M. V. Riley recounts his experiences while confined to Rebel Prisons

The horrors and tortures of Richmond, Danville and Andersonville

(Martin Van Buren Riley was born in 1839 in Maryland. Martin grew up in Pennsylvania and Illinois. He was living at Fountain Green, Illinois at the time of his enlistment in the Fifty-First Illinois. He died in Keokuk, Iowa in 1909. This memoir of prison life appeared in a Keokuk newspaper and is on file at the Andersonville National Historic Site.)

I enlisted in Company K of the Fifty-First Illinois infantry at Chicago, December 1861, under Colonel Cummings who was afterward succeeded by Colonel Bradley. From Chicago we went to Cairo and joined the command of General Pope; then to Island No. 10. There we captured about 4,000 prisoners; then we boarded transports and went as far south as Fort Pillow, where we received orders to return to Corinth, Miss. We expected to have a battle there with General Beauregard, but he gave us the slip by evacuating that stronghold. We then pushed on to Decatur, Ala., remained there only a short time and then took up our march under General Palmer, subsequently governor of Illinois, to Nashville, Tenn., and joined Sheridan’s division. During this time we were for five weeks cut off from communication with the north and forced to forage the country for provisions.

The battle of Stone River was the next event of importance in which I was engaged. There we had a hard fought battle with General Bragg and one of the most important of the war. My regiment lost heavily in this engagement. I was placed on the role of honor by General Rosecrans for bravery in that bloody battle. Sometime, in June, 1863, we left camp at Murfreesboro and followed Bragg to the Tennessee River: went into camp at Bridgeport, remained there until Rosecrans could get his army into shape, then we crossed the river, pursuing Bragg until we overtook his army at Chickamauga, where on September 19 and 20, the famous battle of that name occurred, at which time my regiment lost 62 per cent and I was taken prisoner. On Monday, the 21st, I was detailed with a squad of men to convey some of the wounded soldiers to Chattanooga as the army was retreating to that place. While crossing a field, we met a rebel soldier marching along with his gun; he said he was going to the rear but I put him under arrest and took his gun; in 20 minutes we were overtaken by the rebel cavalry and carried off as prisoners, and the same prisoner I had been guarding took his gun, also my gun and was placed as guard over me.

We were taken back over the same battlefield on which we had fought the Saturday and Sunday previous, and a fearful sight met my view. Many of the soldiers that had been wounded or shot were still lying there in their terrible suffering without any attention having been given them. Their agony was beyond description. We were halted on the field and I was selected out and taken to General Breckenridge’s headquarters which were under a big oak tree and questioned as to the position, strength and equipment of the Union forces. I gave him very little satisfaction. I was then marched with about two hundred Union prisoners to a station near Dalton, GA., where we were placed in box cars and landed in Atlanta the next day. We were taken to the slave pen, they called, it, and remained all day and night there; then were loaded in box cars again and sent on our way to Richmond, Va., the capitol of the Southern Confederacy.

I could relate many incidents which occurred during that trip. We were seven days on the road. One day while stopping at Weldon, a rebel lieutenant taking a fancy to my hat offered me $25 and bushel of sweet potatoes for it. I accepted the offer but on finding out that $20 in Confederate money was only equal to $1 in greenbacks, I concluded by bargain was not so good as I had thought it to be. On our arrival there were taken to an old tobacco house which was known as the Pemberton Building. I soon realized after entering that filthy, dirty place that I was certainly a prisoner of war. Everything of value was taken from us with the promise that it would be returned when released. I only had $10 which I surrendered, but it is needless to say it was never returned. Our treatment here was anything but good, they did not give us enough to eat and what we did get was very poor quality. Our bill of fare nearly every day was bean soup which consisted of a few Negro beans, with considerable James River water mixed with them, and a piece of corn bread. You see their prisoners were fed on very thin rations. I saw some of the prisoners kill a dog in that prison one day and eat it. As there was not enough to go around I did not get any.

Many strange things happened in that old Pemberton Building during the two months that I was held prisoner there. The Richmond papers having stated that the stench from the prisons was endangering the health of the city; and that it would be well to remove these “Lincoln Hirelings to where scant food and cold weather would reduce them according to the laws of nature,” we in consequence of this were sent to Danville prison, where we arrived about the 10th of December. I found Edwards, a soldier out of my company there. He had been sent there a few days before and on the way from Richmond to Danville, he with others made their escape by uncoupling the car as it was ascending an up-grade; as the car ran back they jumped off and ran through the timber with the guards shooting at them. There were about sixty in the car; some made their escape to our lines, while others were captured. Edwards and Wheeler of the Second Illinois were together and traveled about three days before being caught. Some citizens who saw them in a persimmon tree captured and took them back to Danville, then whey were bucked and gagged by the prison authorities. I took up my quarters with Edwards and Wheeler and we spent the winter together in Danville prison. Our suffering was intense that cold winter, stationed to an old tobacco house which had been converted into a prison, without any fire and very little covering of any kind to keep us warm. I did not have even a blanket for myself, but they did and shared it with me. In January, the smallpox broke out in the building we were in and many of the soldiers were taken down with that dreaded disease; some were taken to the pest house but a great number died in the building with us, and many of them lie buried there. You have no idea of the suffering the poor prisoners had from hunger and the severe cold weather. We would form in line in the room and walk for hours, that is, those that were able, for many were lying there too sick to exercise, so had to endure the cold. I was quite fortunate as I had been vaccinated in prison at Richmond which prevented me from taking the disease. The rations we received here consisted of a piece of corn bread and a very small piece of meat and sometimes bean soup. We became very much reduced in flesh and those in authority had no sympathy for us.

