Arrival at Camp Ford - The Stockade - Building Huts - Col. Allen Relieved by Col. Border - Adjutant McEachan -"Keno" - Tied Up by the Thumbs - Rations Cut Off - The Famous Order, "Kill All Recaptured Prisoners" - New Recruits from Gen. Steel's Army - Building Hospital - Poisonous Insects - Fourth of July Celebration - Exchange of One Thousand Prisoners - New "Cart-el" - Tunneling - Our Flag in Prison - Different Trades - Inflation Prices - Old Citizen Dumped - Brutal Treatment of Prisoners - Escape of Maj. Bering and Lieut. Srofe - New Commander.
AFTER seven days weary marching, we arrived at Camp Ford, situated four miles east of Tyler, Smith county, Texas, an old prison, which contained about 600 Union soldiers. It was commonly called "the Stockade," and had been enlarged from about three acres to six, in order to make room for new-comers. It was surrounded by logs set into the ground, and projecting out five or six feet, on the outside of which the guards were stationed. When we came in sight of the stockade, all eyes were directed toward what was to be our future home. The sight was not very encouraging. Inside of what appeared to be a large pen, were a few log cabins scattered around, with here and there a hut, made of brush, or a hovel, made altogether of yellow clay. Every cabin, and every available high spot of ground, were covered by the old prisoners, who were dressed in "tatters and rags," and all anxious to get a glimpse of "Gen. Banks' Army," which the rebels reported as being captured. We were marched to the upper part of the stockade and drawn up in line, when Col. Allen, the prison commander, addressed the prisoners to the effect, that each regiment would be allowed the length of the ground they occupied, with a width of twenty feet, for their quarters, and told them to make themselves as comfortable as possible. We thought this rather cool, as we had no blankets or covering of any kind. We had marched 500 miles since we left Berwick Bay, March 7th, and to say we were tired, foot-sore, hungry and discouraged, would be stating it mildly.
The officers of our Regiment were kindly invited by the old officers in prison, to their several shanties, and provided with supper and lodging until they succeeded in building a residence of their own. For this kindness, the officers of the Regiment will forever consider themselves under obligations to the old prisoners. The following day the officers of the Regiment decided to build a log cabin. We borrowed one ax, and paid for the use of another, and by two weeks hard work we had succeeded in erecting a log hut, by carrying the logs half a mile. In the course of time the prisoners succeeded in building shanties, brush huts, or rude hovels, by burrowing in the ground.
One difficulty in making shelter was the scarcity of axes; still greater, to get permits to go outside. The rebel authorities claimed that they did the best they could, but this was a mistake. It would have been but very little trouble for them, with the slaves at their command, to have built log cabins sufficient to shelter every prisoner. But the enterprising and industrious Northern soldiers only asked permission to go outside and get the necessary material, which was granted to so few at a time, that very little progress could be made.
While engaged in building, the time passed rapidly, but after that was done, it began to hang heavily on our hands. The few books in camp were soon read; playing chess became irksome after a while, and too much sleeping during the day spoiled our rest at night.
Our meals did not occupy a great deal of our time. After roll-call we had breakfast, which consisted of corn bread and corn coffee, and dinner as soon thereafter as possible, consisting of corn bread and beef, our supper being made up of the scraps of the two previous meals, provided there had been anything left.
We had settled down and were getting used to the new order of things, when, about the middle of May, ten or twelve hundred prisoners that had been captured at Marks' Mills, Arkansas, from Gen. Steel's command, were turned into the stockade. A short time afterward, another party arrived, consisting of about six hundred prisoners, generally known as Col. Leek's men. They had been sent forward for exchange, but on account of some difficulty, were returned to their old quarters after an absence of eight or ten weeks. They were decidedly a hard-looking set of men, as they had been in prison for nearly a year, and during that time had not received a single article of clothing.
After eight or ten weeks under Col. Allen, as prison commander, he was superseded by Lieut. Col. Border. Col. Allen was not a bad man at heart. He did not misuse any of the prisoners, although he never granted them any particular favors. He put off every one with fair promises, which were seldom redeemed.
