Sergeant Major Frank King’s Extracted Account of Salisbury Prison

Frank King, Sergeant Major of the One Hundred and Ninetieth Regiment, who was a prisoner through the entire term, and was among the last to be released, kept a record of his prison life, from which he has prepared a manuscript volume, of which I have been kindly permitted by the author to make the following extracts:

DESCRIPTION OF SALISBURY PRISON. With the dawn of day, I was able to take a survey of the premises, which, as near as I can calculate, contained eight acres, and was surrounded by a tight board fence, eight feet high. The sentinels walked on elevated platforms outside the fence, but were not furnished with sentry-boxes like other prisons.The inside space was not square, being much wider on the north end than on the south. At the northern corners, spaces were left open in the fence, at each of which was a piece of artillery, as a defense in case of an uprising or rebellion among the prisoners. At the south end was a large gate, wide enough for the ingress or egress of wagons, which were loaded either with wood or water to come in, or dead “Yanks” to go out. On the west side was a small door, the same one by which our entrance was made, and through which all newcomers came. On the east, nothing but the bare fence, crowned with the rusty firelocks, and the no less rusty wearers of the ” Butternut,” was visible.So much for the boundaries -now for the internal arrangements. The small door on the western side, opened into what was termed the “grove,” or “square,” a large space, thinly sprinkled with big trees, (oak,) and surrounded on the four sides with buildings and fence. Starting from the fence, on the north was a brick building, unused, but afterwards turned into a little bakery, a space, and then a row of brick buildings, three in number, with about two rods intervening between each, the first being used as barracks for sergeants of squads, and the other two as hospitals. On the east side were three more brick buildings, the counterpart of the others; the first two being barracks, (afterwards hospitals,) and the last the “dead house.” The south side was formed by a one-story wooden building, which was the main, or (as familiarly known,) No.1, hospital; then a three-story brick building, which was a barrack for the citizen prisoners, the main factory building, tenanted principally by the Yankee deserters, and the big bakery, from which rations were issued. The fence formed the western side.In the centre of the grove was a covered well. There was a row of one-story wooden buildings, four in number, at the northern extremity of the enclosure, which were occupied by the commissioned officers captured from our army. They were divided from us by a “dead line,” (a small trench,) and a line of guard posts. All communication between them and us was forbidden. There was a well near the big gate, one some distance in rear of the buildings east of the “square,” and one behind the Citizens’ building, which were in use at the time I arrived. Others were in course of construction, and were finished sometime afterwards. In the well behind the Citizens’ 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.

UNION DESERTERS. During the first few days, the “deserters” made a practice of roaming through camp among the new prisoners, taking a survey of us, with intent to plunder at a favorable opportunity. As we did not know these fellows ourselves, the officers would point them out to us, when we would drive them back to their quarters, amid a shower of blows from fists, stones, and clubs, or anything within our reach. The deserter had sometimes to run the gauntlet of the whole camp, and would reach his quarters, (in the main building,) bruised and bloody, and beaten almost to jelly. It is unnecessary to say, that we had not the least particle of sympathy for these wretches, who had deserted from the ranks of our regiments and gone over to the enemy, for purposes of plunder. The rebels did not appreciate their services any more than we, which was apparent from the fact of their sharing the same fare and treatment as other prisoners.

SUFFERING AT NIGHT. The nights being extremely cold, although the days were warm, small supply of wood was furnished us. Eight or ten loads were drawn in late in the afternoon of each day, and as they made their appearance, a great rush would take place among the prisoners. While some threw the sticks off, others of the same party carried them to their quarters, so that the stronger were sure of being supplied, while the weaker, or more timid ones, remained entirely destitute. To remedy this evil, a guard was sent in with each wagon, but the precaution was of no avail, for in a general rush, a single guard would be powerless. Another plan was then adopted, which gave to each squad a certain quantity of wood, and in that way all fared alike. The supply of wood was so small, that the quantity allowed was not sufficient to keep a fire going more than a few hours. When it was burned out, we would seek repose on the bare ground, with such covering as we were possessed of.It was usual for a party of front four to a dozen to lie together, ” spoon fashion ” that is, on our sides, all crooked one way. After remaining in one position long enough to get tired, one of the party would sing out: ” by the right flank,” or ” by the left flank,” when each man would roll over on his other side. When any one got too cold to lay longer, he would get relief by walking. I have walked for hours at a time many a night.

