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"History of Eau Claire County Wisconsin, 1914, Past and Present"


Chapter 11 - Eau Claire County in the Civil War

by W. W. Bartlett


Part 13

(-as transcribed from pages 185 - 192)

EXPERIENCE OF JAMES F. ALLEN.

Narrative of the Prison Experience of James Fred. Allen, 
of Eau Claire Wis., Private in Company K, 16th Regiment
of Wisconsin Volunteers, Who Enlisted When Only Seven-
teen Years Old and Whose War Experience Was Prac-
tically All in Rebel Prisons.

After the battle of Cold Harbor, June 3, 1864, we remained inactive until the 12th.  That night after we had turned in, we received orders to pack up, fall in and move out quietly and with as little noise as possible.  We of the rank and file didn't understand the meaning of this, unnecessary caution, but learned later that Wade Hampton's Legion (cavalry) was suspected of being in our vicinity and would hang on our flanks ready to attack any of our troops they felt able to get away with, hence the cautions which some of us later found to our sorrow was well timed.  We moved out, as I remember, about 9 P. M. and after marching about two hours, the night being very dark, we were overtaken by a courier with the information that we, with a portion of the command had somewhere  after starting taken the wrong road in the dark and must about face and get back in quick time, but with the main command now far in the front.  We made a supreme effort to catch the command, but just before reaching it we got whispered orders to stop for a breathing spell and a few minutes rest.  This was our undoing, for in a moment we were stretched along the side of the road in the woods out of the mud and were sound asleep, as indeed, many had been for some time while marching in the ranks, and when a little later the order to fall in again was passed, still in whispers, some of us were not missed by our comrades or by the orderly whose business it was to get us into line, until too late.  It was broad daylight when we awoke, and when we realized the situation our feelings can better be imagined than described.

But we pulled ourselves together and made another effort to catch the command; this however, soon proved futile for we hadn't gone a mile when we were halted by a command to surrender by a squad of cavalry who stepped into the road ahead of us, and as they outnumbered us we at once saw the point of their argument and like good soldiers, obeyed orders, but before they could get to and disarm us we had the satisfaction of spoiling the efficiency as well as the beauty of our new Springfield rifles by bringing their stocks suddenly in contact with near-by trees.  This precaution in the interest of our cause, was however, strongly resented by our captors and had it not been for some of the older and cooler heads among them it would certainly have gone hard with us, for at that period of the war the most important capture a reb could make next to a live Yankee, was a new Springfield musket.

We were, as near as I can remember, about seven miles from Richmond to which city we started as soon as they stripped us of everything of value to them and arriving there were immediately put in Libby prison on the third floor, a hungry and tired lot of boys.   We remained here about two weeks, being treated fairly well and little dreaming of the horrors in store for us when the gates of Andersonville closed behind us later.

About the first of July we were loaded in cattle cars recently used for transportation of cattle, and after a trip of four days' jolting and bumping over the worst roads imaginable, and filled with hardships and suffering, we reached Andersonville Prison, that horrible hell-hole of the Confederacy in the interior of Georgia, where in a stockade of thirty acres were confined as many as 33,000 Union prisoners at one time, packed in so closely that the space equally divided would allow only four square feet to a man.  Here during the last year of the war were confined about 50,000 of whom over 13,000 died from starvation, exposure, scurvy and loathsome diseases.  No pen can tell what we suffered in the months we were held there till the close of the war.

Around the inside of the stockade, twenty feet from its base, ran the dead line and should a person step over the line accidentally or purposely he was shot by the sentinels on the stockade.  Many driven half insane by the horrors of their daily existence deliberately walked to death by crossing this dead line.

A swamp was the center of the prison and through it flowed a small creek, which furnished all the water that was to be had for the daily use of the prisoners and in addition it was the sewer for thousands of men crowded together, who had to drink of its pestilential waters.

Most of us were without shelter from the winter storms or summer heat and the rags which we wore did not cover our nakedness.  We yearned for the refuse food in the swill pails of our northern homes.

No attempt was made by Wirz, the inhuman rebel monster in charge of the prison, to lighten our sufferings and make us comfortable, but his every effort was to prolong and intensify our sufferings.  Refuse bacon unfit for any human being, and unbolted cornmeal was our diet.  It could not and was not meant to support life.  Men were dying like flies each day, feet and ankles rotting off, limbs swollen to thrice their normal size.  Unable to protect themselves, their food was stolen from them by their crazed comrades in their desperate fight for life.  Although green corn and vegetables could easily have been furnished them, they were withheld so that scurvy could do its work.

No clothing was given to us to wear or soap for washing, nor medical assistance in sickness.  Chills and fever were rife and diarrhea over prevalent, while the stench was unspeakable and always with us.

