FROM GETTYSBURG TO LIBBY PRISON.
By Albert Wallber, 1st. Lieutenant and Adjutant.
26th Regiment Wisconsin Infantry, U. S. Volunteers.
Read October 6th, 1909.
THE Eleventh Corps, belonging to the Army of the Potomac, broke camp near Brooke's Station, Virginia, on June 12th, 1863, and moved to intercept General Robert E. Lee's forces, which we understood were marching toward Washington. Our march brought us through Hartwood Church, Weaversville, Manassas junction, Centreville, and Guin Springs to Goose Creek, where we remained six days, awaiting orders. An uncertainty seemed to prevail, whether we were to meet the enemy in Virginia or across the Potomac. On June 24th orders came to cross at Edwards' Ferry. Having tramped around Northern Virginia with its corduroy roads, its red soil, and viewed nothing but those melancholy pine forests, barren, impoverished fields, old and dilapidated homes, a country where everything was so monotonous, where a deathlike stillness prevailed, interrupted at night only by the lamentation of the whippoorwill, our feelings may be imagined when we stepped on Maryland's shore and beheld the fertile fields, rich pastures, well-kept gardens, white farm houses with green shutters, all showing the prosperity of the inhabitants. The contrast between the two shores was so conspicuous that we really feasted on the beauty of the landscape. With a light heart and swinging step we marched on to Jefferson, Middletown, Frederick, and Emmetsburg, where we stopped for a two days' rest. At dawn on July 1, we marched in the direction of Gettysburg. We came over rugged roads, climbed fences, waded small streams and marshes, which had been formed by the rain the day previous. Suddenly the order came to hurry on. Now commenced a most toilsome and fatiguing march.
We reached the hilly country and, running, climbed rocky hills. The
rain fell in torrents; the atmosphere was extremely sultry, so that the
soldiers, burdened with their accoutrements, heavily-packed knapsacks,
blankets, haversacks and arms could proceed onward only with the greatest
exertion. But Orderlies, one after another, came galloping up, spurring
us on to haste. We heard the roaring of cannon at a distance. Summoning
all our strength we finally reached Gettysburg, trotted through the streets
in double quick, and were assigned to a position in an open field to the
north of the town, with orders to lie down to escape the shot and shell
which came flying over our heads. To our left we saw the First Corps (General
Reynolds') in action. We witnessed its several charges and retreats. The
First and Eleventh Corps, probably about 12,000 men, were here pitted against
General Ewell's entire command. The odds being largely against us, our
right wing was soon enveloped by the rebel forces and driven back. During
the retreat a fragment of a shell threw me down. I was stunned, but not
hurt. In coming to, I found myself inside the rebel lines. A soldier shouted
several times, "where is an officer?" Upon seeing me lying on the ground,
he leveled his gun and was about to pull the trigger, when an officer of
his company stepped in front of me and beckoning to his men said: "Come
on, my brave boys, come on."
It was a sorrowful sight passing over the battle field. Many a friend lay there lifeless; others, more or less seriously wounded, begged for water, but my captors refused to allow me to render assistance and after relieving me of my sword and revolver, told me to walk back. In doing so, I went across the battle field of the rebels where the dead outnumbered the wounded, mostly shot in the head or through the breast, which proved that the aim of our soldiers was good. Rebel officers desired to know the strength of our forces, whether the entire Army of the Potomac had arrived, who General Hooker's successor was, and how far it was to Baltimore. To all o these questions "I don't know" was the answer.