RATIONS. 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. When such was the case, we were obliged to prepare it ourselves, which, with our limited facilities, was no easy task. The methods of disposing of such rations were various, the most general in use being the making of a cake, baked on a tin plate before the fire, or in the coals. Some would make a kind of soup, using the flour for dumplings;others substituted a paste, and would go in on a meal of “‘ gruel.” The corn meal made a pretty fair mush, lacking only the milk. Scarcely anybody had salt, so the cooking had tobe done without that luxury. For my part, I furnished myself with a small bag of salt, (fourounces when full,) and usually managed to keep a supply on hand. It was a very valuable bag, and was watched as jealously as a miser watches his hoard. For the meat ration, wesometimes received a spoonful of sorghum, and, very rarely, a few potatoes; (two or three ordinary sized ones per man.) The soup was sometimes thick with rice, but was generally served without the rice. The mode of issuing rations was as follows: When ready, squad No. 1 was supplied, then squad No. 2, and so on, until all were served-provided there was enough to go around. But if the supply to-day ran out at squad No. 25, to-morrow, squad No. 26 would commence, the rest following until squad No. 24 had been furnished, or the rations exhausted. If a squad, or a number of them, were deprived of rations one day,(and this was often the case,) it was never made up to them the day following; on the contrary, the food they should have had was so much gained by the Confederacy. It was such work as this that told so fearfully upon the constitutions of the men. 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. I do not remember hearing of any one dying from starvation on Belle Isle; for there no rations were lost. I remember that once our squad was deprived of its ration of bread for sixty-four hours, and then only the usual amount was issued, viz: half a loaf per man. It was horrible, then, to see with what voracity the pittance was disposed of-or, rather, it would have been to a well-fed observer. The meat ration was often delayed altogether, for days at a time.

CITIZEN PRISONERS. The first week or two at Salisbury, the citizen prisoners were kept pretty much confined to their building, a guard being stationed in front to prevent too much intercourse between them and us. At the end of the second week, however, the guard was taken off, and the citizens allowed to go and come as they pleased, within the limits of the pen. They were from all parts of the south, and were imprisoned chiefly for their disaffection to the Confederacy, or, in other words, for their loyalty to the laws and flag of their country. A few were incarcerated on the charge of being spies, and were awaiting either trial or sentence. A large number had already died from the privations they were made to suffer, and there were still many sick and dying. At Salisbury prison,in nine cases out of every ten, to be sick meant to die.

REFUSAL TO ALLOW HUTS TO BE BUILT. The country around Salisbury was thickly wooded with young pines. Before the officers went away, they conferred with the Confederate authorities on the subject of letting the men build barracks for shelter, offering to become responsible for their good behavior when outside the prison limits, in case they were required to cut down the trees themselves, but to all this the prison officials returned a positive refusal. It was a fair offer, and would have saved the Confederate government a great deal of expense, besides being an act of humanity to the suffering thousands, who already began to feel the effects of exposure to the inclement weather; for, thus far, no shelter whatever had been provided. But no; it would have been contrary to the barbarous usage laid down in the rules of the Confederacy; a people who claimed to be throwing off the yoke of oppression, but who, while endeavoring to establish their independence on such grounds, were heaping untold oppression upon defenseless fellow creatures.

