DUGANNE - TWENTY MONTHS IN THE DEPARTMENT OF THE GULF

C H A P T E R   X X X V .

CAMP FORD.

 

IT is dusk, when I enter the wide gates of the prison corral. I have parted from my Hessian, who promises to send me a badge which belonged to valiant Captain Wainwright, killed at Galveston. This little Teuton seemed shrewd enough, but is a desperate rebel; a thankless distinction for any alien to the soil; since it is a fact that "Know Nothing" prejudices are still quite rife in Texas. "That ar' Dutchman," says a guard to me -- aint o' much 'count yerabouts. We got no use for Dutch or any other furriner in this yer fight."

Stumbling under knapsack and blankets, I pass several ten-foot-log structures, which, from the hill above, where I reported at Head Quarters, appeared to be pig-pens, but which I now see inhabited by Federal officers. Arriving at the hut of Col. Nott, I find its bunks all occupied, and thereafter perambulate in divers quarters, seeking shelter, till at length, I get lodgings in a demi-subterrene "shanty," whereof Lieut. Peck, of the Twenty- Third Connecticut, whom I last saw at Bayou Boeuf, is co-proprietor with Lieut. Root, of the Seventy-Fifth New York volunteers.

Next morning, after being invited to mess for the present at the " Fifth Avenue Hotel," tenanted by Messrs. Nott, Dillingham, Crocker, Johnson, Dane, and Dana; a snug coterie of six; I look about me, on the "corral," and "prospect" for personal accommodation in the future. Land is not all appropriated, though buildings are; so I presently "preempt" an eligible site for improvement on a lot upon the "Avenue," opposite that principal hotel at which I take my meals. Thereafter, I make a building contract with "Dawe and Hicks" from Kansas, who bear the reputation of having erected the best house in town, and who agree, in consideration of one hundred dollars, legal tender in Confederate currency, to rear me a palatial mansion twelve feet by ten inside, with a good stone fire-place, and a substantial clay chimney. So, then, relieved of anxiety as to shelter, I prepare to adapt myself once more to gregarious prison-life.

There are many old friends to greet, and new acquaintances to make. Here are my fellow-officers of the "Ironsides," eleven of them; our quarter-master, Lieut. John F. Kimball, having died on the 3d of September, last year; and an ex-lieutenant, Fry, having been discharged as a citizen. Poor Kimball declined rapidly upon reaching Camp Ford, as a prisoner. He yielded his life, after long suffering, and was buried, near sunset, under sombre clouds, sprinkling their tears upon the mournful procession which followed his pine coffin to a grave that loyal hands had hollowed at the base of a branching oak. But as our comrade's dust was mingled with Southern earth, the last beams of departing day broke forth in a flood of splendor; cheering survivors with golden promise, not only for the spirit which had passed away, but for our beloved country, toward which every prisoner yearned continually.

The death of Lieut. Kimball was followed, later in the fall, by another and very sudden summons of a prisoner to eternal enfranchisement. The prison-grounds had not at that time been stockaded, and our Federals either bivouacked under trees, which grew thickly, or slept in a small barrack-stack, within their allotted limits. But the approach of winter stimulated an effort to house themselves more comfortably, and details were formed for the work of cutting and drawing timber. Under supervision of guards, outside-details were allowed to go beyond the grounds, and drag or "back" their wood to the guardline, where other details received the loads and transported them to the sites of log-cabins. A private, of the Twenty-Sixth Indiana regiment, named Thomas Moorehead, was, one day, near the guard-line, waiting for wood, when he was abruptly commanded to fall back. The Federal soldier was aware that an order had been promulgated, forbidding prisoners to approach within three paces of the line; and he had halted, therefore, at a distance much greater; nevertheless, in compliance with the sentry's command, he was turning back, when the brutal rebel, whose name is remembered as "Frank Smith," deliberately fired at Moorehead, the shot passing through the latter's body, and shattering the arm of another prisoner who stood behind him. Moorehead, fatally hurt in the bowels, died the same night; the wounded man was left without surgical assistance, other than could be afforded by a hospital steward, captured soon after.

This cruel and unprovoked murder exasperated the Federals beyond measure, and they threatened to rise, massacre the small guard, and sack the neighboring town of Tyler. Happily, the counsels of Lt.-Col. Leake, of the Twentieth Iowa regiment, calmed an excitement which might have resulted in a rash outbreak that could only end in the destruction of all.

The temper of Camp Ford custodians, at this period, was bitter in the extreme. "Richardson's Guard," a company of partisans, who had never known real service, but had signalized themselves as kidnappers of conscripts, bore no good feeling toward the Federals under their charge; and the assassination of Moorehead was succeeded by repeated attempts to "shoot a Yankee." One morning a sentry suddenly levelled his piece at a soldier, who had merely looked at him, and the Federal only escaped by falling flat on his face, and letting the bullet whistle over him. But the boy was plucky, and gained his feet with a heavy fragment of stone clutched in his hand; and the next moment there was a rebel knocked down, while our Yankee fled among his fellows, and could not be recognized when the guard turned out to arrest the delinquent.