During our retreat one other officer and forty-six men of my regiment were taken prisoners. I met them on a field near a farm with several thousand other prisoners. Officers and men were separated the next morning and a rebel general communicated to us that General Lee was ready to parole and send us to Carlisle for exchange. Major General Halleck, however had promulgated an order forbidding such paroles, naming Vicksburg and City Point as the only places where exchanges should take place. Under these conditions we declined the proffered parole, even though there stared in our faces a deportation to Richmond unless General Meade should be victorious, pursue the enemy and free us. We were next marched about one and a half miles behind the rebel lines and there received our first rations, but they were of homeopathic quantity, consisting of a small piece of raw meat, a handful of flour and a few grains of salt. As we possessed neither cooking nor baking utensils; this supply savored of malice. We stood there asking ourselves, what shall we do with this manifestation of rebel generosity? My companion, Capt. Domschke, had the flour tied up in a rag, but in marching, the flaps opened, depositing the flour on the wet grass. Two more sorrowful people could not be imagined as we looked down upon our loss, for we were very, very hungry. But we still had our meat, and this we cooked in a small tin cup which I had saved. This was the only food for the day. Our next flour ration, however, was guarded more carefully. We utilized it in a way which surely entitles us to commendation and which again exemplified the old maxim, that necessity is the mother of invention. For the special delectation of housewives and picnickers I will explain the procedure. We made the dough on a rubber cape, flattening the dough and shaping it like a German pancake. Stones were placed on three sides, supported by wooden sticks, with a flat stone on top under which a fire was kindled. When this stone was hot, the cake was put on and as soon as the underside was baked, it was turned over and the second baking
process begun. I could hardly touch such bread now, but we then had
a ravenous appetite, and only wished we had more of it.
The second day's battle neared its end. We heard the fire of musketry and the roaring of cannon, but were unable to find out who had been victorious. The prisoners coming in did not know. In the evening, the rebel bands played lively airs and we judged from this, that the enemy had the best of the encounter. We laid down to rest with sad misgiving.
On the morning of July 3rd, lying on the ground near General Pickett's headquarters, we had a chance to see this officer, as he emerged from his tent; his long locks reaching to his shoulders, artistically arranged, his high riding boots brilliantly polished, his external appearance without a fault, he mounted his horse. In looking at his cheeks and nose, we divined that their color was not caused by drinking soda water only. With a haughty air, imbued with his own importance he galloped to the front, but when we met him a few days later, a dark shadow hovered over his red physiognomy. He lost two thirds of his division on that eventful third of July.
A dismal silence reigned during that forenoon, the forerunner generally of violent catastrophes. In the afternoon a fearful cannonade was heard, which shook the earth. Our hearts were beating fast, our anxiety was at fever heat, for it was clear to us that this day was significant. We had the presentiment that this would be the critical day, the decisive battle. When night approached, cannon and musketry firing ceased. What was the result? The musicians remained silent. Could we base any hopes on this? No news came to us. In utter despair, tired and hungry, we spent the night lying on the green sward. The sun woke us on July 4th. But what a 4th was this! At home it was a day of jubilation, while here we did not know whether the enemy had not succeeded in shaking the foundation of our republic. We were huddled together on a field, surrounded by a fence, on the outside of
which sentinels were posted - weatherbeaten fellows, clad in torn
gray garments, who eyed us malignantly. The weather had turned gloomy and
we sat around with heavy hearts, wondering what news we would likely hear,
when one of our officers, disregarding all possible consequences, gave
went to his feelings and in honor of the day began a patriotic song. We
others took courage and all joined in the chorus. The sentinels pricked
up their ears, looked at us, but said nothing. This seemed encouraging,
for we reasoned that they would hardly permit us to indulge in this harmless
pleasure had they been victorious. Their severity was too well known to
us, why then in this case were they so lenient" Why could we sing John
Brown, and Rally Round the Flag? This leniency must have its reason. Could
it mean that they were beaten on July 3rd?
Not long after a curious commotion was visible around us. Troops commenced to maneuver, orderlies galloped to and fro, and the immense wagon train began to move. Up sprang one of our officers, a typical Yankee, to a mound near by, stretched his long neck and sniffing the air in all directions, concluded his observations by saying: "Gentlemen, this signifies that they are skedaddling." He guessed right. Lee was beaten and we were soon ordered to follow the retreating foe. Toward noon a terrible rainstorm broke loose. The road was utilized by the army wagons, batteries and "prairie schooners"-but not by the ambulances containing the wounded, who moaned piteously as they were driven over the fields at the gallop. The rebels had lost and were fleeing. We rejoiced, although aware what our fate would be, unless our forces attacked the retreating enemy and liberated us. We waited anxiously for the release, but alas, day after day vanished, when we realized that our hope was vain. Our fears for a long imprisonment were to become true.
