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The Prison Pens of the South:
Personal History of a Prisoner in the Hands of the Confederacy
By Robert Cooper
(Late of the Fifth New York)
Brooklyn, NY: Press of I W Chalmers, 270 Court Street
1896

This account was transcribed and donated by Jed Roman,
great-great nephew of Cooper.

In answer to their country’s call, three brothers left a pleasant home, and on February 8, 1862, enlisted in company D. Fifth Regiment, New York, heavy artillery, going into Camp Doubleday, just outside Brooklyn city limits.

We had not been in camp long before we found that our rations were being withheld by our quartermaster and he enriching his pockets; but he found himself toying with the wrong body of men.

The Colonel’s headquarters were about three miles off, but were soon found by a hungry set, and he, somewhat enraged, made quickly for camp, call us into line, saying, if we attempted the like again we should be severely punished, when on of the company shouted, with more fore than elegance, “It must be with a full belly.”

Our next move was to East New York, and in a few days orders came from Washington. Then followed our first experience in packing knapsacks, filling haversacks and canteens, and receiving of guns with sixty rounds of cartridge; then the march amide the waving of handkerchiefs, bidding good-byes to fathers, mothers, sisters, and brothers, and last, but sweetest, sweethearts.

As we were nearing the steamer orders were countermanded, and we were ordered to the different forts of New York harbor. Our company (Company D) took Fort Schuyler easily, with no casualties. The surroundings were beautiful, and our duties not very arduous—one drill ea c h day; but time sped on, and orders came for our removal to Baltimore.

Hearing of the reception given to the Sixth Massachusetts, just before, we began to feel that war was no laughing matter, but our march was uneventful. We took command of the different forts: McHenry, which is on the extreme point of land extending into the Chesapeake Bay (and near which the ever-loved song, the “Star Spangled Banner,” was composed), Forts Marshall, and Federal Hill, each on an eminence, and overshadowing the beautiful city of Baltimore. Our duty here for a time was light and monotonous until Lee and his host had entered Gettysburg, when we had to stay by our big guns night and day until we heard the glad news that the enemy had been defeated.

In November, 1863, it was our privilege and honor to be detailed by our lamented President, Abraham Lincoln, to accompany him to that sacred spot, Gettysburg, to dedicate it to the memory of so many noble lives, and to listen to that memorable address, viz.:

Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth in this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field as a final resting-place for those who here gave their lives, that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brace men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it far above our power to add or detract. The world will little note, or long remember, what we say here; but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us, the living, rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining here before us; to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion; that we here highly resolve that these dead shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, and for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

To return to our narrative: Time makes changes, and we are speeding by car for Harper’s Ferry, where they hung the unforgotten John Brown. It was about 9P.M. when we touched the ferry and ascended to Maryland Heights, which seemed like climbing to the clouds. Reaching our camping ground, with weary, aching bodies, we pitched our tents as best we could. It was our first experience, and it was midnight before we touched our earthen couches. Morning found us somewhat refreshed by a few hours’ sleep, and we arose to take the first lessons in preparing our meals, and we had before been in barracks and had our meals prepared for us. Breakfast over, we were ordered to place a number of heavy guns on the most commanding site overlooking the Ferry as Early and his host were expected down the Valley of the Shenandoah. Soon news reached us that General Franz Seigel had been defeated at New Market, and that many of his soldiers had retreated to the Ferry. General Grant now had command. He removed Seigel, and replaced him by David Hunter, who immediately ordered the first battalion of our regiment up the valley, and with a small allowance of provisions, so as to use all of the available forces for offensive operations not in guarding provision trains.

Foraging was our means of subsistence. This seemed terrible, but obedience is a soldier’s first duty, and we fell to in fine style. Day after day found us marching toward the enemy, destroying all kinds of mills and manufactories, until June 5, 1864, when, coming in sight of Piedmont, in the distance we could see breastworks and the “Johnnies” steadily coming forward to win or lose the day. We were quickly in combat, with shot and shell pouring in upon us like so many hailstones, with many dead and wounded, myself receiving a head wound and my younger brother’s knee-pan being shattered and torn to pieces, my older brother having the painful duty of carrying him to the rear.