Our new commander, Col. Border, was somewhat on the "black-flag" order - "kill as you go" - but too indolent to carry out any of his threats. He had a worthy tool in the person of his Adjutant, Lieut. McEachan, who was always contriving something to cause trouble, that he might "shoot Yankees by the wholesale," as he remarked on one occasion.
We were well supplied with gamblers, and their favorite game was called "Keno." Sometimes as many as a dozen different gambling institutions were in full blast in the public square. Every few days Adjutant McEachan, with a squad of soldiers, would slip in and surround the gamblers and capture their funds. To avoid these raids, the gamblers would place a sentinel, who, when he saw McEachan coming, would give the watch-word, "Keno," which was repeated all over the camp, and thus they were protected from future raids. But this watch-word, "Keno," McEachan thought was applied to him, for whenever he appeared he was greeted on all sides with the cry of "Keno," which so exasperated him that he would take whole squads out and punish them for refusing to point out the parties who called out "Keno." To deliver up a fellow-prisoner was never thought of for a moment; consequently, the whole squad would be punished, by tying their thumbs to a beam overhead, and compelling them to stand with their bare feet on sharp sticks driven into the ground. He finally withheld the rations from the whole camp, unless the leaders of the "Keno" cry would be delivered up for special punishment. But Col. Flora and Capt. DeHart, of the 46th Indiana, having sent word to the commander at Tyler, notifying him of the action of the Adjutant, he ordered Col. Border to supply the prisoners with rations without delay. But for the prompt action of Col. Anderson, the commander at Tyler, there is no telling how the matter might have ended. Had the Adjutant persisted in his threat to starve us into compliance with his terms, the four thousand desperate and half-starved prisoners would no doubt have overpowered the guards and flooded the country.
After the public reprimand of McEachan by Col. Anderson, he did not torment the Yankees by wholesale, but made individuals feel his power. Prisoners recaptured in the attempt to escape, were made to stand on stumps or barrels, for days, without hats or shoes, in the broiling sun, while a guard stood over them with loaded musket, to prevent them from sitting down. Others were tied up by the thumbs in the manner already described, or sent to jail at Tyler, in irons, while several guards, who had shot a number of our men without provocation, were rewarded by promotion for the deed. Then came the famous order to kill all re-captured Yankees:
"Hereafter, any Federal prisoner, being detected in trying to make
his escape from the prison, either in the act or after be has made his escape,
will be shot by the one capturing him.
By order of LIEUT.-COL. BORDER,
"Commanding Camp Ford Prison.
"B. W. McEACHAN, Lieut. and Act'g Adj't."
In this way he kept the camp in a continual state of feverish excitement. In the meantime, additions were being made almost weekly to our number, from Gen. Banks' army, on Red River, and Gen. Steel's army, in Arkansas, until the pen was almost over-crowded, Sickness now began to increase, and the so-called hospital for the prisoners, composed of a log cabin and some brush huts, was soon filled. The sanitary condition of the stockade, and the wants of the sick, are well described in the report of the Prison Surgeon, which is as follows:
Texas, June 14, 1864.
"Surgeon J. H. Hayden, Chief Med. Bureau, Trans. Miss. Dep't.:
"SIR :- In obedience to orders, I reported to Col. Anderson, Commander of Federal prisoners, who placed me on duty as Surgeon in charge. I at once examined the sanitary condition of the stockade, and, although my mind was prepared by representation, to meet with abundant material for disease, it fell far short of the reality. The enclosed ground is entirely too small for the number of men, (over 4,500), and it would be impossible to make them healthy in such a crowded condition. The filth and offal have been deposited in the streets and between the quarters, from which arises a horrible stench. A great number of enlisted men have no quarters or shelter, and have to sleep out on the ground, with not even a blanket to cover them. Some of the sick are thus situated, and I am making preparations to provide for their wants and to make them comfortable. We have a hospital in course of erection, and will need bedding very much. The popular prejudice here is so strong against them, that I can get no facilities from the people. I am ready to receive into the hospital a few, if we had the articles, and they are not to be had here. * * * *
"Very Resp'fy, Your Ob'dt Serv't.
"F. M. MEAGHER."
The Surgeon's report had no more effect on the "Medical Bureau," than his appeal to the "prejudiced people." The only result was, the rebels furnished an old mule and cart, to haul off the garbage.
