, wielded his club, beating back his assailants, who, black and white, howled upon him like wolves. Burns was torn from his clutch; he grasped him again. Away went part of Caphart’s coat; he cared not, but resolved to take his prisoner or die. He did the former, and we believe brought Burns back to Virginia, for which he was rewarded by his master.
Caphart, subsequently in the police of Norfolk, and during the war at Richmond, maintained that trait of indomitable resolve. He was never known once to let a prisoner go after the iron vice of his grasp was fairly upon him. If he resisted he used a peculiar heavy stick that he always carried, but prisoners, knowing this [next two lines illegible] heavy set, beard white, long and flowing ??? adown the hairy strands a muddy rivulet of tobacco juice was always coursing. His face was hard; features large and firm; eyes grey, cold and cruel.
At an execution, Caphart was off-hand and impromptu, showing no more concern while fixing the noose, or pulling the bolt, than when turning the key in the lock-up. If a culprit expostulated with him about the arrangement of the noose, Caphart would reply, “Oh, never mind, I know how to fix it right.” If he prayed for a little more time, he would be comforted by the assurance that the sooner over, the sooner ended.
“But oh! Mr. Caphart, I do not want to die!”
“But you must. So be a man. Now do, for my sake. You know I always treated you well;” patting the subject on the back.
“But my God, Caphart, this is hard!”
“I know it is, but its my duty. Now hush! – That’s enough. Good bye;” pulling down the cap, and turning down the steps.
“Oh! one moment –”
Be-lung! falls the trap. Caphart’s work is done, and as he surveys his work, he draws forth a red bandanna, removes his hat, and stands wiping his face – wiping a moist eye, perhaps.
But all these things are of the past, and here we shall rest these Recollections of Castle Thunder. – Caphart is dead and in his grave – passed to that bourne to which he dispatched the malefactors – the executioner with the executed.
The Castle doors are opened, the guards removed, and the prisoners gone to their country and their home.
The captor and the captive too,
Have bid their prison place adieu.
The Castle is a Castle no more – only a tobacco factory, in which busy hives of negroes work and sing.