Our forces routed the enemy and closely followed them, but unfortunately, left the wounded and their friends to be gobbled up by that horde of desperadoes, Mosely’s Guerrillas, who were in our rear.

Our stay at Piedmont was short; we were removed twelve miles distant to Staunton. After suffering untold agony for six days my brother’s leg was amputated above the knee. Tongue cannot tell the torture resulting from the wholesale butchering, harshness and ill-treatment suffered by our boys. It seemed the more torture the more happiness to the operators. We who could march were in a few days paroled, to be, as we supposed, sent into our lines, but those who had played traitor before thought it no harm to again deceive, and, instead of seeming relief in coming to our lines, we were marched a short distance, put on the train and hurried to Lynchburg. If we had fared rough before, it was no comparison to our first night in Lynchburg. We were placed in backyards of dwelling houses, with barely standing room enough to pass the night.

We were rejoiced to see the light of day, when each received hard-tack and a small piece of bacon. We were more dead than alive. We started off on a forced march of eighty five miles to Dansville, Va., being three days in making the march, and reached there July 4, about four o’clock in the afternoon, hungry, tire, and almost “played out.” Should e very other Fourth of July be forgotten, that one will ever be. Our minds went back to the many happy ones spent in the past. Our quarters were an old tobacco warehouse, and once inside we could not go within four feet of the windows. Our stay here was shore, and at each move we thought our surrounding might be bettered, but it was only in expectation. We were loaded into box cars, alike so many cattle or hogs, to the number of ninety.

As we were on our way, many were making the inquiry, and in fact it was quite general, “Where are we going? What kind of prison are the going to put us in?” Our guard soon had an answer for us, for instructions were sent along down the train from the commanding officer that our destination for a short time at least, would be within a few miles of Americus; that the prison grounds were pleasantly located, well shaded by Nature’s forest trees, and the fence, as they termed it, inclosing two slopes or hillsides, on the whole as pleasant a spot as the Confederacy afford, and too good for us Yanks anyway. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon of July 12, 1864, that our train came to a stop in a clearing of a pine forest. We had been all expectation for some time past, straining eager eyes to catch some glimpse of our stopping place. It was here before us, and, looking from our position upon the railroad toward the southeast corner of the clearing some three or four hundred feet, we could see a cloud of smoke curling up from a substantial looking pen. In reply to a question, we were told, “that’s where you Yanks will put up.” We hadn’t much time for thought before a little round-shouldered, blustering man rode up on a white horse, and, with most every word a curse, ordered us out. Then, with very little military style, he ordered us into four ranks, and, after much more swearing, ordered us to march. This was the notorious Wirz, our prison keeper, and, unhappily, our first introduction to him was not our last. We were marched to his headquarters, giving our names, regiment, company and rank, and then passed on to the enclosure, before entering which were formed into detachments of nineties and thirties. I have hesitated thus far to pronounce the name Andersonville. We knew nothing or heard nothing of the place, so we had not a moment’s notice of the life we were about to enter upon. These many years afterward the name Andersonville excites the same curiosity that it did before we entered upon the months of suffering that cannot be told. As the Queen of Sheba said to Solomon, ‘The half was never told.”

This, then, was Andersonville, or, as it was called by the guard, Camp Sumpter. We entered it by a swinging gate or door, heavily ironed and guarded.

As we passed within, the doors were closed behind us and barred—closed upon me for three and one half months, and upon many for life. Our hearts sickened and we looked upon the misery before our eyes, and an attempt to picture our mental depressions, as with quick glance we took in the condition of those who had entered before us would be futile. We joined inside this enclosure thirty-five thousand of our comrades, who had lately been in arms with us, but they were not to be recognized; they seemed a different race of human family, and tongue cannot describe them, emaciated in form, half human and half spectral, black with filth and smoke, and swarming with vermin. As we made our way into the stockade, like so many sheep they gathered around us to make inquiries from the outside world, and made them so fast it was impossible to answer. After coming to the northeast corer of the stockade for convenience in drawing our scanty allowance of rations, and for being counted and answering to our names, we were divided into detachments of 270 men each and each detachment was subdivided into sections of 90 men, with a noncommissioned officer over each. As to the detachment or squad I was in my memory fails me. The sun was pouring upon us its’ direct rays, which brought us to a knowledge of needing some kind of shelter, and to this end we began. My stock would have taken little time for inventory, consisting of an old knapsack, overcoat, a few choice photograph quart pail, canteen, and oilcloth blanket.

