Elmira Prison Camp OnLine Library - Submitted Information –
Confederate Veteran: Getting Out of Prison
[The following document comes from the Confederate Veteran, a magazine published throughout the South from the 1890s until the 1940s. It comes from Volume ? which contains writings from the year 1926, page 379.]
By F.S. Wade, Elgin, Tx
If there ever was a hell on Earth, Elmira Prison was that hell, but it was not a hot one, for the thermometer was often 40 degrees below zero. There were about six thousand Confederate prisoners, mostly from Georgia and the Carolinas. We were housed in long prison buildings, say one hundred and twenty feet long and forty feet wide, three tiers of bunks against each wall. A big coal stove every thirty feet was always kept red hot; but for these stoves, the most of us would have frozen. Around each stove was a chalk mark, five feet from the stove, marking the distance we should keep, so that all could be warm. We were thinly clad and not half of us had even one blanket. Our rations were ten ounces of bread and two ounces of meat per day. My weight fell from 180 to 160 in a month. We invented all kinds of traps and deadfalls to catch rats. Every day Northern ladies came in the prison, some followed by dogs or cats, which the boys would slip aside and choke to death. The ribs of a stewed dog were delicious, and a broiled rat was superb.
One day I was at the guardhouse when about thirty-five of our boys had on barreled shirts, guards marching them around. A barreled shirt was made by knocking out the head of a barrel then cutting a hole in the other head and putting it on the body. On these barreled shirts was written in big letters, "Stole a dog," "Stole a cat," "Stole a ration," "Stole a fur," etc. If a lady's fur was not fastened on, the boys would grab it, and some of them had been caught.
All the Yankees soldiers were not cruel. The chalk marks were drawn around the stoves so that all could get some of the heat. One day a poor sick boy lay down near the chalk line and went to sleep. In his sleep he threw his leg over the chalk line. A big guard caught him by his shoulder and threw him against the wall, making his nosebleed. I popped my big fist against the guard's jaw, knocking him heels over head. He ran out cursing me. Of course I was scared. In a few minutes, a captain came in with a file of soldiers, having the guard I had assaulted of the party, and asked: "Where is the man who knocked this soldier down?" I stepped out and said: "I am the man." Then I called up the sick boy and made him lie down, and I told the captain it made me so mad to see this poor boy so brutally treated that I could not help punishing the bully. He said to our men: "Has this man told the truth?" A dozen of our men stepped forward and said that they would swear that I had related the scene correctly. The captain slapped me on the soldier and said to the brute: "I will put you in the guardhouse." I was called before a court-martial, and, being sworn, related the whole matter as it occurred. The Judge Advocate said to the bully: "You will wear a ball and chain for thirty days and forfeit your pay for a month for brutality to a prisoner."
Good luck came to me after I had been in this prison, say, a month. Some good Yankee ladies got up a lot of old schoolbooks and established a prison school, and I was appointed one of the teachers, the pay to be an extra ration. I soon got back me twenty pounds of flesh. This was the best pay I ever got for a job in my life.
My father and mother lived in Illinois. I wrote them my starving condition, and they sent me a big box of grub, and told me in their letter that my Uncle Jones lived in Utica, N.Y. I at once wrote him. He sent me a splendid pair of boots, and said that he could come to see me. He was what was called a "Copperhead," as he was opposed to the war, and could not get a pass. Then he smuggled a letter to me, asking me to be at the corner of a certain ward at sunset that day, and he would climb up on the observatory, a building outside the prison walls. At sundown, I saw a large old man slowly climb to the top of the observatory. On reaching the top, he faced me. We took off our hats and saluted. He slowly climbed down, with his handkerchief to his eyes. That was the only time I ever saw my dear uncle.
My dear comrade, Jimmie Jones, took smallpox and was sent to the smallpox hospital. I was immune and got permission to help nurse him. A young Chinese physician, by the name of Sin Lu, had just become a Mason. Jim and I were very proficient in the work. We became great friends. One day the doctor went over to Lake Erie, a few miles away. The next day he told me to go to Jim's room. To my great surprise, Jim was sitting in a coffin with a white sheet around him. He handed me a paper of flour and said: "Sprinkle my face and hands with flour, then slightly fastened the coffin lid down, and when the dead wagon comes around, be sure to put my coffin on top of the other dead." Soon the dead wagon, driven by a Negro, came up. I got help and put Jim's coffin on top. It was forty years before I saw Jim again at a reunion of Greene's Brigade at Cuero, Texas; but a day or two after, I got a letter from Jim telling me about his experiences. He said when the dead wagon got out of the prison walls, he raised the coffin lid rapped on it, and said in a sepulchral voice: "Come to judgment." The darky looked around, jumped off the wagon, eyes like saucers, yelling: "Ghosties! Ghosties! Ghosties!" As soon as the darky was out of sight, he stripped off his sheet wiped the flour off his face and hands, took one of the horses out of the wagon, mounted and galloped to Lake Erie, where he found a boat awaiting him, and was soon in Canada.
Soon after, an order was issued for all prisoners from the subjugated States of Missouri, Kentucky, West Virginia, and Louisiana, to report for parole. All that night I rolled over in my bunk and wished that I was from one of those states. Just before daylight, I had another inspiration. I slipped on my clothes, ran to the office where the prison rolls were kept, and asked the officer in charge to turn to the entry of a certain date. I ran my finger down the list till I came to the name, "F.S. Wade, sergeant of McNill's Texas Scouts." I said to the officer: "I will give you $10 to erase Texas and substitute Louisiana." Said he: "Show me the money." I started to take it out of my vest pocket, but he put his hand over mine and saw the "X." Then he made the change, and I walked out with my parole.
Soon an officer came in my ward and called me name for parole. I stepped out and fell in line. The boys in the prison kept saying: "He always sand he was from Texas." But I kept mum.