PLAN FOR AN ESCAPE. Our trio had made a plan for an escape, and chose the coming night to carry it into execution. Our plan, which had been made two weeks before, was to burrow-a hole in a secluded spot, under the fence, large enough for one to crawl through at a time, and then make for the Union lines in Tennessee, as fast as possible, living on sweet potatoes and orchard fruit. We laid in a small supply of red pepper, to use in case the blood-hounds were put on our track, by dropping a little in our foot-prints, it would be snuffed up by the dogs, and destroy their organs of scent, for a time at least. We had taken Sherman into our circle, who very readily availed himself of this chance to escape. By request of Sherman, we took Crudgingdon (both citizen prisoners) into our confidence, inasmuch as he was a native of Tennessee, and had escaped once on the same route we proposed to take; besides which, he had a tool for digging, which would be very useful to us. Our party having increased to five members, and everything being ready, all we waited for was a favorable night, which, as I have stated, came at last. At ten o’clock, Crudgingdon and Sherman were to come to our camp-fire, bringing the digging tool. We were then to adjourn to within a short distance of the fence, where the hole was to be made, and draw lots to determine which one should dig. We waited, shivering in the rain, over a small fire, until eleven o’clock, and no Sherman or Crudgingdon came; so I went to the Citizens building, and called to Sherman. He came out, and I asked him if they were not ready yet.”Why, haven’t you heard about it,” said he. “No, what is it?” “Why Cruldgingdon went out with the other party.” And then it was that I found out that Crudgingdon and Sherman had joined with another party, who planned to burrow out in another spot, and that they had chosen the same night. About this tine, Hebner obtained a woolen blanket, which was the joint property of Lord, Fleming, and himself. It was large enough, however, to cover four persons, and our trio had the privilege, in turn, of lying beneath it. By adding our pieces of tent cloth, five could make out to lie together with tolerable comfort; therefore, we managed that by one of us sleeping all night, and two of us half the night, we could each get a full night’s rest, every third night.

CAVES FOR SHELTER. A great many prisoner’s, for the want of better covering, or, in fact, for the want of covering at all, dug caves in the ground. A number of them were quite substantial, but the majority had a tendency to cave in. The manner of making a cave was to dig a square hole straight down into the earth, and, when sufficiently deep, to excavate horizontally a space large enough for the intended occupants to lie down in, the earth taken out being thrown on the top, to make the roof as high and as sloping as possible. The only implements available in the constructing of these dwellings were a case-knife and a tin cup or plate. As a further convenience it was customary to cut away the earth in one part of the inside large enough for a fire-place, and make a hole through the roof for a chimney.During heavy rains some of these caves would fill up with water, driving the tenants out into the storm. When the storm ceased, a course of bailing would ensue, or, in case too much damage had been done, another cave would have to be dug. I staid in one of these caves one night by invitation. Just before day break we were uncomfortably awakened by a portion of the roof caving in upon us. We scrambled out as fast as possible, and were fortunate enough to save our shoes, which we had taken off previous to lying down. It was lucky for us that the earth fell on our feet; had it covered our heads we might have been lying there to this day. I know of two cases in which the occupants of caves were buried alive. I have since never trusted myself underground, not even in a coal mine.

ORGANIZATION OF THE CAMP. About the beginning of November a great change was made in the organization of the camp. We numbered altogether ten thousand prisoners.Although the mortality was very great we were all the time receiving reinforcements of new prisoners-” Fresh Fish,”as we called them. Our entire force was now divided into ten divisions of one thousand each, numbered from one to ten, respectively. Each division was represented by one of its number, a Sergeant Major, usually, whose duty it was to see that his subordinates got their rations of food and wood in proper time, and also to assist the Confederate officer at the daily muster or roll-call of his individual division. The Division Sergeants had their quarters on the ground floor of the brick buildings devoted to the use of Sergeants, and had a double ration per day. Each division was again sub-divided into squads of ten,each squad being represented by a sergeant from its ranks, whose duty it was to draw rations and distribute them fairly to the members of his squad, and to report cases of death or absence at hospital. Sergeants were very remiss about reporting absentees, to the great annoyance of the prison authorities, who, in consequence, issued a great many more rations than there were prisoners. They tried many methods to overcome this evil, but they were unavailing; the ” Yanks ” were always too much for them. This non-reporting gave rise to the system,so familiar among Salisbury prisoners, known as ” flanking,” which was nothing more nor less than allowing one man to represent himself in two or more squads at one time.

