Confederate Veteran, Vol. XII, No. 8 Nashville, Tenn., August, 1904.
FORTY HOURS IN A DUNGEON AT ROCK ISLAND
B. M. Hord
I was a member of Dobbins's Regiment, Walker's Brigade of Arkansas Cavalry, and a short time after our fiasco at Little Rock, where our army abandoned a strongly fortified position without firing a shot, except a little cavalry skirmish below the town, I was captured by the Eighth Missouri Federal Cavalry and, after spending a few days in the penitentiary at Little Rock, was sent with a batch of other prisoners to St. Louis and confined in McDowell's old Medical College, which had been converted into a Federal prison. Shortly after our arrival an unsuccessful attempt to escape was made by cutting through a partition wall that divided the college from a chapel or schoolroom. I was accused of being in the plot and, with a number of others, was promptly sent to Rock Island, some four hundred miles above.
This prison, located on an island in the Mississippi River, was a square enclosure of some eight or ten acres, surrounded by a heavy plank fence twelve or fourteen feet high, with a parapet four feet from the top extending all around on the outside for the sentinels, and on the inside, ten or fifteen feet from the fence, there was a shallow ditch called the "dead line." Prisoners were not allowed nearer the fence than this ditch upon penalty of being shot without challenge by the sentinels. Several were killed while I was there who thoughtlessly stepped over the line. Two, I remember, were killed at different times who, in the excitement of a ball game, chased the ball across the ditch. The barracks were about ninety by twenty feet, built of rough upright boards, with a partition at one end for a kitchen, which was furnished with a forty-gallon kettle in which we did all of our cooking save the bread. The kitchen was presided over by a sergeant of the barracks and his cooks, who were also prisoners. Wooden bunks in three tiers, one above the other, in which we slept, extended the full length of the building on each side. The barracks were built in uniform rows across the enclosure, with a broad avenue beginning at the main entrance and running directly through the center of the prison. The houses were numbered consecutively from one up to eighty-four. I was in barrack twenty-four.
When we arrived at Rock Island, early in December, 1863, Col. Rust was in command with a detachment of the Fourth Invalid Corps. He was a kind-hearted old fellow, and just to the prisoners; but unfortunately for us the old colonel was soon removed, and in his place came as inhuman a brute as ever disgraced the uniform of any country, one A. J. Johnson, with his regiment of negroes for guard duty, leaving the Fourth Invalid men, many of whom had grown to middle age in the service on the frontier, for light fatigue duty, such as calling the roll of prisoners morning and evening, inspecting the barracks, etc. Many of these old, battle-scarred veterans and their officers were kindly disposed toward us, but dared not show it beyond a word or look, for every devilish device that could be conjured up in the brain of a savage to make us suffer was put in force by Johnson. Men were brutally punished upon the slightest pretext. I saw prisoners tied up to the fence by their thumbs, their toes barely touching the ground, in the hot, broiling sun until they would faint, and when cut down by the guards fall limp and unconscious, while none of us dared approach; for they were next the fence, over the dead line, and grinning negro sentinels stood just above them with ready guns in hand. We were no longer allowed the privilege of buying provisions from the post sutler or to receive such things from home; at the same time our rations had been gradually reduced to less than half the amount issued to us when we first reached the Rock Island prison. Hunger began to develop the savage instincts that lie dormant in us all; men grew ugly in temper, quarrels and fights were frequent over their scant rations, yet this was but a foretaste of what was to come.
