Memories Of Civil War Prisons


June 16, 1991|By Carleton Jones

By 1916, John R. King, a carpenter native to Roanoke, W.Va., was 73, long of beard, white of hair, but copious in memory.

In February of that year he put the last lines on a Civil War memoir that sheds light on major Northern prison camps, including New York's Elmira and Maryland's Point Lookout. The latter was a giant camp that housed thousands of Confederate soldiers at land's end in St. Mary's County.

King's story is not pretty.

In 1864 he spent a few months at Point Lookout, where Union forces guarded up to 17,000 prisoners at any one time. In May 1862, he had fled his home in northern West Virginia with his older brother, Cyrus, to escape advancing Northern troops. At the age of 21, he joined Dixie's army.

He was with Lee's forces at Gettysburg but was captured in 1864 during the Wilderness Campaign and marched off to Point Lookout. He entered the tent city compound on May 20, 1864.

Point Lookout was a narrow peninsula that included a beach and swimming area used by prisoners. Piles driven in the water indicated a "dead line." "It was very dangerous to swim beyond this dead line. Many had been shot and not a few killed for very trifling offenses," King wrote.

Sometimes he would try to vary the camp diet of tainted pork and beef stews by diving in the swimming area for oysters. "I sometimes went to the bottom where the water was ten feet deep and found a few oysters to eat but they were poor and tough in the summertime."

The camp's latrines were built out over water accessible by passageways, King wrote. For sport the prison guards would fire at the wooden latrines. One guard, angered in an argument over a pocket watch, shot three men, two of whom died. Packages would arrive from relatives for prisoners already dead. The contents were duly passed out to the living.

In midsummer of 1864 King was shipped to Elmira camp when he refused to take the loyalty oath. (If you were loyal you could join the prisoner exchange and go home).

The regular menu in his New York camp, he said, was worse than that at Point Lookout. "Many men would cry for something to eat. As the spring passed, the number in our wards decreased. At roll call there was no answer to nearly a third of the names." There was one happy difference from Point Lookout, he noted. If your family lived in occupied Union territory, they were allowed to send packages.

King finally took the oath after the Confederacy collapsed and was set free with a two-day food ration. He had 10 cents in cash, LTC which he traded for a pair of pants made out of a blanket. Free rail travel home was provided for tens of thousands of the veterans.

In Baltimore he and his fellow soldiers got fresh, pungent onions from a garden by the side of their homebound train. Several women saw King crying in the Camden Street station as he munched the onions. They rushed over in high sympathy and one said, "Poor fellow, he looks pitiful."

John King's Civil War ended after he walked from Grafton railhead to Buckhannon, W.Va. (about 50 miles), and on to his family farm near Hyer's Mill. "I will not try to tell about our happy reunion. There will never be another so happy until we shall meet up there where God will never let us part."

"Brother Cyrus is sitting in front of me as I write. I have a beautiful home, children and grandchildren who are tall big men. In a few weeks I will be seventy four and am hale and hearty and I thank our good master for it all," he wrote at the end of his

chronicle. *

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