The Autobiography of Washington J. Cook, Co. I, 10th Pennsylvania Reserves

The great Rebellion of the Southern States was formally opened and war commenced by the attack of the conspirators on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina, on the 12th day of April, 1861; and on the 15th day of April, Abraham Lincoln, First called 75,000 men, and on April 2, 1865, Richmond, Va., was evacuated and Gen. R. E. Lee surrendered his army at Appomattox Court House, Va., to Gen. U. S. Grant on April 14, 1865.

I desire to give you some of my personal experience during the months and years that I was engaged in these four years of bloody war that history has no parallel. You and I who took some part in it can well remember those days and can fully appreciate the language of the Poet:

Back into the days when you and I were young,
Over the land the Herald Trumpet blew
A stirring call to all the brave and true.
The fiat had gone forth to him who holds,
The fate of the nation in his hand.
Come honor of dishonor, weal or woe,
Freedom should guard the honor of our land.

But before bringing myself into consideration, it might be well to say something of my ancestors as well as memory will permit.

In the beginning I profess to write with all truth and where notes are wanting shall consult the best authorities and “to glean the wheat” by the use of common sense. I sincerely believe that had my ancestors put down their lives in writing and left them to posterity, that many profitable and necessary documents would have been preserved, and not only would these have been great relics and heirlooms to be handed down from generation to generation, but also would have been very instructive and disciplinary from a political and business side.

Students of the Allegheny College Freshly Enlisted into the service of the United States Army.  Pittsburgh-Post Gazette.
“Just enlisted from Allegheny College for Civil War – How seriously people of the North regarded the Civil War is illustrated by these earnest young men of Allegheny College, Meadville, pictured just after they enlisted for the duration.  In the hand of each is a Bible.  They were dedicated to the cause.” Pittsburgh-Post Gazette.

My father was the eldest of four children of Grandfather Abner Cook. My mother was the youngest daughter of Grandfather Charles Campbell. Often my mother related to me the history of Grandfather Campbell. He had fought in the Revolution and mother told thrilling stories of his military life at Valley Forge, Trenton, and Long Island. At the surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown, his regiment led the procession. These thrilling stories and love of country perhaps influenced me and my brothers to follow the path which I shall soon relate.

I was born in North Shenango Township, Crawford County, Pennsylvania, Feb. 3, 1841. My postoffice was Stewartsville, Pa. When the war broke out I was attending the academy at Espyville, Pa. from which I expected to graduate soon and then take up the study of medicine at Philadelphia, as my parents had me slated for an M.D. It so happened that a Company was being organized of Allegheny College Students. They decided to take no one in this Company unless he was a student at the time he enlisted. They lacked a few men so sent out to the surrounding Academies and obtained nine from the Espyville Academy. The Company enlisted at Meadville, Pa., June 4, 1861, and mustered in on the 10th of the same month as the Pennsylvania Reserve Volunteer Corp. We enlisted under the President’s first call for 75,000 men, but before we were accepted the quota of the State was full.

Governor Curtin called an extra session of the legislative body and laid before them the plan of organizing 15,000 troops for State defenses, consisting of 13 regiments of infantry, one regiment of cavalry and one of artillery to be kept in the State as State defenses, and to be known as Pennsylvania Reserve Volunteers Corps. On the same day that we were mustered in, June 10th, we left Meadville via P.& E. Canal. We went aboard the canal boat about 8 P.M. and after an all night sail, the surroundings were taken and the anchor was thrown out in the harbor of Shermansville, fourteen miles below Meadville. Here we took breakfast and weighing anchor were at Hartstown, six miles farther by noon. There I took final leave of loved ones and friends. At 9 P.M. of the same day we reached-Greenville. At 12 o’clock we-left there and continued on the canal as far as Bew Brighten, reaching there on the 15th. Fearing the war might be over before we reached the front, we left the canal here and took the cars for Camp Wilkins, located at Pittsburgh, where we remained for two weeks drilling. We then went up the Allegheny River to Camp Wright where we formed our regiment, elected our officers and became Company I of the 10th Pennsylvania Reserves to protect the State from invasion.

But soon came the President’s second call for troops and we were needed in the United States service. We went from here to Camp Curtin, located at Harrisburg and named in honor of the war Governor. On the 21st day of July, 1861, we were mustered into the United States service by W. T. Sherman, then Lieutenant Colonel of the 5th United States Artillery.