In the summer of 1864 twelve barracks in the southeast corner of the enclosure, near the main entrance to the prison, were fenced off, the occupants transferred to other barracks; and at roll call one morning we were informed that the United States government had opened a recruiting office in our prison, and that all who would take the oath and join the United States army would be moved into the new pen---calf pen, we called it---furnished good clothing, bountiful rations, paid one hundred dollars bounty, the post sutler permitted to bring in whatever they wanted to eat, and that they would not be sent South to fight, but out on the frontier to hold the Indians in subjection. Never, since the Son of Man was tempted by the devil, was dishonor more cunningly devised or temptingly displayed. Quite a number jumped at the bait, mostly men who were willing, to take the oath under any circumstances; but after this came the heroic struggle between patriotism and starvation, for our rations had been still further reduced under the pretext of creating a "prisoners' fund" to pay for medicines, caring for our sick, and to pay for such clothing as the government issued us. (See "Record of Rebellion," Series II., Vol. 8.) But every few days starvation would claim a victory. It was pitiful. Gaunt forms with the glare of wolfish hunger in their eyes, the very pictures of famine, could be seen going up to take the oath, tears streaming down their faces and curses on the Yankees from their lips, their poor, shriveled flesh showing beneath fluttering rags, for when one of this kind was starved into submission, knowing he would soon he well supplied, he exchanged his clothes with some more needy comrade.
Dart was the name of our post sutler. He was a kindhearted fellow, had made many friends among the prisoners before Johnson began his starving process and stopped us from trading with him, but he was now permitted to resume business with the recruits in the "calf pen." It was some fifty steps from the main entrance of the prison to the gate of the "calf pen," and frequently numbers of us would gather along this space, as near the dead line as we dared get, to await the arrival of Dart's wagon with supplies for the recruits just to catch a glimpse and get a whiff of the odor of fresh bread, meats, and pies as they passed from one gate to the other. Ah, the odor of those pies! I will carry to my grave their odor.
Dart had a dog that would sometimes follow his wagon into the prison. We were assembled one evening, as usual, to smell the pies and things, when the front gate swung open and Dart drove in; the dog came in also. The best of us, man or beast, sometimes make mistakes. Dart and his dog were not exceptions. In allowing the dog to follow him was Dart's mistake. The wagon stopped a moment in our midst for the sentry to open the gate to the "calf pen" the dog took position midway beneath the wagon---wise dog; a wink, a significant nod at the dog, passed between a half dozen prisoners; two stepped around on the opposite side of the wagon and, unobserved, made a pass at the dog; the dog instinctively dodged to the other side---this was his mistake. He didn't understand the advantage of a flank movement. In an instant a bony, brown hand had him by the back of his neck and another clutched his throat; he was tucked under the skirt of a long-tailed coat, and a moment later three men, walking close together as if to conceal something from the crowd behind them, disappeared around the corner of the nearest barrack.
I wish to state emphatically that I did not catch Dart's dog, neither did I tack the skin to the big oak tree in the main avenue that was found there the next morning with a note attached requesting some one to "send in another dog," but I've always conscientiously felt I was indebted to Dart for the hind quarter of a dog. My bunk mate, Charlie Goodwin, however, had no conscientious scruples about it. He thought the fruit was overripe---that if it had been pulled greener, say in the puppy stage, it would have been more palatable. But Charlie was a bit fastidious. He was head clerk in a swell confectionary establishment in Memphis, Tenn., when the war began, accustomed to selling bonbons, fancy candies, and cakes to ladies, and naturally his taste had become more or less vitiated for the substantials of life.