During that afternoon General Lee rode up, accompanied by several members of his staff. I had a position where I could look squarely into his face, as any one would naturally
do when confronted by such a distinguished opponent. He showed no
sign of worry. His countenance was placid and he appeared as cool and collected
as if nothing unusual had transpired, but who could fathom the thoughts
which were hidden behind his bro[?] after such a disastrous repulse!
The General however, did not linger long, he merely glanced over the motley crowd before him, then gave a few verbal orders to his lieutenants and passed on.
Lee's arm retreated in two columns, Infantry and Artillery; taking the prisoners as a third column flanked by infantry. As the roads for such a mass of men, guns and vehicles were not wide enough we were obliged to wander over rough fields, climb fences and wade through streams formed by the late rain. It was on July 5th that we reached Fairfield. On the threshold of their houses stood the women. Seeing so many blue uniforms they thought all was lost, but when we shouted to them, that the rebel army was retreating and that we would soon return, many a "God bless you" escaped their lips. Late the same day we came to the romantic South Mountains, with their vales and ravines. Here want of room often pressed us together like huge coils, which rolled on distressfully slow. The night was pitch dark and great caution had to be exercised not to be run over by horse or wagon. Several officers took advantage of the darkness and in the confusion that existed managed to creep through the escort, hiding in the wooded hills until the rebel hordes had gone by.
The morning of July 6th found us at Monterey Springs, a bathing place, where the rebels renewed negotiations for our parole. They saw how difficult it was to transport so many prisoners, that a strong escort would necessarily be required therefore, which they could make use of better elsewhere, and finally they seemed to fear an attack of our army resulting in our escape. They called us together and renewed the Gettysburg proposition. We consulted. Owing to Gen. Halleck's order and noticing their anxiety to get rid of us, we promptly declined their offer.
The failure of these negotiations brought us on the march again, and a very tiresome one it was, toward Waynesboro and Hagerstown on July 6th. It was a terrible night. Our column moved but slowly, halting about every five minutes. But no rest was given us. Emaciated by scanty rations and hardly able to stand, we dropped on the muddy road every time the procession halted, using every minute to steal a little sleep. Toward morning, we were at Hagerstown where a good many secessionists resided. One of the female secessionists with triumphant mien shouted to the rebel colonel who rode at the head of the column: "Colonel, that's the way to bring them in." She evidently belonged to that class of infuriated women in the South who did their best to incite the men to treason and cruelty. South of Hagerstown. we met more prisoners-a troop of cavalrymen who had been sent out on a reconnaissance and who had fought the rebels in the neighborhood of the city. Lying in a field near the road we saw the. corpses of several of these cavalrymen, robbed of everything, of course, as was the rebel custom. Several civilians were likewise brought in, who had been taken prisoners on some pretence. They were dragged along with us, and not being prisoners of war, their treatment was most inhumane, for their portion of the rations was even less than the benevolence of the rebels granted to us. After a short rest at Hagerstown, we were driven to Williamsport on the Potomac, Yes, driven, for if any one dropped behind either sick or tired, a stab with the bayonet, accompanied by an oath, would cause the unintentional straggler to master his weakness and move on. In the absence of rations we picked a few ears of wheat, which we found in a field adjoining our camp, to appease in a measure our hunger. The rebels had thrown out numerous pickets toward the east and at times we heard the muffled sound of a cannon shot, but our saviors failed to appear. Thus far the hope of being liberated accompanied us. Can it be said that this hope was a foolish one, when we saw the condition the rebel army was in? No.
They had suffered terrible
losses at Gettysburg and were now retreating pell-mell to the south side
of the Potomac to save themselves from further onslaught of the Union forces,
which they surely anticipated. Their cannon, their munitions wagons, their
provision trains, had sunk up to their axles into the loamy, marsh like
ground between Williamsport and the Potomac. The cavalry also experienced
the greatest difficulty in crossing the river. Could not these circumstances
have come to the knowledge of our commanding General, impelling him, consequently,
to strike a blow for the annihilation of the rebel host? But nothing of
the kind occurred and during the afternoon of July 8th, preparations were
made to send us over the Potomac, which two weeks before, we had crossed
at Edwards Ferry in such high spirits. It was at first said that we should
wade through a ford, but the rains had caused the river to rise; the flow
of the water was too rapid to attempt a crossing on foot, so we ferried
ourselves across on an old flat boat attached to a rope stretched across
the river and fastened to each shore.
