From the National Tribune, 11/16/1905

Castle Thunder, the Rebel Bastile for Deserters, Spies and Criminals - Repeated Attempts at Escape - Execution of Webster, the Union Spy - Merciless Shooting of Deserters - Responsibility for the War.

By FRANK B. DORAN, St Paul Minn. [probably 52nd Ill. - ed.]

...The frequency of public mention and private recital of occurrences relating to the various prisons of that eventful period have depended so largely upon the numbers confined in each that the names of Libby and Belle Isle, of Andersonville and Millen, of Salisbury, Columbia and Florence have become as household words, while the location of some of the most tragic events of that great epoch are comparatively unknown. The Knoxville Jail, in Eastern Tennessee, and Castle Thunder, in Richmond, are good illustrations.

Twice in Castle Thunder.

I served two terms, each of two months’ duration, in Castle Thunder, and this section of my story will relate chiefly to a part of my personal experience and observation therein.

During the latter part of March, 1863, I arrived in Richmond in a deplorable condition as to personal appearance or comfort. My escape from Jackson had so far succeeded as to enable me to traverse a number of hundred miles, which resulted in greatly demoralizing my wardrobe, for which I had no change in that three months’ term, and my feet were nearly bare. Upon my arrival in Richmond, in the tramp, from the railway, on the Manchester side of the James River, to the Castle, we encountered at least four inches of Spring slush snow. We arrived in the evening. We arrived under due way-billing from Mobil, where we had been confined since our Jackson escape. We came via freight train and had been five days in transit. Our party consisted of the Michigan soldier, in whose company the escape above referred to had been made, and recaptured and were being returned to Lee’s army under guard.

We two Yankees were billed to Libby, while the others were billed to Castle Thunder, which was more of a Southern guard-house than a Union prison. In the line of march from the station to the prison we came first to the Castle, where we stopped to leave the conscripts. Here the Sergeant handed over all his papers to the officer in charge, who, discovering therefrom that I was a civilian, claimed it might be found proper to file charges against me as a possible spy, and that they would retain me at the Castle pending investigation. To this proposal the Sergeant made protest, as I was included in the assignment to Libby ad he must deliver me.

His objection was overcome through his being furnished a receipt for me to the Libby officials, and Parks, the Michigan soldier, was separted[sic] from me, and so was my overcoat, which he was wearing, and neither Parks nor coat has ever been heard from by me, though for a few weeks my need of the coat was urgent, our quarters having neither windows, fire or blankets, and the weather was inclement.

We entered the Castle about midway of its front. From the door a passageway extended to the rear of the building. In the immediate front of this passage a door opened on the left to the prison office, while similarly on the right the prison guard-room was entered. Memory recalls with what longing I regarded the bright fire that blazed in the grate as seen through the open door of this guard-room. My snow-soaked feet, my hunger and long loss of adequate rest and sleep very likely gave an exaggerated estimate of the comforts of that fire. Little time was given for contemplation, for a guard was sent to escort us - the conscripts and me - to our quarter.

As in the Mobile and Mississippi prisons where I had been confined some regard was had for the stomachs of captive Yankees, I was foolish enough to wonder at this time, what we were to have for supper, for I had not tasted food since morning. But it soon dawned upon me that, veteran as I might be, I had many things to learn. Richmond was too near the seat of treason and the malign influence of its leaders to permit any catering to such small matters as the hunger of a Yankee prisoner.

The Motley and Brutal Inmates of Castle Thunder.

Thus, with the gnawings of the hungry stomach of robust youth, with the cold of a windowless room, in which no fire was ever lighted, and with snow on the ground, and no friendly blanket, with feet soaked in snow water, and being among and surrounded by a pack of demoniac ruffians who could bankrupt the fervid imagination of Dante himself, I spent a night of horror, a few repetitions of which would seem to suffice to drive reason from its throne in stoic or philosopher.

To reach this chamber our guards conducted us back through the passage mentioned above, at the end of which we found a sentry on guard to prevent any captive from coming down. Passing this sentry we entered upon the passage of two long lights of stairs leading to the third floor, where we found another sentry standing guard ver the stair entrance and over a cot on which lay a man covered, body and face, with a blanket. Still another flight ascended from this floor, for the Castle was four-storied. But. Leaving room for a passageway to the foot of this last stairway, a partition of palings was thrown across this third floor, which partition separated the stair and the man on the cot, with his guard, from the main prison hall, into which we were put through a gateway. A very large gasflame was burning in this small room, making it almost as light as day, and this threw an uncanny light through the latticework of the partition and upon as motley and brutal a crowd as “ever cut a throat or scuttled a ship.”