The enlargement of the hospital to meet the wants of the sick, was done by volunteers from among the prisoners, who erected two buildings, one thirty-five by ten feet, the other about fifty feet long and twenty feet wide, a short distance from the stockade, which was soon filled with emaciated forms. Only the worst cases were allowed to enter. Even then there was not room for half - many dying in the stockade.
The physicians, stewards and nurses were all volunteers, who were stimulated by a generous spirit to assist in relieving the wants of their fellow-prisoners, by administering the meager allowance of medicines and rations of corn bread and beef, which was not very inviting to those who, from disease and exposure, were on the verge of the grave. A large spring in the southwest corner, strongly impregnated with sulphur, supplied the prisoners with wholesome water, which was a great luxury in that miserable pen. We had to exercise great caution on account of the numerous poisonous insects in and around the prison. A soldier was bitten on the neck, which became very much swollen, but the surgeons could not do anything to relieve him, and after much suffering the man died. A short time afterward, a tarantula was found under a board in his cabin. The tarantula is in fact an overgrown spider, and sometimes attains the size of the hand. He is a repulsive looking object, with his glaring black eyes and frightful claws. His bite is said to be more fatal than that of the rattlesnake. They were to be found everywhere under the tall grass, and in the woods, under logs and in hollow trees. If he is disturbed in his nest, he will spring at the intruder like a tiger, sometimes jumping three and four feet.
On the 4th of July, we requested of the Prison Commander permission to celebrate Independence day, which he finally granted, with the promise not to allude to the "unpleasantness" then existing between the North and South. We assembled at 10 A. M. under our green arbors, formed by the green boughs across the whole width of the street, where a rude platform had been erected for the speakers. The exercises consisted of reading the Declaration, orations and toasts. Here were gathered the officers and men from nearly every Northern, and some from Southern States - representing, by their monograms, nearly every branch of the service. "Some wore the bugles of infantry, others the cross-sabers of cavalry or the trumpets of sharp-shooters, while the crossed-cannon represented the artillery, the turrets and shield the engineers, and gold-banded caps the navy." But the majority were without sign of rank, or uniform of any kind, being dressed in butternut, or the rebel grey. As Duganne says:
"Such effigies of garments! armless shirts and legless trousers; bits of blanket tied about the loins; such patches of every size and hue; such scarecrow figures of humanity! Their wives and mothers would not know them from the chiffoniers who rake out Northern gutters."
But their love for the Union and the "old flag" was as deep and fervent as ever, as was evinced by their frequent and hearty cheers during the exercises. Twice the celebration was marred by rebel interference; once by the officer of the day, who did not know that we had received the proper authority; the second time by a sergeant and a file of soldiers, who charged us with displaying the American flag. We were finally allowed to proceed with the celebration, with the warning that if a flag was displayed, the guards would open fire on the prisoners.
A few days after the celebration, about one thousand of the oldest prisoners were exchanged. Before leaving, they presented their huts and cooking utensils to the most needy prisoners.
Numerous ways were tried by the prisoners to escape. A large number succeeded in getting away by bribing the guards, while others tried tunneling, although there were many who did not have any faith in that mode of escape. Still, the work performed in digging proved beneficial, as it kept their minds and hands employed, while they forgot everything else. But very few tunnels were ever completed, so as to be of any benefit for escape. The rebels generally discovered them in time to prevent the prisoners from getting away, and always compelled those caught digging to fill the tunnel up again.
Still another way was the garbage cart. It was driven by one of the prisoners, accompanied by two guards. While the cart was being loaded with the refuse of the camp, some of the prisoners would engage the guards in a trade, while two of their number would secrete themselves in the cart and allow themselves to be covered up with the garbage; then the cart was driven to the woods and dumped, the men hiding in the brush until dark, when they would make good their escape. One day two officers were thus secreted, but when the cart started, a half-witted prisoner informed the guards. Upon being dumped, the officers were very much surprised to see the sentinels, who marched them back to prison. This ended that way of escape, known as the "New Cart-el."
