“Sent to Hell”: Experiences In One Southern Prison

Researched and Written by William C. Weidner, Chief Regimental Historian of the 190th and 191st Pennsylvania Veteran Volunteers, PRVCHS.

August 20 through approximately October 10, 1864

August 20 – After their capture at the Weldon Railroad, the Union prisoners were ushered towards Petersburg where they were kept in an open, wet, muddy field until the evening of the twentieth.

Westwood A. Todd, an ordinance officer in Mahone’s Brigade (Confederate), observed, “The prisoners passed by me as they were coming out. I thought we had captured their whole army for I had never seen so many prisoners in a battle before. Among them was a full regiment of Pennsylvania ‘Bucktails,’ so-called from each man wearing a buck’s tail in his hat. Our men were very much pleased with buck tails, and have asked the prisoners for them.  Some of our men took the buck’s tail without saying ‘by your leave.”

While the prisoners were being consolidated, they were searched and stripped of anything their captors deemed of value, “such as watches, knives, razors, shelter tents, and wearing apparel and offering as an excuse for doing so, that if they did not take them we would be searched and everything we had would be taken from us when we got to Richmond.”

Marching through Petersburg, Pvt. C. H. Golden (8th Pa. Res., Unassigned, 191st Pa. Volunteers, Co. H) described their reception by the citizens. ” …we were cursed and abused to such an extent we could hardly stand it. The women and little boys ran along and threw stones at us…”

Temporary relief came when they were loaded into railroad cars and the train headed for Richmond.

Richmond, Virginia Prisons

These prisons included Pemberton, Libby, Castle Thunder and Belle Isle. Some of the prisoners went directly to Belle Isle while others made intermediate stops at the other prisons for a few days before being transferred to Belle Isle in the middle of the James River.

A circa 1865 view of the City of Richmond, with Belle Isle prison visible in the center. Library of Congress.

An unknown comrade made this comment as he entered one of the prisons, “Taken prisoner on August 19th, robbed on August 20th, and sent to Hell on the 21st.”

Sergeant George W. Darby (8th Pa. Res., Co. G/Co. G., 191st Pa. Vet. Vols.) went to Pemberton Prison first where he observed the following event. Pvt. John McCluskey (10th Pa. Res., Co. D, 190th Pa. Vet. Vols., Co. K) “threw a Spencer rifle cartridge which he wished to be rid of out the window. It struck the pavement and exploded. This occurrence caused a great stir among the Johnnies and they at once rushed a number of soldiers and several officers into the building to punish the Yank who had tried to blow up the guard.”

Sergeant George W. Darby, Co. G, 8th Pa. Reserves and Co. G, 191st Pennsylvania Veteran Volunteers.
Sergeant George W. Darby, Co. G, 8th Pa. Reserves and Co. G, 191st Pennsylvania Veteran Volunteers.

Cpl. Newton W. Elmandorf (6th Pa. Res., Co. C, 191st Pa. Vet. Vols., Co. E) was also a witness. “We were ordered into line, and thirty rebel guards brought in, who were ordered to shoot the first man who moved out of his tracks. We were told that we would be kept there until we died, or the man who threw the cartridge be given up. After six hours the man who threw it told them it was he.”

McCluskey explained his unintentional actions but was not believed. He was brutally bucked and gagged until he nearly died.

These prisoners were then moved to Libby Prison where they were again searched and stripped of all their remaining valuables before moving to Belle Isle Prison. As all the prisoners moved onto the island, they were counted-off into squads of 100 men, each under the command of a sergeant from their group. These squads would be used for roll call and the issue of rations.

There was no stockade on the island. An earth parapet was thrown up about 4 feet high, enclosing 5 or 6 acres. The “dead line” was near the base of the earthen bank. Any prisoner approaching this line, or sometimes just being near it, drew immediate fire from the guards, no warning was given.

One prisoner from the fighting at Ream’s Station on the Weldon Railroad described his first meal on Belle Isle. “The day following our arrival on the island, when rations were issued, I was given the usual allowance of corn bread and a small piece of bacon which was so tainted that the smell was nauseating. I threw the piece I had away. It had not struck the ground before a prisoner who had been there some time grabbed and swallowed it without making a wry face. I said to him, ‘You must be pretty hungry to eat that stuff.’  He replied, ‘You will eat it and be glad to get it by the time you have been here as long as I have.”

Private Crocker commented, “I thought I had never been real hungry before, and devoured my share in short order.  It did not satisfy my hunger, but I felt much better.”

Sometime during their stay at Belle Isle Prison, “…a guard whose beat ran from the river to the camp on the outside of the fence along the lane, shot and killed a prisoner as he was returning with a bucket of water from the river. A Bucktail, who had seen the killing, armed himself with a shin bone and slipping down along the fence reached over and striking him a fearful blow on the head, killed him,… “

Corporal Elmendorf also described this incident, or possibly another similar while retrieving water. “While going to the river, on one occasion for water, the guard fired on us, killed one and wounded three.”

Pvt. David H. Woodring (1st Pa. Res., Co. K, 190th Pa. Vet. Vols., Co. D) was shot in the knee by a guard but his exact circumstances are not known.

The only good news for the Union prisoners during this time was hearing occasional artillery duels in the direction of Petersburg which meant the fighting was still proceeding, and the fire bells heard and large columns of smoke seen from the city of Richmond.

Sgt. James W. Eberhart (8th Pa. Res., Co. G, 191st Pa. Vet. Vols., Co. G) made several notations in his diary relative to these fires. “There was a fire in Richmond sometime before 12 o’clock. The guard says the central depot and two blocks were burned down.”

About a week later he noted, “The bells began to ring in the city & a large smoke could be seen. Another large fire at 4 p.m.”

(author’s note: For various reasons, the Dix-Hill Cartel which governed the prisoner exchanges had been suspended in 1863. A quote from Union General U. S. Grant created the myth that he stopped the exchange of prisoners at this time, but. in reality, he was just re-enforcing the Union policies that were already in effect at the time.

“It is hard on our men held in Southern prisons not to exchange them, but it is humanity to those left in the ranks to fight our battles. Every man we hold, when released on parole or otherwise, becomes an active soldier against us at once either directly or indirectly.  If we commence a system of exchange which liberates all prisoners taken, we will have to fight on until the whole South is exterminated. If we hold those caught they amount to no more than dead men. At this particular time to release all rebel prisoners North would ensure Sherman’s defeat and would compromise our safety here.”

However, Sergeant Darby disagreed. “This action on the part of General Grant, who had supreme command of all the armies of the United States, preferring to allow our comrades to starve and die by the thousands rather than chance the meeting of the exchanged Confederate in the field, is a sad blot on his otherwise famous record.”

The day after Grant’s statement, the Reserves were captured at the Weldon Railroad.

