THE TREATMENT OF PRISONERS
HORRORS OF CAMP MORTON*
by Dr. John A. Wyeth, of New York City
*SOUTHERN HISTORICAL SOCIETY PAPERS
Vol. XVIII. Richmond, Va., Jan-Dec., 1890
Pages 328 -333
[From the Memphis Commercial.]
The Picture of Suffering and Hunger not Overdrawn--Rats and Cats were Toothsome Food, and Dog Meat could not be Bought--Despair and Death.
The article entitled
"Cold Cheer in Camp Morton," by Dr. John A. Wyeth, of
Dr. Thomas E. Spotswood, of Fairford, Ala., who is a grandson of the revolutionary general, Alexander Spotswood, and also a descendant of the Custis family, has written the following letter to Dr. Wyeth, which the Commercial publishes by special permission:
In response to your
request, published in the Southern papers, I will endeavor to give additional
incidents of life at Camp Morton. But before I begin, allow me to say that
your pen picture, "Cold Cheer in Camp Morton," published in the
Century, is in nowise overdrawn and scarcely up to the reality. I was
captured at the battle
In some instances great
kindness was shown me. One cavalryman as he passed by me said: "Poor
little Johnnie (I was seventeen years old), here's a coat; you'll need
The trip the rest of the way was without incident, except that our captors convinced us that we were not going to prison, but only taking a trip at Uncle Sam's expense to Richmond, via Louisville, where we would be detained a few days until an exchange could be arranged. I must confess we were fully persuaded; so much so, that when one or two Texans were missing between Nashville and Louisville, we said how silly they were to try to escape, and possibly be recaptured or shot, when in a few weeks we would be in Richmond.
My father, who was surgeon in charge of the medical bureau of the Confederate navy, was in that city, and I had no doubt that in a short while I would see him, and have the pleasure of an introduction to President Davis and his cabinet. Foolish boy! It was many weary months ere I saw the loved ones in the Southern Capital, and then only a few weeks before the end.
After we left Nashville our guard gave his gun to one of his prisoners and went to sleep, and all could have made their escape had they chosen. We arrived at Indianapolis at daylight in the morning of the 22d of May, 1864.
Our ration of bread (one small loaf) came at 11 o'clock, and a small piece of meat at 12 o'clock. We usually ate it as soon as received, and then drank as much water as we could hold, and tried to imagine we had a full meal. Another reason for eating it at once was to save it from being stolen, as the only way to keep it until evening was to put it under one's hat and sit on the hat; this plan being inconvenient we made a light lunch of the whole ration and spent the balance of the day telling of the fine dinners we would have when we reached home when the cruel was over.
I remember seeing a man kill an old black cat and cook it in a tin can picked up near the hospital kitchen. I was offered a share in the feast, but declined, as I drew the line at rats and cats, though I offered ten cents for a small piece of dog, and was unable to buy it, as the possessor said he had none to spare.
During the first three months of our incarceration in Camp Morton, twenty-five per cent. of our men had died of the various prison diseases. Many would be picked up in a faint, or collapse from weakness and bowel disease, which they had no strength to combat from their long fast.
A TRAITOR IN CAMP.
I will not attempt to tell of the escapes and attempt to escape made during the summer, but will simply say that either ditches nor guards would have prevented our gaining freedom, but for the traitors among us, who for an extra ration would give the officers information that frequently led to recapture, punishment, and sometimes death. Often the dungeon and extra starvation were resorted to in these cases until a promise was extorted not to renew the attempt to escape.
The monotony of the summer months would be broken by the arrival of more poor unfortunates, and from them we would learn of battles fought and won by the South--if we had not already been apprised of the event by salutes fired and rockets sent up by our captors--all battles fought being celebrated as Union victories, whether lost or gained.
Soon after our arrival we made the acquaintance of one Sergeant Baker, who, we learned, had the reputation of having shot a prisoner, and who seemed to us to be looking out for a chance to try his hand again. Soon another poor fellow was added to his list, and shortly after he himself was missing, and the report reached us that he was dying--then that he was dead.
A worthy companion of Sergeant Baker, John Pfeifer, a fine looking young man, was put in charge. The first distardly act of his that I saw was in the early fall of '64, when, with an axe-handle, he beat and knocked down six men for some trifling disobediance of orders. Three of them with arms broken and two with heads badly damaged went to the hospital for treatment.
A FREEZING BATH.
