Thursday, December 9, 2010

An Experience of Virginia Prisons -- December 9, 2010

Doctor Peter Henri Van Der Weyde wrote the series of articles which gave this blog its name. His son, Henry Vander Weyde (this is how he spelled it) served as an officer in the Union Army. After service in the American Civil War, Henry emigrated to England, where he became a pioneer in taking photographs using artificial light. He made the drawing during his time as a prisoner of war in Virginia's Danville Prison. Click on the image to see a larger version.

George Haven Putnam delivered this memoir of his imprisonment during the war 100 years ago, on 10-December-1910 to the Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States, a veteran's organization. After the war, he carried on the family publishing business.


Read Before The New York Commandery, December 7, 1910, By Companion George Haven Putnam, Adjutant And Brevet-major, 176th Regiment, N. Y. Vols.

Putnam was taken prisoner during the Battle of Cedar Creek, part of the Shenandoah Valley Campaign in 1864.

The following record of my sojourn in the winter of 1864-65 in Libby and in Danville prisons has been prepared under the instructions of the Commander of the New York Commandery of the Loyal Legion for publication in the volume of Reports of the Commandery. Forty-six years have elapsed since the winter here described, and I cannot undertake to say that my memory can be trusted for all of the details or incidents. I have no doubt that these will be open to correction on the part of comrades who may have shared the experiences of those strenuous months. I can only say that the record has been set down in good faith, and may be accepted as possessing such value as belongs to any individual experience recalled after a long interval of years...

In the course of an hour or so, these prisoners, aggregating I think ten or eleven hundred, were stood up in line, and certain non-commissioned officers, delegated for the purpose, "went through" each individual of the line with a thoroughness and precision that indicated previous practice. They took possession of overcoats, blankets, and the contents of our pockets—money as far as we had any, watches and knives; they also took what under the circumstances was the most serious loss for men who had a long march before them, our shoes. I was pretty well down on the left of the line and some time before my turn was reached I was able to note what were the articles that were being appropriated. I realized that a considerable march had to be made and I was not at all happy at the idea of being obliged to do my tramping without shoes or with the fragmentary apologies for shoes that the "rebs" were chucking back to the Yankees in exchange. I took my knife and made some considerable slashes in the uppers of my shoes. The result was that they were not considered worth appropriating and they fortunately held together during the march and for some time thereafter. The only other man in the line, as far as I noticed, who saved his shoes was a young staff officer of the 6th Corps, Lieutenant Vander Weyde. I had observed the youngster before because he had small feet and wore patent leathers with which he seemed to be well satisfied. I remembered hearing some of our boys throwing out jeers at "pretty little patent leathers" as, a day or two earlier he had ridden through our camp. The smallness of his feet saved for him his pretty boots. These were taken off two or three times by the examiners but no one was able to put them on, and with a half indignant good-nature, the last examiner threw back the articles with the words, "Here, Yank, you can keep your damned pretty little boots." As far as I can remember, Vander Weyde had the only decent looking boots to be seen that winter in my division of the prison...

The prisoners were marched south towards Richmond.

In the course of the evening, our guards remembered to scatter among us a little hardtack taken from one of our own commissary wagons, but the ration was very small for the amount of marching that had to be done with it. Sometime before midnight, in company with Vander Weyde with whom I had fallen into "chumming" relations, I made a break for liberty. We remembered the region through which we had marched not long before as "ruthless invaders," and it was our idea to strike for a ditch which was on the farther side of a field adjoining the road. We bolted just behind the nearest guard and took him so far by surprise that his shot and that of the guard next in line did not come near enough to be dangerous, and we succeeded in tumbling into the ditch which we found unfortunately to be no longer dry. There was, in fact, an inch or two of water in the bottom. There was nothing to do but to he quiet and wait until the column of prisoners and guards had passed. We were disappointed, however, to find that the sound of the marching continued for an indefinite period; and in fact pretty soon there were added to the tramp of feet sounds from a long series of wheels. It was evident that the trains, or such of the wagons as remained of the trains, were being moved southward. Then there came a rumble which seemed like that of field-guns. While we were puzzling in our minds as to whether the whole army could really be on the retreat, the question was answered in a most unsatisfactory fashion. Not only were Early's troops marching southward but they were going with such urgency that the road was not sufficient for their purpose. They were straggling into the fields on both sides, and a group of two or three, too tired and too sleepy to watch their steps, tumbled into our ditch on top of us. They said things and so did we. Our state of mind was in fact like that of South Carolina three years earlier; we only wanted to be let alone. But that privilege was not granted to us. We were hustled out of the ditch, chilled and out of temper at our failure and at what seemed to us the unnecessarily rough treatment of our new captors. We were, so to speak, butted back into the road and hustled along from group to group until in the early hours of the morning we found ourselves again in the column of prisoners. I understood later that our cavalry had pursued that column through a large part of the night and we must have done pretty lively marching to keep ahead of them, but the horses doubtless were tired on their part.

They arrived in Richmond's Libby Prison.

