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1864 December 24: The Plight of Returned Union Prisoners

December 29, 2014

The following account of Union prisoners returning from liberated prisons comes from the December 24, 1864, issue of The Prescott Journal.  Although not credited in the newspaper, it was written by Lydia Parrish, a volunteer nurse who came from a small town near Philadelphia, and published in the Bulletin of the United States Sanitary Commission.  Her full account is recorded on the blog Civil War Women; not all of it was reprinted in the Journal.  We added the missing portions in parentheses and blue text.

Returned Prisoners at Annapolis. 

A new Bill of Fare—Federal versus Confederate Bread—Gratitude for the new Fare—Cheers for Uncle Sam—The Dead and Dying—The Insane—Vermin and Disease.

The awful scenes which are to be witnessed at the landing of our soldiers just released from rebel dens of wretchedness and torture are heart rending in the extreme.  We have before alluded to this subject, giving some incidents in illustration of the condition of our brave hearted soldiers after their long imprisonment, but there are some details of a soul harrowing nature yet to be given.  We find the following in correspondence to the Philadelphia Press :

(The steamer Constitution arrived this morning [December 1, 1864] with seven hundred and six men, one hundred and twenty-five of whom were sent immediately to hospitals, being too ill to enjoy more than the sight of their ‘promised land.’ Many indeed, were in a dying condition. Some had died a short time before the arrival of the boat.

(Those who were able, proceeded to the high ground above the landing, and after being divided into battalions, each was conducted in turn to the Government store-house, under charge of Captain Davis, who furnished each man with a new suit of clothes and recorded his name, regiment and company. They then passed out to another building nearby, where warm water, soap, towels, brushes and combs awaited them.

(After their ablutions [baths], they returned to the open space in front of the building, to look around and enjoy the realities of their new life. Here they were furnished with paper, envelopes, sharpened pencils, hymn-books and tracts from the Sanitary Commission, and sat down to communicate the glad news of their freedom to friends at home.

(In about two hours, most of the men who were able had sealed their letters and deposited them in a large mail bag which was furnished, and they were soon sent on their way to hundreds of anxious kindred and friends.)


(Captain Davis very kindly invited me to accompany him to another building, to witness the administration of the food.)  Several cauldron containing nice coffee, piles of new white bread, and stands with meat met the eye.  Three dealers were in attendance also.  The first gave to each soldier a loaf of bread, the second a slice of boiled pork, the third, dipping the new tin cup from the hand of each into the coffee cauldron, dealt out hot coffee ;  and how it was all received I am unable to describe.  The feeble ones reached out their emaciated hands to receive it, and took it gladly, though scarcely able to carry it all, and with brightening faces and grateful expressions went on their way.  The stouter ones of the party, however, must have their jokes, and such expressions as the following passed among them freely :  “No stockade about this bread.”  “This is no Confederate dodge,” etc.  One fellow, whose skin was nearly black from exposure, said, “that’s more bread than I’ve seen for two months.”  Another, “that settles a man’s plate.”  A bright eyed boy of eighteen, whose young spirited had not been completely crushed out in rebeldom, could not refrain from a hurrah, and cried out, “Hurrah for Uncle Sam, hurrah !  No Confederacy about this bread.” One poor feeble fellow almost too faint to hold his loaded plate, mutter out, “Why, this looks as if we were going to live.  Why, there’s no grains of corn for a man to swallow whole in his loaf,” and thus the words of cheer and hope came from almost every tongue as they received their ration and went away from the window, each with his thank you, thank you ;  (and sat down upon the ground, which forcibly reminded me of the Scripture account where the multitude sat down in companies, “and did eat and were filled.”) and as they received it all, each his share, they sat down on the ground and enjoyed it.


(Ambulances came afterwards to take those who were unable to walk to Camp Parole, which is two miles distant.) One poor man of about fifty years of age was making his way behind all the rest to reach the ambulance.  He thought it would leave him, and, panting, cried out, with a most anxious and pitiful expression of countenance, “Oh, wait for me !”  I think I shall never forget his look of distress.  When he reached the ambulance he was too feeble to step in, but Capt. Davis and Rev. J. A. Whittaker, Sanitary Commission Agent here, assisted him till he was placed by the side of his companions, who were not in much better condition than himself.  When he was seated he was so thankful that he wept like a child, and those who stood by him could do no less.  Soldiers, brave soldiers, officers and all, were moved to tears.  That must be sad discipline which not only wastes the manly form till the sign of humanity is nearly obliterated, but breaks the manly spirit, and makes it as tender as a child’s.


The dead and dying are carried off the steamer first, and the battalions arranged as before.  I could narrate many tales of sadness and woe, for I know that underneath the emaciated forms, that are borne on stretchers to the hospitals, and those with a little more life, who are slowly, foot by foot, making their way to the space near the barracks, there are crushed spirits and bruised hearts that only await the time and occasion for utterance more at length than they have already poured out to me ;  but, for the slightest attention they receive, they pass on with “God bless you, ” “Oh thank you,” “How kind,” &c.


In a short time another boat load drew near, and oh ! such a scene of suffering humanity my eyes never desire to behold again.  The whole deck was a bed of straw for our exhausted, starved, emaciated, dying fellow creatures.  Of the five hundred and fifty that left Savannah, the surgeon informed me not over two hundred would survive ;  fifty had died on the passage ;  three died though the boat was coming to the land of the liberty.  I saw five men dying as they were carried on stretchers from the boat to the naval hospital.  The stretcher-bearers were ordered by Surgeon D. Vanderkeif, to pause a moment that the names of the dying men might be obtained.  To the credit of the officers and their assistants it should be known that everything was done in the most systematic and careful manner.  Each stretcher had four attendants who stood in line and came up promptly, one after the other, to receive the sufferer as he was carried by two men off the boat.  There was no confusion, no noise ;  all acted with perfect military order.  Ah ! it was a solemn funeral service to many a brave soldier that was thus being performed by kind hearts and hands.


Some had become insane ;  their wild gaze and clenched teeth convinced the observer that their reason had died.  Others were idiotic.  A few were lying in spasms ;  perhaps the realization of the hope long cherished, yet oft deferred, or the welcome sound of the music sent forth by the military band, was more than their exhausted nature could bear.  When blankets were thrown over them, no one would have supposed that a human form lay beneath, save for the small prominence which the bony head and feet indicated.  Oh, God of justice, what retribution awaits the perpetrators of such slow and awful murder ?


The hair of some was matted together, and, like beasts of the stall, they had lain in their own filth, vermin running over them in abundance.  Nearly every man was darkened by scurvy, or black with patches or scales, and  with scorbutic sores.  One in particular was reduced to the merest skeleton ;  his face, neck and feet covered with thick, green mould.  A number who had Government clothes given them on the boat were too feeble to put them on, and were carried ashore partially dressed, hugging their clothing, with a death-grasp that they could not be persuaded to yield.  It was not unfrequent to hear a man feebly call, as he was laid on a stretcher, “Don’t take my clothes ;”  “Oh save my new shoes ;”  “Don’t let my new socks go back to Andersonville.”  In their wild death-struggle, with bony arms and hands extended, they would hold up their new socks, that could not be put on because of their swollen limbs, saying, “Save ’em till I get home.”  In a little while, however, the soul was released from its worn-out frame, and borne to that higher home where all things are registered for a great day of account.

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