On the morning of the 22nd, we were ordered to Washington, and upon our arrival there, we went into Camp on Capitol Hill. While there I saw my first President, President Lincoln. Our Division Commander was Gen. Geo. A. McCall. The Brigadier Generals were as follows:- J. A. Reynolds of 1st brigade; George G. Mead of 2nd brigade; and E. O. C. Ord of the 3rd brigade, all of which were promoted to Major Generals except Gen. George A. McCall how retired to private life on account of ill health. The troops constituting this division were ordered to Camp Tenley, our first division camp. We remained there for some time drilling and building fortifications. In September we started South and Went into winter quarters at Pierpont, Va. where we remained all winter. Many a gallant comrade never again stepped on northern soil. On the 20th of December I had my first experience foraging. Our brigade being sent out supported by the other two brigades of the division to secure some forage for horses and mules. We met some of Steward’s men after the same forage, and after a march of 22 miles, we secured 16 loads of hay and 22 of corn and oats. Most of this was secured on the farm of one Mr. Grunnels, a confederate. Here we took part in the Dranesville fight, where we routed the rebels, losing- six killed, 62 wounded and 2 missing. The rebel General Stuart reported his losses at 43 killed, 143 wounded and 5 missing. We were commanded by General E. O. C. Ord.

Early in the spring we accompanied the army as far as Centerville and Manassas Junction and helped in the talking of the fortifications which were evacuated upon our approach. These were indeed formidable. The were mounted with Quaker guns, or log like shaped like guns, and painted to imitate artillery. Next we took the Potomac river to Chesapeake Bay and thence the Pomonky river to Yorktown over the same ground as Grandfather Campbell had gone years before. Here we met a cavalry charge and were victorious.

The Flag of the Allegheny College Volunteers. Source: Allegheny College, Meadville, Crawford County, Pennsylvania.
Detail of the Flag of the Allegheny College Volunteers of Meadville, Crawford County, Pennsylvania

The next thing of importance was the opening of the seven days fight on the Peninsula, where we took part in the fight at Mechanicsville, being fortunate in occupying the position on the extreme right, where only one man was wounded in our Company, although we were able to inflict terrible slaughter on the enemy. The enemy’s losses at this battle were reported 1365 killed and wounded. The Pa. 2. V. C. were the only troops engaged in this battle. The union loss was reported 265 killed and wounded. Then we were compelled to fall back to Gaines Mill. Here we lost heavily; our company losing 9 killed and 21 wounded in this battle. Then we fell back to Savage Station, Newmarket Cross roads and Charles City crossroads to Malvern Hill, where we sustained great losses, arriving at Harrisons Landing July 3.

Our movements in brief from this time on were as follows:- We were sent on transports to Aqua Creek, on cars to Fredericksburg; then on foot to Second Bull Run. Here we took part on September 1st 1862 in the engagement at Chantilly where I was taken prisoner by Georgia troops, but in a hazel thicket running the gauntlets I escaped to our lines. In this battle Generals Phil Kearney and Stevens were both killed. From there we were sent to the Works at Washington, and then on to South Mountain, Md., September 14th. On the way we had a little skirmish in a forest from behind trees. In this battle 28 balls pierced 52 holes in a pair of new pants I had received the day before. We also took part in the Battles of South Mountain and Antietam, which were fought September 16th and 17th. Gen. McClellan was soon relieved and Maj. Gen. Burnside given the command.

Soon after this we started on another jaunt. We stormed the works at Fredericksburg December 13th. Here our losses were so heavy that our Company drew rations for only nine men, while the entire regiment for less than 200 during this winter. In the spring we were sent back to Washington to recruit. Here I did nothing except guard or patrol duty until June 1863. While at Washington the rebels seceded in getting into Pennsylvania and the men petitioned the officers to let them return to the home State. Our officers interceded for us and we were allowed to go; we came up with the main army at Unionton on the State Line. Gen. Mead and Gen. Reynolds both wanted us in their corps, but we were ordered to the 5th Corps under Gen. Meade. Before reaching it however, Gen. Mead was given command of the army and Gen. Sykes given command of the Corps.

Our next engagement was to take part in the bloody battle of Gettysburg on July 1-4, 1863. We had frequent skirmishes until we went into winter quarters, guarding the Alexandria and Fredricksburg railroad at Manassas Junction, Va. Here I re-enlisted on the 18th of December, 1863. I got a thirty days furlough and went home, but was glad to get back to the army to get some sleep and rest. After returning to Camp four of us boys, Slater, Page, Evans and myself met with a sensational experience. When Slater was out on his furlough he bought some dress-goods for a confederate girl to whom he had been giving some attention before he had received his leave of absence. It was about four miles out from Camp and Slater asked Us to go along for Company as well as for protection. We arrived out there about 10 o’clock and of course, the women consisting of the Mts. and her two daughters, insisted that we stay for dinner. We all consented, nothing as yet, being said about pay for the goods. They had us stack our guns in the kitchen and escorted us into the dining room where we watched the good things which were being piled on the table; – it is said that a woman reaches a man’s heart through his stomach. Slater was in his high glee. At last we were seated at the table, But not to complete our meal. I happened to be seated with a good view out through the kitchen into the edge of the wood where stood the springhouse. I kept an eye on the girl who made such frequent trips to that place. The last time in she waved a red handkerchief as she entered the door. I now thought it was time to have our guns a little nearer, so went out into the kitchen and brought them in, setting mine beside me with the muzzle on the table. A few minutes later four fellows appeared at the kitchen door and bolted into the corner where our guns had stood. I lost no time in leveling my gun across the table;- well this spoiled our dinner. We returned to our lines without delay, taking the four fellows along as prisoners of war, not getting the money but a little wiser. The General now ordered a Cavalry raid to Alda and Middleburg. There were several of the infantry boys, myself included, exchanged with the cavalry boys to go on this raid.