In October, just before Sherman started on his march to the sea, and doubtless in anticipation of his attempt to liberate us, we were hurriedly put in cattle cars and run to Savannah, Ga., and put into a temporary stockade, pending the completion of the stockade at Millen, Ga., and after a short stay in Savannah were taken to the new one at Millen.  This was a vast improvement over Andersonville in many ways, not the least of which was our escape from the monster Wirz, which, however, was only temporary, for those of us who survived until fall were destined to have more experience with that fiend in human shape.  Our stay in Millen prison was about two months, and in November, on the day of the general elections in the north, and at the instigation of the rebel authorities themselves, we held a mock election, the result of which was very disappointing to the rebels as we elected Lincoln over McClellan two to one, which showed them plainly the war would be prosecuted to the end without compromise and that the loyal people of the country were in the majority.  Some time in the first part of December when Sherman was nearing Millen, we were again loaded on box cars and sent back to Savannah and from there without changing cars on to Blackshear, a station on the coast railroad near Thomasville.  We were placed in the woods with a heavy guard around us and kept here a few days and then on to Thomasville, Ga., where we stayed two weeks when, Sherman having gone to Savannah, we started on a four days' march across the country to Albany, Ga., sixty miles, taking the cars again at this point and on Christmas Day 1864, were back in Andersonville again. At this time our numbers had been greatly reduced by death, exchange and transfer to other prisons, so we did not number more than three or four hundred.  We suffered greatly from the cold and many died from cold and exposure who otherwise might have pulled through.  But all things have an end and so were our days in this hell on earth.  And when on the 28th of April, 1865, we were ordered to the depot to take cars for our lines at Jacksonville, Fla., our joy knew no bounds.  It came so sudden and with such a shock, that to say, some of us acted like lunatics in our great joy over the prospects of deliverance, would be putting it very mildly.  But we got off finally and after a ride of two or three days in our old friends -- the cattle cars, without much to vary the monotony we reached Baldwin, Fla., twenty miles from Jacksonville; the track being torn up between two places, we were escorted for a short distance by a rebel guard and then without further ceremony were turned loose and it was then every man for himself and a great strife to be the first to reach God's country, our friends, and the Stars and Stripes, which I had not seen for about eleven months.

We stayed in Jacksonville long enough to gain strength to stand the trip north, which was about two weeks, for we were taken in hand at once by the doctors, who put us on a strict diet to keep us from killing ourselves by overeating.  First of all we were led to the St. John's river, and after casting our rags in a common pile and being furnished with soap and towels, were ordered into the water for a general cleaning after which each was given a new uniform, a welcome exchange for the rags we had been wearing so long, and which we proudly donned.

We boarded a river steamer about the first of May for Fernandina, where we transferred to an ocean transport for parole camp at Annapolis, Md.  I will not attempt to describe our passage north, further than to say that of the six hundred on board probably seventy-five percent were very seasick, which in many cases lasted during the trip, and when it is considered that we were all confined below decks, it will not require a very vivid imagination to realize the condition we were in when reaching our destination, and that our joy on reaching port was only second to that when being released from rebeldom.

We stayed a few days in Annapolis, received our commutation of ration money, which in my case amounted to $72.00 at twenty-five cents per day, and were forwarded to the distribution camp for western men at St. Louis and a few days later we Wisconsin men were sent to Madison and home.

Edward Nolan and John Cunningham from my company were captured at the same time.  Of the others taken at the same time from the regiment were two from Company I, Bogley and Parsons.  They both died in Andersonville.  I found Parsons dead at my side one morning.