However, even with this known suspension of exchanges, there were at least three known exchanges of a large number of prisoners: October 1864 from the prisons in Richmond, November 1864 and December 1864 from prisons in South Carolina and Georgia.
These exchanged POWs were described as “very infirmed” who, if they survived, would never be healthy enough to rejoin a fighting unit.
The Richmond prisons were, to say the least, overcrowded so the Confederate government, in conjunction with the mentioned exchange of the infirmed prisoners, decided to clear these prisons and send the remaining POWs south to other locations.)

Leaving Richmond for Salisbury, NC (The Officers)

(author’s note: A description of the trains is necessary. The number of cars on the prisoner trains was probably 13-14, plus one or two used for the guard detail. These freight cars were mostly boxcars and cattle cars crammed with 50-70 prisoners in each. The speed of the trains was about 10 mph but probably less at times. The mechanical condition of the neglected engines reduced their pulling power as did the poor track conditions. There would and been stops for wood and water for the engine as an engine burned about a cord of wood and 1,000 gallons of water every 25-30 miles.14  These prisoner trains were south bound.  ”Every train coming north to Richmond (carrying troops/supplies) and there were many, had the right of way over our train, which subjected us to not only many tedious delays, but to a great deal of switching and bumping.” Meanwhile, the prisoners remained in the locked cars.)

October 2 – At 3 a.m., in Libby Prison where most of the officers were kept, Col. Homer B. Sprague (13th Conn. Vol.) and his sleeping comrades were awakened by armed guards carrying lanterns, marched to the Manchester train station on the Richmond & Danville Railroad and crammed into cattle cars and boxcars.

(author’s note: Most of this group of about 400 prisoners was comprised of about 350 officers captured earlier around Petersburg, which included the officers of the 190th and 191st regiments.)

The train slowly started south making “but four or five miles an hour” for the 140 miles to Danville.

Even in the worst of conditions, humor can make an appearance. Colonel Sprague heard from one comrade that the engineer “…kept a boy running ahead of the engine with hammer and nails to repair the tack.  Another chimed in, they put the cow-catcher on behind the last car to prevent cattle from running over the train.

About 9 p.m. the train arrived at Clover Station (on the R&D RR) where it spent the night.

October 3 – The train continued to Danville, arriving about noon. The prisoners had to change trains due to the difference in track gauge between the Richmond & Danville Railroad and the Piedmont Railroad (5’ vs. 4′ 8½”). The Piedmont Railroad carried the prisoners the next 50 miles of their trip to Greensboro, North Carolina.

John J. Torbert
John Jack Torbert, a former member of Co. K, 5th Pa. Reserves, served as commissioned 2nd Lieut. in the 191st Pennsylvania Veteran Volunteers. He was taken prisoner at Weldon Railroad, and sent to Macon, Georgia, where the officers were kept.

October 4 – Upon arriving in Greensboro, the prisoners were marched to the square and kept under guard. Colonel Sprague was on the outer edge of the prisoners, eating his three issued pieces of hardtack. “A well-dressed young man elbowed his way to me at the fence. He had a large black haversack under his left arm.” The man gave Sprague a sandwich.  When Sprague finished his unexpected meal, George W. Swepson (Alamance, NC) “emptied the satchel, giving all his food to my hungry fellow prisoners.”

October 5 – After spending the night sleeping on the ground, the prisoners boarded the train (North Carolina Railroad) about 9 a.m. for a 12 hour 50 mile trip to Salisbury.

Entering the prison, the officers were housed in four buildings and were kept separated from the enlisted prisoners by a line of guards. Colonel Sprague, a college classmate of Hugh McNeil, the Bucktail commander killed at Antietam, and Colonels Hartshorne (13th Pa. Res., F&S, 190th Pa. Vet. Vols., F&S) and Carle (6th Pa. Res., Co. H, 191st Pa. Vet. Vols., F&S) became part of the escape planning committee.

Unfortunately, the plot was discovered just before execution.

“We officers, about 350 in number, were packed in five freight cars, and the train was started for Danville. The tops of the cars were covered with armed guards, two or three being stationed within at the side door of each car.”

The train left on October 19, 1864 and arrived in Danville about noon on the 20th.  In return, Salisbury received 500 enlisted prisoners from Danville.

As in Salisbury, the same committee of officers was also part of an unsuccessful escape attempt in Danville.

Besides the normal problems of being a prisoner of war, Colonel Hartshorne and Maj. E. S. Horton (58th Massachusetts) were kept in irons for a period of time at Danville Prison in retaliation for the treatment of two Confederate officers held in a Union prison. The situation was finally resolved between both sides and the four officers were released.

The officers were held until February 17, 1865, when they were sent to Richmond by train to be exchanged on February 22, 1865.

(author’s note: The narrative now returns to Richmond)

Leaving Richmond for Salisbury (The Enlisted Men)

Officially suspended or not, the rumors of exchange were always present. Possibly due to the officers in Libby Prison being moved, rumors of a prisoner exchange were heard in Belle Isle Prison. They were believed to be true when ” …the commanders of the five highest numbered squads on the island were ordered to get their men ready to move at daylight next morning.

In a few minutes the wildest scene of excitement and enthusiasm imaginable prevailed among us. Men threw up their caps, laughed, cried, hugged and kissed one another, Shouted themselves horse, and all seemed to forget past suffering in the supreme joy of the moment. Our hopes of exchange were now to be reality, and in imagination I fancied myself already on my way home.”

“Nobody in the prison tried to sleep that night. Nobody doubted that we were to be immediately exchanged…”

When it was time for his group to leave, Private Crocker “marched over the Long Bridge and turned toward Manchester, where I had alighted from the cars on my arrival at the Capital. This seemed to be the right direction, and I did not ‘smell a mice’ until we were ordered to board a train of cars with an engine attached all ready to start, ‘headed South.’ I was thunderstruck…”

The prisoners were given two days rations before they boarded the train.

From Sergeant Darby, “Sixty-five men were crowded into each car which rendered it impossible for us either to sit or lie down, so we were obliged to stand like cattle in a stock train. The doors on the right hand side of the cars were locked, while those on the left were open, with two guards stationed in each, and a number of guards also rode on the deck (roof) of each car.”

From another prisoner as to the guards in the door of his car, “Their position was far from comfortable, owing to the crowded condition of the car. The road bed was in bad condition and the jolting of the car compelled them to cling to the sides of the doorway to keep from being thrown out.”

These cars, however, were old and the wood was rotting. Sergeant Darby kicked a hole in one wall and escaped from the train at one of the wood/water stops (about 23 miles south of Richmond). Unfortunately, he was recaptured several days later and spent the next 5 months in Libby Prison until the mass exchange.

(author’s note: Several other prisoners tried to escape with Darby but were also recaptured: Sgt. James C. Darnell, Sgt. John L. Francis, Sgt. Isaac A. Moore, Cpl. Isaac N. Mitchell, Cpl. David Richie, Pvt. James W. Axton, Pvt. Daniel Elgin, Pvt. Bartholomew Warman, all from 191st Pa. Vet. Vols., Co. G.)