After a ride over bad roads, we arrived at Alda, charged into the town but captured nothing. From there we went three miles to Middleburg; where we captured three of four guerrillas and were ordered to halt and feed the horses and take breakfast, returning to camp the next evening, thus making a ride of 110 miles and only being out of our saddles 20 minutes. For infantry boys, not accustomed to riding this was rather a hard trip for us, and we were very much exhausted when we reached camp.

In the Spring of 1864 we went down to the Rapidan, breaking camp on the 4th of May. In the running fight from the Rapidar through the wilderness, on the 5th or 6th of May, I was again taken prisoner by Georgia troops. About dusk they flanked us. I surrendered my gun but in the confusion I escaped, walking all night and reaching our line next day. I had been reported dead. I was now put on the skirmish line in command of a Company. In one skirmish before the battle of Bathesda Church, we had just been feasting on the goodies of a Southern home and with our fists still full we came face to face with the rebel army, the Bucktail Regiment, being in the same line with us. We wasted no time in turning our course.

Behind a sheltering rail pile I was struck by a ball which I thought had finished Cook, but the iron griddle which I had in my Knap-sack saved me. Still in the Wilderness at the battle of Cold Harbor, the Union Army lost 10,000 men in 20 minutes. Here the reorganization of the Veterans took place and the old original boys of the Division were discharged, and we became Company K 191 Pennsylvania Veteran Volunteers. From here we went up the James River and built Forts Warren and Hell. Then we made a flank move and captured the Welden Railroad, and here, at this tine the Rebels succeeded in capturing our whole brigade on the 19th day of August, 1864, under Gen. Hartsorne, of which I was fortunate or unfortunate enough to be one of the number.

We were first taken to Petersburg where we were searched and everything of value taken from us, haversacks and knap-sacks included. Here we spent the night in the rain. The next day we were searched again, marched about a mile and then again searched. This time they even took our knives and canteens from us. On August 21, at 2 P.M. we were lined up and headed for Richmond. We marched about 4 miles to the station where we were put aboard the cars, arriving at Richmond about 8 o’clock in the morning. On the next day we were marched to Castle Thunder, stayed there one day and night, and then on to Libby Prison.

After being placed in Libby Prison we underwent another searching, anything but I assure you that they did not find anything this time. We received our rations and the next day were transferred to Bell Island where we landed on the sand without tent. The Island seemed well shaded with trees and fair to look upon, but the soil was a bed of sand and the Island was low and level. The prison pen was adjacent to the river, and compromised three or four acres of ground surrounded by a wide deep ditch and an embankment, within which enclosure there was neither tree nor shrub, plant nor flower, nor blade of grass, nothing but a bed of sand. In or near one corner, where the water came close to the surface, were three of four excavations about 6 feet deep, with sloping sides. These were our wells of living water, and the green scum that covered the water made them very inviting. No tents were furnished for the additional prisoners, and found shelter as best we could or went without. During our whole imprisonment I never once enjoyed the luxury of a change of clothing or the opportunity to wash a garment. For sporting men our island had one attraction that must not be overlooked; Bell Isle abounded in small game. There was more hunting to be enjoyed to the square inch on that island than any where else in the wide world, and the beauty of it was that the hunter could always find his game, and if he refused to hunt, the game would soon find him. The little animal was too small to be of any use in the economy of nature in supporting life, but it was a great life destroyer, and would boldly invade our camp in broad day. Very few were lovers of the chase, and we did not hunt them in wanton cruelty, But for the same reason that British soldiers hunt tigers in India;- to free the land from a blood-thirsty enemy of mankind. These animals would never hesitate for a moment to attack a man, and frequently I have known comrades to be deadly bitten by them. In short they were death’s myrmidons, the tigers of Belle Isle; and although these southern “Grabax’ were not as powerful, singly and alone as an Asiatic tiger, they were just as blood-thirsty and through their combined efforts would kill a man just as surely if not driven off or destroyed.

Need I say that this continual round of pleasure became irksome and monotonous, that we were not content with our delightful sand lots, that the days dragged wearily by. Talk not to me of your long June days in the north-they are but as moments. The longest days ever experienced by man were those prison days of August and September in the sunny southland, within a stone’s throw of the Court of Jefferson Davis. I will not attempt to depict the scenes I witnessed there – I could not if I would, I would not if I could; but death was among us, gathering in his victims from day to day. There was not the semblance of a hospital in connection with the prison, and everything was arranged to invite disease and increase death-rate. The statement was often made and published that the Clergy, especially the Catholic Clergy and Sisters of Charity, were frequent and almost constant visitors at Southern prisons, doing all in their power for the temporal as well as the spiritual welfare of the prisoners, but during my imprisonment neither Catholic or Protestant Clergyman, nor Sister of Charity ever darkened the gate. the hearts of the Clergymen of the South in those days were too full of treason to leave any room for the Gospel of Christ.