BUSINESS ENTERPRISE. As the season advanced a greater supply of wood was required for fuel. Inasmuch as the guard was doubled, the authorities could not muster the force required in the transportation of wood, so they organized from among the prisoners one hundred men, on double rations, as a “wood squad,” whose business it was, under guards, to load wood on the cars a few miles from the prison and unload it at the terminus, a point on the railroad about five rods from the prison gates. They were taken out very early in the morning and returned in the evening of each day, when at work, which was three or four days out of the week. The members of this squad drove a flourishing trade for themselves out of the prisoners in camp and the citizens and soldiers outside. Buttons, needles, pins, thread, and such trinkets, were scarce, and it was extremely difficult for the country people to obtain them. They were willing to pay very handsomely for them, either in Confederate scrip, or in their own productions, such as pies, cakes, and tobacco. The rebel officers and guards were ever ready to purchase buttons from our uniforms, or even the uniforms themselves, and their readiness, and even anxiety to wear the ” blue,” was a subject of considerable remark among us, as it seemed to show a lurking spirit of animosity against the Confederate cause. However, U. S. buttons were at a premium, one coat button being worth one Confederate dollar. Therefore it was not strange that a member of the wood squad who could sell a button for a dollar, buy five plugs of tobacco with the money, and trade the tobacco in prison for five buttons, should be on the high road to fortune. I sold, or rather traded off all my buttons, four from my blouse and two smaller ones from my cap, at different periods, and when they were gone, the buckles off my suspenders.

BURIAL OF THE DEAD. The squad already referred to as having made the ditch around the entire camp was not disbanded, even after that work had been completed. They were retained and kept at work digging trenches in which to bury the dead. The mortality was fearful, the deaths increasing daily from the first of October, when we went there, until about the middle of January, 1865, when they had reached about the number of fifty a day. Forty deaths in one day was a common occurrence, and one team and wagon was kept busily employed in carrying the bodies from the dead-house to the place of interment. During our first week at Salisbury coffins were furnished, which did seem to the living like one degree towards humanity; but, at the end of that time, we discovered that the same coffins, five in number, were used every day. When it was found out that we knew their secret, the practice was discontinued, and the bodies were carried out piled on the wagon like logs of wood.The upper portion of the dead-house was occupied by a few prisoners who preferred even that dismal abode to none at all. In case of a death the body was brought to the dead-house and laid on the ground floor, stripped of all clothing but the under garments, and, in a few cases, even of them. When the prisoner died in his quarters his clothing was appropriated by his comrades; if at the hospital it was retained for distribution to the most needy.