Again on the soil of Virginia Not as victors, but as prisoners. Yearningly our eyes dwelt on the picturesque land we were to leave behind and a feeling of loneliness overcame us. The unmerciful call to "fall in" roused us from our dreams and escorted by the survivors of Pickett's Division, who told us that in no battle did they lose so many men, we stopped at Martinsburg over night and the next day rested at Winchester. Here a quantity of flour and raw meat was furnished, which we prepared in the same primitive manner I have before described. We passed through Winchester on July 12th. This happened to be on a Sunday. The aristocratic ladies and old gentlemen were seated on the balcony of their houses reviewing us with malignant joy. They made no remarks, but we could read in their mien the satisfaction it gave them to see so many captured Yankees. Outside of the city we came across the fortifications which General Milroy had thrown up, and from which he had recently been driven.
A few days later we reached
the Shenandoah Valley. The rainy season seemed to have set in, for it poured
incessantly for a whole week, turning small streams into rivers and making
marching on the muddy roads a most difficult task. We were now escorted
by a detachment of General Imboden's Cavalry, traveling from fifteen to
twenty miles each day. Our captors evidently were not over solicitous about
our health, did not care whether or not we would be afflicted with a rheumatism
or catch cold, since they permitted us to lie on the wet ground under the
canopy of heaven, and-probably to accustom us to the deluge to come, had
the clouds regale us nightly with a heavy shower. Although wet to the bone,
we were too tired to care much about it, and stoically we resumed our march
in the morning. The rations continued to be diminutive and inadequate.
Those possessed of money could buy blackberry pies. (which seemed to be
the staple article in the Shenandoah Valley, mostly sour as vinegar,) at
enormous prices from people living along the road. They allowed us three
Confederate Dollars for a One Dollar Greenback.
The next place we came to was Newton, where the rebel leader missed the right road and we were thus compelled to wade a stream, the bridge having been swept away. Then followed Middletown, Strasburg, Woodstock, Edinburgh, Mount Jackson, New Market, and Harrisonburg. All these towns and villages were nicely situated, but with the exception of Harrisonburg, looked old fashioned and disintegrated. The traces of the war were plainly visible. Many houses stood vacant and were falling to decay. There were signs to be seen on stores and factories, yet these were closed. The male. population consisted only of old men, boys, and crippled young men. The women and maidens were poorly clad, black being the predominating color of their dresses. Further we moved through a productive country, via Mount Crawford and Mount Sidney to the last station of our long and wearisome journey of nearly two hundred miles-Staunton.
Here the cars stood ready to take us aboard. When inside,
a rebel lieutenant ordered us to deliver up blankets, capes, great
coats, haversacks, and the like-things not every one possessed, yet invaluable
to those who were lucky enough to own them. Our protest fell on deaf ears.
Those who protested were roughly told to shut up and that the less they
said, the better it would be for them. The lieutenant expressed his regret
in relieving us of our effects, explaining that he obeyed solely the specific
instructions given him by General Imboden.
It was the evening of July 18th, just three weeks after our capture, that we arrived in Richmond. The cars ran right into the heart of the city and we alighted in one of the most populous streets, where hundreds of people, both white and black, brought there by curiosity, had assembled to witness our coming. We set out in double file and without molestation wended our way past the State House and through a street tenanted by the Jewish population. It being Saturday, their day of rest, they sat in front of their homes, the ladies richly dressed, surveying us in silence. Their thoughts we could only conjecture, but it was well known that the Jews then residing in Richmond were not looked upon as trustworthy Confederate patriots.
A march of about twenty minutes brought us to Cary Street, near the canal, where we halted outside of a large three story red brick building. What building is this, we asked? A small wooden sign displayed on the west corner of the house gave us the information. The inscription read:
"LIBBY & SON, SHIP CHANDLERS & GROCERS.” We filed in; the door closed behind us; we were in LIBBY PRISON.
Volume 4, Milwaukee, Burdick, Armitage & Allen, 1896. College of St. Thomas Library. E464 M599W V2