The cooking establishment for the prison was situated just outside of the pen on the bank of the James River, and twenty of twenty-five rods above it at the other corner of the pen, and out over the river a few feet, were situated the prison sinks. The water supply for cooking purposes was drawn from the river, and of the relative situation of our kitchen and the sinks I have no further statement to make, except that the statement of their relative positions is true.

The quality of our food was not first rate but fair, at least it was our fare. On this question of the fare of prisoners generally in the South, the effort has been made of late years, both in the South and the North to show that prisoners were treated as well as it was possible to treat them, and that any starvation of prisoners that may have occurred was unintentional, and all owing to the fact that a state of destitution, akin to famine existed all over the southern country. Not long since an article headed “Belle Isle’ went the rounds of the Northern papers, being first published in the Cincinnati Inquirer, I give the article here in full as published:-

“Talk with Capt. Jack Warner, Commissary of that Notorious Place”, “I was Commissary and Quarter Master at Belle Isle from 1861 to 1865,” he said, when requested to give some of his reminiscences to the Inquirer. “It was not a pleasant duty, but I have the consciousness of feeling that I never treated any man harshly or cruelly. When we had good provisions the prisoners got them. Sometimes they fared better than the men of the Confederate army. I have seen Lee’s soldiers pick up and eat crusts of bread thrown out by the prisoners”.

That last sentence shows Capt. Jackson Warner to be unworthy of belief. I did not make the gentlemen’s acquaintance while in Richmond and possibly his heart was full of milk of human kindness, but when he deliberately states that he has ‘seen Lee’s soldiers pick up and eat crusts of bread thrown out by the prisoners”, he states what he knows, and what every prisoner who was in a Southern prison knows, to be a falsehood. Not a crust nor a crumb nor anything that could possibly be eaten by an Esquimo Dog was thrown out by the prisoners. Starving men do not throw away crusts of bread, and the fact, which is a matter of history that out of 94,072 federal prisoners who passed through or into those horrible slaughter pens, 50,000, or 53% of them died; While out of 227,580 confederate prisoners held by the United States during the same period, only 30,152, or 13-1/3% died, is proof positive that 37,508 deaths were the direct result of exposure and starvation; and in the face of such facts, to talk of prisoners throwing away crusts of bread. The idea that there was a state of famine or anything approaching it in the South or that Lee’s soldiers were starving is preposterous. There were at times owing to lack of transportation facilities, a scarcity of provisions in Lee’s army, and in every army for that matter. I have seen hard-tack worth a dollar a piece in green backs and none to be had at that price in the Army of the Potomac where it is generally supposed we lived on soft bread and butter when we were short of cake and honey; but that fact does not prove a scarcity of provisions in the North. In the South, provisions of the substantial kind used in an Army, such as they produce in the South,-beef, pork, corn-meal, rice, beans and vegetables were just as abundant. What earthly reason can be given why such should not be the case? I did at one time believe it was a scarcity of provisions, but reflecting a little, we might infer that the second year of the war, food would have been scarce, because their available force was in the field and no one to till the soil to raise provision, and the third year food would have been much scarcer and the fourth there would have been no food at all. Did they not have in the South 4,000,000 slaves, everyone of whom-men, women, and children-were compelled to till the ground to produce food for their lords and masters? While everything sold at fabulous prices in reciated Confederate rag money one could buy for $.25 in silver, as much food in the South as could be bought in the North for the same money, which fact I have seen demonstrated more than once.

During the last year of the war Sherman marched an Army of 60,000 men and had 10,000 camp followers from Atlanta to Savannah, a distance of 300 miles, in dead of winter, subsisting upon provisions they found in the country, and Sherman’s men did not starve, but came through fat, saucy, and in splendid fighting condition. Com. Gibson was with Sherman on this march and told me he did not taste bread for three weeks, but had plenty to eat of other good things.

This starvation of prisoners was a savage, inhuman and cowardly policy, inaugurated by a set of men better qualified by Nature and by their education, to become henchmen of the Prince of Darkness than the rulers of a nation which they sought to establish. The people of the South, generally, may be exonerated from complicity in this wicked and cowardly policy, but it is useless for them to deny that such a policy existed; that it was planned after a cool and deliberate consideration by Jefferson Davis and his Cabinet; that it was approved of by such men as Lee, Johnston and Jackson, who commanded the Confederate armies in the field, and that it was executed in cold-blooded cruelty by Winder, Ould, Wertz, Gee, and Dick Turner and this noble Capt. Jack Warner.