Our passage up the stairs had attracted the attention of the inmates, and immediately we came in view at the head of the stairway a most unearthly yell was sent up. “Fresh fish!” “Fresh fish!” they bawled, and as soon as the turnkey put us among them they hovered about us like a set of hyenas and speedily despoiled the new arrivals of whatever they possessed which seemed to them desireable. The conscripts had some bundles of clothing, which were confiscated with little ceremony and less courtesy. The only thing they saw about me to attract their cupidity was my hat, which they took, and for the next term of weeks I saw that hat on the head of one of the worst desperadoes that ever went unhanged as long as he did. He was a Federal deserter and all-around desperado, who 15 months later met his just doom at the hands of the suffering heroes in Andersonville. His name was Curtis, and he was credited in Castle Thunder and later in Salisbury, where we again met, with having been a deserter first from a New Orleans organization in the Confederate service, and later still from the Federal army before Fredericksburg. Be this as it may, he met with a well-deserved fate when he was hanged by the prisoners in Andersonville. He, with several others, mostly deserters, was convicted of robbery and murder, and all were put to death on the gallows in that prison-pen in the Summer of 1864, as history records. We have several Minnesota citizens who witnessed the execution.

Desperate and dastardly as was Curtis, he found plenty of boon companions in Castle Thunder. He was a leader among them, but more from superior physical strength than from excessive moral delinquency over the band of cut-throats with whom he trained in the Richmond Bastile. As an instance of their murderous instinct, I recall that two of them deliberately cut off the finger of a sleeping “Fresh fish” who wore a gold ring that fitted too tightly to be removed. The victim had come in from some distant part, and was completely wornout, which caused him to sleep an almost wakeless slumber, and he did not arouse from the attempts to remove the ring until the fiends applied the knife.

McMahons’ Fate.

These were my companions, most of whom were not only criminally brutal, but were the sworn and deadly enemy to the Yankees. My first night was a sleepless one, and the morning light failed to reveal a friendly face. Some of them, as later appeared, were not criminals, and gradually I came to know the sheep from the wolves. I found one interesting character named McMahon, who had lived in Philadelphia, but who, being South at the outbreak of war, had taken service in some local organization, but had been accused of disloyalty and an attempt to desert. He did not consider the charges against him as serious, and the fact that he was not put in a cell was an evidence that his offense was not particularly so. However, before I left Castle Thunder he was taken from our room and sent to the floor above, which indicated graver charges; and later in the season, while I was confined in Libby Prison, I saw poor Mac marched by that place with his hands manacled behind him and in charge of the notorious and infamous detective Caphart and a file of soldiers. He was marched to a place below Richmond called the Rocketts, and there at sunrise was shot to death. He was a courteous gentleman of good education, was intelligent, and entertaining in conversation and in general intercourse. To me he appeared to deserve a better fate.

I have mentioned the man on the couch at the head of the stairs, over whom a guard stood. From McMahon I learned that this man was charged with being a spy and was considered to be one of the most desperate and courageous men known to the authorities. Immediately I took a deep interest in him and used to go to the barrier between us and try to enter into conversation with him. He would talk quite freely until I expressed sympathy for him and told him I was a friend, and then he closed like an oyster.

Webster, the Hero-Spy.

This man was named Webster, and he is mentioned several times in the War Records. Just what the circumstance of his capture was I never drew from him, for I could never gain anything like his full confidence, as he was too shrewd to extend confidence to any stranger, whether a real or pretended friend. He was kept constantly handcuffed, and shortly after I knew him a court-martial was called on his case, and he would be taken down stairs and away from the prison, for a period of each day, for several days.

One afternoon when he came back I had gone to the partition to try to talk with him, when he approached me and said: “Well, I think the court will convict me and I shall be sentenced to hang, but by --- I will dance on the graves of the --- rebels yet. His face was flushed and the fire in his eye spoke plainly how desperate a chance any one of his captors would have who stood in his way on equal terms in conflict. I expressed the deepest regret, and for the first time he seemed to give way to a sentiment that I was what I seemed - a real friend - and he chatted pleasantly till I ventured to ask what his real offense was. That ended it, and he threw himself back on the cot in the corner and relapsed into silence.

Next morning Caphart, the chief detective, and several officers in uniform came up and gathered about him to read the findings of the court-martial and the sentence that he be hanged. He received the sentence with perfect composure, but when Caphart produced a set of shackles for his ankles and proceeded to clasp them on him, his demeanor changed, and he raved like a madman. He said that for weeks they had kept him handcuffed, and now, standing in the shadow of the gallows, a man who never committed a crime against the laws of his country was treated as if the whole --- Confederacy was afraid of him. Before such an outburst of wild rage the court withdrew, and Webster sat in a reverie upon his couch. For hours he remained silent and brooding. Toward night a rebel Major, named Carrington, who seemed to have some connection with either the prison or with the safe-keeping of Webster, came up and talked with him. I was not near enough to the couch to hear what he said; whether it was of an irritating character or whether the sight of the officer irritated the condemned man none of us knew, but suddenly Webster sprang to his feet, and hopping with his shackled limbs toward the officer, he raised his manacled hands above his head and with a terrible oath declared he would brain him right there and then. The major retreated behind the sentry, who came to the rescue, else in my opinion, and in the opinion of all who witnessed it, Webster would actually have beaten out the brains of his foe before he could have drawn his weapon, using therefor the irons that bound him. Beside himself with rage, Webster raved like a demon, and declared he would not die until he had danced on the grave of his enemy. Later, he told me the officer taunted him on his impending fate and made insulting remarks reflecting on his honor. Whatever the cause, he was irritated to a degree that in this instance partook almost of the insane. When the paroxysm was over he settled down in a partial collapse, and when I went to look at him next morning his livid face and labored breathing indicated the presence of the fever that consumed him. So far as I know he did not open his eyes that day nor did he partake of food of any kind for three days.