I did not attempt to escape by tunnelling under the stockade, as many did, for none of the three locations I had was near enough the dead line to warrant it.  Many got out, but few succeeded in getting away and when caught were subjected to horrible and inhuman torture by buck and gagging, being strung up by the thumbs and starving.  I did escape for a time however, with two others, when lying in the woods at Albany, Ga., waiting for a train to take us back to Andersonville.  Although a line of guards was around us we succeeded in eluding them one dark night and slipped through.  We made a clean getaway for the time being, but when it became light enough to see we found we had traveled in a circle and were back to the point of starting.  We started again and reached the home of a planter.  We were nearly famished and decided to attempt to get food from the planter's negro slaves, who as a rule were friendly to the Yankees and would do all they could to help escaping prisoners.  We cautiously approached the cabin furthest from the plantation house, but unfortunately someone saw us and reported to the planter who, with revolvers in his belt and a pack of vicious dogs at his heels, came down to interview us.  Under ordinary circumstances we would have thrown up our hands and given up in despair after taking in the situation, but we had been up against similar situations many times and were by this time seasoned veterans and decided to make the best of it, and to this end our spokesman, a comrade by the name of McKinley from a Pennsylvania regiment who was one of us, in a few well chosen words (he was good at that) told him that we were escaped prisoners, were nearly famished and that we had come out for something to eat.  Mr. Mercer, for that was his name, looked us over and, probably under the influence of Mack's eloquence changed his aggressive look, dropped his hand from his revolver and in a friendly voice told us to come up to his house.  Arriving there he ordered his cook to get us something to eat, others to make a big fire in the yard and still others to bring out chairs for us to sit on, and then he himself brought a large black bottle with glasses, and being his guests and knowing the custom of the country and the sensitiveness of the people in such matters, we laid aside for the moment any conscientious scruples we might have had and helped ourselves.  This put us in fine condition to do justice to the breakfast which soon followed, and which we ate still in the yard.  To say that we enjoyed it but feebly expresses the intense satisfaction of being filled up again after our long fast on half rations.  After finishing breakfast Mr. Mercer again sent his servants for meal, sweet potatoes, etc., for us to take with us.  Then he made us a little speech in which he said he was not a soldier, but it was his duty to take us back to camp; that he deplored the war and wished it was over; that he sympathized with us in our troubles and hoped we would finally reach home safely, etc., and now if we were ready he would take us to the provost marshal in Albany, which he did, and that night we were placed in the guard house and next morning turned in with the rest of the prisoners.  This happened many years ago, but it seems but yesterday, so vividly was it impressed on my mind.  It was the only bright spot in my prison experience and I shall never forget it. 

I have always thought Mr. Mercer was a union man at heart and whether or not, he certainly was a man in the truest sense and stands out in violent contrast to all others with whom we came in contact while in the confederacy.  I heard of him after we moved to Florida through a widow who came here from Albany.  She always spoke very highly of him and that he was one of the solid men of that section.

On our way home from Andersonville the Government gave us stationery for writing home and instructed us to write on the envelope "Paroled Prisoner's Letter."  This would allow the letter to go through the mails without postage being paid in advance, but it would be collected at its destination.  When my letter written from St. Louis reached home the postmaster J. W. Farwell, called Myron Briggs' attention to it and said that it must be from me.  Mr. Briggs promptly paid the postage and took the letter to mother.

Previous to this an exchanged prisoner had reported that he knew me in Andersonville, had divided his last morsel with me and saw me die.  A funeral sermon was preached in Eau Claire by reason of that report to which all gave credence.

I reached home a few days after the Free Press announced (May 25, 1865) that I was still alive.

SOME NEWSPAPER NOTES DURING THE CLOSING MONTHS OF THE WAR.

The Free Press of June 30, 1864, records that return of Company C, Capt. Victor Wolf, and the survivors of the Eagle company.  There were but fifty-six left, and of that number thirty re-enlisted for the remainder of the war.

Nearly every issue records the death of one or more soldiers who went out from this county.

In the summer of 1864 an attempt was made to recruit Chippewa Indians for service in the war, but the plan proved a failure.

In the Free Press of September 8, 1864, is found a very complimentary mention of Lieut.-Col. Charles Whipple.  This Charles Whipple was a brother of Capt. D. C. Whipple and was an early Chippewa River steamboat man.  He received a commission as lieutenant-colonel and served for a time in the navy, later being transferred to the Nineteenth Wisconsin Infantry.

In the Free Press of September 22, 1864, is recorded the return of Capt. (later Major) John R. Wheeler, of the Sixteenth Wisconsin, severely wounded in both legs.

In the Free Press of November 10, 1864, complimentary mention is made of Capt. A. M. Sherman, of the Second Cavalry, who had just resigned his commission and returned to Eau Claire.

In the Free Press of February 16 is recorded the promotion of Capt. John R. Wheeler of the Sixteenth Wisconsin to major of the regiment, and a very complimentary mention of the man.

The Free Press of March 9, 1865, records the departure of Lieut. (later Captain) H. M. Stocking with his company for Milwaukee to join the Forty-eighth Wisconsin Infantry.

The Free Press of April 20, 1865, appears with heavy black lines, and the announcement of the assassination of President Lincoln.

A CLOSING WORD.

In the preparation of this Civil War chapter my only aim has been to give a true and unbiased presentation of the part taken by Eau Claire county in the Civil War.  The extracts from Civil War letters, newspapers and records have been given as found, and these records and the pictures furnished will be allowed to speak for themselves.  It is for the reader to judge whether or not our county measured up to its full duty during those trying years from sixty-one to sixty-five.

William W. Bartlett


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