Henry E. (Henry Elliot) Shepherd.

Narrative of prison life at Baltimore and Johnson's Island, Ohio online

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Formerly Superintendent of Public Instruction, Baltimore.

Author of " The Life of Robert E. Lee." " History of

the Englis^h Language," " Commentary upon

Tennyson's ' In Memoriam.' " etc.


Commercial Ptg. & Sta. Co.



3 WAS captured at Gettysburg on the
fifth day of July, 1863. A bullet had
passed through my right knee during
the fierce engagement on Gulp's Hill,
July 3rd, and I fell into the 'hands of the Fed-
eral Army.

By the 6th of July Lee had withdrawn from
Pennsylvania, and, despite the serious nature
of my wound, I was removed to the general
hospital, Frederick Gity, Md. Here for, at
least a month, I was under the charge of the
regular army surgeons, at whose hands I re-
ceived excellent and skillful treatment. For
this I have ever been grateful. I recall, also,
many kindnesses shown me by a number of
Catholic Sisters of Frederick, whose special
duty was the care of the sick and the wounded.
On the 14th of August I was taken to Bal-
timore. Upon arriving, I was forced to march
with a number of fellow prisoners from Gamden
Station to the office of the Provost Marshal,
then situated at the Gilmor House, directly
facing the Battle Monument. The weather
was intensely hot, and my limb was bleeding

from the still unhealed wound. After an ex-
hausting delay, I was finally removed in an
ambulance to the ''West Hospital" at the end
of Concord street, looking out upon Union
Dock and the wharves at that time occupied by
the Old Bay Line or Baltimore Steam Packet

The West Building was originally a ware-
house intended for the storage of cotton, now
transformed into a hospital by the Federal gov-
ernment. It had not a single element of adap-
tation for the purpose to which it was applied.

The immense structure was dark, gloomy,
without adequate ventilation, devoid of sani-
tary of hygienic appliances or conveniences, and
pervaded at all times by the pestilential exhala-
tions which arose from the neighboring docks.
During the seven weeks of my sojourn here, I
rarely tasted a glass of cold water, ibut drank,
in the broiling heat of the dog days, the warm,
impure draught that flowed from the hydrant
adjoining the ward in which I lay. ]\Iy food
was mush and molasses with hard bread, served
three times a day.

When I reached the West Building, I was
almost destitute of clothing, for such as I had
worn was nearly reduced to fragments, the sur-
geons having multilated it seriously while
treating my wound received at Gettysburg.

My friends made every effort to furnish me
with a fresh supply but without avail. The
articles of wearing apparel designed for me
were appropriated by the authorities in charge,
and the letter which accompanied them was
taken unread from my hands. Moreover, my
friends and relatives, of whom I had not a few in
Baltimore, were rigorously denied all access to
me ; if they endeavored to communicate with
me, their letters were intercepted ; and if they
strove to minister to my relief in any form, their
supplies were turned back at the gate of the
hospital, or confiscated to the use of the ward-
ens and nurses.

On one occasion a party of Baltimore ladies
who were anxious to contribute to the well
being of the Confederate prisoners in the West
Building, were driven from the sidewalk by a
volley of decayed eggs hurled at them by the
hospital guards. I was present when this in-
cident occurred, and hearing the uproar, limped
from my bunk to the window, just in time to
see the group of ladies assailed by the eggs
retreating up Concord street in order to escape
these missiles. They were soon out of range,
and their visit to the hospital was never re-
peated, at least during my sojourn within its

I remained in West Hospital until Septem-


ber 29th, 1863, at which date I was transferred
to Johnson's Island, Ohio, our route being by
the Northern Central Railway from Calvert
Station through Pittsburg to Sandusky, Ohio.
Our party consisted of about thirty-five Con-
federate officers, one of the number being Gen-
eral Isaac R. Trimble, the foremost soldier of
Maryland in the Confederate service, who was
in a state of almost absolute helplessness, a.
lim'b having been amputated above the knee
in consequence of a wound received at Gettys-
burg on the 2nd of July.

