6th U.S. Cavalry
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Our rations at first consisted of wheat bread and a piece of boiled beef twice a day, and had the quantity been sufficient, we would have had no reason to complain. A change however soon came, and not for the better. A bakery was established on the island where all the bread and soup for the prisoners was made. I cannot just call it "bread" for it came far from that. It was simply coarse unbolted corn meal, wet up and baked in iron pans about two feet square, and averaged one and one-half inches thick, and generally both crusts were burned black. This was cut into squares of about two inches, which constituted our ration.
With this we generally got an ounce of meat, or one half-pint of soup made of peas which so literally swarmed with bugs that I might justly name it "Bug Soup." Before this could be eaten, it would have to stand to let the bugs rise to the top to be skimmed off, and the sand settle to the bottom. Very frequently all this would come but once a day, and sometimes raw sweet potatoes would be our only allowance.
The prisoners were divided into squads of one hundred, and messes of twenty-five men. A Sergeant would draw rations for one hundred men, which he divided into four parts, and then issued them to the four mess squads. They would then divide the rations into twenty-five squad parts. Then to avoid partiality or fraud, one would turn his back and call off names. The only to make sure of our rations after we got it was to swallow it as quickly as possible or some wretch would take it away, if he had to knock you down to get it.
Should there be a bone in the rations, it was prized above everything else, as the nutrient in the bone was more than the ration of meat, and would often occupy our attention for a whole day, scraping pounding and boiling it until every particle was gone. Men were sick and dying, and in order to keep the required number in each squad we were all turned out of camp and counted once a week, and when there was a deficiency it was filled with other men, and if a man failed to get counted, he lost his rations. I remember one poor fellow, a mere youth, who accidentally, or through a lack of that all important and most essential virtue, "self-preservation," failed to get counted in, and therefore no provision was made for his rations. For two or three days he wandered around camp as one demented, and perhaps I might truthfully say, after brooding over his direful situation, his reason had become impaired. As soon as the facts of his case became known, a report was made to the Comissary officer, who at once ordered a pail of soup for the starving comrade. I should say the pail held three quarts and was full. He was not long in devouring the contents, and before the sun set he was carried out of camp and laid in a row with others awaiting burial.
The Union prisoners were held on the lower part of the island, to the left in this image taken immediately after the war. Photo taken from north bank of the James.
When I first entered the camp the squad to which I was assigned was numbered 37, and for a long time I was as well satisfied and just as contented as in any other, thinking that before a great while there would be an exchange and the whole camp would be cleared. Time wore slowly away, week after week, and even months had passed and still no authentic reports of exchange. Rumors were in camp nearly every day that the commissioners had agreed to exchange, and that we would be released before another week. Some would have it that the transports had already arrived at City Point with 15,000 prisoners for exchange. Such rumors, although false, had a cheering effect and the men would catch at them with a hope of salvation as a drowning man would grasp at a straw.
Prisoners had occasionally been taken out of camp, and I supposed were exchanged, but at that time did not know nor could I find out. But one thing I did notice, they were almost invariably the men who had been the longest imprisoned. Pondering over my unfortunate situation, and longing for freedom, this idea came to me, if I could manage to get into the lower squads, possibly I might stand a better chance of getting away. I was determined to make the attempt. The first was by trying to crowd in at the gate when we were counted off, but all the satisfaction I got was a curse and a blow over the head by a Rebel Sergeant, (who always carried a chain) that sent me reeling. I made up my mind that that plan would not work, so I resolved to wait and watch, hoping some more feasible plan might present itself. I had tried to buy a berth in one of the lower squads but was unsuccessful.
At length the long sought opportunity arrived, and I must confess it was brought about in a most novel manner. I was strolling around the camp one day when I saw a crowd gathering in the street, loud and harsh words were heard. Two men were earnestly contending about something. I saw there was to be a fight, which was not an uncommon occurrence there. I drew near to the scene. The challenge had been accepted. They cooly [sic] laid aside their coats, and the contest for the championship began. It was an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth, for about five minutes, and I thought that both were most woefully whipped, when one said "enough."
The victor walked triumphantly to his tent, but the conquered was too exhausted and needed assistance. He was a stranger to me but I volunteered to lend a helping hand, which he gratefully received. I plainly saw by the sunken eyes, the pale and haggard countenance that his days were numbered. I longed to disclose my thoughts, but deeming it more prudent to court a few days before proposing, I bathed his bruises, filled his cup with fresh water and returned to my quarters.
My services had imprinted upon his mind a friendly impression. I made him frequent visits and at the first opportunity that presented itself, I revealed to him what I wanted. He seemed to favor my proposition and said if his companionship was agreeable to me, as soon as the vacancy came I could transfer my worldly effects from the 37th down to the 8th squad, which I very soon did. But for an agreeable associate I had gained nothing, the object however was accomplished.
The heat of the long August days was very oppressive and the camp was usually quiet until the sun had disappeared. Then to learn the news of the day, they would congregate in the streets, talk over their future prospects, and many times I have listened to the most sublime, touching oratory that ever flowed from the lips of the inspired, setting forth the pure, the holy, the noble, and the just merits of the Union cause.
Among us was an aged sire, a native of Tenessee [sic], whose loyalty to the Union had already imprisoned him one and one-half years for refusing to serve the Confederacy. His three sons had been murdered, his home laid in ashes, but so long as he had a voice and strength to speak, it would be raised in pouring forth his maledictions on the Confederate cause. Entreating our men to stand firm to their obligations, although death was staring them in the face, it was more honorable to die than to disgrace their name and country by desertion.
Amid all our thoughts and imaginations nothing seemed so strange as the apathy of the Federal Government toward us. They were doing nothing to release us from the inconceivable wretchedness in which we were placed. There were thousands of human beings who had cheerfully volunteered for the service of the country, ready to sacrifice everything in defense of her laws and institutions, crowded into an enclosure, naked and starving, pestered with vermin, the very air filled with fetid odors, which was enough in itself to plant the seed of death in every system.
Many whose soldiery qualities were unquestioned, and who would have suffered any form of prison life uncomplainingly, sank away and died under this melancholy delusion, while a few whose ties were slight to the Union, sought service in the rebel ranks. It would seem almost unjust to censure one under such circumstances for violating his oath and swearing allegiance to an unjust cause, with the promise of life and liberty. But almost invariably such propositions were scornfully rejected.
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