Having sampled the regular prison fare for more than ten months, with such side dishes as I could get, as our rations contracted the price of rats expanded until one could not be had for love or money, I determined to make another effort to relieve Uncle Sam of any further expense on my account. I had been engaged in two unsuccessful attempts to tunnel out, and I knew a negro too well to trust him a bribe, for three comrades that I knew were shot and killed by the negro sentinels at night after the villains had accepted cash bribes, so I decided I would make the attempt disguised as a Yankee. Every morning after roll call a detail of six prisoners from each barrack was made to carry out the slop barrels through a little side gate, escorted by a Yankee guard, empty the barrels in the river, and return to the prison. My idea was, disguised in a Yankee uniform, with a citizen's suit underneath, to take charge of a detail, march out with it, discard my uniform as soon as possible when safely outside, and in citizen's clothes the greatest danger would be past. The prison was constantly searched for contraband articles, especially Yankee clothes. I had managed to keep concealed a Yankee blouse and cap, but had no pants, no pistol, and no scabbard. These last were as necessary as the pants, for the guards were required to wear pistols when they came in prison. I had on a Yankee belt when captured, which had not been taken from me, and the pistol and scabbard I soon provided. A thick piece of pine board furnished the material out of which I whittled a good imitation handle of a pistol, which I stained with ink and glazed over with a lead pencil to give it the appearance of steel. The scabbard I made from the knee flaps of my cavalry boots, a fine Yankee pair that my best girl had smuggled out of Helena, Ark., for me under her hoop skirt just before our fight there; but it was a month later before I secured the pants. I was standing one morning near the main entrance when a two-horse wagon, loaded with coal and driven by a green-looking Dutchman, came in. The driver's big blue Yankee overcoat was lying back on the coal, and I determined to have it. While he was fumbling in his pockets to find the ticket showing the number of barrack that had made requisition for the fuel, I advanced and roughly asked what had detained him, that I had been waiting an hour for the coal; taking his ticket and signing my sergeant s name to it, I mounted the wagon and directed him to my barrack, number twenty-four, on the far side of the prison. Throwing the coat on the wheel horse as I jumped down, I bade him wait and I would have his wagon unloaded. I went in, informed my sergeant, John Smith---John Rodgers was his real name, but he belonged to Quantrell's command, and had this been known his life would not have been worth a day's rations---of my intentions, and asked that he send out a detail to unload the coal. I then posted two or three of my friends, and, while the men were unloading the wagon, they were attracting the driver's attention on the far side from me by urging him to buy trinkets they had made out of shell, bone, etc. Unobserved I slipped the coat under my overcoat, carried it into my barrack, lifted up a loose plank in the floor, dropped it underneath, and went back to watch developments. Of course the Dutchman missed his coat when he started to drive away, and appealed to the sergeant, who called up the men; all declared there was no coat on the wagon---in truth, they had not noticed it. Then the Dutchman got mad, and they began to come hack at him with unbiblical language. Being in the midst of five or six thousand half-starved rebels, he curbed his tongue; but within twenty minutes after he drove out the bugle sounded the assembly, and the entire prison was searched, though without results. Two nights afterwards, when all was quiet, the coat was ripped up, washed in our cooking kettle, wrung out dry as possible, the pieces placed smoothly over the planks in the bottom of my bunk, my oilcloth over them, my blanket over that, and my bunk mate and I slept on them for a week (no patent for either washing or ironing on this plan was applied for). I took them out at night and, ripping up an old pair of my pants, placed the pieces over the blue cloth, on our kitchen table, cut out the pants with my pocket knife, and in three or four nights had them made. No slouch of a job was it, either, considering it was my first pair, made without thimble or scissors, and much of the thread drawn from my old pants. All the work had to be done secretly with a shaded light at night, for the prison was full of spies, but at last I was ready for business.
Next morning at roll call my sergeant reported me sick; and when the Yankee sergeant came in to verify the report, he found me in my bunk with a blanket drawn close up under my chin, suffering from a severe chill (?), but a moment later when the bugle sounded break ranks I threw off the blanket, sprang out of my bunk in Yankee uniform, the butt of my pistol showing bravely in the scabbard belted under my blouse all of which I expected to discard as soon as I was at a safe distance outside, for the citizen suit I had on underneath. Passing out the back door of our barrack as the men came in the front, I soon found a squad (six men with three barrels) waiting for a Federal guard to escort them out. Assuming authority, I ordered them to take up the barrels and move forward. We had to march to the far side of the prison, and when we arrived at the little side gate found all the scavenger force in line, the first squad standing at the edge of the dead line, the others extending back in the prison probably a hundred yards. Glancing from under the visor of my cap, I saw the officer of the day on the parapet directly over the gate, a negro sentinel on either side, watching the line form. He called to me as I came up, asking if I was the last. Replying that I was, he ordered the guard below to open the gate, and we began to pass out. Up to this time it had been nothing but pure bluff on my part, but as we moved toward the dead line my nerve began to leave me. From the furtive glances I gave from time to time at the officer and sentinels I imagined they were giving me special attention,. and the nearer I approached the greater became my fear that I had been betrayed or they had penetrated my disguise and were only waiting, for me to step over the dead line to shoot. Had it been a dash or rush with other comrades, I could have taken my chance with the bunch, but only one at a time could pass out of the narrow gate, and to be slowly moving up foot by foot to a line that I knew was certain death to cross, with two negro guards watching me and anxious to shoot, sent a tingling sensation down my back and a sharp pain in my jaws, as if I had bitten a sour pickle. A dozen times I was tempted to spring behind a barrack before they could shoot, and give up the attempt, but it was too late now. I was within ten feet of the line, and the least wavering or false step would confirm their suspicions, if they had any, and certainly draw their fire; so, pulling myself together as best I could, I stepped over with my men, marched them out the gate, and saw, for the first time in ten months outside of a prison wall, the broad Mississippi and the city of Davenport beyond.