Sergeant Eberhart wrote that reaching Danville, Virginia, the prisoners “were unloaded and marched across the river, where another train was in waiting to take us on our southern journey.”

Isaac A. Moore
Isaac A. Moore, Co. G, 8th Pa. Reserves and Co. G, 191st Pennsylvania Veteran Volunteers; seen here as a Corporal in the 8th Reserves – was one of the prisoners who tried to escape with Sergeant Darby but was recaptured.

Later that day, the train traveled the 50 miles to Greensboro over the Piedmont Railroad. Stopping there, as Private Crocker surmised, “…to rest the engine, the poor old thing wheezed like a wind broken horse seeming to be out of fix generally as did everything about the railroads I saw.”

The prisoners unloaded and marched about ½ mile to an open field where they were fed hardtack and bacon. When some of the citizens of Greensboro came to the field to see the enemy Private Crocker received some dessert. “One old lady was especially kind giving me some cakes and three large apples.”

The next day of the journey for this group covered the 50 miles between Greensboro and Salisbury, the train arriving at the station towards night. The walls of Salisbury Prison could be seen from the train.

Sergeant Eberhart and Private Golden made the last seven hour segment of the trip on top of the train. “…how cold that wind was upon us, without blanket or overcoat, only thin cotton pants, short coat, and those in rags and desperately lousy.”  Private Golden was so stiff from the cold that he had to be helped from the train and into the prison.

A fellow Pennsylvania summed up his train ride,  “…at last we arrived at Salisbury, N.C., after a journey of five days, having tasted bread but once and getting water but twice.”

Sergeant Eberhart recalled, “We were formed into line & marched up to the prison about ¼ mile from the depot and counted off in squads of 100.”

For the men on these trains, “Hell” was about to get worse.

“Hell” Gets Worse (in Salisbury Prison)
October 11, 1864 through February 18, 1865

(author’s note: Several books have been written about Salisbury Prison in which the authors are able to go into more detail about the prison than is possible in the limited scope of this work. I am only going to give a brief general history and then concentrate my descriptions and quotes during the above listed time period when members of the two regiments were incarcerated there. Descriptions from the two units are limited so I’m including some descriptions from other Union fellow prisoners as well as from the Confederate side to make the story more complete.

Salisbury Prison, North Carolina
Salisbury Prison, North Carolina.

Salisbury Prison had not always been “Hell.” A correspondent from the New York Iribune, captured and a prisoner at Salisbury in early 1864, gave this description. “For several months Salisbury was the most endurable Rebel prison I had seen. The six hundred inmates exercised in the open air, were comparatively well fed and kindly treated. But in early October ten thousand regular prisoners of war arrived there, and it immediately changed into a scene of cruelty and horrors.”

Salisbury Prison was created in November 1861, when the Confederacy bought an abandoned cotton factory from the state of North Carolina. Besides the factory, the location had good railroad transportation. “There are scores of working men now employed on the grounds and buildings of the old factory in this place, preparing them for the reception of prisoners. The property has fallen into decay, and must now be refitted. Some slight changes adapting it to its new use have to be made, and the whole premises enclosed with a high board fence.”27  There were other small buildings within the fenced area which housed different types of prisoners besides Union POWs, these included Confederate deserters, political prisoners, etc. The prison’s initial design was for about 2,500 total prisoners.

The relatively humane lifestyle for the prisoners came to an end starting about October 5, 1864, when the trains from the Richmond prisons began arriving. All told, it is estimated 10,321 Union prisoners were held during the five month time period.

During our time period of interest, a “dead line” was created around the inside perimeter of the fence and the blacksmith shop became the “dead house,” the last stop before the wagon ride to the trenches.)

After his release, Sgt. Maj. Frank King (13th Pa. Res., Co. I, 190th Pa. Vet. Vols., F&S) gave this simple, short and accurate description of the new and crowded Salisbury Prison. ” …a five months exposure to starvation, sickness, misery and wretchedness, the rains of Autumn, the frost and snows of Winter and the merciless treatment of Major Gee and his barbarians.”

Pvt. William Barnes (8th Pa. Res., Co. K, 191st Pa. Vet. Vols., Co. G) wrote in his diary, “Starving to death is a hard death to die.” Unfortunately, Barnes was one of the 229 members of the 190th and 191st Regiments who did not survive.

For many, the five months of captivity in Salisbury could be called a living hell; unfortunately an estimated 946 Pennsylvanians died in Salisbury during this time period. “Death claimed about every third prisoner.” It must be noted that most of the prisoners sent here were already in poor health after their two month confinement in the Richmond prisons.

Hospital Interior at Salisbury Prison
Engraving of an interior view of the hospital at Salisbury Prison, NC. National Museum of Civil War Medicine.

Noting some of the contributing causes of this death rate, Sergeant King described the food, “A day’s rations per man were a half loaf of bread, from two to four ounces of meat, and a pint of soup. For the bread ration, a pint of flour or corn meal, was sometimes substituted.”

Even as poor as the food was, Sergeant King noted, “A man can live a long time on a small ration, provided he gets that ration every day, regularly; but let that supply be cut off a day, or two days at a time, and pretty often, and it will begin to tell very quickly.”

Along with the poor rations, the sanitary conditions were non-existent. “In the well behind the Citizen’s building, the dead body of a Negro had been thrown, previous to our coming, and we did not find it out until our frequent applications for water made the well almost dry, and thereby exposed the body to our gaze. It was taken up and carried off, but I had no relish for water from that well again.”

There were nine wells in the enclosure but they could not supply enough water for the number of prisoners, usually running dry early in the day.” Prisoners “were allowed to go in squads, as numerous as could be guarded with the small number of the garrison, to the creek which ran within a few hundred yards of the place. From there they brought water in barrels.  They were going and returning all through the day.” Even so, enough water could not be supplied.

Shelters were so limited they were almost non-existent, mostly being holes or caves of some description dug in the ground under one of the buildings or in the open areas. “The whole enclosure was literally honey-combed by these burrows. They were square or round holes dug some three feet deep, with a mud thatched roof – a hole being punched through to the surface at one end and a little chimney further built up out of baked earth.” Chaplain A. W. Magnum (6th North Carolina) then commented, “But for the dampness these places would have been comparatively comfortable – for they shielded the tenant from the wind and rains, and required a very small quantity of wood to make them warm.”

Unfortunately, there was little wood issued for heat, let alone any type of construction, although there were wood forests in the area. Transportation seemed to be the major complication to the supply line. When a train and guards were available, Cpl. Halsey Lathrop (6th Pa. Res., Co. C, 191st Pa. Vet. Vols., Co. E) was placed in charge of about 64 prisoners who traveled several miles from the prison to cut wood along the tracks.38

“We cling shiveringly to the outside chimneys of the squalid hospitals, hoping to extract a little warmth from the half heated bricks.” In early November, a brick chimney on the main building collapsed, crushing several prisoners under the debris.

No clothes or blankets of any large amount were issued; the only replacements were taken from dead comrades before they were taken to the “dead house.”