Our first rations on Belle Isle consisted of a piece of corn bread an inch and a half square and a pint of bean soup or a quarter of a pint of rice soup, not many beans or much rice, but plenty of soup. There were about 3000 prisoners here when we arrived. A few days later Capt. Jack Warner got into a fuss with some of the prisoners and shut off our rations until it could be found out who caused the trouble. During the night one man was killed by the guard and three were wounded. I bought, during the day, six loaves of corn bread for which I paid ten dollars Confederate money. Well, so it went. Almost every night men were killed of wounded by the guards, who took every opportunity to shoot them down. Every morning we were marched out like cattle and counted. We had breakfast about 12 O’clock, which consisted of a piece of corn bread an inch and half square a thin slice of strong pork or a third of a pint of soup each, which was supposed to do us all day. Reports were current that we were to be paroled, but instead, our numbers were increased to 6000. The prisoners increased until 500 were counted out, I being one of the number, and started to some other place where we did not know, this was on the 4th of October, 1864. We took the cars at Richmond and went to Danville, where we arrived at 9 A M. then changed cars and started for Greensboro, arriving there at 1 o’clock in the night. We laid on the grass until morning when we drew rations, consisting of three or four pieces hard tack, and took the cars for Salesbury, N. C. arriving there at 2 o’clock P.M. Oct. 6, 1864. We were glad for any sort of a change, but it was not long until it settled down to about the same old thing, except when we could get on the gang to work then we got extra grub. This went on until, because of scant rations and lack of proper sanitary provisions, disease began to take the men off. Every morning the dead wagon would make its appearance and from the to fifty men would be carried away to be counted among the “Unknown”. One team was kept busy practically all the time taking out the dead men. When we remember the terrible sufferings which were endured, can we think it at all strange that some yielded when the rebels came among us to enlist men for their ranks?

Well they say that “Necessity is the mother of invention”, and on November 25th we made a break for liberty but failed. A plan was entered into by myself and nine others, by which we were to dig a tunnel passing under the dead line and coming up under the hospital on the outside of the stockade. This tunnel was 11 feet deep and 85 feet long. We, ten, were each bound by a solemn oath not to divulge the secret of this tunnel. As the tunnel progressed the work became so hard that we each took in one comrade to help us, but the day the tunnel was finished and upon which we intended to escape at night, some one “blowed” on the tunnel to the rebel authorities and they came in to take it up. It was so well concealed, however, that they never found the entrance, but they kept a guard on at the outlet, where it would come out under the hospital, with strict orders to shoot the first man that came out. The man who gave away the secret of the tunnel did it for a loaf bread, but we never found out who it was. We were not discouraged at this, but I kept an ear to the ground and finally heard that Major Gee, the officer in command of the stockade post, would let a man go out for $45 in greenbacks. I was running a Sutler’s store inside the prison wall, I had gained the confidence of one of the Confederate guards and at his night duty he would bring bread and drop it down in-side the wall, but outside the “dead line”, then at the right time when the other guards were facing in opposite directions, he would signal to me by lightly tapping on the stockade. I would keep my bread until morning and then sell it among the prisoners making about 100% profit. With the Confederate money I would purchase greenbacks. I got a comrade by the name of Davis to go to the market and purchase greenbacks, keeping track of the price through our Quarter Master Liley, a rebel who was doing the same thing. I struck a plan through one John Woolsey, who was a Citizen prisoner from Sing Sing, N. Y., of how I could purchase greenbacks with Confederate money. He told me that a way out could be bought for $45 from Quarter Master Sergeant Niece, and Major Gee, or two for $75. Every morning I would tell Davis how much to pay for a dollar greenback and every night he would give me all the greenbacks he had bought me and return what confederate money he had left and I in turn would give him a loaf of bread for his day’s work. By this method I soon obtained the desired $45., but yet I was in a dilemma whether that would be best as I wanted to take Davis along but in order to do this I needed $75. I knew I would get free and none of the others would know where Cook had gone, but it was not a Christian spirit to leave so mysteriously since many of my comrades had been so kind to me during my sickness. How the time flew when I knew I could be free anyway, so a day or two longer would make no difference.

I decided to stay a little longer to see what could be done for my comrades. In the meantime a new set of prisoners had come in and they had green-backs for sale, and it was from them that Davis obtained the necessary $35 thus making our much desired $75.

Coldiron, another comrade, told me that a work train was gathering wood for the post and wanted me to look the ground over and see if we could get away upon it. This train was running out from the prison every day. Of course, those who were working on it were getting extra rations and would not give up their positions to someone else for nothing. I had $75 in greenbacks and intended to go out next day as far as Gees line at any rate, and if I got that far I intended to die before I would come back; but now I saw a chance to take four others out with ,me. I gave $5 a piece in confederate money to five other men to let us go out on the work train in their places. H. M. Davis, John Eacon, Nick Martin and John McCoy were Citizen Prisoners, and had been kind to me when I was sick and now I thoutht before I left I would give them an airing at least, for their kindness to me.

