Saturday, February 20, 2010

Civil War Adventures Of James B. Thompson

I am twenty-four years of age. My residence is Perrysville, Pennsylvania. I served two years as private and one year as first sergeant in company G, First Pennsylvania rifles. I was taken prisoner May 30, 1864, at the battle Bethesda Court House, Virginia. June 6, 1863, I was commissioned first lieutenant in company F, One hundred and ninetieth regiment Pennsylvania volunteer infantry, and the succeeding September of the same year I was commissioned a captain in same company and regiment. On the 1st day of June, 1864, I, in company with some hundreds of my fellow soldiers, reached Libby Prison, in Richmond, Virginia. June 9, 1864, we were put aboard the cars and started for Andersonville, Georgia, the great rendezvous for Union prisoners. At Columbia, South Carolina, 1, with two others, (Allen Dc Beck, Company G, First Pennsylvania rifles, and J. W. Hughes, Fifty-fifth Pennsylvania volunteer infantry, escaped front the train by jumping into a swamp. This was on the 13th of June.

After getting a safe distance from the railroad we consulted together as to the direction we should take to reach the Union lines. We decided to strike for Knoxville, Tennessee. After traveling about fifty miles we were recaptured and taken to Columbia by a squad of cavalry. After reaching the last-named city we were assigned quarters in the jail at that place. The lieutenant in charge of the prison searched us and took from us everything of value which they had not taken at Richmond. When we remonstrated with him against the injustice of such proceedings to prisoners of war he told us that we might be thankful if we escaped with our lives. He further told us that we were accused of tampering with the negroes and persuading them to run away; and that we would be tried by court-martial, and if found guilty we would be shot.

After keeping us in close confinement for a time, he at last put us out with the other prisoners. On or about the 30th of June, 1864, we were again put on the cars and started for Audersouville, Georgia. July 1, 1864, we reached Andersonville, the great charnel-house of the pretended confederacy. We were taken to Captain Wirz’s headquarters and searched. Any one in possession of a pocket-book or knife was soon released of it. After being searched I was accosted by an officer as follows: “Well, Yank, how are affairs in Virginia?” I told him that all was going in our favor; that Lee lost heavily in the battle of the Wilderness, and his army was not being recruited. “Well,” said he, “I know Grant lost a great many more men than old Bobby, and, besides that, you are losing men here a a rapid rate; we are killing more Yanks here, taking all things into consideration, than Lee is at the front; and before our government will acknowledge a nigger as good as a white man we will starve every Yankee in this prison. We have plenty of timber here, and will extend our stockade to the Flint River (seven miles) before we will exchange on the terms your government proposes.” These were his remarks, I believe, word for word.

Who can depict the horrors of that fearful place—Andersonvifle? My heart sank within me as I heard the ponderous gates of the prison creaking on their hinges, knowing that all hopes of an escape were now cut off. Such an abode of misery and suffering the world perhaps has never witnessed.

The stockade was built of pine logs twenty feet in length. These were planted in the ground six feet, leaving them fourteen feet above ground. About every fifty yards watch boxes were built above the top of the stockade, in which sentinels were posted, with orders to shoot any of the prisoners who ventured near the dead-line. The deadline was about fifteen feet from the stockade, and extended all around it. It was constructed by driving little posts into the ground and nailing strips on top of them. In a great many instances, however, the dead-line existed only in imagination, there being part of the prison (especially about the swamp) where there was no sign of a line of any description. The instructions to the guards as to the shooting of any who went beyond the limits were faithfully executed. In this in closure something over thirty thousand of our men were confined, without any provision being made for shelter from the inclemency of the weather or the intense heat of the sun, deprived of the necessaries of life, and exposed to all the variations of weather.

Though the prison was located in the midst of a pine forest, and wood was abundant, we were never allowed to have any to build quarters with. When I went there my comrade and I bought sonic little poles, with which we constructed a kind of shelter. We drove four little posts in the ground, and laid some sticks on them and covered it over with mud out of the swamp; this would do to keep the sun off in the middle of the day; when it rained (and that was often) the mud would soak off and leave us nothing but the frame. When it rained we always took what few clothes we had off and laid them away to keep dry. We also could get washed off with clean water (which was quite an item) at the same time.

The rebel authorities had their cook-house placed above us, on the small stream which ran through the prison, and the water always had a thick coat of grease on the surface. During the hot summer months of 1864 the mortality among the men was truly fearful; men could be seen in all the different stages of disease and starvation. The rations were of such a miserable quality that a man in good health could scarcely eat them, and for one who was sick it was an impossibility.

Comparatively few who took sick there ever recovered. Persons would get sick and could get no medicine or proper attention. They would not take them to the hospital until they were so far gone that very few lived. But the principal cause of the awful mortality was the insufficiency of food and cruel exposure to all kinds of weather, both of which could easily could have been remedied. There was no reason why we might not have had comfortable quarters; for, had the rebel authorities given permission, the men would have gladly availed themselves of the opportunity. A day’s rations was about two-thirds of a pint of corn meal, (unbolted about half the time,) a small piece of beef every other (lay, and which, in the summer, was always fly-blown. About every fifth day we got a small quantity of bacon of inferior quality. We also drew rice, sorghum molasses, and salt; but in such small quantities that they (lid not amount to anything. In lieu of the corn meal, we sometimes got mush. This was brought in in pine boxes, and tasted so much of the box that it was an impossibility to eat it. The wood we got was altogether insufficient for cooking purposes.

On September 10, 1864, we were moved from Andersonville to Savannah—Stoneman being out on a raid at the time is supposed to have caused this sudden “change of base.” We were kept at the latter-named place until October 12, 1864, when, the rebel authorities having completed the prison at Millen, we were taken there. At Savannah we received better treatment than was generally given us, which, we were given to understand, was due, in a great measure, to the humanity of the citizens, who increased our rations by the addition of vinegar and soap. All the time we were at Andersonville we never received a particle of soap. At Milieu, while the rebels were counting us off preparatory to putting us in the stockade, I again escaped by crawling into the brush, and lying still until dark. This was on the 12th October, 1864. Three others got off at the same time belonging, respectively, to the Fourth United States, Fifth Kentucky, and Sixth Michigan cavalry.

We traveled west, shaping oar course for Atlanta, Georgia, subsisting almost entirely upon food furnished us by the negroes. After being out seven days, we were recaptured and taken to Augusta, Georgia, where we were put in an old warehouse along with a lot of deserters from our own and the rebel army; there were also a few escaped prisoners like ourselves. There was a yard behind the prison in which we were allowed to stay during the (lay; adjoining it was a house occupied by a widow lady and her daughter; I got talking with this woman and found that she was loyal. She told me that if I would manage to get into her yard without being seen by the guards, she would conceal me until night, when I could make my escape from the city. Just before they closed the prison that evening, and when the guard had his back turned, a man by the name of James Coyle (of Twentieth Illinois volunteers) and I slipped across the fence and into her house. Fortunately we were not missed.

She hid us until about 11 o’clock that night, when, giving us a lot of biscuit and some matches, she took us out of the city about a mile. She then shook hands with us, and bid us God-speed. This was on the 21st October, 1864. We traveled altogether by night, subsisting on sweet potatoes and what we could obtain from the negroes, who were always ready to help us as far as lay in their power. After passing through innumerable dangers and hardships, we at last reached the city of Atlanta, Georgia. In regard to the treatment of the prisoners by the rebels, I firmly believe that the sufferings imposed by the rebel authorities upon that body of men was the result of a deliberate purpose on their part. No man, unless he has experienced the horrors of Andersonville and other prisons of the South, can have a correct idea of the miseries which were endured by the men who were so unfortunate as to fall into the enemy’s hands. The survivors of the prisons of Andersonville, Belle Isle, Salisbury, and others, demand that the stern hand of justice shall rest heavily upon those who shall be proven directly responsible for all the cruelties practiced at those places.
JAMES B. THOMPSON, Late Captain One Hundred and Ninetieth Pennsylvania Volunteers.


JANUARY 15, 1872.

For the relief of James B. Thompson, captain Company F, One hundred and ninetieth Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteers.

Whereas James B. Thompson, of Company F, First Pennsylvania Rifles, was captured at Bethesda Church, Virginia, on the thirtieth day of May, eighteen hundred and sixty-four, while engaged in battle, and in the line of his duty; and, Whereas the said James B. Thompson endured the horrors and privations of Andersonville and other Southern prisons, for a period of nearly seven months, making different attempts to escape, having been once run down and recaptured by the hounds, and finally escaped and reached the Union lines at Atlanta, Georgia, after traveling one whole month, entirely by night; and Whereas on the sixth day of June, eighteen hundred and sixty- four, the said James B. Thompson was commissioned a first lieutenant in Company F, One hundred and ninetieth Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteers, to fill an original vacancy, and was further commissioned on the nineteenth day of September, eighteen hundred and sixty-four, as captain in the same company anregiment, to fill an original vacancy, he being at the time of the issuing of both commissions absent as a prisoner of war in the hands of the enemy; and Whereas the failure of the said James B. Thompson to be mustered under the said commissions, was through no fault or neglect of his own, but owing to the fact of his being held as a prisoner of war: Therefore:

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That the proper disbursing officers of the United States be, and they are hereby, authorized and directed to pay to the said James B. Thompson, out of any moneys in the Treasury not otherwise appropriated, the full pay, emoluments, and allowances of a first lieutenant of infantry, in active service, from June sixth, eighteen hundred and sixty-four, to September nineteenth, eighteen hundred and sixty-four, and they are also authorized and directed to pay the said James B. Thompson the full pay, emoluments, and allowances of a captain of infantry from September nineteenth, eighteen hundred and sixty-four, to March first, eighteen hundred and sixty-five, inclusive.

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