We had gone a hundred yards down the river bank when I felt a hand on my shoulder and some one asked, "What company do you belong to?" Looking up, I saw it was the officer from the parapet. "Capt. Ameron's," I replied promptly, at the same time ordering my squad to "close up." He walked with me a little distance, and when not more than fifty feet from where they were mounting guard for the day he halted me, called to the sergeant of the guard and asked if the detail from Ameron's company had reported. They had. Facing me squarely to them, he asked if I belonged to their company. The play was over. The Yanks gave a knowing grin and, shaking their heads, pronounced me a "counterfeit." Calling a sergeant to take charge of my detail of Rebs, who were as much surprised as the Yankees, I was marched up to the officers' quarters, stripped of all my clothing, and after failing to find any money or papers---I had a $10 bill rolled in a small ball and glued to my head under the hair back of my ear---I was furnished a pair of old second-hand brown jeans pants, a woolen shirt, and a pair of russet shoes, without socks. The officers, several of whom had collected, evidently intended to make me look as ridiculous as possible, for while I was small, even for my age, the things furnished me would have been rather large for a six-foot, two hundred and fifty pound man. Then they began to question me as to where I procured my Yankee uniform. They could see I had designed the pistol and scabbard---but the clothes? I knew I would be punished severely if I told them I stole the coat to make the pants, so I decided to saddle the whole thing on a Yankee. The recruits in the "calf pen" were permitted to come out in detachments, accompanied by a guard, morning and evening to get water at the well in our prison, and I told my captors that I had bought the clothes late one evening from one of these guards; did not know his name and would not recognize his face. They refused to accept the statement; but no coaxing, bribes, or threats could make me deviate from the truth ( ?) of this story, so they ordered the sergeant to take me to the guardhouse, put me in irons, and drop me in the dungeon until my memory improved. The guardhouse was like our barracks except it was better built, had no bunks in it, was celled and made comfortable inside. Underneath the room which we used as a kitchen an excavation probably twelve by fourteen feet and eight or ten feet deep had been made, which was used for a dungeon. The entrance to it was through a trapdoor in the middle of the floor, secured by a bolt on the upper side. The door was lifted up, a ladder thrust down in the hole, the prisoner descended, the ladder was withdrawn, the door dropped back, the bolt shot, and there you were in darkness absolutely black. A thirty-two pound shot on a four-foot chain, with an ordinary spring lock cuff at the other end, was fastened around my ankle and I was marched to the trapdoor. When it was opened and I started down the ladder a horrible, loathsome odor from the fetid atmosphere below almost caused me to fall, but, gripping the chain in one hand and the rungs of the ladder with the other, I was carefully feeling my way down with my long russet shoes when the old, familiar challenge of "Who comes there?" sounded in the darkness below. There was a devil may-care tone in the voice that prompted me to answer: "A friend without the countersign."
"Advance, friend! The rattle of that chain is countersign enough," he answered back.
"Are you down?" the guard called to me from above.
"Don't know, but I am at the end of the ladder," I replied. When the ladder was drawn up and the door closed, I saw there was a faint, flickering ray of light near my feet that I discovered came from the open door of a small stove. "What's your name, and what barrack are you from?" asked the voice that had challenged me. I told him, and he in turn informed me that he was the unfortunate prisoner who, a short time before, in a fight with a comrade had killed him by striking him in the head with the footboard of his bunk. The Yankees had taken him out of prison and given him the choice of either joining the Yankee army or be hung for murder, and he had told them to "hang and be damned," so they put him in the dungeon to give him time to reconsider.