The train ran out about eight miles and was loaded and started back. This train did not run as fast as the Cannon Ball Express, for when it was doing its best you could get on and off at leisure. We were determined to get away if possible, and to make a break for liberty before that train got back to Salesbury. Coldiron struck on this plan; he had made a wedge and said to me, “Cook, I am going to throw this damned train off the track”. He let the wedge slip down on the track ahead of the wheel, and sure enough when the wheel struck it off she went, and the whole train stopped. This was on the 13th of February, 1865. We then asked the lieutenant in commend if we might go into the woods and build a fire and he readily consented and all the men went to work and in a short time we had piled into a heap enough wood to make a fire for any campaign jollification, but when we got ready to light a fire not one in the crowd had a match, (matches were not to be bought for a penny a box), neither did any one have a flint of steel; so nothing could be done unless the guard would let us go after a match. This he would not do, but he said he would go with one of the men. This was the very thing we wanted him to do. He had no sooner got over the hill and out of sight than the rest of us started after a match too, but in the opposite direction. I cannot tell who got the match and got back first for I never went back to see. I remember Coldiron said to me as we made the rush, “Cook, I’ll die before I will be recaptured”, and poor fellow he was true to his work, for he was killed before we had gone very far. There were five of us who started together and went in a different direction from the rest. We could hear them in pursuit of the others, but we kept on running until we were out of breath. It seamed to me we had run forty miles more of less, but it was a great deal less. Perhaps we had run a mile of two when we crawled up under some low brush pine where we remained concealed until night, hardly daring to take a long breath for fear of being discovered.

As soon as darkness came on we started out, traveling as fast as we could make our way, and lying up the next day hiding in the woods. Early the next night we came to the South Yatkins river. How to get across we did not know, but cross we must. There was a boat or scow on the other side and we determined to made a raft of rails. I was to go over on the raft and get the boat and return for the others. The raft was made, I boarded it and was shoved out, but just as quick as the current struck it, it went to pieces, and– well, I got wet, and only for the timely help of a good long pole in the hands of my comrades I might not be here to tell this story. After this we went up the river looking for a place to cross, but had to go in hiding for the day before we found a place. The next night we continued to search and finally came to an abandoned bridge near Eckles store. Only one stringer was left, but to us this was as good as a wagon bridge. After reaching the other side, we started back down the river to find our line of march. Thus we continued traveling nights and hiding by day for six days.

On the 19th day of February by a mere accident we discovered the underground railroad. One of our comrades was taken very sick but he begged us to go on and leave him and not be recaptured on his account. Upon seeing a light however, Mr. Martin and I started out to investigate and thus found the first depot of the underground railroad. This depot was the Home of Temperance Blackwood. We had been out of prison for six days, but were surprised to learn from this woman that we were only twenty-five miles from Salesbury. During these six days we lived on what rations we had secured before our escape and whatever we could find that was eatable. From here we were sent in the night to the next station, the home of one called Negro John. We did not live on scant rations now, a but had the best the land afforded. When night came on again were directed to one Thos. W. Rhodes a white man. The directions were so plain and given in such detail that one could not possibly miss the place. Here, under the pleadings of Mr. and Mrs. Rhodes, we rested for two days. So it went from station to station, until we were finally directed to the Sheriff of Stokes County, N. C. I confess we felt a little shaky when we received the last directions, but we were getting quite used to this sort of thing.

We were feeling quite strong again and were determined to die to a man rather than be re-taken. We marched hard all night and reached the Sheriff’s at 2 A.M. The mystery to us then was, how did these people know us and how could they be looking for us. The mystery remains unsolved to this day. When we gave our raps on the Sheriff’s door as Directed, we heard him bound out of bed, call his wife, and without hesitation open the door and say: “Come in, why, you have made good time. I was not exception you for two hours yet”. When we were ready to leave he did as the others had done, directed us to the next station. So we continued until we came to the end of the line, at the home of Mr. Thos. Montgomery said, “Now you will have to have some story fixed up from here on, for you will have to stay in the homes of your enemies”, We had rebel clothing on which was very much to our advantage now. “Tell anyone who may ask you that you are going to Lynchburg via Dublin Depot on New River”, said Mr. Montgomery. This he said would do for awhile, but we would have to fix up new ones as we needed them. Two nights after we had left Mr. Montgomery’s, while up on the Blue Ridge Mountains, it was snowing. We had had no supper and seeing a house we made for it to try to get some. We told the old laky who admitted us, that we had been over in North Carolina with some government horses and were just getting back to our Command and would like some supper. She said if we were soldiers we could cook for ourselves if she furnished the utensils. We told her that we would be glad to do so; so we mixed up some corn meal and made ten cakes about two inches thick and placed them to bake. While they were baking she wanted to know if we would like some cabbage and meat boiled together. Now, I always was prejudiced in favor of the boiled dinner and lost no time in accepting that proposition. She next produced a gallon of milk, and when everything was ready we “laid to” and ate everything in sight. The old laky looked on in wild amusement but said nothing. After supper she insisted on our staying over night and came near getting us into a corner. She had seven sons in the rebel army. We made some excuse to get outside for a few minutes and held a hasty council of war. One or two of the party wanted to run, but we finally decided this would not be best. We re-entered the house to find that the old lady had brought out a basket of apples, which we did justice to as best we could after the supper we had eaten. We feigned to be very sleepy. In the meantime we had made a discovery that there was a wounded rebel soldier in the house. We were so sleepy that we did not care to visit but would like to go to bed at one for our long march the next day. When we retired it was not to sleep much but to wait for the morning, at the first sign of which we started on, not even to wait to take breakfast. Taking a few apples, we parted with the old lady who said to us “Just remember your country when you get back”.