After the prisoners had succeeded in getting out of the stockade, they had a greater difficulty to surmount in evading the pack of bloodhounds, which was constantly kept at headquarters, to hunt down escaped prisoners. Three or four weeks before we arrived, fifteen officers made their escape one stormy night, but in less than forty-eight hours, thirteen had been recaptured by the hounds. Duganne, in "Camps and Prisons," gives the following description of the last one that was retaken :
"Lieut. Collins, a fine western officer, was nearly murdered by them. He had stopped to rest, when the deep howl of dogs apprised him of pursuit. Ere he could make away, two rebels rode upon him. A brace of six-shooters were leveled at his breast, and the accustomed threat, with a huge oath, of shooting on the spot, was flung at him, "We'll give the dogs a taste of your infernal Yankee blood. Seize him ! Shake him !" The furious hounds, thus encouraged, sprang at Lieut. Collins; their glittering white teeth, with white foam gathered on their fiery gums, met in his ragged uniform. He felt the tearing of his garments, and expected momentarily to bleed; when the rebels, with malicious laughter, called off their hounds. "You see, Yank, they'd as soon eat Yank as nigger. Now jes' tote yer carcass, Yank, or we'll shoot you on sight, by -------."
"To fully realize and appreciate these 'dogs of war,' one ought to be hunted and a fugitive, like Lieut. Collins and his compatriots. While sinking with fatigue, spent with privation, hopeless of escape, to hear the wolf-like yelp and long, hyena howl of these trained man-hunters, is something to experience. Some hounds will track a human being, day and night, for weeks, and follow his scent, especially if it be a negro, hundreds of miles, through swamps and woods and over watercourses. They are at times like game-dogs, smelling the ground at intervals, making deerleaps, springing up to touch the overhanging leaves with their nose, they double and dart around in circles, cross a stream, and then, with a few sniffs of the air, rush, up or down the bank to find their broken scent again.
"The quickness of their smell is quite as wonderful as its tenacity. When a negro or a white man is to be pursued, the dogs are simply taken to the trail and made to nose it. The real hounds are never allowed to hunt down any game inferior to man. When not in use, they are chained up and kept on starving rations. They grow fierce as tigers, with forced abstinence, and their scent becomes acute in the extreme. Woe to the hunted man, if hunger-maddened hounds overtake him in the swamps or timber, while the mounted pursuers are too far behind to call them off or moderate their savage eagerness. Woe to the fugitive if the sleuth-dogs once taste his blood !"
The rebels tried on all occasions, by misrepresentation, to make the prisoners believe that it was the fault of our Government that we were not exchanged, which, in the absence of any proof to the contrary, was accepted as the truth by many, and naturally caused some dissatisfaction. Besides, the rebels offered great inducements to our soldiers to desert. Mechanics, of all kinds, were tempted with promises of steady work at big wages; but to their credit be it said, in spite of their longing for liberty, coupled with the deprivations in prison, but few accepted these offers. One prisoner begged to be let out, on any conditions that the rebels might name. He had quarreled with his best friend about a loaf of corn bread, and in a fit of anger had struck him behind the ear with his fist, with such force that he dropped dead at his feet. He took the oath of allegiance to the Confederacy, and was let out of prison. We never heard from him afterward.
When we were captured, our color-bearer, Isaac Scott, tore the regimental flag from the staff, and gave it to his mess-mate, to conceal in his haversack. He was left sick on the way to prison, and did not arrive for some time after, but through all his sickness he clung to the flag, and upon arriving at Camp Ford, delivered it to the officers of the Regiment for safe keeping. A hole was dug inside of our shanty, in which we buried the flag. But the rebels found out, through some means, that there was a Union flag in camp. They searched for it on several occasions, but failed to discover it. To keep our large, beautiful silk flag buried, would soon have ruined it, therefore it was sewed up in Capt. Gunsaullus's blouse. He wore it among the rebels, with the flag sewed inside the lining. The flag was shown secretly to a number of prisoners, some of whom had been in captivity for nearly two years, and their eyes glistened at the sight of that "Emblem of Freedom."