No medical supplies or any treatment by doctors was readily available. Several doctors were on the prison staff at various times but they had no medical supplies which would cure the many diseases which ran rampant among the prisoners. The available medical supplies of the South went to their troops on the line. As such, the hospitals became the last stop for many prisoners before the “trenches for the unknown.”

Knowing the condition of the hospitals, many of the sick and dying preferred to wait for the inevitable in whatever residence they had. When their bodies were discovered by their comrades, after stripping them of everything of value, they were carried to the “dead house.”

Before Private Barnes became one of the victims, he wrote in his diary, “A hard place it is. The men are dying at the rate of 30 to 60 per day, all from cold and starvation. It is a horrible sight to see them hauled out by the wagon load.”

A diarist from the 121st Pennsylvania wrote that November 23 “was a sad day. I counted eighty-three dead comrades in various portions of the camp and dead-house, and how many more there was God only knows, as I gave up counting in despair. On the 24th, at 8a. m., there were twenty-four more dead bodies laying in the dead-house.”

Without fanfare except for a silent prayer or the tear of a comrade, “They were hauled thence, without coffins, to the old field west of the prison. A detail, first of convicts and afterwards prisoners of war, was kept day by day, constantly digging the long pits in which they were interred. These pits were four feet deep, a little over six feet wide, and were extended, parallel, about sixty yards. The bodies were laid in them without covering – there was not material to cover the living, much less the dead. They were laid side by side, as closely as they would lie, and when the number was too large for the space that was dug, one would placed on top between every two.”

Sergeant Darby remembered, “…the dead wagon with its ghastly load of stiffening corpses piled in like cord wood, the arms and legs swaying to the motion of the cart, the pitiful white faces staring with dropped jaws and stony eyes, rattling along to the trenches outside, where its precious burden was hastily dumped and covered over with a few inches of dirt.”

(author’s note: Eighteen trenches were dug in an abandoned cornfield to bury the dead in our time period. No markers or any other identification was attempted; as such the bodies are all unknown. The trenches became the focal point in the creation of the National Cemetery in Salisbury. It is believed the trench closest to the prison area was the first dug.

Escapes and escape attempts were always occurring but the attempt on November 25, 1864, is the most noted. The following description of this attempted break is a composite description from the sources listed in the footnote.)

For the month of November, Maj. John H. Gee, the prison commander, had placed the prisoners on half rations most of the time even though there was an adequate supply available in the warehouses.

Things became unbearable in the fourth week. “…some of us had been 72 hours without a mouthful of food of any kind, and we reasoned among ourselves that we might better die like men fighting for our liberty, than allow them to starve us to death…”

Rumors also spread through the camp that some of the regular Confederate Guards were being transferred, being replaced by state militia, thus weakening the guard detail.

A plan was developed to overpower the 15-20 guards of the inside detail, force open the gates, and then overpower and disarm the militia, “…principally old men and country farmers, a class of men that knew but little about the use of the musket.”

When free, all of the physically able prisoners would head for Tennessee and Union lines.

“Each commander of a squad was to notify his men of the part they were to take and the duties they were to perform.”

The appointed time was 2 p.m., about two hours after the guard change. Unfortunately things went wrong from the beginning. A lack of patience, probably brought on by hunger and a hope for food and freedom, caused the order to be given as soon as the guard change occurred. However, the major problem seemed to be that not enough prisoners were informed of the plan and those not in the know caused confusion in the prison by inadvertently blocking the prisoners who were aware of the plan.

“There was no organized action; several thousand prisoners rushing to one point only, instead of making attempts to break down the fence in different places, thus confusing the guards on the fence. The attempt was futile, as we had neither hammers nor axes with which to make an opening in the fence.”

From Corporal Lathrop whose detail was unloading the wood train at the station, “We had gone out that morning as usual, with no intimation of an outbreak in any quarter, and it is my opinion that somebody went off half-cocked on that occasion.”

As soon as the break was attempted, “the cannon thundered at the corner of the stockade, mowing down our men…”

The rumored departing troops (68th North Carolina) were still at the train station only about 1 mile from the prison. Hearing the initial artillery and rifle fire, they ran to the walls.  “It was soon discovered, too, that the conscripts had not left the place, and the sentinels’ platform fast filled amid the discharge of grape and canister from the two pieces of artillery.” Concerned citizens also ran to the prison after arming themselves.

The inside guards had been overpowered, their rifles captured and used on the guards on the wall while the gate was rushed but the prisoners initial success ended.

“As soon as they saw they could not succeed they threw up their hands and cried: ‘We give up! We are done!’ They ran scampering all over the grounds, seeking for shelter, running into their burrows and tents, falling in the ditches and on the ground.”

Apparently a small group managed to temporarily get outside the wall. From Pvt. Edward W. McElroy (45th Pennsylvania Volunteers), “…we had about 25 muskets and carried everything before us, stopping to raid the bake house, and out of the stockade we went, in what I would call a southeasterly direction.” Amid cheers and curses of a group of women, the Yankees learned the troops at the station “were soon on our trail and opened fire on us, killing outright 23 and wounding 57 that I know of.”

(author’s note: Later, while Private McElroy was on the cleanup detail, he counted bodies in his view. F. E. Saunders [16th Maine] noted that the cannon in the southwest corner “is the one that killed and wounded so many…” He also noted that the canister killed many men who were in several tents in that corner, never knowing of the escape.)

Major Gee stated in his report that 13 prisoners were killed, 3 were mortally wounded and 60 others wounded. Three ringleaders were arrested, put in chains and sent to Maj. Isaac H. Carrington, the Provost Marshal in Richmond. Two Confederate guards were killed, one was mortally wounded and 8-10 others were slightly wounded. Gee also praised in his report the two convicts who were the first to step forward to stop the attempt; a man named Northwood grabbed a gun and started shooting at the prisoners and one named Wilson who killed the prisoner who killed the sergeant of the guard.

It was a costly 10-15 minutes in the attempt as another report listed 28 Union prisoners were killed and 70 were wounded. At least five Reserves were among the dead, John M. Weeks (1st Pa. Res., Co. G, 190th Pa. Vet. Vols., Co. F), George Elliott (1st Pa. Res., Co. G, 190th Pa. Vet. Vols., Co. G) Henry Brua (8th Pa. Res., Co. H, 191st Pa. Vet. Vols., Co. H), Samuel V. Uselton (10th Pa. Res., Co. F, 191st Pa. Vet. Vols., Co. I) and Albert Palmetier (6th Pa. Res, Co. I, 191st Pa. Vet. Vols., Co. E) who shortly died of his wounds.

Several other names on the muster rolls of the two units died within days of the escape attempt but their cause cannot be definitely contributed to the escape attempt.

Several hours after the attempt, food and wood were sent into the prison compound.

The next day the “Rebs come in camp to get the guns which were thrown in the well.  They hired our men to go down in the well for the guns. Gave a loaf of bread for a gun.”

