1864 March 19: Colonel Streight’s Account of Rebel Treatment of Union Prisoners

The following is from the March 19, 1864, issue of The Prescott Journal.

Rebel Treatment of Union Prisoners.

Col. STRAIGHT [sic: Streight],¹ who recently escaped from Libby Prison, has published a letter at the request of Mr. KELLOGG, of the House Military Committee, in regard to the treatment of Union prisoners by the rebels.  It fully confirms the statements of Col. HOBART [Harrison C. Hobart], and gives some additional details.  When in May, 1863, Col. STRAIGHT [sic] surrendered to FORREST [Nathan B. Forrest], it was expressly stipulated in writing, prior to the surrender, that his regiments should retain their colors ;  the officers their sidearms ;  and both officers and men their haversacks, knapsacks, blankets and all private property.  No soooner [sic], however, had they arrived at Atlanta than these terms were violated ;  the men were stripped of their blankets, knapsacks &c. ;  they were robbed of nearly all their money and most of their overcoats were taken.  The colors and side-arms were also taken.  The men were turned into an enclosure without shelter, destitute of blankets, overcoats, or any protection from the inclemency of the weather, for four days and nights while a cold storm prevailed.

Abel D. Streight, from the Library of Congress
Abel D. Streight, from the Library of Congress²

On arriving at Richmond their money was taken.  For a few days the officers were allowed to draw small sums of their money to purchase food.  This, however, was soon denied.  Subsequently the officers obtained permission to write home for money, food and clothing.  The food and clothing were generally delivered, but in no instance, within the knowledge of Col. STRAIGHT [sic], was the money handed over.  Col. S. very justly characterizes this detention of the money, after expressly agreeing to deliver, as “an act of perfidy that beggars all description.”  When he called the attention of the rebel authorities to the stipulations under which he surrendered, which he had in his possession, duly signed by the rebel General FORREST, Gen. WINDER [John H. Winder], the commandant of the prison, took them from him.

Col. STRAIGHT’S [sic] description of the rooms in Libby prison, their filth, and the misery endured there, corresponds with that given by Col. HOBART.  They suffered greatly during the winter from cold.  The condition of the privates on Belle Island is yet worse.  They have nothing to protect them from the weather.  Col. S. says:

All the prisoners are taken to Libby when they first arrive in Richmond, for the purpose of counting them and enrolling their names ;  consequently I had a fair chance to see their condition when they arrived.  Fully one half of the prisoners taken since May last were robbed by their captors of their shoes, and nearly all were robbed of their overcoats, blankets and haversacks.  At least one-third of them had been compelled to trade their pants and blouses for mere rags that would scharcely [sic] hide their nakedness.—Very many of them were entirely bareheaded, and not a few, as late as the middle of December, were brought in who had nothing on but a pair of old ragged pants and a shirt, being bareheaded, barefooted, and without a blouse, overcoat, or blanket.

I have seen hundreds of our men taken to the hospital thus clad, and in a dying condition.  I have frequently visited the hospital and have conversed with large numbers of dying men, brought there from the Island, who assured me that they had been compelled to lie out in the open air, without any medical attendance, though for several days they had been unable to walk.  Though destitute of anything like quarters, and nearly naked during the cold, stormy, and chilly fall season, the first and chief complaint of all those I saw and talked with was on account of an insufficient quantity of food.  I will here remark that in no instance have the rebel authorities furnished clothing or blankets to our men.  During the winter large numbers of our men were frozen.  I heard one of the rebel surgeons in charge say that there were over twenty of our men who would have to suffer amputation from the effects of the frost.  This was before the coldest weather had commenced.

Under Libby prison is a large cellar, with several cells partitioned off, some without windows.  Here in the midst of filth indescribable, in darkness, damp and hunger, some of our men are kept confined on one pretext and another, some from fear that they will attempt to escape, others for giving some imagined offence [sic] perhaps to some petty prison official.  Lieut. Reed,³ of the 3d Ohio volunteers, was thrown into one of these cells and kept there for forty-eight hours, without anything to eat or drink during the time.  He was not allowed any blankets nor his overcoat.  The weather was very damp and cold, and he, at that time, was suffering from a most severe wound in the hip.

Col. STREIGHT and Capt. REED4 of Ohio attempted to escape in December last.  For this he says :

We were taken back to the prison, put in irons, and thrown into one of these filthy holes called cells, where we were kept for three weeks on bread and water.  The weather was very cold during the time, and we nearly perished.  There was a large amount of filth in the cell which I could not induce them to remove nor could I get them to permit me to remove it.  I asked for paper, pen, and ink, to write to the rebel authorities.  I also asked for a box to sit on, of which there was a large number in the cells.  But everything was denied me.  At the time I was taken to the cell there were six of our men confined in one of these cells for attempting to escape.  They had been there for six days without blankets, and two of them were very sick.  They were released at the end of seven days of their confinement.

I might continue to enumerate instances of a similar character, but these will answer to give you an idea of what is daily taking place.  I cannot describe to you the loathsome filthiness of the cells.  They are infested with an innumerable number of rats and mice, and they have no mark of having been cleaned since they were first built.  It is needless for me to say that no man can survive long confinement in a place of this kind ;  and although I am acquainted with several persons who have been confined there, I do not know of one who can now be called a well man.”

Such is the chivalry of the men who are attempting to destroy this Union.  If it be urged in extenuation of their conduct that they have not the means to feed and protect their prisoners from the cold, so much the worse for them ;  so much greater the wrong and iniquity of their pretense to a separate nationality.  If they have not the means of feeding their prisoners they are violating every principle of justice and humanity in continuing a war which they are unable to conduct without disregarding every rule of honor and all the usages of war among civilized people.

1.  Abel Delos Streight (1828-1892) was a lumber merchant and publisher before the Civil War. He was appointed colonel of the 51st Indiana Infantry in December of 1861. Streight and his regiment saw very limited action during the first two years of their service. In 1863 (April 19-May 3), however, he led a notable raid—known as Streight’s Raid—into northern Alabama. This unsuccessful raid was coordinated with the more famous Grierson’s Raid. Streight’s Raid was poorly supplied and planned, and ended with the defeat and capture of Streight and his men by General Forrest. Streight was sent to Libby Prison. Eventually Streight was restored to active duty and placed in command of the 1st Brigade, 3rd Division, IV Corps, participating in the battles of Franklin and Nashville. He resigned in March of 1865 as a brevet brigadier general. Streight returned to Indianapolis were he served in the state senate, ran unsuccessfully for governor, and operated his publishing business until his death in 1892.
2.  This image of “Col. Abel D. Streight, 51st Ind. Inf. USA,” is from the Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division (cwpb 05652). We have slightly cropped the top of the image.
3.  Edwin Reid—or E. N. Reed—second lieutenant in Company I, 3rd Ohio Infantry.
4.  This is probably Benjamin C. G. Reed, captain of Company E, 3rd Ohio Infantry.

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