Webster Attempts to Escape.

One morning as I made my round I found him breathing peacefully as an infant, and the deadly pallor of his face indicated that his fever had abated, but that its consuming fire had left him in a state of great exhaustion. He lay with closed eyes and partook of no food, but, however feeble he appeared, the rebels relaxed no tithe of watchfulness over him nor released him from his fetters. It was whispered about that the man was known to be able to rid himself of handcuffs and shackles if not watched, and as a proper precaution a detective was stationed in an adjoining cell during the night, and the sentry must call him at every watch of two hours to come out and examine Webster’s irons.

The second day of his convalescence passed, and he seemed very weak, but partook of a little nourishment. During the evening of the third day he seemed more like himself, and I saw him talking pleasantly with his guard. He seemed resigned to his fate and was very calm. Standing as he did on the threshold of his doom, all pitied him; even the rough element by whom he was surrounded spoke respectfully of him, and I hoped against hope that something might yet save him.

As this night wore on the thugs and thieves composed themselves to rest, and all dropped in the sawdust on the floor and were soon asleep. A few minutes before the 2 o’clock morning relief came on a terrific din ensued and three shots were fired in rapid succession, while every sentry about the place seemed shouting “Corporal of the Guard” at the top of his voice. Constantly the inmates of our section sprang up and all instinctively ran to the end of the hall where Webster was, or was not, for on looking through the palings we could see his vacant cot with the handcuffs and shackles lying on it, while the blankets lay nearly in the middle of the room and Webster gone. My heart beat with hope that he was gone and safely. It seemed a miracle. Great commotion ensued for some time, and through the open windows came the sound of search and the blaze of lanterns. Then after a half hour or more his escape was admitted, and all settled down to try for sleep.

Some time had elapsed when I was aroused by excited voices and a great clattering on the stairs, and presently a squad of soldiers appeared bearing poor Webster with a badly-shattered ankle. He had leaped 27 feet to the ground, and partly losing his balance, had his leg doubled under him and broken; yet by a superhuman effort he had climbed to the top of a tall lumber pile, which stood near, before the guards reached the spot where he fell. Not finding him, they had given him up, but he, after examining his injuries and realizing the impossibility of escape, had called for help to be taken in and to get treatment for his injuries. He proved to have suffered severe internal injury, and his sufferings for the next few days were excruciating. But the day of his deliverance was at hand, for the day set for his execution had arrived, and though emaciated and suffering from his injuries, he asked for no delay and none was offered. He was borne from his cot to the place of execution on a beautiful April morning, and sat with calmness and fortitude in the chair which was placed on the scaffold. The noose was adjusted, when old Caphart lifted the crippled form to a partially-upright position, gave the signal, the weight was released, and by its fall snatched the form of a noble patriot from the foul embrace of Caphart, bore it aloft, while from its shattered body escaped as dauntless, as brave a spirit as shines in the constellation of war heroes.

Other incidents of thrilling interest ensued, but time forbids their recital; but I may explain that as Webster threw off his blankets his guard was pacing partially away from him. His method of ridding himself of his irons remains to me a mystery. He rapidly crossed the room to the foot of the stairs leading to the floor above. Here he had to throw up a window sash, spring out upon a roof at that level, run along this roof to its end, which abutted upon vacant property below, and where upon an elevated platform paced the other sentry. Still another sentry was located in a sort of court below. So as Webster was in the act of springing out of the window his own sentry fired on him, the ball barely missing him and crashing through the sash just above him. Then as he appeared on the roof the sentry from the court below fired, but missed him.

As he rushed along the roof to the end, so as to leap to the ground outside, he ran almost into the man on the platform, who also fired just as he made the leap overboard to a depth that was stated to be 27 feet.

In a short conversation I was permitted to have with him after the event he expressed a belief that had he been well he certainly would have succeeded; but he said the crashing of the bullet through the sash as he got out startled his nerves and caused him to partly reel as he leaped from the roof. He also averred that this was the first time in his life when a shock affected his nerves. I think his physical forces were overstrained and weak to the extent of causing dizziness, for I do not believe the nerves of Webster ever faltered.

He was a fine specimen of physical strength and beauty. Of medium height, with brown hair, of ruddy complexion, with an eagle-shaped face, his was a striking personality. A rare specimen he was, but he did only what so many thousands of our American youth of that period did who gave their lives as “a last full measure” of devotion to their country. We should cherish their memory and strive to perpetuate that which they helped to achieve.

[remainder of article is a general description of the character of the Confederacy, and was not transcribed]

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