During the winter, when the thermometer was below zero, I saw this fiend strip a man and give him a bath in a tub of water, using a common broom to scrub him with, and this fiendish deed was repeated the second time. I heard that both men died, though I do not know it of my own knowledge. I saw the baths given. I saw this man shoot a prisoner under my bunk for being up after bed-time. The poor fellow was one of the improvement kind; had sold his blanket and coat and was trying to keep warm over a few coals in the stove, when Pfeifer came suddenly to the door of the barracks; the prisoner ran under the lower bunk of my bed, and, failing to respond promptly to the order to come out, was fired on, the shell entering his heel and coming out near the knee. This bullet, no doubt, saved his life, as he was sent to the hospital, where he received kind treatment. Without blankets he could not have survived the winter of '64 and '65.
This brings me to that
dreadful month of January, 1865, when we suffered most from the terrible
cold. We were unable to remain outside but a few moments, as
DIED IN DESPAIR
Men died constantly,
seemingly without a cause. They would appear less cheerful and less
interested in life, and next morning, when summoned to roll-call, would
One might I saw through a crack in the stable eight or ten men being drilled in the snow with a shoe in each hand, this being for the amusement of the new guard and for punishment to the prisoners for talking after going to bed. These are some of the indignities that can be put into print, but there were things more cruel and revolting perpetrated by these guards on the defenseless men that cannot be printed.
If these numerous
instances of shameful cruelty came under my personal observation, what number
must have been perpetrated that none are living to record? The outrages
practiced by the guards and sergeants were not all we were subjected to in
December, 1864. There was an order issued by the commanding officer that the
men should not remain in barracks (after the doctor has passed through) from
9 o'clock A. M. until 3 o'clock. Poorly clad, starving men were compelled to
stand around in the snow until hundreds had their feet so badly frost-bitten
that their toes came off. This cruel order was persisted in till many men
died from exposure, when the order was countermanded. The excuse given for
the order was that the men stayed indoors too much and would be benefited by
exercise. Great Heavens! Had these officers raised the ragged coat or blanket
from the first figure they met and looked at the emaciated, itch-scarred,
vermin-eaten creature, they would have seen that the men needed more food and
warm clothing to hold life in them, instead of more snow and cold north wind.
I am told that
Possibly some of them will remember that during the month of December, 1864, the legislature of Indiana visited the prison in carriages, and the wretched Confederates were forced to stand in line more than an hour for their inspection. No doubt they reported the men in fair condition. Ask any one of these legislators if he stopped to raise the ragged blanket of one of these wretches, or look into his sunken eyes, and he will tell you that they simply passed them in review.
This was the only way an outsider ever saw us. No visitor could speak to us without an order from the President. My uncle, I. B. Curran, of Springfield, Illinois, came to the prison, but was not permitted to see me. Thanks to his and other friends' generosity, I was supplied with as much money, in the shape of sutler's tickets, as I needed, and all the clothes and blankets allowed by the prison rules. This enabled my comrades, Cyrus Spraggins, of Mississippi, and John Moore, of Selma, Alabama, and myself to buy the much-sought-after top bunk, and to live in comparative comfort. I was also visited by General John Love, of the United States army, who was denied the privilege of seeing me. This shows that no one was permitted to see the prisoners; therefore, the citizens of Indianapolis can know nothing of what happened in their midst.
I agree with you, sir, that the cruelties suffered by the prisoners of both armies should not have been laid before the public; but since our friends on the other side have done so much to show how cruel the South was, and still continue to publish these sad and horrible facts, and even move the prison buildings to northern cities to keep these facts fresh in the minds of each succeeding generation, it is but fair that we of the South should let the world know that the prison-pens of the North were no whit better than the worst in the South.
CONCERNING THE WRITER.
A few words about myself and I am done. At the time of my capture I was a private in Company F, Fifty-third Alabama cavalry. Shortly after the war, in 1868, I was employed by the Pensacola Lumber Company, at their mills near Pensacola, Florida, first as clerk in their store, from which place I was promoted to be superintendent of their log department and other places of trust. I remained with them six years, and when I resigned to go into business on my own account, I had the confidence of the officers of the company, and refer to W. A. Parke, of New York, who was cashier of the company at the time. I have, up to five years ago, been employed either by timber firms of Mobile or shipping timber and lumber on my own account. I refer to Edwin W. Adams & Co., of New York, and George McInestin & Co., of Boston, who were correspondents of mine. Four years ago I accepted the position of superintendent of the Seaboard Manufacturing Company, of Mobile, and refer to the president of that company, H. D. Haven, and Messrs. Lombard & Ayers, of No. 12 Broadway, New York, who, no doubt, will give me a fair record for veracity and integrity. I am a member of the Raphael Semmes Camp of Confederate Veterans, and of the Lee Association of Mobile, Alabama. I can also refer to the Hon. R. H. Clarke and the Hon. Stephen R. Mallory, members of Congress.