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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 30, 1863
I now come to the most gloomy days of our imprisonment.
The privateersmen had been tried and some of them convicted. Justice demanded that they be hung. But we were peculiarly situated. If those robbers were hung in Philadelphia, honest men would be hung in Charleston. And however ready any man may be to die a the cannon's mouth, I have yet to see the man who desires to swing into eternity on a rope.
There was another grim dweller among us. Sickness had ordered into the cell used for a hospital, over 60 of our men, and in every cell of the officers lay some one, two, three, and four of its inmates. Every face looked sallow and haggard; every eye wild and painful; every voice sounded husky and depressed. Our rations (1-3 ration of bacon and musty bread) were too poor and scant to keep men alive and well. The bread was served out to the men and officers --- 13 crackers in 5 days. In two days half the men did not have a morsel of bread and lived on the pittance of maggotty bacon they god daily, and what the officers could give them.
Those who had money among the officers were able sometimes to obtain supplies from outside. Some of them did much for the poor men.
Our rebel masters gave us just wood enough to build a fire twice a day. They furnished nothing for the hospital save a little quinine. If a man had the fever he took quinine; if a man had the chills he took quinine; if a man had the dysentery he took quinine; if a man broke a bone he took quinine. And so it went. There was so little and that little so inappropriate for most cases, that our surgeons gave up all hopes of curing by drugs, and so, many got well.
The hospital room was the largest one in the jail. It had two windows and two doors. It was about 20 feet by 10. In that room were typhoid fever, diptheria, chills and fever, and many other complaints. The poor fellows, reduced to skeletons by sickness, with stomachs hot, loathed the coarse un-wholesome food given them, wen about dejected and miserable, now speaking of a home among the hills of the north where plenty awaited them, then bemoaning the fate that had left them there forsaken; and lingering in wretchedness, died in despair. There were exceptions, where some who were sustained by an unfaltering hope in Christ, sank to rest with a sweet smile on their skeleton features, like a sunbeam on the jagged rocks of a mountain top.
In my cell we lost one, Dr. Griswold, 38th N.Y. regiment. He died of fever. All that could be done for him was done. One day while his mind was wandering, he pointed at the eagle which had been made with charcoal on the wall, and said: "There she is bleeding, bleeding, but one day again she will rise as majestically as ever, and woe to those who have tried to crush her now."
He died. The captain in charge of the prison, asked Gen Ripley what kind of a funeral he should give this U.S. officer. Gen. Ripley replied; "Bury him like a d--d dog; give him to a nigger and let him be thrown into a hole." They gave us a pine box, we put in his lifeless body, and he was borne, we know not where. As we stood around his corpse, we though of the home made desolate, and the young wife waiting in vain for her husband's return, and the question was: "Who goes next?"
The following are extracts from my journal of this time.
Hark! Do you hear that dull, grating sound? It is the Zouaves sharpening all their ?case-knives and wearing them down to a point on the stone floor of their cells."
"See! that noiseless form gliding up the stone steps of the tower will carry the latest news to Col Wilcox and Corcoran who are in the condemned cells."
"We are prepared. Bolts and bars cannot keep out information of what is going on. In spite of guard and jailers we get the papers every day, and has a sworn friend in the very * * * *
"We are prepared! The wrongs we have endured have nerved our arms and steeled our hearts. Our men are starving! Hunger gnaws at every heart and sets its grim seal on every face. All this month (Dec.) more than 30 men have laid sick with no care of comfort. The little food given us is too coarse and poor for them, and some have died from starvation! I visited the hospital to-day, and found one poor fellow gnawing ravenously on a hard, mouldy biscuit. His eyes were wild and deep set, his form was emaciated to the last degree, and the palor of death was on his face.
"Well, my boy, how are you to-day?"
"Do you feel no easier?"
"I wish I could help you, my boy."
"Hungry! Hungry! Hungry!"
And this was all he could say. He had lost his reason, and yet the body was darkly groping for nourishment, and the last glimmer of reason lent its aid to help nature against the monster starvation. He died.
Here in a land where, before this cursed was was commenced by these still more accursed rebels, soldiers of the Union walked in peace and plenty, and happiness smiled on all, defenders of the Union, for which this very city suffered all the horrors of a siege, lay starving, dying, dead!
Eternal justice, be thou the judge of this people!
One night about 8 o'clock, a fire broke out near the most populous part of the city. In a few moments, the winds arose, the flames spread, and in half an hour, over one hundred buildings had been destroyed, and still the flames rolled on.
From the window of my cell, I could see the conflagration as it moved swiftly from house to house, eating up everything in its course. Dense columns of smoke rolled up to the heavens, broad sheets of flames extended more than a mile, jets of meteoric blaze, blood red streams of fire, all lit up the city with a grim and ugly looks. Many buildings were blown up and
"The thousand shapeless things all driven;
In cloud and flame athwart the heaven,
By that tremendous blast ---
* * * * *
And down came blazing rafters strown
Around, and many a falling stone
Deeply dented in the clay ---
All blackened there and burning, lay."
We had been locked up and the guards, unable to live in the hot and sulphurious air around the prison, had gone away and we were alone. It was a grand sight to see the houses blown up, the flames lick up a wooden building in ten minutes, and the violent wind lifting whole roofs and sending them out as emissaries to spread the conflagration. The papers stated that nearly 800 houses had been destroyed. It would have pleased us very much if only the jail had been left.
The story of the prisoners escaping during the fire was absurd. We were locked up in separate cells, and then in a tower near were men left to watch us and troops were in the city from the forts helping to stop the fire and so were all over the city.
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Transcribed by Deanna French.