STARVATION AND CONSEQUENT UPRISING. During the month of November half rations were so frequent that it did seem as though the rebels intended to starve all of us to death. It got to be so serious a matter that some of the leading spirits resolved on a general outbreak. On the 25th of the month the guards were relieved by the militia of the State, principally old men and country farmers, a class of men that knew but little about the use of the musket. Intelligence reached us that the guard just relieved (young conscripts) had been ordered to the front. We hailed this as a good opportunity. It was resolved, therefore, that as soon as the inside guards were secured, that the ninth and tenth divisions, who lay nearest the big gates, should force them open with clubs and axes, a few of the latter articles being owned by the prisoners. The gates once forced, egress would be easy, and it would be short work to overpower the militia, most of whom, probably, had never fired a gun in their lives. When free from the prison we intended to make for Tennessee in as compact a body as possible. The plan was well laid, and all it wanted to ensure success was patience and cool judgment on the part of a few, and a general understanding of the situation by all. But, alas, for the success of so noble a cause. There was no want of courage and valor on the part of the prisoners, but the fool-hardiness and ill-timed action of the prime mover proved fatal to the enterprise. He, a Sergeant Major of Division, gave the signal a full hour and a half before the time agreed upon, and rashly, though bravely, commenced the assault with his own hands. ” Who’s for Liberty, and who for Death?” he cried, and immediately leveled a guard with a blow, and secured his musket. The entire guard inside the pen was over powered within three minutes, and, with a tremendous cheer, a rush was made for the gates; but here the fool-hardiness was apparent, as the two divisions relied on for the main stroke did not know their part, and the enterprise was nipped in the bud. It was soon discovered, too, that the conscripts had not left the place, and the sentinels’ platform fast filled up amid the discharge of grape and canister from the two pieces of artillery. Three-fourths, if not more of the prisoners, were unprepared for so sudden an assault, nevertheless, they rallied to the cheers of their comrades. But it was of no use; the rebels were fully armed and prepared at all points, many of our men were already killed or wounded, and still we were being fired upon; so we dispersed as quickly as possible, and in half an hour the camp was entirely quiet. I took refuge in a comrade’s tent for about an hour, when I deemed it safe to return to my own quarters. On arriving there, I found that the tent had been in direct range of one of the guns, and that it was riddled with the charge of canister, having forty-two holes in the canvas. Fleming had been hit in the neck with a musket ball, and I learned that a rebel sergeant, with a file of soldiers, had been searching that and the neighboring tents for concealed arms. It seems that the authorities had an impression that we were fully armed and prepared for a pitched battle. They were never more mistaken; for it was only the feeble effort of a handful of men, made desperate by acts of inhuman barbarity. We had the satisfaction of knowing that we had pretty thoroughly frightened our brutal keepers. Major Gee, however, was reported to have said, in reply to the inquiry as to whether we were to have full rations the next day, ” No, d-n them, they shall have only half rations, by G-d.” I ought to mention that fifty of the prisoners were killed and wounded.

THE EMPLOYMENT OF A DAY. The employment of a day might be described about as follows: The first thing on getting up was to draw rations, then breakfast of bread and crust coffee; after that, “skirmishing,” i. e. the operation of ridding our clothes of vermin, which were so plentiful that it was impossible to be rid of them; about noon we drew the soup ration, and the rest of the day did anything or nothing. In the evening we would squat around the fire, and to allow all to do so at once, each had to sit in a very cramped position. When thus engaged we were in the habit of speculating on our probable or improbable release, or what was much more common, of discussing the merits and demerits of the thousand and one kinds of edibles familiar to us in the “Auld Lang Syne.” This was an inexhaustible topic, and our mouths would fairly water as the subject progessed, Kitty Snyder’s favorite dish was a “blood pudding,” and he always took great delight in explaining how it was made. From frequent hearing, I got to fancying that I should find myself perfect master of the art of cooking that most elegant dish, but, unfortunately, I have long since forgotten the number and kinds of ingredients necessary to produce so much luxury. Christmas eve was celebrated, in our tent, in telling stories and propounding conundrums to each other until a late hour.

REPAIR OF CLOTHING AND SHOES. As may readily be supposed our clothes would not wear forever without mending. For coats, pants, and shirts, we managed to get along with what we had, until reinforced from the hospitals or by the deaths of our companions; but it was indispensable that we should keep the coverings of our feet in repair during the season of snow, frost and rain. In our tent was one needle, (a darner,) and a jack-knife, which were considered common property. For thread we depended on ravelings from my own piece of canvas, which kept decreasing in dimensions at an alarming rate. With needle, thread and pieces of old cloth, picked up in the camp, we managed to patch our socks effectually, though primitively. Our shoes were the worst, the soles having a sad tendency to depart from the uppers. By making an incision with the knife-point through upper and sole, at intervals around the shoe, and then tying with leather strings, cut from the top of the counter, a shoe was made to last a long time, though any amount of greasing would not have made it water-proof.