A word in reference to the methods of
treatment, medical and surgical, which pre-
vailed in West Hospital, may serve to illustrate
the immense advance in those spheres of sci-
ence, since the period I have in contemplation —
1863-64. Lister had only recentlv promulgated
his beneficent and far reaching discovery,
aseptics; and even the use of anaesthetics, which
had been known to the world for nearly fifteen
years, was awkward, crude and imperfect. The
surgeons of that time seemed to be timorous in
the application of their own agency, and the carni-
val of horrors which was revealed on more than
one occasion in the operating room, might have
engaged the loftiest power of tragic portrayal
displayed by the author of ''The Inferno." The
gangrene was cut from my wound, as a butcher


would cut a chop or a steak in the Lexington mar-
ket ; it may have been providential that I was
delivered from the anaesthetic blundering^ then
in vogue, and "recovered in spite of my physi-
cian." Consideration originating in sensibility, or
even in humanity, found no place in West Hospi-
tal. To illustrate concretely, a soldier, severely
wounded, was brought into the overcrowded ward
in which I lay. There was no bunk or resting
place at his disposal, but one of the stewards
recognizing the exigency, soon found a ghastly
remedy. "Why," he said, pointing to a dying
man in his cot, "that old fellow over there will
soon be dead, and as soon as he is gone, we'll put
this man in his bed." And so the living soldier
was at once consigned to the uncleansed berth
of his predecessor. Five years after the war had
passed into history, I met the physician who had
attended me, on a street car in South Baltimore.
He did not recognize me, as I had been trans-
formed from boyhood to manhood, since I en-
dured my seven weeks' torture from thirst and
hunger in the cavernous recesses of West Hos-
pital. Among the notable characters who visited
the sick and wounded, was Thomas Swann, asso-
ciated in more than one relation with the political
fortunes of Maryland. The object of his mission
was to prevail upon his nephew, then in the Con-
federate service, to forswear himself and become

a recreant to the cause of the South. His purpose
was accompHshed without apparent difficulty, or
delay in assuring- the contemplated result. Rev.
Dr. Backus, pastor of the First Presbyterian
Church, was another visitor whom I recall. Not
one of those who would gladly have ministered
to my needs, was ever allowed to cross the thres-
hold, or in any form to communicate with me.

The first of October, 1863, found me estab-,
lished in Block No. 11, at Johnson's Island, Ohio.
This, one of the most celebrated of the Federal
prisons, is situated about three miles from San-
dusky, near the mouth of its harbor, not remote
from the point at which Commodore Perry won
his famous victory during the second war with
England, September 10th, 1813. On every side,
Lake Erie and the harbor encompassed it effect-
ually. Nature had made it an ideal prison. There
was but a single hope of escape, and that was by
means of the dense ice which enveloped the island
during the greater part of the winter season. I
once saw 1,500 Federal soldiers march in perfect
security from Sandusky to Johnson's Island, a
distance of three miles, across the firmly frozen
harbor. This was in January, 1864. The area
of the island was estimated at eight acres; it is
now devoted to the peaceful purpose of grape

During the summer months, when the lake


was free from ice, a sloop of war lay constantly
off the Island, with her guns trained npon the
barracks. Yet, notwithstanding the seemingly
hopeless nature of the surroundings, there were
a few successful attempts to escape. I knew per-
sonally at least two of those who scaled the high
wall and made their way across the frozen har-
bor under cover of the friendly darkness. One
of these, Colonel Winston, of Daniel's N. C.
Brigade, during the fearful cold January, 1864,
covered his hands with pepper, and wearing a
pair of thick gloves, sprang over the wall, escaped
to Canada, and reached the Confederacy via
Nassau and Wilmington, N. C, running the block-
ade at the latter point. Another was Mr. S.
Cremmin, of Louisiana, for many years principal
of a male grammar school in Baltimore, who
died as recently as 1908. Mr. Cremmin reached
the South through Kentucky, cleverly represent-
ing himself as an ardent Union sympathizer.
Those who failed, as by far the greater number
did (for I can recall not more than three or four
successful attempts in all), were subjected to
the most degrading punishments in the form of
servile labor, scarcely adapted to the status of

This island prison was intended for the
confinement of Confederate officers only, of whom
there were nearly three thousand immured with-


in its walls during the period of my residence.
The greater part of these had been captured at
Gettysburg and Port Hudson, just at the date
of the suspension of the cartel of exchanges of
prisoners on the part of the Federal government,
July, 1863.