Floor space was made for us under the supervision of one of our own officers who took upon himself the responsibilities of what might be called quartermaster's duties. At our request, Vander Weyde and myself were given floor space together, and we then took an account of our joint property. I had picked up en route (I do not recall where) a small piece of blanket and I had also succeeded in retaining a broken pocket knife. My chum had a tin cup and a pocket comb. These things were held in common. As personal appurtenances we had been fortunate enough to save our tooth-brushes which the examining sergeant had not considered worth appropriating, and my chum, who was a clever artist, had also been able to retain possession of a pocket sketch-book and a pencil. These tooth-brushes later became noteworthy. It is my memory that there were not more than a dozen or so among about 350 officers. The possessors placed their tooth-brushes through the buttonholes of their blouses; partly because there was no other safe or convenient storage place, and partly perhaps to emphasize a sense of aristocratic opulence. We became known as the "tooth-brush brigade." My chum, with some protest from me against the using up of my knife, did some artistic carving on the handle of his brush, producing with no little skill a death's-head and a skeleton. Late in the winter, when we had been moved to Danville, one of the officers of the guard offered me for my brush $300, of course in Confederate currency. I expressed a little surprise that the article, no longer new, should have such selling value, and he began to reply, "Well, but you see now we cannot get any more," and then checked himself. The word "now" emphasized itself on my ear, and connecting this with certain rumors that had already leaked into the prison, I realized that Wilmington must have fallen and that no more tooth-brushes or other supplies from England could be secured. But this is, of course, advancing in my narrative. In Libby, as later in Danville, the prisoners comprising as said, only commissioned officers, maintained an organization and ordinary discipline. We accepted as authoritative the orders of the senior officer in the prison, and this officer associated with him two or three men who divided up between them responsibilities for keeping order, for assigning quarters, for adjusting difficulties, etc. Our general went through the form, and it was not much more than a form, of appointing on his staff a commissary. It was the duty of this officer to receive from the prison sergeant the daily ration and to arrange for an equitable distribution of such ration among the prison messes. We had, for the convenience of such distribution, been divided into groups of six or eight. The so-called commissary had, of course, nothing to issue but the ration that was brought in. His office reminded me of the description given by the young showman in the menagerie, "this is the jackal what perwides for the lion always perwiding that there is anything to perwide." The Libby ration in these last months of 1864 comprised soup made out of inconspicuous little beans, and a chunk of corn bread. During the close of our sojourn in Libby, the soup part was cut off and the ration reduced itself to the corn bread. The corn bread as baked was marked out into squares, but for some reason which I never had explained to me, each square of corn bread was a ration not for one but for two. The messes, therefore, were subdivided into pairs and the chums had to arrange between themselves each morning for the division of the flat chunk into two portions. My chum and myself took turns in cutting that chunk into two pieces. On one piece was laid the broken knife and the man who had done the cutting then called to the other fellow, who stood with his back to the cake, to say whether he would have it "with" or "without" (the knife). Whichever piece one got, the other always looked a little bigger. We regretted to part with the black bean soup, although we had not been fond of it. It contained about as many bugs as there were beans, the taste was abominable, and the nourishment probably slight. I understood later, when I was on parole in Richmond, that the beans and cornmeal issued to the prisoners had been rejected by the commissaries as unfit for their own troops. I should not venture to estimate with any precision the size or the weight of the chunk of corn bread which came to us once a day. My memory is, however, quite clear on the point that it was absurdly small. Some of us went through the form of cutting our chunk into three pieces with the idea that we would make three meals out of it; but it was very difficult to avoid eating up the three meals within the first hour even though we knew that we should have to wait until eleven o'clock the next morning for another chunk. Large or small, the chunk was not even nourishing throughout. The cake as baked contained other things besides corn-meal. Pieces of the corn-cob were ground up indiscriminately and we also found in the cake cockroaches and other insects and occasionally pieces of mice who had lost their way in the meal-bins. In reply to complaints that were from time to time submitted, the prison officers had nothing to say but that it was the best they had and that the Yankees had better be thankful that they got anything. I judge that by December, 1864, it must have been a very difficult task indeed for the rebel commissary general to secure by his two lines of single track roads, one of which was from time to time being cut by our raiders, sufficient food to supply the army and the townspeople. It was not surprising that the fare remaining for the prisoners should have been inconsiderable in amount and abominable in quality. The stupid brutality of the whole business was in keeping prisoners at all in Richmond during the last winter of the war; for that stupidity which, as it meant the loss of many lives, may fairly be described by the simpler word of murder, the responsibility must rest with Jefferson Davis, Commissioner Ould, and General Winder.

They were moved to Danville Prison, in Danville, Virginia.

My selection of a chum proved fortunate in one way that I could not have anticipated. Vander Weyde was clever with his pencil and some portraits that he had sketched of the guards attracted attention not only in the prison but with some of the officers outside. He was fortunate enough to be invited by one or two officers who had homes in town, to go to their houses and to sketch wife or daughter. He objected properly enough that his blouse was shabby and his trousers disreputable and also that in the absence of soap he was not fit for the presence of ladies. The officers wanted the portraits, and the result was that the fortunate Vander Weyde secured a bath with real soap, and a jacket and pair of trousers that held together and that gave hirn in the midst of the rags with which he was surrounded, the appearance of an aristocrat. The rags discarded by the swagger artist enabled me to do some very important patching on my own garments. Further, in going first to one house and then to the other, Vander Weyde had the opportunity of getting something to eat and finally, and that is where I came in, he was thoughtful enough to remember to stow away in a pocket a couple of hoe-cakes for his chum. It was Vander Weyde's good fortune a few months later, to serve on the staff of the officer who commanded the advance brigade of the troops taking possession of Danville. His commander, knowing of his prison experience, authorized him to receive from the mayor the formal surrender of the town.

Vander Weyde had, during his experience as a working artist, been a guest at the mayor's house and had been there cared for by the mayor's wife. He had, therefore, an additional motive for desiring to make the function of surrender as gentle and as informal as possible. He found himself, however, received by the mayor with the utmost severity and with not the slightest sign of recognition. In April, 1865, the mayors of Virginia towns found it difficult, and it was quite natural that they should have found it difficult, to accept any social relations with the triumphant invaders.

No comments: