By Jeannette Holland Austin
Issue No. 4             January 2003
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Prison Life during the War Between the States

Much has been written on the horrors of prison life at Andersonville, where yankee soldiers literally starved to death. Since the war, a series of stores were recanted to reporters of The Constitution, a newspaper published in Atlanta during the late 1800's. They are all grim. Confederate prisoners also complained starvation, disease, unsanitary conditions, and the like. Here is a tale told by a Confederate captain of his brave escape from a yankee prison.

Woodruff Captain of the First Alabama regiment, told the story of his escape from Johnson's Island.

"Johnson's Island is in Lake Erie, some two or three miles off the city of Sandusky. It is a low, sandy island with little patches of scrubby timber, and a few well mounted guns could command its entire extent. For its security from attack it was happily chosen, the only possible danger being from a naval attack from the Canadian side. It was pleasant enough in the summer, but the cold winds had a fair sweep at it in the winter and made it as bleak as the shores of Greenland, and with our loose jointed, board quarters, scant fuel, and still scantier clothing, we had a hard time to keep from freezing. Many a night have I, with my comrades, had to trot around the room in a circle to keep from actual freezing. The horrors of Lieutenant Greely's arctic expedition may be more tragic, but they could not exceed the winter, however, we endured in slow, unceasing torture---both of hunger and cold.

I was captured at Island No. 10 in the Mississippi river, and spent the summer and winter there, but the dread of the next winter was so great on my mind that I resolved to escape or lose my life in the attempt. I had much rather have died than endure another winter in that prison.

Boats came over every day from Sandusky and with this fatigue parties, with scavenger carts to clean up the quarters. The idea occurred to me that if I could get a uniform and fall in with one of the parties I could get out, and acting upon this I went to work to get a blue blouse and trousers. I had a few dollars in silver and found no trouble in prevailing upon a jolly good natured Irish teamster to let me have a cast off suit of his. Carefully concealing my treasure, I waited a few weeks for any opportunity, and when it came I seized a spade and fell into line, as strapping a yank as any of them. Loading up the carts, I mounted one and drove out as cooly as if I had been born John. No one noticed or interferred, and I drove on the boat with the rest and was ferried over the city. As soon as I landed I requested one of my new comrades to drive for me until I could stop at a shop to get some tobacco.

It took me some little time to get that tobacco, and when I stepped on the street the carts were all gone and I was alone. Yes, alone, there in that city I felt as much alone as if I had stood in the centre of Sahara. I had no time, however, to moralize upon my solitude and dodging into the blindest alleys I could find, I made tracks for the country. It was in October and the l eaes were crimson with the autumn dyes and still thick enough upon the little patches of wood land to afford a covert should I wish to hide. And some how a fear came to me that there would be danger in traveling by day, and as there was a splended moon at night, I did make for a woody covert, and hid myself until night. I had spent all the little money I had except a dollar in silver quarters, and when night came I began to feel hungry. I was afraid to show myself, however, and trudge on all that night, passing through two considerable towns without interruption.

At daylight I hid again, taking shelter under a shock of corn in a field. Shocking an ear of corn I made my breakfast and then slept soundly until sundown, when peering cautiously out I found the coast clear, and stripping another ear of the corn I commenced my supper and my tramp at the same time. I made a good trip that night, walking at least thirty miles, feeling my heart growing lighter at each step that widened the distance between me and the prison. My stomach, however, began to crave a more substantial food than the raw corn, and I was too hungry to sleep.

I took refuge in a little clump of enclosed wood, and from it I noticed a farm house near by. The household seemed to consist of a man and his wife, with a half dozen little shock-headed urchins. I watched the man hitch up his wagon, and loading it from a bin of potatoes, he drove off. I was desperately hungry, and resolved to make a venture for my breakfast. I waited until the man was well away, and then I walked boldly up to the gate and hailed. The lady came to the door, and I stepped in, confronting her with as bold a face as possible. I thought it best to tell the truth, so I told her that I was an escaped prisoner from Johnson's island, and that I was starving for something to eat." The lady felt sorry for him, and fed him breakfast. Ref: The Constitution, Atlanta 1/15/1886

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