“After this event we had no more guards stationed inside the stockade. This much we gained from our attempt to break out, and the rations doled out to us were never withheld from us for so long a time during the remainder of our stay in Salisbury.”

One of the successful escapes was made by Private Crocker and three companions on February 11, 1864. While on a wood cutting detail between Salisbury and Statesville, they made their attempt and finally reached Union lines to the west.

(author’s note: Cpl. Lathrop was in charge of this day’s detail.)

Two days later, Sgt. Washington I. Cook (10th Pa. Res., Co. I, 191st Pa. Vet. Vols., Co. K) made his escape, taking one month to reach Union lines.

Even final release has its price.
February 19 through approximately March 10, 1865

During the end of January and the first part of February, most of the problems involving the Dix-Hill Cartel were solved, both sides agreeing to exchange their prisoners for humanitarian reasons. Rumors of the exchange were heard in the prison.

However, Sergeant Darby curbed some of his elation. “We had often been deceived by just such promises of release, by having been taken from prison to prison.”

So did Sergeant Major King. “A rumor was spread through the camp that the sick were to be transported, in a few days, to Greensboro, and that the able bodied were to proceed to the same place on foot, where transportation awaited all. Most of us gave but little heed to this report, for we had heard so many that we had grown into the habit of disbelieving everything, no matter how good the news…”

February 19, 1865 – “Send all able-bodied prisoners of war, including officers, at Salisbury to Wilmington, to be delivered to the United States. All sick and Federal citizens will be sent to Richmond. Duplicate lists will be made and prisoners paroled. Lists forwarded with prisoners to Captain Hatch. Use large clerical force. First detachment might be sent without delay and lists made for the rest.”

February 21 – From prisoner W. B. Lyke, “Major Gee came to the small gate and ordered that all the men who could not walk be taken outside the prison to the railroad, where they would be loaded on cars to be taken to our lines and paroled.”

A prison clerk and several prisoners (including William P. Smith, 5th New York Infantry) hurriedly made out the necessary lists and paroles.

From Private Golden, “At noon all of the sick were taken out of the stockade and tenderly placed in boxcars.”

From Pvt. Benjamin F. Booth (22nd Iowa Infantry), “Each car was filled to its utmost capacity, some of the poor fellows had to stand; others were piled around wherever room could be found for them to lie down.”

Private Golden continued, “After the sick came all the men who were just able to walk to the train.” These men (acting nurses) were “placed in charge of the sick, and soon the long train of cars left the prison.”

From another witness, “The hospitals were emptied of all who could travel. It was a pitiable spectacle to see the haggard, staggering patients marching to the train. Some faltered along alone; some walked in couples, supporting one another, now and then three would come together, the one in the middle dragged along by the other two; and occasionally several would bear a blanket on which was stretched a friend unable to walk or stand.”

While the train was being loaded, civilians were giving food and coffee to some of the prisoners.

The “infirmed” trains to Richmond.

(author’s note: My research shows three trains carried 2,279 infirmed prisoners by way of Greensboro and Danville to Richmond to be exchanged. Two trains left on the afternoon of February 21″, the third left in the late morning of the 22nd.  The possibility of a fourth train on February 25, carrying the “too infirmed” for the first three trains, is still being researched.)

From Pvt. Alexander Duncan (45th Pennsylvania Infantry), “…about 800 of us were marched out to the railroad track about 100 yards from the prison gate to take the train to Richmond. It was on the 22nd (21st?) of February. We waited there all day but no train. The weather was very cold and night was coming on. The officer in charge of us, seeing our pitiable state, had some old tents brought out and making us lie down on the frozen ground, in rows and close together, spread the tents over us and so we passed the night. In the morning, John Murphy, who had lain beside me, was unable to get up, so they carried him into the prison and there he died (DOD March 4, 1865). The train came about 11 a. m., and we got on board. The cars were box freight and we were packed in almost to suffocation. I got out as soon as possible and climbed on the roof of the car and laid down, using the brakeman’s foot board for a pillow and so I made the trip to Richmond. It rained or sleeted nearly all the time, about 44 hours.  The train moved slowly and stopped often. We reached Richmond at daylight on the 25th (24th?) of February. Twenty eight men died during the journey. We were put into Libby Prison and I stayed there until the 13th of March.”

(author’s note: As stated before, the difference in the gauge of the railroads required changing trains at Greensboro and Danville. These transfers probably meant that any dead, when off-loaded, would have been buried near the transfer location. Unfortunately, I’ve also read accounts where the prisoners threw the bodies of the dead from the moving trains so that those alive would have slightly more room in the overcrowded cars.  Along with the nurses (prisoners serving in that capacity), some “healthier” prisoners rode on the train as attendants as far as Greensboro to help with the transfer between trains. When the transfer was completed, these attendants went sent to Wilmington for exchange.)

February 23 – When the first two trains arrived at Manchester Station across the river from Richmond, there may have been some wagons to transport those prisoners in the worse condition to the hospital; the others had to walk to a hospital or a prison to wait to be exchanged.

“A large number of sick men arrived at the hospital this morning from Salisbury, N.C. I was informed by the surgeon that met them at the depot that forty died on the way here.”

(author’s note: Any of these prisoners who died while in the Richmond prisons awaiting release would have been credited to this respective prison, not Salisbury. Many of the dead on the trains would be buried in “unknown” graves and be carried as fate unknown on government documents and muster rolls.)

As soon as possible, the very sick were sent to Varina on the James River to be exchanged, then loaded onto Union ships to be transported to hospitals in Annapolis, Md.

From First Sergeant James H. Eames (39th Massachusetts Infantry), “We started by boat down the river, passing safely through the obstructions; saw some Rebel rams, Fort Darling and other places of interest, reaching the landing (Aikens) after two hours sail and were received by Yankee cavalry and escorted to the Yankee truce-boat.” Once on board, “we soon got the first taste of Yankee coffee for 5 months and more; it tasted splendidly…”

His concluding sentence relative to his unit would apply to many of the units represented by the POWs in the various prisons, north and south, including the 190th and 191st. “Many of the poor fellows who lived to leave prison, died soon after reaching home so that, at the time Lee surrendered as far as I could ascertain, four-fifths of those sent to Salisbury were dead, the remainder being more or less broken in health.”

March to Greensboro and a train ride to Wilmington

(author’s note: No trains were available due to the fighting around Wilmington, NC.  “The railroad between Salisbury and Goldsboro necessary for supply, transportation of prisoners between these points must be delayed or marched through the country.”

The route of march followed the North Carolina Railroad tracks from Salisbury to Greensboro and the road generally following these tracks, today’s Business U.S. 29. From Greensboro to Goldsboro, the journey was on the North Carolina Railroad.)

Seeing the infirmed leaving earlier in the day, “But very little sleep was indulged in during the night of the (February) 21st.”

Pvt. James F. Deuel (45th Pennsylvania Infantry) remembered, “We did not sleep much that night. How could we?”

