In Very Hard Luck
Col. Leake's Command in Camp Ford Prison, Tex.
Members of the 19th Iowa in New Orleans following their release from Camp Ford Prison
Transcription courtesy of Vicki Betts, University of Texas at Tyler
NATIONAL TRIBUNE, December 26, 1889, p. 3, c. 4
EDITOR NATIONAL TRIBUNE: A few days ago I received from James E. Taylor, artist, New York City, the well-known painter of battle scenes of the late war, a photograph of the 19th Iowa, taken on their arrival at New Orleans from Camp Ford Prison, Tex. They were known as Col. Leake's men, and had quite a checkered career while prisoners of war. In the Fall of 1863 Col. J. B. Leake, 20th Iowa, commanded the garrison at Morganza Bend, La., which was composed of the 19th Iowa and 26th Ind. On the 26th of September they were attacked by a large and overwhelming force of the enemy. They made a stubborn defense, but were finally surrounded by superior numbers and compelled to surrender. The garrison was marched to Camp Ford, and confined in the stockade. Col. Duganne, in his history of the early days of the prison, gives the following account of their sufferings and disappointments. "A portion of them were sent forward for exchange on Christmas day, 1863, but from some cause the exchange did not take place, and they were sent back to Camp Ford in the following Spring. Dismal had been the experience of these poor fellows, and bitter their sufferings during a severe Winter in a shelterless camp near Shreveport, La. On that cold Christmas morning, when they left Camp Ford, cherishing delusive hopes of speedy liberation, shivering and half clad, they started on their journey. They had been constrained to part with their scanty clothing months before, when nearly starved, on their marches from the Mississippi River into Texas. They had given away everything not absolutely necessary to decency in exchange for food wherewith to stop the cravings of hunger. When they arrived back in prison they presented a spectacle which beggars all efforts at portrayal."
A short time after their return Col. Leake received orders again to get his whole command ready for exchange. After a few hasty preparations they started with elated spirits on their way to the Union lines. Once more the exchange fell through, and in about six or eight weeks they were back again in the stockade. In July, for the third time, they were paroled for exchange, and left the prison, this time to return no more. I was taken prisoner with my regiment at the battle of Sabine Crossroads, La., April 8, 1864, during the ill-fated Banks Red River expedition, and had only been in Camp Ford a few weeks when this wandering tribe of Union soldiers, as they were called, returned the second time, making it the third time that they were sent to the same prison. I saw them as they entered at the prison gate, and a more miserable-looking set of men it has never fell to my lot to behold.
At the sight of them I began to realize that perhaps I, too, would be reduced to the same extremity before my turn would come to be exchanged. At the very thought my heart sank within me, and I began to make preparations to escape. In an unguarded moment I was tempted beyond my strength and fell; in other words, I committed a forgery to get out of prison. I wrote out a pass and signed the prison commander's (Col. Border) name to it, to let myself and another comrade out to look after the sick in the hospital. On presenting our pass at the gate we were permitted to go out of the stockade. With as little delay as possible we struck out for Little Rock, Ark., distant 300 miles, which was the nearest point to the Union lines. For nearly two weeks we wandered day and night through the almost endless swamps and tangled canebrakes, a\with only the sun and stars for our guides. For two days we were run by bloodhounds, but baffled and eluded them; waded and swam stream after stream; lived on such things as the woods and fields afforded until the 13th day out, when, within 80 miles of Little Rock, we walked unaware into the hands of the rebel pickets. We were started back to prison, and when we reached Shreveport we met our regiment, exchanged and homeward bound. It was a trying ordeal to say farewell to our comrades, and wish them a safe journey home.
When we arrived at Camp Ford we received our sentence from the prison commander for attempting to escape. The sentence was "never to be exchanged, but to remain in prison until the close of the war." We appealed to higher authority to have the verdict set aside, but it was all in vain. Exchanges took place during the Winter, but we were not included, and the sentence was carried out to the letter. Finally, after 14 weary months of imprisonment, the long-looked for day of deliverance came to us and the 950 prisoners in Camp Ford. When we awoke one morning in the middle of May, 1865, we found "The Gates Ajar," not a solitary sentinel on guard and the rebel camp deserted!
Then came the news that explained the mysterious disappearance during the night of the prison guardsGen. Grant, at Appomattox, over 1,000 miles away, had unlocked the ponderous prison gates and set the captives free.
This ragged and barefooted group in the picture before me were unconsciously the cause of all of my misfortunes and many additional tedious months of captivity, and for that I have sentenced them to hangon the wall in a gilt-edge frame as a reminder of Camp Ford Prison, Tyler, Tex.J. A. BERRING, Major, 48th Ohio, Lynchburg, O.