As it is the aim of this narrative to present
a simple statement of personal experiences, not
impressions or inferences deduced from the nar-
rative of others, every incident or episode de-
scribed is founded upon the individual or im-
mediate knowledge of the writer. I relate what I
saw and heard, not what I received upon testi-
mony, however accurate or trustworthy. My rec-
ord of the period that I passed at Johnson's Island
will be devoted to the consideration of several es-
sential points, each of them being illustrated by
one or more specific examples. To state them in
the simplest form, they are : The rations served to
the Confederate prisoners ; measures used to pro-
tect them from the extreme rigor of the climate
as to fuel and clothing ; their communication with
their friends in the South, by means of the mails
conveyed through the medium of the flag of truce
boats, via Richmond and Aiken's Landing; and
the treatment accorded them in sickness by the
physicians in charge of the hospital. These, I
believe, include the vital features involved in a
narrative of my experiences as a prisoner in Fed-


era! hands.

During the earher months of my Hfe on the
Island, a sutler's shop afforded extra supplies for
those who were fortunate enough to have control
of small amounts of United States currency,
This happier element, however, included but a
limited proportion of the three thousand, so that,
for the greater part, relentless and gnawing hun-
ger was the chronic and normal state. But even
this merciful tempering of the wind to the shorn
lambs of implacable appetite, was destined soon
to become a mere memory ; for suddenly and
without warning, the sutler and his mitigating
supplies passed away upon the ground of retalia-
tion for alleged cruelties inflicted upon Federal
prisoners in the hands of the Confederate gov-
ernment. Then began the grim and remorseless
struggle with starvation until I was released on
parole and sent South by way of Old Point dur-
ing the final stages of the siege of the Confederate

With the disappearance of the sutler's stores
and the exclusion of every form of food provided
by friends in the North or at the South, there
came the period of supreme suffering by all alike.
Boxes sent prisoners were seized, and their con-
tents appropriated. Thus began, and for six
months continued, a fierce and unresting conflict
to maintain life upon the minimum of rations fur-


nished from day to day by the Federal commis-
sariat. To subsist upon this or to die of gradual
starvation, was the inevitable alternative. To
illustrate the extreme lengths to which the ex-
clusion of supplies other than the official rations
was carried, an uncle of mine in North Carolina,
who represented the highest type of the ante-
bellum vSouthern planter, forwarded to me, by
flag of truce, a box of his finest hams, renowned
tJirough all the land for their sweetness and ex-.
cellence of flavor. The contents were appropri-
ated by the commandant of the Island, and the
empty box carefully delivered to me at my quart-
ers. The rations upon which life was maintained
for the latter months of my imprisonment were
distributed every day at noon, and were as fol-
lows: To each prisoner one-half loaf of hard
bread, and a piece of salt pork, in size not suffi-
cient for an ordinary meal. In taste the latter
was almost nauseating, but it was devoured be-
cause there was no choice other than to eat it,
or endure the tortures of prolonged stan/ation.
Stimulants such as tea and coffee were rigidly
interdicted. For months I did not taste either,
not even on the memorable first of January, 1864,
when the thermometer fell to 22 degrees below
zero, and my feet were frozen.

Vegetable food was almost unknown, and
as a natural result, death from such diseases as

scurvy, carried more than one Confederate to a
grave in the island cemetery just outside the
prison walls. I never shall forget the sense of
gratitude with which I secured, by some lucky
chance, a raw tuniip, and in an advanced stage
of physical exhaustion, eagerly devoured it, as
I supported myself by holding on to the steps of
my barrack. No language of which I am capable
is adequate to portray the agonies of immitigable
hunger. The rations which were distributed at
noon each day, were expected to sustain life un-
till the noon of the day following. During this
interval, many of us became so crazed by hunger
that the prescribed allowance of pork and bread
was devoured ravenously as soon as received.
Then followed an unbroken fast until the noon
of the day succeeding. For six or seven months I
subsisted upon one meal in 24 hours, and that was
composed of food so coarse and unpalatable as
to appeal onlv to a stomach which was eating out
its own life. So terrible at times were the pangs
of appetite, that some of the prisoners who were
fortunate. enough to secure the kindly services of
a rat-terrier, were glad to appropriate the animals
which were thus captured, cooking and eating
th^n to allay the fierce agony of unabating hun-
ger. Although I frequently saw the rats pur-
sued and caught, I never tasted their flesh when
cooked, for I was so painfully affected by nausea,


as to be rendered incapable of retaining the or-
dinary prison fare.

