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2nd Vermont Infantry
As experienced by one who spent thirteen
months in Richmond "black hole," Charleston
jail, Castle Pinckney, Columbia jail,
Richmond hospital, Salisbury prison, Bell
Island, and a few other holes.
By Capt. J. T. DREW
THE CALEDONIAN: JANUARY 23, 1863
The most "insolent and insubordinate" sent away---From Richmond to Charleston.
The unexpected success at Manassas left the rebels a complacency that inclined them to mildness; the surprise and defeat at Hatteras incited them to severity.
The southerner knows very well how to conduct himself towards those whom he considers his equal, but cannot understand the claims of the needy and unfortunate. Long usurpations of unjust power over a part of mankind has inclined him to the belief that he is a superior being, possessing more rights, privileges and favors than any other. Hence, his arrogance and haughty air when speaking to one who does not agree with him; hence his impatience of contradiction, his superciliousness to those who fall under his power, and finally his hatred of all that is liberal or free in discussions or arguments.
From the time that our army began to show signs of life, their hatred of the North began to kindle afresh, and, African like, they vented their spleen on the unfortunate prisoners in their hands. The crowds outside of our prison increased. The jeers, taunts and hisses of the rabble grew in bitterness and frequency. Our guards were ordered to fire on any one who should look out the window. The officers in charge began to take special notice of our actions and words, and on the 10th of September (1861), in the morning a list of 33 officers was read, and we were ordered to be ready to go to Charleston jail, N.C.
We are confined in Charleston Jail
"Eternal spirit of the chainless mind!
Brightest in dungeons, Liberty! Thou art;
For there thy habitation is the heart---
The heart which love of thee alone can bind,
When when thy sons to fetters are consigned ---
To fetters and the damp vaults dayless gloom,
Their country conquers with their martydom,
And Freedom's forms find wings in every wind."
We arrived at Charleston on the morning of the 24th, and were at once escorted to the Jail. The city was quiet, as it was but 5 o'clock, A.M., and the time of our arrival had purposely been kept secret.
The Jail is an immense stone and brick structure, with a very strong tower. The cells were small, damp, and filthy. The three cells in which we were all confined, would not make a decent size stable for four horses. There was no furniture, beds, or blankets; no cooking utensils, plates or cups. Our rations were maggoty bacon and musty bread; the quality was vile and the quantity stingy. We lay down on the damp floor with feelings better imagined then described. There was little sleep the first night. We had no candles, and the moon that shone in through the bars, lent a ghastly hue to each face, and wrought the gloom which we had felt before, change into something that cannot be named. It was a wild, reckless, rushing out of every fantastic notion. The songs, dances, speeches, and conversations sounded almost unearthly. Everyone tried to be gayest, to laugh loudest and longest, and yet there was more of insanity in the whole affair than is found in many madhouses. The next morning the walls were covered with "union decices", snatches of songs, sentiments and quotations, written with charcoal, and over all a splendid eagle grasping in his talons "Rebellion," and holding, fluttering from his beak: "The Union as it is or death to all," and I am sure that all that was then done was the "struggle of spirit," to sustain itself in the crushing atmosphere of a close and unnatural prison. We could not fall down in gloomy despair, nor could we calmly enter that prison resigned to our fate; so we compromised the matter by having a grand "Pow-wow."
The rebel officers swore, we laughed. The story was told in the streets; the papers took it up, and for a time we were handled very roughly. The Mercury had an article in which it was affirmed that we had commenced our "work of vandalism" on the very jail we lived in! It was urged that we be placed in dungeons and fed on bread and water. Thus for a few coal marks on the wall and some Union songs, we got the name "vandals," "unprincipled villains," and "insubordinate Yankees."
While here, Lieut. A.M. Underhill 11th N.Y., (Fire Zouaves) was taken sick with fever, and Chaplain Dodge with jaundice;, both were sent to the Marine Hospital. We had been here but a week, when an order came for us to be sent to Castle Pinckney, in Charleston Harbor, and given all the liberty possible! This was glorious news! It was lifting the load of ennui from our hearts and letting hope once more in our head. We were taken on a steamboat and carried to the castle.
It was there in an unfinished condition --- piles of brick, rubbish, and gun-carriages filled the enclosure, and the bomb-proof and casemates, where we were to live, were filled with all sorts of odds and ends. The castle mounted but one gun --- a 24 pounder --- had a garrison of 80 men, and could have been taken by us at any time; but, "What would he do with it?" came up for consideration, and the frowning walls of Fort Sumter said " leave it alone."
Our condition in this fort was much better than in jail. We had the pure air, the bright, blue sky above us, while in the distance we could see our ships and the "stars and stripes" floating proudly in the breeze, But we could have all said:
"I only heard the reckless waters roar---
Those waves that would not bear me from the shore
I only saw the glorious sun and sky ---
Too bright, to blue for my captivity."
Here the seeds sown in the flesh by the impurities of Charleston Jail, sprang up, and fevers, measles, dysentery, and ague prevailed. Three died, and over twenty were sick We had besides the officers, 150 men, mostly from the New York 11th, 69th and 79th, and Michigan 1st. They begin to suffer from want of clothing and medicine, and Col. Wilcox, who was always seeking how he could make his men comfortable, wrote a letter to the " Commander of the Blockading Fleet." telling him our condition, and asking such clothing and blankets as he could spare. This letter was not sent as directed by the Confederate but forwarded to Washington. Not long after this, the President ordered clothing of all kinds to be forwarded to the prisoners South. But owing to delays we never got them until March.
The guards over us were mostly young men and many of them from the North. They were a gentlemanly set, officers, and all, and while there we had no insults.
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Transcribed by Deanna French.