We promised very faithfully to do so. This was the first promise we had made for sometime that we really meant to keep, but we did mean this. We had nothing more to eat until we reached Dublin Depot. After that we lived on an ear of corn apiece a day for 5 days.

On the evening of the fifth day, we decided we must have something besides corn to eat, so we went to a house and told the ladies of the house that we were going home on furloughs, as were paroled rebel prisoners, and that we lived in Greenbrier County, W. Va. One of the ladies asked me if I had seen her husband, calling him by name, or if I knew him. I said, “o, yes, he is well and all right and no doubt he will be home tomorrow, for those were his intentions when I last saw him in Richmond”. While this conversation was going on she was piling the table with good things to eat, to which we did justice even if we did injustice to her.

Thus we marched on working this scheme and changing the county we were from to suit the case. But finally it got us into a scrape which might have proved serious to us. At the foot of Salt Pawn Mt. we came to a house to get supper where we saw the old man of the house. We saw where the rebel army had camped the night before and consequently knew that we were very near the rebel army of West Virginia, and Nick Martin, one of our number, asked the old man where the 22d Va. Regiment was, to which the old man replied, “Up at the Red Sulfur Springs”. This answer led to a general conversation and the old man said, “You remember Phil Thurman and his brother?” Of course we had never heard of them or any others who were in this part of Virginia. He explained that they had two companies of independent scouting companies or guerrillas. to which we replied, “Oh yes, where are they?” He said “Phil was killed by the Yanks”. I said, “That was too bad, as Phil was a good man”, at which the old man said “Yes, but Phil’s company had been consolidated with his brother’s and they were on the road between where we were and the Red Sulfur Springs. Now we had intended to go that night to the Red Sulfur Springs, as Nick Martin knew the country from there to the fall of Kanawha River, where we would strike our lines. The old gent asked, “Remember Edgar’s Battalion?” Now here was another new one to us, so we he explained all about him and then said we, “Oh yes, and where is he now?”, to which he replied, “Right up here on top of the Salt Pawn Mt.” We were almost in their lines. He next spoke of the 17″ Cavalry, boys of seventeen years of age. We told him that we did not remember them and had almost forgotten who we were, having been in prison 22 months. To which he said, “It is a wonder you have memory at all”. Then he said, “You remember Gen. McCauslin?” Now we had never heard of this General, but a soldier is supposed to know a General whether he does or not, so I said, “Yes, where is his command now?” The old man replies, “Just over the Salt Pawn Mt. in Meadow Lane”. We now had the lay of the army of West Virginia, and as we were so near Edgar’s battalion and must keep clear of it, for the purpose of finding out it’s exact location I asked a question which came very near getting us into trouble. I said, “Just where is Edgar’s Battalion, as I have two cousins in his command that I would like to see”. The old man said, “I will go with you there as it is not over two or three miles”. I pleaded with the old man to go back as we could find them, but he was afraid we might miss them so he kept along with us. It was getting quite dark when we came to a precipice, and we were getting as near my cousins as I cared to be. We decided that this new friend had gone far enough and must either go back home or over this precipice so we all stopped and talked and plead with him to go back home, as his folks would be worried about him, and we would soon be in sight of their camp fires so he finally turned back and went home, which act saved his life, as it was a force put; he must either go back, go over the precipice, or else we must, in all probability, be made prisoners again; and we thought the lives of we five were worth more than one old man. We did not visit Edgar’s Battalion, but as we were going down the mountain we met five rebel cavalry-men from Gen. ‘McCauslin’s command coming up the mountain. For a moment we did not know what to do but had to act quickly, as we saw them at the same time they saw us. So putting on a bold face, we marched on and as we passed them saluted and passed the time of day. That night we wanted to get over the river into Raleigh County. We came upon the main force of the rebel army on the move, as they were being transferred across the river. We hunted up the ferryman, told him we were rebel soldiers and had just escaped from the Yanks, and gave him $10. to put us over the river. He told us to look out for the Yanks, as they were thick in that section and would nab us again. We went down the river to Nicoles County and were yet 75 miles from the Union lines, but on ground that began to look familiar and our crowd began to break up. John McCoy left us and went home, as he lived in Pocahentas County, W. Va. bidding us all a good-bye with a “God bless you” and hoping us all a successful journey to our lines and a happy greeting to our homes and loved ones. Nick Martin soon left us as he lived in Nicoles County wishing us the same good wishes. Then John Bacon, H. M. Davison and myself were left together. We kept in the woods and avoided the roads and kept our eyes strained for some signs of the Union lines. We saw “Old Glory” a mile away, and I cannot express to you the thrill that ran over me. We beheld one more, after all these days of weariness the “Star Spangled Banner” of the Republic, the fair emblem of our country, for which of old our brave fathers fought and our heroic mothers suffered and prayed. The flag that we had loved in peace and cherished in war, that flag that we had followed in victory and guarded and defended in defeat, that flat for which our mothers, sisters, wives and daughters gave the crown-jewels of their hearts, the flag that, during those four years of devastating war 2,778,304 men rallied to defend and in defending 900,000 wounds were received and 364,116 lives were sacrificed; the flag that by a thousand battles on land and sea was borne to find victory; that triumphant at last over the vile emblem of treason, slaver, starvation and death, and now guards and honors the graves of the 50,000 who languished and perished beyond the reach of hope or mercy, where the foul rebel rag held sway, with the graves of their more fortunate comrades who fell beneath the inspiring glory of her tarry folds; the flag that today is the proud emblem of 75,000,000 free and happy people, the one flag of the country extending through 24 degrees of latitude and 57 degrees of longitude, to say nothing of Alaska and the Islands far away; which is known in every harbor in the world, is respected on every sea and honored in every land. As the face of a lost loved one is seen for all the time through the mist of the years of the dead, but never to be forgotten, so engraved on the retina of the mind’s unfading eye, I see, as I saw it then, while gazing from this last environment of a hateful imprisonment just over the River, the flag of free America, flooded with the transcendent light of full and perfect freedom; bright, beautiful, resplendent, glorious. How every eye kindles, how every heart thrills. Then follows a cheer, a glad, ringing, wild hurrah, that echoes from over the river and among the hills and glens and re-echoes forever in the recesses of my memory.