The rebels furnished us with a few kettles and old axes. Everything else we had to provide ourselves, in the best way we could. For wash-tubs we made troughs; for wash-boards we cut ridges in boards. Our army being composed of men of every trade, in a short time most of them were at work, contriving something pertaining to their several handicrafts. There was the tailor, the shoemaker, the watch-maker, the turner, with his lathe, who made chess, checkers and other articles; and the baker, who made leather biscuits at twenty cents apiece, or a pie for a dollar. The most extensive industries were the manufacture of stools and arm-chairs, and plaiting straw for summer hats. There were also brokers, who exchanged Confederate money for coin and "Greenbacks," giving forty dollars in exchange for the former, and seven for the latter - loaning money at fifty per cent, payable when exchanged. There were also dealers in tobacco, buttons, etc.
For amusements, we had chess and checkers. We also had religious services every Sabbath, as long as the chaplains remained, and prayer meetings twice a week. And last, but not least, the printer was there with his paper, called "The Camp Ford News," which was published occasionally by Lieut. Hughes, of the 28th Iowa. The letters were made with a pen, in imitation of printers' type, The paper was quite a success, and was the source of much amusement.
Our rations, which consisted of one pint of corn meal and about half a pound of fresh beef, (salt was issued in such small quantities that it scarcely deserves mention,) were brought in every morning in bulk, and divided at the "Public Square," Capt. Joe Stevison, of the 77th Ills., superintending the thankless task very satisfactorily. His services will be kindly remembered by all. Provisions could be bought of the old planters in the vicinity, but at enormous prices - corn meal from five to eight dollars a bushel; flour two and a half dollars a pound; salt from one to two dollars a pint; bacon one dollar a pound; while coffee, sugar, butter and chickens were not in the market, except at such fabulous prices that the prisoners were unable to purchase, except in small quantities, and then not often.
One day an old citizen, accompanied by a guard, came in with a cart-load of provisions to dispose of. A crowd soon gathered around him, climbing up on his cart and mule, and filling every available space. While he was busily engaged, selling to the prisoners, who were crowding and thrusting by the handful their Confederate scrip, in exchange for his produce, some one pulled out the dumping-pin, and away went the old man, guard, gun, bacon, chickens, meal, etc., to the ground. When he regained his feet, everything had disappeared but the mule and cart. He had even lost his pocket-book and hat.
In regard to the treatment of the prisoners, it was generally bad, and in some cases brutal and even cruel to the last degree. Calvert, of the 77th Ohio, was shot by the guard, merely to try his marksmanship. 0. S. Shoemaker, of the 130th Illinois, formerly from near Lynchburg, Ohio, was shot through and killed, while conversing on a religious subject with a comrade. A member of the 173d New York, while running after his hat, which had blown off, was fired at by one of the guards with a shot-gun, and the entire charge lodged in his face and shoulders.
About the 10th of August, the rebel papers announced that there would be no more exchange of prisoners, on account of the difficulty concerning the exchange of negro soldiers, which naturally caused many to think about making their escape. On the 20th of August, Maj. Bering and Lieut. Srofe forged a pass, and left Camp Ford for Little Rock, Ark. The account of their adventures will be found at the close of the history of the Regiment.
The day after they made their escape, the Commander of the Prison, Col. Border, was relieved by Col. Sweet. The prisoners were all drawn up in line, preparatory to being turned over to our new commander. All who had escaped, up to this time, had been accounted for in various ways, but the number had now become too large. We therefore concluded to account only for those present, knowing that they would not find out when the absentees escaped or how long they had been gone. The first name called, of the absentees, was that of Maj. Bering. The answer was, "Taken a French." The next, Lieut. Srofe, and so on, until they found out for the first time that no less than twenty-four officers had made their escape, but had heretofore been successfully accounted for as present. At first they treated the discovery as a joke, but when it reached so large a number they were vexed, and they afterwards instructed their roll-callers not to accept the word of any prisoner for the whereabouts of an officer, but to see each in person. However, they soon found it too difficult to hunt up every one that was not present, and dropped into the old way again.
With the new commander came new guards, who were old men above fifty, taken from the rebel reserve. They were very vigilant, and escapes were less frequent.
Although a large number of the men suffered considerably with sore eyes,
scurvy and dysentery, the Regiment lost but three from sickness while in
prison, Moore, of Co, B, James Purdy, Co. C, and M. Nash, Co. G. This was
owing in a great measure to their energy, in building huts, caves or shelters;
to their long service, and the spirit of "never despair," peculiar
to the Western troops.