Lieut.-Col. Leake, here mentioned, was one of the most genial and intelligent officers that I met at Camp Ford. He was captured at the battle of Morganza, or Fordoche, which took place on the 29th of September, 1863. Previously to this engagement, Col. Leake commanded an advanced guard of Gen. Herron's force, the Second Division of the 13th Army Corps, which had landed at Morgan's bend, two miles below Morganza, on the 17th of September. Gen. Herron, after throwing out Reconnoissances which satisfied him that the enemy occupied the Atchafalaya banks, in a force of about five thousand, remained near his transports, while Col. Leake, with 208 Indiana infantry-men, Lt.-Col. Rose, of the 26th Ind. Volunteers, with 241 more, Major Bruce, with 150 cavalry, and Major Montgomery, with 25 mounted infantry; besides a section of the 1st Missouri artillery, with 34 men; the whole forming a detachment under command of Col. Leake, took possession of Norwood's plantation grounds, at the junction of Bayou Fordoche road with a road leading to the Atchafalaya river. Col. Leake's instructions were to engage the enemy's attention, in order to mask operations on the river. Obedient to these, the colonel occupied his little force in reconnoissances, sending his cavalry to annoy the rebels, and advancing his infantry and artillery into positions which might attract their fire. Sharp skirmishing took place daily, and the Confederate out-posts were frequently driven in. After holding the junction about a week, Col. Leake shifted his position some three quarters of a mile to the Sterling plantation, Botany Bay, leaving his cavalry pickets still at Norwood's. From this point, the colonel made divers demonstrations, driving rebel pickets on several occasions, and skirmishing, more or less, daily. But Gen. Tom Green, was in command of the Confederates; and though Col. Leake succeeded in arousing the old fighter to action, he could not conceal from that fox-like foe the weakness of Federal defences. Of this weakness our Iowa colonel was too well aware himself, and so demonstrated to Gen. Vandeveer, who visited his camp about this time. But he was ordered to remain at his post, and did so; the consequence whereof was the sudden pouncing down upon him of crafty Gen. Green, with all his rebels; who, crossing the Atchafalaya, and filing through woods and swamps, in their customary Indian manner, appeared abruptly, one morning, within a mile of Leake's head-quarters. By a detour through timber-lands, the rebel cavalry cut ours from their base; and, about noon, the men of Speight's Brigade, 900 strong, under Harrison, broke out through cane-fields, and advanced upon the Federal reserves. Col. Leake, forming his lines behind fences, received the Texans with a withering fire, which drove them back. They then attacked his right flank, but, soon changing front, our gallant Iowan met them there with equal success. They then charged on his left flank, where the little battery was stationed, but another rapid change of front again drove back their lines, discouraged. At this moment, a body of cavalry appeared, advancing from the front. Their uniform was blue, and the cry rose that these were our Federal pickets falling back to reinforce the post. But that report was false. It was Gen. Green, with his Texan rough riders, clothed in the spoils of Brashear City. Heeding them not, Leake was moving on Harrison's retreating ranks, when another rebel brigade, posted under the levee, suddenly showed levelled arms, and demanded the Federal surrender. Col. Leake then looked about him, to discover his post completely surrounded. His cavalry pickets, under Montgomery, had taken the "back-track" of escape, through canefields, without notice of discontinance; his infantry pickets had been flanked by the rebel march, and our Federal commander now found himself hors du combat. -The fight had lasted more than two hours, under a drizzly rain, and resulted in a loss of 14 killed, 24 wounded, on our side, while the rebels owned from 45 to 75 killed, and from 120 to 145 wounded. The prisoners, upon surrender, were marched across the Atchafalaya, and thereafter found their way to Camp Ford. Thus, through agency of the same rebel forces - comprising brigades under Green, Major, Speight, and Mouton, Col. Leake and myself were introduced to prison-relation ship in Texas.

The industrial resources of Camp Ford, or "Ford City," as we called it, are turned to notable account. With a half-dozen axes and hatchets, three spades, a dull saw, and our jack-knifes, we contrive to multiply tools, erect machinery, and establish manufactures, agriculture, and the mechanical arts. Supernumerary knife-blades are forged into chisels; a stray file is sharpened into a centre-bit; lathes are built, with foot-boards and hand-wheels. In spite of all obstacles, Yankee ingenuity finds means to assert itself, and the long hours of our imprisonment are whiled away by many shrewd workers, with no small returns of pecuniary profit to themselves.