Four others with myself, whose stock was about like my own, hunted for a ridge pole, and although we were in the midst of a forest it was not our privilege to avail ourselves of its supply, and we were compelled to purchase ridgepole and upright. One of the four put his blanket with my oilcloth, and, to fasten them together, we were compelled to make pins of wood. We placed the ridgepole at the end of another shelter and then stretched our covering up to another, causing us to have but one end, and that open. As we lay with our head opposite to the other heads and our feet exposed, we looked around for a shovel, but none could be found. But, as necessity is the mother of invention, we found by looking around that by cutting a canteen into two we had something that answered the purpose very well, and scooped or made level what was to be our resting place. As we were very hungry, having but very little to eat on our way, we thought they would surely bring us something, but nothing came for supper, and so we took to our earthen couches to sleep and dream of the morrow. We had already heard what was to be our bill for fare for those who had learned it by experience. About the middle of the next afternoon our rations began to come in. They were loaded upon wagons drawn by two mules. Each wagon was accompanied by guards while being driven into the stockade, and distributing its load--- distributed to the detachment sergeants and to the squad sergeants in equal lots, and they again dividing it into about a pint for each man—sometimes fine meal, at other times ground cob and all. Before our arrival they had been giving them some bread and meat. It had been given to the sergeants of detachments and then to the squad sergeants, and it was impossible to divide it equally, however nice the judgment, as some part of the meat would be better than another and part would be bony—an item not to be overlooked by starving men. We were all numbered, and as soon as the rations were ready for delivery some one would turn his back and the sergeant would place his hand upon one of the rations, at the same time asking what number should have it, and the one whose back was turned being unable to see what particular rations was being call for, no one could complain.

After repairing to our couches, as we lay upon the ground, it was not to talk with our comrades, nor did any show a disposition to converse during this our first night in Andersonville. Our thoughts were to ourselves, individually trying to comprehend the situation, and to look into our future probabilities of life, or death. Tongue cannot express the feeling of my heart as I awoke to again cast my eyes on the vast body, who were once men. It required no prophetic power to convince us that they could never be men again!

Our prison enclosure contained forty six acres. The stockade was built of pine logs flattened on two sides, asset in the ground five feet, with fifteen feet above the ground, and set side by side so closely that no space was left between. Upon the outside of the stockade, and near the top, sentry boxes were placed at short intervals. Completely around the whole inside of the stockade, and sixteen feet from it, a slender railing was run, known as the dead-line, the sentries being ordered to shoot any person who set foot over it, or interfered with in any way. Large fires were built outside the stockade to light up the prison so that no movement of a secret nature could be made under cover of the darkness. The stockade enclosed two side hills, a brook, small and muddy, running through the valley, dividing the enclosure into nearly two equal halves. About three acres of this valley, most of it on one side of the brook, was a swamp and uninhabitable. The cook-house, used for cooking for the Confederates, stood upon this very brook, above and outside the stockade, so that all filth and dirt from it came floating down, polluting the water we had to drink and use for washing. The camps of our guards also were so located that all sewerage came down through our enclosure. In building the stockade every tree had been cut down, and although made within a growth of beautiful Southern trees, not one was left to shade us from the scorching Southern sun, or furnish us with material by which to build our own shelters, to say nothing of fire-wood for cooking purposes. Very often we were compelled to dig to the depth of ten feet or more for roots of the pine stumps within the enclosure. These were split, piled crosswise, and dried for cooking purpose. In preparing my pint of meal each day, so as to make it palatable, and with nothing but a quart cup, I boiled it into a thick gruel and drank it. Very man were obliged to lap it in the raw state-as the dog does-for want of any proper way of cooking. With this coarse raw meal and the dirty warm water, is it strange that so many Andersonville unfortunates died of diarrhea? Not until the close of our incarceration at Andersonville was any provision made toward carrying off the refuse and filth that accumulated through those long summer months. It cannot be described or imagined. Most of it collected in about the three acres of swamp, and I have seen that three acres one mass of maggots from one to two feet deep. The whole swamp moving and rolling like the waves of the ocean. If we had only had access to books or papers, the tie would not have seemed so long. A very few had Bibles, and these had been read by the owners or loaned to others so much that nothing remained of them to bring them away. The stockade contained thirty-five thousand—shall I say men? Nay, skeletons. As the heat of summer advanced our death rate grew rapidly, and it was nothing uncommon to carry out one hundred per day.  Of the many who were passing to their everlasting home some were my chums, and all this gave those who remained less hope of ever being released except by death.