Mentally, the prisoners were ready to do whatever it took to gain their freedom; physically, it was another matter. From Chaplin A. W. Magnum, “About 2,800 started to march to Greensboro. A great many who started were unable to make the march. Besides the stragglers, two hundred were left at Lexington and five hundred the next day were abandoned on the road. About one thousand failed on the way.”

Col. John K. Hoke, commander of the guard detail for the march, testified during Major Gee’s trial that he left the prison with 2,968 prisoners. “..they all marched well through the first half of the day, only seventy five broke down, the next day I left three hundred on the road and so on. The third day I think I left about five hundred.”

From Pvt. David O. McRaven (one of the 500 member guard detail), “There was a great many of them gave out on the way.  It has been raining all the time.”

From another marcher, if that can be the correct term, “Quite a number of prisoners were barefooted. My shoes had given out entirely on the second day’s march, and I left them in the mud and made my way the best I could without them. My feet were swollen and feverish, being affected with scurvy in its first stages, so that I did not feel the cold as much as I would if they had been in a healthy condition. On our arrival at Greensboro however, they were so sore and lacerated by the sleet frozen on the railroad track and ties, I could have been tracked by the blood marks I left behind me, and I was only one of many in the same condition.”

From Richard Lombard (39th Mass.) “I marched to Greensboro, N. C., though unable to march.  It rained three days and nights going there, and a good many died on the way.”

February 22 (Washington’s Birthday) – About 130 miles to the east, Union troops were capturing the city of Wilmington. At Salisbury “…the drums beat ‘roll call,’ the signal us to give verbal parole of honor, to the effect, that we would make no effort to escape while enroute to the Union lines…”

After being issued three days’ rations of two loaves of bread and a quarter pound of fresh pork, at about 11 o’clock, the prisoners filed through the gate and began their march of 50 miles to Greensboro. From Private McRaven, “There was a string of Yankee prisoners and [Contraband] about 2 ½ or 3 miles long. They were very cheerful and glad to leave…”

“I had always said I would walk out of Salisbury and if there was a living man in this prison in the Spring, I would be one of them, and I kept my word.” Private Golden had achieved his goal but he needed two canes to support himself. The rest of his journey to freedom was not going to be easier. “At last night came of the first day’s march from Salisbury towards Greensboro, N. C. and a hard tramp it was for me. I was scarcely two miles from the prison…”

Sergeant Eberhart had a better first day. “Walked until dark and camped in woods.  We have plenty of wood & a good fire although it was a raining. Rested fairly well.”

Some of the Salisbury column in better physical condition marched about 7 miles this day, the last few in a “pouring storm.”  Fortunately, W. B. Lyke noted that “fuel was plenty, and we soon had fires built of pitch pine fagots which the rain did not seem to have any effect. And although the rain continued to fall in torrents, we passed the night in more real comfort than we had known for months for we kept the fire burning and could keep one side of our person dry and warm, which we have been unable to do if we had been in the pen.” 

From Colonel Hoke, “..the first day, I marched about eight miles. I only marched about half a day.”

On the first day of the departure from Salisbury Prison, the guards closely monitored the prisoners but as they became strung out, it was determined these decimated skeletons were no real threat to the local citizens. “…all they wanted was to know the location of the parole camp and keep steering for it by night and day.”

February 23 – Pvt. Robert L. Drummond (111th New York Infantry) and two comrades who should have went on the train to Richmond “made but little progress the first day and that night camped in a piece of woods. Here I made my comrades a bed of brush and for the first time in four months they did not lie on the bare ground. In the morning I found that I could scarcely stir and became alarmed for the condition of my patients.” Drummond continued, “I got them finally to their feet, but found to my dismay that the march of the day was begun,…”

As the three comrades were deciding their options, a mounted Confederate officer and his staff approached on the road. After several questions and explanations were given, the officer pointed with his sword. “See here, my boy, right over there is a railroad depot. You get your comrades there if you can; but before you come in sight of it you get a large cane, and when you are there be ‘right smart lame,’ and I think they’ll take all three of you on board the cars.” The Confederates rode off and the Union prisoners performed their act and rode on the train to Greensboro.”

The rain had changed to a cold drizzle. Other prisoners had to leave their warm fires and continue marching “over the slippery, muddy, clay road, which our guards soon abandoned and led us to the railroad track which we followed the rest of the march to Greensboro…”

The cold drizzle turned to ice on the railroad track. Private Deuel and his comrades “soon came to a place where we must cross the swollen waters of a stream.” Confederate guards explained there were no other bridges for 15 miles in either direction. “We must cross on a kind of railroad bridge over a deep place. You could not call it a bridge, yet it still formed a passageway. It was something like our trestle works, only the ties were about four or five feet apart.” The 125 foot deep chasm “was filled at the bottom with enormous great sharp rocks around which the boiling waters of the swollen floods rushed with terrific roar.”

Deuel, in his weakened condition, decided he could not cross as “it was impossible to walk and the only way to do so was to crawl across the stringers.” While waiting for the ice to melt, other prisoners tried to cross; “1 of every 12 fell into the flood below and were forever lost.” Enough crawling prisoners cleared the ice. “With my mind made up I started.  How I clung to those rails!”

Adding to Deuel’s problems, a train approached causing the prisoners to hasten their crawling while the guards added their insistence. Fortunately the train stopped but not until three more prisoners fell into the waters.

That night, Golden, Eberhart, and several others were able to get out of the rain and sleep in a barn thanks to a local farmer’s kindness.

Colonel Hoke noted the distance covered, “…the second day about eleven miles,…” 

February 24 – The rest of Private Deuel’s journey to Greensboro was less eventful.  His group of about 300 marchers obtained shelter and hospitality from [Contraband] in the Thomasville area for 2-3 days. On the first morning of his stay, Deuel noticed “…a train was switched (to a siding) and the engine moved off taking with it all the trainmen and guards.  We investigated and found it was a supply train coming from the south going to the front.” On the train were about 126 Union officers being transported to Wilmington for exchange.  They advised Private Deuel that a southbound train had jumped the tracks and the crew and guards of their train went to help rerail it. “We carried away most of the sugar, molasses, and sugar-cured hams and bacon that was on board. We worked hard taking our stuff to the shanties until we heard the whistling of the returning engine.” A feast was enjoyed by all.

Corporal Elmandorf and three comrades showed some Yankee ingenuity. “Guards were stationed around us, but they were not strict, and four of us decided to go to the railroad station and ride to Goldsboro, knowing that was our destination. The conductor of the first train arriving refused to permit us to go on board. The conductor of the next train said we might ride on top of the freight cars. This we agreed to.” The train was composed of boxcars and flat cars carrying freight and supplies. One of the flat cars was loaded with three hogsheads of sugar. Filling their haversacks, at each water/wood stop, they would get off the train and run to the nearest store to sell their wares. They made about $1,000 on their six day journey to Goldsboro.