UNPROVOKED SHOOTING OF PRISONERS. The guards were always ready to resent any trespass, of a prisoner, across the “dead line,” by shooting him on the spot. But the shooting of prisoners was not confined to such offences. In October, 1864, whilst the officers were confined with us, one of their number was shot down, by a sentinel, without any cause or provocation, whatever, and he was some yards distant from the dead line. Later, a private soldier was shot dead while passing between the main building and the bakery. In February, I was an eye witness to the cruel and cold blooded murder of a prisoner, sitting in his tent, twenty or thirty yards from the dead-line, by a sentinel, who deliberately leveled his piece and fired as though merely practicing at a mark; having discharged his gun and seen the effect of his shot, he made use of these words, “You G-d d-n nigger, you.” He was not removed from his post, though his conduct was well known to the officers of the guard. About this time (18th of February) we had large reinforcements of prisoners, who were sent on from other prisons. That at Andersonville, Ga., had been broken up sometime previously, the inmates being sent to Florence, Columbia, or elsewhere. Sherman, in his “March to the Sea,” was making rapid strides towards the rebel strongholds; hence their haste to empty their prisons.

RUMORS OF RELEASE. A rumor was spread through 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; but, for once we were agreeably disappointed, for sure enough, on Sunday evening, a batch of the sick were taken out, and on Monday evening the balance of them removed. I, myself, assisted one helpless man from his hospital to the big gate, from which place the transportation was being conducted. Of all the misery, wretchedness, and horror, attendant upon the conveying of the many hundreds of sick from the prison gates to the Union lines, I will not venture to speak; that it was fearful and heart-rending I have not the slightest doubt. The greater part of patients were entirely helpless, large numbers died before our lines were reached, and the rest were in such a state of emaciation that it was a miracle that any life remained in their wasted forms.

GOOD-BYE TO SALISBURY. But very little sleep was indulged in during the night of the 21st. On the following morning, the drums beat the “roll-call,” the signal for all squads to form in line, which done, Confederate officers came into camp and required us to give a verbal parole of honor, to the effect, that we would make no effort to escape, etc., while en route to the Union lines; of course we were ready to subscribe to any conditions that would hasten our departure from a prison to a land of liberty. At eleven o’clock in the morning we were filed through the little gate and were mustered into one column, at a spot on the outskirts of the town. Washington’s birthday was never better celebrated, than on this, the 22d of February, 1865, by the exodus of four thousand Union soldiers from the Salisbury penitentiary, in which they had undergone 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.

REMARKS AND INCIDENTS. Before closing this narative, I wish briefly to refer to the condition of prisoners at Salisbury, together with a few incidents that transpired, and which overlooked in the order in which they occured: Imagine to yourself, dear reader, ten thousand men, captured in the summer months, and consequently clad in light garments, turned into a prison-pen, shelterless, robbed of blankets, and everything tending to the alleviation of our hardships, there exposed to cold, rain, frost and snow, starvation, bad water as a beverage, scarcely any at all for cleansing purposes, but very little medicine and care when sick, continually pestered with vermin, no employment and no amusement. Can it be any wonder that men, in such a condition, should contrast their lot with those taking their comforts and enjoying their liberties at the capital of the Nation?

SATISFACTION FROM A BONE. I remember, early one day in November, when our rations were cut off, that some others and myself, for want of more substantial sustenance, burnt pieces of bones, eating the crisp, and repeating the operation until the bones were pretty nearly demolished. When fortunate enough to draw a ration of meat that was part bone, we would get a great deal of nourishment from it. By breaking a bone into small pieces, with a knife and a stone, and boiling it, we could make quite a decent soup. Until I was a prisoner it was always a wonder to me what satisfaction a dog could possibly derive from gnawing a bone; but from that time my wonder ceased.

TRANSFORMATION IN PERSONAL APPEARANCE. Although we were continually wasting away to skeletons, the change was not apparent among those of us who were in daily intercourse with each other; but in those comrades from whom we were separated for weeks and months, and then reunited, the change was awful to witness. I lost sight, when we first went to Salisbury, of a young soldier, named M’Feely, from my own regiment, who was short, fat, and full-faced, and did not see him again until the latter part of the winter. I did not think it possible for any one to change in looks so rapidly; his eyes were sunk low in their sockets, cheeks hollow, cheek-bones horribly distinct, and his whole frame emaciated almost to a skeleton. I presume I appeared as greatly changed to him as he did to me. M’Feely died a week before our release.

Source: History of Pennsylvania Volunteers by Samuel P. Bates.