It did not take long to cover this mile, in fact, I cannot tell you how we made it. We came up to the Union lines at Loop Creek where it empties into the Kanawha river, on the 13th day of March, just one month from the day we left the guard of the wood train in Rowan County, N. C. and found the 2nd New York Regiment doing duty. We met the guard and told him who we were. We were sent to the officers and put through a lot of “red tape”. We were shifted from place to place, first to Charleston, W/ Va., then to Gallapolis, on the Ohio River, then up the river to Parkersburg, then to Crafton, then to Cumberland, Md. and from there to Harpers Ferry, and on the 20th of March I landed in Washington, D.C. All these places were Provo Marshall Offices and here I was made prisoner again until I could prove who I was and that I was an escaped prisoner of war. I finally got that completed. I landed in the hospital at Washington, sick. They gave me an escape prison Furlough April 5th with permission to delay enroute 30 days. So I went home to see my good old mother and that other fellow’s sister, and while there I was surprised to learn that one of my comrades, viz.:- W. R. Henry of Hartstown, Pa., a member of Company I, 10th Regt. P.R.V.C. and also of Company K, 191st Regt. P.V.V., who had been taken prisoner along with me in Aug 19, 1864, and whom I left a prisoner had been paroled Feb. 22, 1665, and beat me home. He lived but a short time, dying April 2, 1865, and was buried at Hartstown, Pennsylvania.

After this sojourn at home, I set out again and on the 5th of May landed on the banks of the Potomac in Virginia again. After attending the Grand Review we were mustard out of the United States Service on the 27th of June, 1865, after which I persuaded the other fellow’s sister to become my wife on the 7th day of September of that year.

Kind friends fellow soldiers brave,
Come listen to my song,
About that Rebel prison and our soldiering there so long,
Our wretched fate and hardships great no one can understand,
But those who have endured the fate in Dixie’s sunny land.

When captured by the Chancellor,
They stripped us to the skin,
And failed to give us back again the value of one pin,
Except some lousy rags of gray, discarded by the band,
And thus commenced our prison life in Dixie’s sunny land.
A host of guards surrounded us each with a loaded gun,
We laid upon an open plain, exposed to rain and sun,
No tent or tree to shelter us, we laid upon the sand,
And side by side great numbers died in Dixie’s sunny land.

This was our daily bill of fare,In our “Secesh” saloon, No coffee, tea or sugar for morning night of noon,
But a pint of meal ground cob and,
all was served to every man,
And thus commenced our prison life in Dixie’s sunny land.

Yet days and weeks and months had passed,
Yes weeks and months untold,
Until that happy time arrived when we were all paroled.
We landed at Annapolis, a wretched looking band,
But glad we were to be alive and free from Dixie’s sunny land.

City Letter Carrier at USPS | | Website

Currently a resident of Burke, Virginia - I'm originally from the City of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. I have been a student of the Pennsylvania Reserves since 1997 and thoroughly enjoy telling their story. By trade I'm a former IT Professional but presently working as a Letter Carrier for the United States Postal Service.