By his side on the edge of the ray of light I thought I saw something move, and I inquired if he was alone. "O, no; you are in select company down here," he replied. "There are two Yankee deserters condemned to be shot and a crazy nigger that stands a good chance of going the same way." He then told me the negro had gone suddenly crazy while on post, and when the relief guard came around had fired into the squad, mortally wounding one of them. He was in the dungeon waiting the decision of a court-martial. We had heard of the incident in prison at the time it occurred, and there are doubtless many old Rock Islanders yet living who will recall it, although we attached no importance to it at the time. But it came back to me then with a shudder of horror, for when a very small child I had been badly frightened by a harmless imbecile, and ever afterwards the only argument my old nurse needed to make me submissive and obedient was to threaten me with "a crazy man." It was a childish fear, but one I've never outgrown, and to-day I am more afraid of a lunatic than anything living. It was but small comfort to me when my friend told me the negro was his "bodyguard," and that he was big enough and strong enough to whip the two deserters with one hand. The last vestige of nerve was oozing out of me in a cold perspiration as I realized the situation---chained and in a twelve-foot dungeon with a powerful, crazy negro. I dropped my ball, and the rattle of the chain emphasized the horror of my situation. My knees began to shake beneath me, and as soon as I could speak without betraying my fear I told my friend that I would sit down, that I was rather tired from my morning's experience. "Sorry I can't offer you a chair," he replied. "We recline here mostly, and, as they have not sent your bed down, you will have to use one of the Yank's. "Nig, get the gentleman a bed." There was a commotion in the dark then the light shone on two long, powerful forearms and hands that were holding toward me a plank, some six feet long and twelve or fourteen inches wide. I could see nothing more, but knew instinctively to whom the arms and hands belonged, and shuddered as I took the board. Placing it directly in front of the stove under the ray of light, I stretched myself out on my back, my ball at my feet, and hands clasped under my head. I have no idea how long I remained in this position, for there is no record of time in a dungeon, day or night is all alike---black, blacker, blackest---but from excitement, fatigue, and fear I must have fallen asleep, for I was aroused to consciousness by something pulling on my chain, pressing the cold iron against my naked ankle, and I opened my eyes. On his knees bending over me, his face directly in the beam of light from the stove, and so close to mine I could feel his breath on my face, with a maniac's gleam in his bulging eyes, was the hideous face of the negro; in the shadowy light I could see my thirty-two pound shot resting in the upturned palm of his right hand near his shoulder while his left grasped the chain lower down which he was pulling to give him more purchase to dash the ball on my head. An electric flash was not quicker than I took in the situation or a clap of thunder louder than my scream of mortal terror. He dropped the ball and, with a maniac's cunning on being discovered, glided like a snake off in the darkness. My comrade was on his feet almost as quick and when I explained that the negro was about to dash my brains out with my ball, he gave him a scientific cursing, and I heard him kicking him vigorously in the dark, at the same time ordering him to "go up in the corner." In a few moments he came back, told me the negro would not again disturb me, and to lie down and finish my nap, which I declined with the truthful assurance that I was not a bit sleepy. The absolute control this Southern boy had over this negro was so incomprehensible to me that many years afterwards I mentioned the fact to my friend, the late Dr. J. H. Callender, for many years Superintendent of the Insane Asylum for Tennessee, and a man of national reputation as an expert on insanity, and he informed me that the case was by no means extraordinary; that the negro was a weak minded creature to start with, that the violent and sudden change from slavery to a United States soldier, the change of climate, habits, etc., had evidently deranged his feeble mind, that it was a perfect blank as to his surroundings, but when thrown in contact with a Southern man, hearing the Southern dialect, the authoritative tone, and the rough treatment revived in a feeble way his memory of slavery, which made him docile and obedient to the Southerner, for he only remembered himself as a slave.