We began to dig wells, as much for employment as anything else, but yet the main purpose was to procure better water. We used an old tin plate, or, as before, a split canteen for shoves, and an old haversack for a bucked to elevate the dirt. The soil was hard red clay, yet with our meager tools wells were dug over eighty feet deep. But the supply of water was small, only satisfying the wants of those who had the courage and pluck to dig them.

Another industry was that our digging tunnels, which required great outlay of labor and cunning to escape the notice our keeper Wirz. The work was principally done under cover of the night, yet where many might possibly have made their escape, we found that some of our own boys were playing the traitor by informing the tyrant Wirz. We first dug a hole about seven feet deep and wide enough for one man to turn about in, and then started horizontally toward the stockade. The hole was started near the dead line and under a covering, so that during the day it could be hid from view by blankets. Our winning operation was very simple and upon a small scale, but it took much ingenuity to keep it from the knowledge of the guard, who was not far distant from the scene of operation. The hole was only large enough for one man to dig at a time, and that upon his hands and knees. The operator would loosen the hard clay with a case knife, and place it in a haversack with his hands, and some one at the entrance would drag out the filled haversack with a rope made of rags, replacing it with an empty one by means of a slender pole which was spliced from time to time as a necessity required, and the tunnel proceeded. Perhaps the most hazardous part of the operation was to put the dirt where no suspicion of its source might be entertained, so it was carried and placed around the wells lately spoken of, which where near the centre of the stockade. These tunnels were dug so as to pass beyond the outside guard, which would be over eighty felt. After all, however, about the time the tunnels were finished, as we said before, a traitor in camp would inform the infernal Wirz, and all our labor would be lost. For this one false villain had his head shaved in the word Traitor indelibly pricked into his forehead.

The only authorized representative of the Christian religions from the outside world who had courage enough to visit the thirty-five thousand men in Andersonville was a Roman Catholic priest, who came in at least every Sabbath, talked very kindly and displayed much sympathy for our hopeless condition. He stated that strong efforts were being made to bring about an exchange, and upon such report many would for a time appear more lively, but only to again give up heart, many, alas, to be exchanged to another world.

The sentinels or guards at Andersonville were of the home kind, composed of boys from fourteen to sixteen years of age, and of older men unfit for more active duty in the field. It was rumored that a premium—a furlough of thirty days—was offered for each Yank shot by a sentinel while upon his post: his positive orders were to shoot any one who encroached upon the deal line and so well were the orders obeyed that hardly a day passed without some on being shot from a sentry box. As I said before, wood was a premium, and when a prisoner died it was our duty to carry him outside the stockade.

Four were thus permitted, and were given the privilege to take, as the rebels would say, what wood they could carry into the stockade, and so eager were they to get out that I have seen them fight over a comrade before he had breathed his last. There was a “sutler” within the stockade whose establishment contained a little flour, soda, salts, cream-tartar, pepper, sweet potatoes, onion, etc. The whole contents of the store could have been swallowed by ten of our hungry men in an hour. He charged on dollar a pint for salt, one dollar per quart for flour, ten cents each for very small onion, forty cents a pound for sweet potatoes, four dollars for tobacco, and everything in that proportion, save a very few Irish potatoes; they would sell for five cents each, and were advertised to be excellent for the scurvy, which existed to an alarming extent. The only living things that seemed to thrive in this pen or horrors were the flies an lice; they swarmed over everything, and were responsible for the maggots that kept the swamp a moving mass of corruption. To add to the horrors already enumerated, six of the prisoners had been tried by their comrades and found guilty of murder and of robbing their fellow prisoner, and, by consent of commanding General Winder were hung July 11,1864. As I said before, the dead were carried out and laid in a row each day, and the following morning were loaded in wagons like so many sticks of wood and carted to their last resting place. Long trenches were dug, into which were thrown like so many beasts, without eulogy or tears, without friends or relatives; it was indeed an awful spectacle in a modern age and a Christian land.