(author’s note: This could also be the same train that Private Deuel and his comrades “foraged” as I have descriptions from three different sources, Elmendorf, Deuel, and Capt. R. K. Beecham (2nd Wisconsin Volunteers) about a supply train in the Thomasville area being “foraged” in this time frame.)

From Colonel Hoke on the third day’s march, 16 miles…

February 25 – …the fourth day 15 miles.

Thomasville was a water stop for trains. When rested, Deuel’s group waited for a train to stop for water during the night, climbed unseen onto the boxcar roofs and rode to Greensboro in a snow storm.

About 9 p.m. a group of marchers already at Greensboro boarded a train composed of all flat cars except 2-3 boxcars to head east. Private Booth rode on a very crowded flat car.  “The road is very rough and much out of repair, and from the clatter made by the engine and cars, they are not in better shape than the road bed.”

February 26 – When this train reached Raleigh about 8 a.m., the prisoners unloaded and went to an open area. When returning to the train through the town, Private Booth, one of the many prisoners without shoes, was approached by a young girl about 5-6 years old who had seen his plight. “Here, soldier, is an old pair of boots; they are not very good ones, but they will keep your feet off the stones.”

Meanwhile, Sergeant Eberhart “Arrived at Greensboro. All hungry. After dark they gave us molasses & corn meal to eat. Slept in the woods all night with a good fire.”


(author’s note: The train ride from Greensboro to Goldsboro was approximately 126 miles, but it was only marginally better than the march for some of the POWs.)

Arriving in Goldsboro, Lt. B. F. Blakesbee (16th Connecticut Infantry) followed a trail of dead bodies from the railroad to the camp outside of town where the prisoners were held until exchanged.”

From John G. Weaver (2nd Ohio Cavalry), the camp “was nothing but a barren waste of sand.” Weaver continued, “As the prisoners were marching along, seemingly in a quickstep, eager to reach the place where they were to sign the parole, every now and then some poor unfortunate prisoner would from exhaustion and over exertion drop in his tracks from the column and stiffen and die. I saw one man, who was all in eagerness to regain his expected liberty, and was marching along just ahead of me, suddenly drop as if shot, and just as he turned his face beseechingly toward the marching column, the glassy stare of death could plainly be seen in his wide-open and staring eyes.”

February 27 – The prisoners waiting in the Goldsboro camp for a parole officer to arrive “…were suffering all it was possible for them to suffer and live. Many of them did not live. Some of the ‘ladies,’ God bless them, loyal women of North Carolina, heard of the sufferings of these poor men, and, regardless of the ‘order’ of the commandant of the post, visited them, ministering to their wants as best they could.”

February 28 – Paroles and a list of prisoners being exchanged were prepared.

March 1 – It took until dark to sign the paroles. One train departed at midnight.

March 11 – Some of the marchers took about 2-3 weeks to complete the march and train ride to Goldsboro so prisoners were still being processed along the route of exchange.  Private Golden did not reach Greensboro until March 9 and “I was permitted to ride on the cars for about 12 miles.” As the prisoners continued to stagger into the Greensboro camp, they were probably held until there was room on a train to take them to Goldsboro.

Private Golden signed his parole. “In the evening of this day we were called up and marched into the city of Goldsboro and ordered to lie down in the dusty streets until the railroad men could get up a train large enough to haul all the Yankee prisoners out of this place into our lines near Wilmington.”  His train left at midnight.

Goldsboro to Wilmington

(author’s note: This part of the route was along the Wilmington & Weldon Railroad and Castle Haynes Road, today’s Business U.S. 117. The distance between Goldsboro and Wilmington stations on the railroad is approximately 84 miles. Union Headquarters for the exchange was on the south side of the crossing of the North East Cape Fear River at Northeast Station, about nine miles from Wilmington. The Confederates were along the railroad on the north side. The two officers in charge of the exchange were Confederate Gen. Robert F. Hoke and Union Brevet Brig. Gen. Joseph C. Abbott.

It appears that the prisoners walked to the release point from Duplin Roads and Burgaw stations on the railroad. The railroad bridge over the river was at least partially destroyed by Hoke’s troops as they retreated from Wilmington. A pontoon bridge was constructed to aid in the crossing and some boats were commandeered to also assist.)

March 2 – From Corporal Elmendorf, “We were sent from Goldsboro under a flag of truce to Wilmington..”

From Sergeant Eberhart, “We all signed a parole & put us on the cars & took us to our lines near the Black River.”

The train stopped just north of the exchange point about 7 a.m. where the guard detail left the train. Two more bodies were laid by the tracks when the prisoners unloaded. They advanced through a check point for a head count and then crossed the river on the pontoon bridge into the Union line.

Sergeant Eberhart continued, “Came in through the Colored Troops. What a joyous deliverance when we once more saw Old Glory. I never saw it more beautiful.”

The returning troops marched under a banner which read, “We welcome you home, our brothers” while a band played “Home Sweet Home.”

From a member of the Sanitary Commission, “General Abbott just told me that language would utterly fail to describe their condition.” After a rather graphic description of some of the men, C. R. Agnew concluded his letter, “It would take a pen expert in the use of every term known to the anatomist and the physician to begin to expose their fearful condition.”

A hospital steward with the 3rd New Hampshire Infantry was just as graphic. “Their condition, treatment and suffering is beyond the power of man to picture, unless the pen be dipped in blood and written on parchment of human flesh.”

From another member of the same regiment, “The rebel cars fetched our prisoners down from Goldsboro. They marched by our camp. They are in the most deplorable condition.”

Poor health or not, crossing to the Union lines, Private McElroy wrote. “I am sure that was the happiest moment of my life; tears streaming from the eyes of every prisoner and of our comrades who received us; then the hallelujah began…”

Once behind Union lines at Wilmington, these emaciated men were cleaned up, given new uniforms and fed a light meal of soup, soft bread and coffee. It would take some time before their stomachs could handle a normal meal but there were some cases where the men literally ate themselves to death.

Even with this light meal, Pvt. Herbert Estes (35th Massachusetts Infantry) entered in his diary, “The first night I have not dreamed of rations for months.”

The food, clothing and medicines given to the returning prisoners had originally been shipped from New York to North Carolina to be used by Sherman’s army as it marched northward. The capture of Wilmington and Sherman’s well known foraging allowed these supplies to be diverted to the prisoners.

The journey home and aftermath

Within days the healthier ones were loaded on ships for the next part of their homeward journey to Annapolis, Maryland. “Medical officers and provisions were sent with them and we did all we could under the circumstances to make them comfortable while on board.”88 The less healthy received some treatment before starting north.

For several hundred of the paroled prisoners, their tragedy was not over.  They were aboard the steamship General Lyon for the journey between Wilmington and Annapolis.  On March 31, 1865, the ship caught fire and sank off the coast of Cape Hatteras. Among the dead were Pvts. Christopher Cox (2nd Pa. Res., Co. B, 191st Pa. Vet. Vols., Co. B), Alpheus C. Cockran (11th Pa. Res., Co. K, 190th Pa. Vet. Vols., Co. I) Madison Robbins (11th Pa. Res., Co. F), Walter Rugh (11th Pa. Res., Co. I) and Harry J. Eby (7th Pa. Res., Co. A.)