It seemed as if I had been confined in darkness an eternity when the trapdoor was opened, the ladder lowered, and, instead of calling for one of us to come up and get our bread and canteens of water, which were our only rations, I was ordered to come up. It was a moment or two before my eyes became accustomed to the glare of the light; then I realized from the lantern in the orderly's hand that it was night. The guard was drawn up in open order at a "shoulder," and the officer of the day standing in the open door. "How is your memory now about your clothes?" he asked, as I halted in front of him. It occurred to me he would believe one story as readily as another, so I concluded to stick to the original text. "Very well," he replied; "if we can't starve it out of you, maybe we can shoot it out. Muster the guard outside, orderly." If I had been at myself, I would have known at once this was all bluff to bully me into a confession, but I was weak, sick, and frazzled out generally; and when I heard the negroes close up and come tramping out behind me, while the officer marched me in front, it made me wish I was safely back in the prison once more. The guard was drawn up outside, and I was left standing some ten or fifteen steps in front of them. The officer again questioned me about the uniform, and I again gave him the same old story. After bullying me for a time, and repeatedly informing me that I was not telling the truth, in a word of three letters, he ordered the sergeant to put me back in prison. I was put in the dungeon Wednesday morning about seven O'clock and was taken out Friday night about twelve.
I wore the ball for nearly two months, when it was ordered off by Capt. Ameron himself. He was officer of the day, and was watching some prisoners clean up the grounds inside the prison. I walked up close to him and dropped my ball to attract his attention. He turned when he heard the chain rattle, looked me over, and asked why I was wearing the ball. I replied because I could not get it off which was a fib, as I could pick the lock with a small nail and stout cord as fast as it could be locked, and which I did every night afer getting into my bunk, but was afraid to go without it in day time for fear some spy would report me, then it would have been riveted on my leg. "What did they put it on you for?" he inquired. I stated the case, and told him it was a reflection on the standing of his company, that I had simply claimed to be a member of it when they immediately proceeded to iron me. I saw his eyes twinkle a little as he said, "So you are the little rascal who claimed to belong to my company, are you?" I confessed I was. In a few moments he turned to go and ordered me to follow. We had reached the big ditch that was being dug across the prison, when he suddenly stopped, looked me square in the face, and asked if my irons were riveted on. I told him they were not. Without removing his eyes, he asked me if I had been wearing the ball all the time. I assured him I had (with proper allowance for truth under the circumstances). "Now, see here, Johnny, I am going to have that ball taken off, but I have heard that you fellows can pick one of those locks in a flash. Let me see you do it," he said, looking around to see that no one was in hearing distance. After another assurance from him that the ball should come off, I took my little nail and string out of my pocket and in a twinkle had the shackle off. He examined the nail and the string, then told me to do it again, which I did. He only said: "Well, I'll be damned. Fasten it back and come along." Passing out the gate, he called a sergeant and told him to take my irons off and put me back in prison. I thought I detected a sly wink as he nodded his head to me and turned away.
There is but a short span of life left me, hut I would give a good slice out of it to know if my comrade in the dungeon is living and to grasp his hand once more, or to meet some of the members of the detail that I marched out that morning with the slop barrels, none of whom I knew; but if any are living and read this article, they will certainly remember the circumstances of my arrest.
Nearly forty years have passed since my dungeon experience, yet at times I can feel the hot breath of that burly negro on my cheek, can see his bulging eyes with a maniac's glare in them close to mine, and in the shadowy darkness see my ball in his uplifted hand ready to fall and crush my head; I scream in mortal terror, and---I feel some one shaking me and a voice sounding far away, saying, "Husband, husband, wake up! You have a nightmare. You must quit eating such heavy suppers;" and I wake up to thank God it is only a nightmare this time, and that it was not caused by overfeeding on Dart's dog.
There are doubtless yet living many veterans who were prisoners at Rock Island in 1864-65, whose memories will be revived by the above emblematic caption. They will remember that secret oath-bound organization of prisoners formed at the darkest and most trying time of their prison life, a time when the United States government was using every means by starvation and bribery to induce the prisoners to join the United States army, for it was at this time the organization was formed and the members took a solemn oath to stand by each other under all circumstances and to die in prison rather than take the oath of allegiance or join the United States army so long as the Confederate government was in existence.
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