After enduring a rudimentary death march, Bill Stevens stepped “beneath the starry flag” waving above a prisoner-exchange ship at City Point, Va., and there he did “breathe the air again, of the free land in our own beloved home,” as versed in the song “Tramp, Tramp, Tramp, the Boys are Marching.”
A Portland resident, William E. Stevens joined the 5th Maine Infantry Regiment in February 1862 and soon became a first lieutenant in Co. B. The regiment collided with Confederate troops at Salem Church, Va. on Sunday, May 3, 1863.
Stevens vanished in the chaos.
He turned up the next day as a prisoner-of-war en route to Richmond.
“The treatment we received as prisoners of war, so far as the rebel officers were concerned, with one exception, was most villainous,” Stevens recalled in a letter written a few weeks later.
During the Civil War, the captor often established a pecking (and picking) order concerning the captive. Enlisted prisoners might receive rougher treatment than captured “shoulder straps” (officers), and for ill-clad and -equipped Southern troops, a few hundred frightened Billy Yanks represented a bonanza.
To a Johnny Reb hugging a ragged blanket to his scrawny body while marching barefoot in snow and cold, relieving a captured Yankee of his blue greatcoat and beat-up brogans made sense. And if a Johnny captured a Union cavalryman, the Yank would often surrender his cavalry boots and walk on his stockinged feet into captivity.
After surrendering at Salem Church, Stevens realized that “the private [Confederate] soldiers, especially of [Brig. Gen. Cadmus] Wilcox’s Ala. Brigade, did everything in their power to alleviate our condition. They would share their scant rations with us.”
As the Union prisoners marched away from the battlefield, however, Southern officers swept in like vultures onto a twitching corpse. “By the rebel officers we were divested of blankets, canteens, knapsacks, [and] belts,” Stevens complained. Enemy officers “compelled” the prisoners “to sleep out in the rain and cold.”
Themselves confined to short rations, the guards issued to the prisoners “a cupful of flour and a small piece of rotten bacon … per day until we reached Richmond.” As the weary prisoners trudged through the Richmond streets, Stevens noticed that “the populace turned out to see us.
“The women stared and grinned, the home guards insulted us without stint,” he said. “One would think the people of Richmond never saw a ‘Yank’ before.”
Guards herded captured officers into the notorious Libby Prison, enlisted men onto the pestilential Belle Isle Prison in the James River. At Libby, Stevens and his comrades received “soft bread and bacon, but only half rations.” The prisoners could “buy eggs at $2.00 per dozen and potatoes $4.00 per bushel,” possibly purchased with Yankee greenbacks.
Unlike so many Union boys captured in future battles, Stevens spent a relative few weeks as a guest of Jefferson Davis. An official “cartel” established on Wednesday, July 22, 1862 had created a prisoner exchange system; by signing a parole, a captured Yankee, for example, promised not take up arms again until he was “exchanged” for a captured Confederate prisoner of equal rank.
And paroling a high-ranking officer gained freedom for multiple prisoners; the going rate for one colonel was 15 privates.
Bill Stevens was a lowly lieutenant; many Confederate lieutenants languished in Union prisons, so on Monday, May 18, he signed a parole paper.
Six days later (a typesetter evidently substituted “the 14th” when he meant May 24th) “2,000 men and 90 officers left the precincts of Libby Prison with glad hearts” and walked 32 miles “to City Point, via Petersburg.” There the prisoners would board a steamer bound for Camp Parole in Annapolis, Md.
But terrible tragedies occurred during that march, described by Stevens as “the hardest I had ever experienced. A number [of prisoners] died on the road from the effect of it. It was especially severe on the cavalry men” accustomed to riding, not marching.
He did not reveal how many Union prisoners died or what killed them; malnutrition, thirst, and sunstroke likely felled some men, but Stevens’ next comments suggested a human element in at least a few deaths.
His anger boiled as Stevens recalled that “the conduct of the rebel officers in charge was most brutal,” and “the people of Petersburg were even more abusive than those at Richmond.
“A harvest of vengeance will yet be gathered in these two cities; and the officers of the 31st Va. battalion will have cause to regret their inhuman treatment” of Yankees shuffling toward the City Point docks.
“Great oaths of vengeance have been registered against them,” Stevens promised. “It is doubtful if there is one officer in the squad that left Richmond on the 14th (24th) for City Point, who does not feel burning in his heart a desire to reciprocate rebel favors.”
He did not elaborate on the perceived “inhuman” brutality.
Stevens admitted that “speaking for myself, one short sojourn in Dixie has added much to my hatred and disgust of rebels and rebeldom, and taught me the better to appreciate our own glorious Government and its starry emblem.
“My confidence, too, in our final triumph is greater than ever,” Stevens stated before closing his letter a few paragraphs later.
As he shook sand on the letter to dry its ink, did Stevens realize his close call? If he had attempted to sign his parole only one to two weeks later, he would still list Libby Prison as his home away from home.
The federal government suspended the prisoner exchange program before May 1863 passed into history.
Brian Swartz is the BDN special sections editor. He can be reached at email@example.com or visit his blog at http:maineatwar.bangordailynews.com.