I had become so weakened by months of
torture from starvation that when I slept I
dreamed of luxurious banquets, while the saliva
poured from my lips in a continuous flow, until
my soldier shirt was saturated with the copious

The winters in the latitude of Johnson's Is-
land were doubly severe to men born and raised
in the Southern States. Moreover, the prisoners
possessed neither clothing nor blankets intended
for such weather as we experienced. During the
winter of 1863-64, I was confined in one room
with seventy other Confederates. The building
was not ceiled, but simply weather-boarded. It
afforded most inadequate protection against the
cold or snow, which at times beat in upon my
bunk with pitiless severity. The room was pro-
vided with one antiquated stove to preserve 70
men from intense sufiferinor when the thermometer
stood at fifteen and twenty degrees below zero.
The fuel given us was frequently insufficient, and
in our desperation, we burned every available
chair or box, and even parts of our bunks found
their way into the stove. During this time of
horrors, some of us maintained life by forming a
circle and dancing with the energy of dispair.
The sick and wounded in the prison hospital

had no especial provision made for their comfort.
They received the prescribed rations, and were
cared for in their helplessness, as in their dying
hours, by other prisoners detailed as nurses. To
this duty I was once assigned and ministered to
my comrades as faithfully as I w^as able from
the standpoint of youth and lack of training.

The mails from the South were received
only at long and agonizing intervals. I did not
hear a word from my home until at least four
months after my capture. The official regulations
prescribed 28 lines as the extreme limit allowed
for a letter forwarded to prisoners of war. When
some loving and devoted wife or mother exceeded
this limit, the letter was retained by the command-
ant, and the empty envelope, marked "from your
wife," "your mother," or "your child," was placed
in the hands of the prisoner. During my confine-
ment at Johnson's Island, I succeeded in com-
municating with ex-President Pierce, whom my
uncle, James C. Dobbin, of North Carolina, had
prominently supported in the political convention
which nominated Mr. Pierce at Baltimore in 1852.
Knowing this fact, and that my uncle had been
closely associated with Mr. Pierce as Secretary of
. the Navy, I addressed a letter to the former Presi-
dent, in the hope that he might exert some salu-
tary influence which would induce the authorities
to ameliorate our unhappy condition.


I received a most kind and cordial letter from
Mr. Pierce, who declared "You could not enter-
tain a more mistaken opinion than to suppose that
I have the slightest power for good with this gov-

Among the Confederate officers who were
imprisoned at Johnson's Island at different times
and during varying periods, were a number who
in latter years won fame and fortune in their
respective spheres, material or intellectual, pro-
fessional or commercial. Many of these I knew
personally, and I insert at this point the namies of
some with whom I came into immediate relation.
In this goodly company I recall General Archer,
of jMaryland ; General Edward Johnson, of Vir-
orinia; General Jeff, Thompson, of the Western
Army ; Col. Thomas S. Kenan, of North Carolina ;
General Isaac R. Trimble, of Maryland ; Col.
Robert Bingham, the head of the famous Bing-
ham School of North Carolina; General James
R. Herbert, of Baltimore ; Col. Henry Kyd Doug-
las, of Jackson's staff; Col. K. M. Murchison, of
North Carolina; Col. J. Wharton Green, owner
of the famous Tokay Vineyard, near Fayette-
ville. North Carolina; William Morton Brown, of
Virginia, Rockbridge Artillery; Captain B. R.
Smith, of North Carolina; Captain Joseph J.
Davis, of North Carolina; Lieutenant Adolphus
Cook, of Maryland; Lieutenant Houston, of

Pickett's Division; Captain Ravenel Macbeth, of
South CaroHna; Captain Matt. ^^lanly of North
CaroHna ; Lieut. Bartlett Spann, Alabama ; Lieut.
D. U. Barziza, of Texas; (Lieutenant Barziza
was named "Decimus et UUimus," as the "tenth
and last" of the Barziza children) ; Lieutenant
McKnew, of Maryland; Lieutenant Crown, of
Maryland; Lieut. A. McFadgen, of North Caro-
lina; Lieutenant McNulty, of Baltimore; Lieu-
tenants James Metz, Moore, George Whiting,
Nat. Smith, of North Carolina; Major Mayo,
Captain Hicks, Captain J. G. Kenan, of North
Carolina; Captain Peeler, of Florida; Colonel
Scales, of Mississippi ; Colonel Rankin, Colonel
Goodwin, Lieutenant-Colonel Ellis, Lieutenant-
Colonel ''Ham" Jones, all of North CaroHna;
Captain J. W. Grabill, of Virginia ; Captain Fos-
ter, of Mosby's Command ; Dr. Fabius Haywood
and Lieutenant Bond, from North Carolina ; Col-
onel Lock and Colonel Steadman, of Alabama;
Captain Foster, Captain Gillam, Adjutant Pow-
ell, of North Carolina; Lieutenants King and
Jackson, of Georgia.

Many of these whom I have named, are still
living, and this list may be indefinitely extended.
They will attest the essential accuracy of every
statement that this narrative contains.

A monument designed by Sir Moses Eze-
kiel, himself a Confederate veteran, and a former

cadet at the school of Stonewall Jackson, was
dedicated in 1908 to the memory of the Confed-
erate officers whose final resting place is near this
island prison by Lake Erie.

I regret that a rational regard for the con-
ditions of space renders impracticable a more
elaborate narrative of my life as a captive on the
narrow island which lies at the mouth of the Bay
of Sandusky. A mere enumeration of those with
whom I was brought into contact, representing
every Southern State from Maryland to Texas,
the Ogdens, Bonds, Kings, Manlys, Jacksons,
Lewises, Mitchells, Jenkines, Aliens, Winsors,
Crawfords, Bledsoes, Beltons, Fites, in addition
to those already named, forms a mighty cloud of
witnesses, a line stretching out almost to "the
crack of doom." A melancholy irony of fate
marked a large element of the very limited com-
pany who escaped by their own daring, who were
so fortunate as to secure release by exchange, or
by the influence or intercession of friends in
accord with the Federal government. I recall
among these. Colonel Boyd, Colonel Godwin,
Captain George Byran, who fell in the forefront
of the fray, charging a battery near Richmond
(1864), dying only a few moments ere it passed
into our hands ; and Colonel Brable who, at Spott-
sylvania, refused to surrender, and accepted death
as an alternative to be preferred to a renewal of

the tortures involved irx captivity. While life on
the island implied gradual starvation of the body
as an inevitable result of the methods which pre-
vailed, I found food for the intellect in devotion
to the books which had been supplied to me by
loving and gracious friends whose home was in
Delaware. There was no lack of cultured gentle-
men in our community, and in their goodly fellow-
ship I applied my decaying energies to the Latin
classics, Blackstone's Commentaries, Macaulay's
Essays ; and found my recreation in Victor Hugo,
whose 'Xes Miserables" had all the charm of
novelty, having recently issued from the press.
The poet-laureate of the prison was Major Mc-
Knight, whose pseudonym, ''Asa Hartz," had be-
come a household word, not with comrades alone,
but in all the States embraced within the Confed-
eracy. I reproduce "My Love and I," written
upon the island, and in my judgment, his happiest
venture into the charmed sphere of the Muses.

L "My Love reposes on a rosewood frame
(A 'bunk' have I).
A couch of feathery down fills up the same
(Mine's straw, cut dry).

2. "My Love her dinner takes in state,
And so do L
The richest viands flank her plate.

Coarse grub have L
Pure wines she sips at ease her thirst to

I pump my drink from Erie's limpid lake.

3. *'My Love has all the world at will to roam,

Three acres I.
She goes abroad or quiet sits at home,

So cannot I.
Bright angels watch around her couch at

A Yank, with loaded gun keeps me in sight.

4. "A thousand weary miles now stretch be-


My Love and I —
To her this wintry night, cold, calm, serene,

I waft a sigh —
And hope, with all my earnestness of soul.
Tomorrow's mail may bring me my parole.

5. "There's hope ahead: We'll one day meet

My Love and I —
We'll wipe away all tears of sorrow then ;

Her love-lit eye
Will all my troubles then beguile,
And keep this wayward Reb from 'John-
son's Isle.' "

So a gleam from the ideal world of poesy
fell upon the gloom of the prison which Mr.
Davis, in his message to the Confederate Con-
gress, December, 1863, described as "that chief
den of horrors, Johnson's Island."





Online LibraryHenry E. (Henry Elliot) ShepherdNarrative of prison life at Baltimore and Johnson's Island, Ohio → online text (page 1 of 1)