About the fifteenth of August, when Billy Sherman was moving towards Andersonville on his march from the sea, they began to hustle part of the prisoners to another stockade located in Milan, Ga. Our number was reduced to about seven thousand, and our hearts began to ache to think that we were not among the lucky ones, as we called them, who were taken. We felt that a change might help us, even if our quarters were not better. However, our lot was improved, as we had more space and fresher air. We were left in this condition until October 28, 1864, when we were removed to Milan. Our quarters and rations were the same as before and we remained there until election-day in the North. As between the Liberator, Abraham Lincoln, and his opponent, Gen. G.B McClellan, we thought we must do something to show our feelings and our strength, even if our votes were useless.  Our voting was done by straws, the long and the short, and the martyred Lincoln had two to one.

We were living a living death in enforced idleness, but outside all things were moving toward the great consummation. Sherman was marching on, and it was considered necessary to move us toward Savannah. Our quarters here were open field, and near the Savannah River. The bleak November winds coming from the river carried many to their last resting place. Eventually the Confederates began to parole the sick, or at least the very sick, and, who did not feign sickness? The only comrade left with me was paroled I was passed to remain. I thought my heart would break! Those who remained were in a few days consigned to Florence, S. C. Here our quarters were much the same but Jack Frost, an uninvited guest, prompted us to arrange for more suitable quarters, by digging a space six feet square by two deep which we covered with our old blankets. In this we passed a monotonous three months. Then we journeyed on to Wilmington. D.C. below which was Fort Fisher which the Union forces were endeavoring to capture. Our prayer was that they might be successful, so that we should again breathe the air of freedom. But, alas! Once more our hopes were blasted, and we were speeding on our way to Goldsboro. Our camp here was in pine grove, and our first duty, after detailing about one hundred, was go to the city and shell the corn out of which meal was made for our immediate use.

But the beginning of the end was at hand.  Within a few days our hearts rejoiced to hear the capture of Wilmington by our forces; and that where a few days before had floated the Stars and Bars the Stars and Stripes were now proudly waving.

Each stop in the many prison pens lessened our number, and there were but a few to listen to the glorious news of parole at midnight of February 25, 1865, and to hail with joy the sight of the grand old flag that many had not seen for months.

Our stay here was short. We took steamer and came to Annapolis, Md., on March 3, 1865. It was my happy lot to meet my beloved brother, from which I had been separated eight months. And who but for my voice would not have recognized me. After a loving embrace he said the first thing to do was to be weighed, and I tipped the scale at 87 pounds, whereas nine months before I had weighed 145 pounds.

When I first began this epistle I said three brothers left a happy home. Now I had to listen to the sad news that the one whose leg had been amputated had died. Gangrene had supervened, and my older brother had had the painful duty to bury him in Stanton, Va. To this day none of our people knows the spot where he is taking his rest.

March 9, 1865. I was taken sick with typhoid-pneumonia, and lay for some time at the point of death, but God out of his all wise providence otherwise ordered, and on April 22 I received a thirty days’ furlough to return to the home at which they had mourned for me as lost, as I had had no opportunity of reaching my people by mail during my long confinement.

Truly we are in a hand of trouble, for I had been at home only for a few days when the sad new was telegraphed that my older brother had ended all his earthly battles. Fever had swiftly done its work. I immediately returned to Annapolis before the expiration of my furlough. Words cannot express my feelings; indeed, they were worse than at any time during my long imprisonment.

The days wore slowly by until June 21, 1865, when I received my final discharge, to return home after a memorable experience of three years, four months and twelve days in the saddest and most sanguinary war of modern times.

The graves of the two brothers in the proceeding story are located as follows:
David Cooper, Co D, 5th New York Artillery, interred in Staunton National Cemetery, Staunton, Virginia; Grave 41, Section A; date of death, 27 July 1864.

William Copper , Co D, 5th New York Artillery, interred in Winchester National Cemetery, Winchester, Virginia; Grave 604, Section 17

And have been visited by James Copper Cox who is the grandson of James Fenimore Cooper, brother of author Robert Cooper

New York State Division of Military and Naval Affairs: Military History
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