Here, near the great gate, under most dexterous digits of Master's Mate Fowler, a sea-genius, who knows the forest trees as well as he does the cross-trees, we have basket-weaving out of peelings of ash wood, and chair-making from grape-vines; not to speak of table-mats, drinking-cups, and chess-men, carved with a pocket-knife. Not many paces off, sign-marked by upright frame-work of a wooden ash-filterer, our chemical laboratory is seen, where Citizen Haley, much travelled and Spanish-talking, beguiles captivity by charitable soap-making por los pobres. Yonder, by "Big Mess" kitchen-house, Lieutenant Woodward, always busy and useful at his foot-lathe, is turning chess-sets, which are models of artistic taste. Stout Sachem-Captain Johnson, of "Fifth Avenue Mess," is meantime fashioning a splendid arm-chair for his naval brother, Captain Crocker, of the Clifton; while Lieutenant Mars, just opposite, is stringing his new banjo, wrought from ash and hickory. Another famous lathe, revolved by wheel and crank, is wrought at skilfully, by Engineer Johnson, a Diana man, who scans his work with a single eye, ('tis all the rebels left him,) while he deftly turns a goblet out of holly-wood. Down yonder street, the potters mix a reddish clay, which constitutes our subsoil, and shape bowls, plates, coffee cups, and smoking-pipes. Pipe-carving, out of various materials, is quite a favorite employment. Rich and intricate designs, quaint forms, and really beautiful workmanship, give value to these tokens passed from friend to friend. Our half-breed Cherokee, Hicks, a nephew of John Ross, the noted chief, displays his aboriginal handicraft on a handsome calumet, delicately traced with flowers and tomahawks in relievo, which he gives to me. The elegant ornamentation of our chess-men, made with knife-blades, is marvellous to see. Two exquisite sets, carved by Lieutenant Morse, as presents for his family, look like Cellini models done in wood.

Thus wears on the time, captivity cheated of much irksomeness by hours of well-spent labor. So our log huts have been built, their chimneys stacked with clay and strips of oak, their chinks and bases plastered up with mud, which hardens like adobes. So hoes, rakes, axe-helves, tubs, doors, dining-tables, bunks, and bedsteads have been wrought by skill and industry from literally nothing; for the rude materials were first to be "packed" in from distant woods, to which we could have access very seldom, under pass of the commanding officer and a guard of rebel riflemen. Sometimes lines of eager prisoners stand waiting for hours at the great gate, without obtaining the desired permission to go out for timber.

I must not forget our newspaper -- not press-printed, but written in minute and legible Roman letters by that general genius, Captain May, who draws with pencil, as with fiddle-bow, to excellent conceit. "The Old Flag" is a popular sheet, the organ of American opinion at Camp Ford. Its advertising columns show the thrift and progress of this loyal city in extreme Secessia. Doubtless, if we felt ourselves located here for the duration of a Trojan war, we should find means to build a press and cast or cut out types, like Faust and Guttenberg. I venture to affirm that it would not surprise our rebel guards if we built paper mills and steam-presses, and set up a daily paper in our corral. They tell us now, with open mouths, that our Yankee armies have "right smart 'o soldiers that kin git up sich tricks."

The entours of our camp -- those free surroundings outside of stockades -- consist of prairies, interspersed with timbered hills. The north gate of our prison yard or "corral," gives egress on an open plain, where sheep and hogs are herded, where the deer and wild fox rove, and cattle crop scant grasses. On the east are woods and cultivated lands. The west is hilly, crowned with scrubby oaks and ash. A rebel camp of cavalry and the huts of conscripts hide behind those eminences. Upon the south a hill abruptly rises, with a streamlet at its base, which flows within our southern stockade, and is called "the spring." The rebel commandant's headquarters -- two or three log-houses -- look down upon our corral from that hill. A gate stands midway of our western stockade, and is usually open, guarded by a sentry. Just outside this gate, the rebel guardhouses are situated, with some cabins used as quarters for the guard. One frame of logs is called the "wolf-pen." There offending Yankees are confined on corn and water. There, usually, some dozen rebel conscripts, apprehended for desertion, are immured. There, also, several citizens accused of "Union sympathies" await removal to the provost prison of Tyler, or to Houston, where they can be tried for "treason" to the "Southern Confederacy." We Federals have an unsuspected method of communicating with those "Union men." Our boys take turns in being late at roll-call, or transgress some other rebel rule, and so are ordered "to the guard-house." This is our "police telegraph," and it works admirably.

Our "spring" is a wonderful one. It gushes out of the clay-bank, cool and crystaline. It is impregnated with iron and sulphur, and the water is a perpetual tonic. We have several wooden reservoirs, to which the prisoners resort for washing purposes. The upper one contains our drinking water. This single stream supplies the wants of near six thousand men, comprising prisoners and their guards. It threatened failure once, but Northern ingenuity sank the reservoirs and guarantied perennial supplies. Shrewd Captain Johnson, a notable mechanical and scientific genius, was our "Commissioner of Aqueducts." He trod the Sachem's decks, her bold commander, on the salt sea, but has proved himself as useful here in "fresh water" matters. To him we owe our earliest turning-lathe, and he inaugurated chair-making, which now supplies the camp with seats of every pattern -- Gothic, rustic, cane-backed, willow-woven, grape-vine-wrought, and oaken-ribbed.

So "Yankees" lead the "march of improvement."

 

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12/18/2000