In just the first week of exchange, between February 26 and March 4, 1865 – 8,684 Union prisoners from several prisons, including Salisbury, passed into Northern lines at the Cape Fear River.

Harry J. Eby
Pvt. Harry J. Eby, Co. A, 7th Pa. Reserves. Eby was taken prisoner at the Battle of Wilderness in May 1864. He endured the prisons of both Andersonville and Salisbury, only to perish on board the Steamer Lyon off the coast of Cape Hatteras.

The number of Union troops to be exchanged did not agree with the totals that were actually exchanged. Lt. Col. Norman S. Barnes, the acting Medical Director at Wilmington, advised his superior in Washington. “A large number intended for exchange died and were buried enroute to the point of exchange. A still larger number died after the exchange rolls had been made out and before the prisoners were removed from camp or hospital, and whom no record has been made either by the medical officers in charge of camps or hospitals or otherwise military authorities.” Later in his letter he wrote, “There are now in Wilmington Cemetery 106 graves marked unknown. At Northeast River, twenty-one were buried who were taken from the cars dead, and about whom I could obtain no record. It is more than probable that many of those inquired for lie in graves marked unknown, and are buried along the route from Salisbury to Wilmington.”

Unfortunately, the muster rolls for the 190th/191st Pennsylvania units show approximately four dying enroute and 20 dying at Annapolis. They are not counted as dying in Salisbury Prison.  Lieutenant Colonel Barnes testified at Major Gee’s trial that 840 prisoners died at Wilmington during the exchange process, 555 in the first seven days.

Those dying in Wilmington were initially buried in the Wilmington City Cemetery as Wilmington National Cemetery was not created until after the war. The National Cemetery initially had 2,059 internments (687 known, 1,372 unknown). The burials included bodies from Wilmington, Ft. Fisher, Ft. Johnson, Fayetteville and along the Wilmington and Weldon Railroad. The dead in Wilmington included parolees from several prisons so it is impossible to know the total for just Salisbury.

At a hospital at Annapolis, those survivors of Salisbury and the other prisons involved in this exchange that needed medical help were treated and when they recovered enough to return to their homes to recuperate, were released. Those that did not need hospitalization were released within days to go home.

(author’s note: Just a point of interest, Clara Barton, who later founded the American Red Cross, was doing volunteer work in the hospitals at Annapolis. She had previously volunteered in the battlefield hospitals of Antietam in September 1862, and after the war, helped with the National Cemetery at Andersonville Prison.)

The paroled prisoners were to return to duty with their units when they regained their health. In reality, most of these men never reported back, the war was over long before they regained their health and strength, if they ever did.

From one hometown newspaper, “When the boys came home not one of them was in good health and were given up as ready for the grave…”

Corporal Elmendorf weighed 196 pounds when he was captured at the Weldon Railroad but when he was released, only weighed 98 pounds.”

Released POW
A sad and grotesque example of the results of Military Prison Camps, both north and south. Unidentified emaciated prisoner of war, released from prison at Belle Isle, Richmond, at the U.S. General Hospital, Div. 1, Annapolis, Maryland. Library of Congress.

Pvt. Edward S. Davidson (13th Pa. Res., Co. H, 190th Pa. Res., Co. H, my wife’s ancestor) suffered from chronic diarrhea but the doctors at Annapolis could not cure him. He was released to go home.  Suffering from this illness the rest of his life, he managed to get married, father eight children and live until 1910.

Those few troops healthy enough for duty were given a short leave before reporting back to the war and 190th and 191st Regiments. Their reward for surviving Salisbury Prison (or any other Confederate prison) in relatively good health was to fight again until April 9, 1865.

“A few months later, on the field of Appomattox, some of us were permitted to step across the ‘bloody chasm,’ and receive the stacked arms and drooping battle flags which denoted the downfall of the rebellion, and assured us that our sufferings had not been in vain.”

Private Crocker recovered from his prison time and successful escape, but “I did not rejoin my regiment till after the close of the final campaign, but marched with the boys in the Grand Review at Washington on May 24, 1865…”

As the conclusion of this article, on April 12, 1865, Union Gen. George Stoneman and his cavalry captured the town of Salisbury and burned Salisbury Prison.  Unfortunately, most of the prison records went up in the flames.

Although there were several commanders of the prison, only the last two commanded during our time frame: Maj. John H. Gee, appointed August 24, 1864, and Brig. Gen. Bradley Johnson, appointed December 17, 1864.

After the war, and like the commander of Andersonville Prison, Major Gee was brought up on charges before a Military Commission. Following a 57-day trial, he was found not guilty on all charges.

Washington also wanted General Johnson brought up on charges but too much confusion as to the location of necessary records precluded his trial. As a final side note, the Reserves had encountered General Johnson on several previous occasions during the war, including the Bucktails at Harrisonburg, Va., during Jackson’s Valley Campaign, and all the regiments on August 28, 1862, preceding Second Bull Run.

Postscript – An Appeal To Our Readers

This request is made to the readers of this post on the final release of the prisoners from Salisbury Prison. As you have read, approximately 2,800 prisoners started from Salisbury on the 50 mile march to Greensboro to be put on trains for the final part of their journey to Wilmington, NC and exchange to Union lines. Only about 1,800 made it to Greensboro; many of these missing 1,000 died but not all of them.  Incomplete or missing reports make it impossible to determine exact numbers.

I think it is possible for some or all of the following scenarios to have taken place with respect to the prisoners who fell by the roadside and the kindness and sympathies of the local civilians along the route of travel:

  1. If a Union soldier was too weak to continue, did a local citizen(s) give him aid and comfort until he could continue the march to Greensboro? Some prisoners took about two weeks to complete this part of the trip.
  2. Did any prisoner remain in the area with his “caregiver(s)” until the war was over and he then traveled back north to his home?
  3. Because of the kindness received, did any prisoner take up residence in this part of North Carolina and live there the rest of his life?
  4. Very few of those who died enroute were removed later to the National Cemeteries created after the war. Did any northern families receive notification from a North Carolina citizen that their relative was buried in a local cemetery, on a farm, etc.? If so, were any of these bodies reburied in the north?

I am asking for any documentation or even verbal family history “lore” about this trip and the possible listed scenarios. I will also welcome information on anything even remotely close to these scenarios. It doesn’t have to be only about Salisbury Prison POWs, any other southern prison will also be welcomed. If enough information is received, I will make a follow-up article to be posted on our website.

Bill Weidner
Chief Historian of the 190th/191st Pennsylvania Veteran Volunteers

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Bill is the Chief Regimental Historian of the 54th (Co. L), 190th and 191st Pennsylvania Veteran Volunteers and an avid researcher who focuses on the history of the Pennsylvania Reserves in the American Civil War.