One night some of the prisoners made their escape by climbing over the high board fence and going down to the cook room and getting buckets, passed the guard, he thinking they were employed in the cook room. One poor fellow fell from the fence into a large kettle of hot water and it cooked his feet and limbs so badly that his shoes had to be cut off of his feet. This put a stop to any more trying to escape the same way. When I think of the treatment we received at Danville at the hands of those in authority, I have said I could never forgive them. Men who will become so hardhearted as to misuse poor prisoners, racked with pain and disease, as they did should have been hung by the neck as they did Wirz of Andersonville fame.

The winter dragged slowly away. Sometime in February rumors were current among the prisoners that we were to be exchanged and most of the prisoners believed it; but I was very doubtful about this taking place very soon.  My reasons were that I had had a dream, and though I am not a great believer in dreams, yet this one left such an impression on my mind I could not get rid of it. I dreamed that we were shipped farther south and placed in the most horrible prison I had ever seen, and the appalling scenes which I beheld here baffled any description. I dreamed one of my friends died, but I lived to return home. I saw the boat which carried me back to the Union lines amidst such great rejoicing as I had never witnessed. I related my dream to Edwards and Wheeler, but did not say that one of them were to die in that horrible prison which I saw in my dream. They like many others thought we would be sent to our lines when we left Danville prison.

Time pressed on until March and we were told by the guards that we were to be exchanged in a few days and for several reasons we began to think we were going back to God’s country. This put us in fine spirits and one day orders came to be ready in the morning to leave for City Point which was the place the exchange was to be made. We boarded the train full of hope, but, alas! we were sent to that miserable pen—Andersonville. We arrived there in the early part of March; then I first realized that my dream thus far was being fulfilled, the awful sight which met our eyes was enough to make the strongest heart turn faint. On entering the gate I beheld row upon row of the dead lying there—the eyes of whom shone with a stony glitter, their hungry faces blackened with smoke, pinched with pain, the long matted hair and the almost fleshless frames swarming with lice. All this gave me some idea as to the fate in store for me. Hope failed me and I felt that life was not worth much in that awful place and especially when one was as sick as myself at the time of my arrival there. And yet the thought of home and friends back in old Illinois was an incentive to take fresh courage and I proposed to make the best out of my wretched surroundings and condition. But I hope no one will ever have to endure what I have for that dear old flag. Of all rebel prisons, for cruel torture, revenge, wretchedness, starvation, murder and death, there were none quite equal to it with 35,000 starved, half naked prisoners crowded into an area of about twenty acres, literally covered all over with lice and vermin, breathing an atmosphere filled with poisonous fetid odors, rising from sinks and putrid corpses, it presented a scene awfully terrible and horrible beyond description. to think of it carries the mind down to the infernal regions and makes one think of the torments of hell.

Adding to the loathsomeness and wretchedness of this horrible place was a large swamp of three or four acres extending half way across the camp, through which ran a small brook three or four feet wide, which was about the only supply of water for this vast throng of suffering humanity. The water generally was so impregnated with filth, as to tender it unfit for use; yet rather than die with thirst the poor fellows drank it.

The pen was enclosed by a stockade build of posts hewn out of pine logs about twenty feet long and from 12 to 18 inches square; they were set about 5 feet deep in the ground and reached about 15 feet in height, it being impossible for anyone to climb over. On top of the stockade was guard stands built for the sentinels to stand in and see that no soldier came within 15 feet of the stockade. There were two gates called the north gate and the south gate; inside the wall and about 15 feet from it was the “deadline,” and the guards had orders to shoot any man that passed over it. Many poor soldiers would get up in their sleep and probably crazed with fever and thirst would step over the dead line, not knowing the danger they were in. We would hear the report of the gun, and often the agonizing wail of the wounded soldier and we would make the remark: “Poor fellow, better dead than to suffer and starve as we are doing.”

There were also various methods and modes of torture introduced, such as the stocks, thumbscrews, barbed-iron collar, shackles, etc. I tell you only God knows the excruciating torments inflicted on our brave patriots in Andersonville. The truth of it is a great deal that happened in the horrible pens is too awful to put in print. But all the unutterable horrors of starvation, death and murder failed to lessen their unfaltering devotion to their bleeding country.

With my health still failing and my disease becoming worse and no hope of exchange I was surely in a pitiable condition. My friend Wheeler did all he possibly could for me. Edwards was moved to the hospital sometime in May and left Wheeler and I alone in our misery. I got so weak I could not pick the gray backs off my shirt, and Wheeler did this for me; for if you did not guard against them, they would eat you up. I saw many a poor soldier lying there with the lice crawling all over his face before he was dead. My disease having assumed a chronic form I became a burden to myself and to my true friend. Day after day passed bringing no relief, and it seemed that death would be far preferable to my present condition. I had related my dream to an older soldier by the name of Wason, who when others thought I was past recovery, and myself had almost given up in despair, would come to me and try to cheer me up by referring me to my dream and telling me not to give up, it would come true; to take fresh courage, without which I think I should have yielded to my apparent fate.

The prison became filthy and crowded with Union prisoners. On or about the 1st of June they reported 20,000 in that miserable pen; and still more to follow. We had been using the water out of that filthy slough all this time which was like poison to all that drink it. The heat becoming so oppressive and the death rate more alarming all the time, I made up my mind to try and be sent to the hospital. But alas! I found no more convenience here for the sick than there was in the stockade. We were placed in tents and had to lie on the ground, and no medical aid given us; so my condition was no matter.

The scanty and sometimes loathsome rations, the indescribably filth, the pestilential air and the utter want of comfort and attention to the patients was perfectly awful. The very thoughts of going into such a place was enough to make a well man sick. It was almost certain death to go there, and they never went only as a last resort. With some the dropsy would cause their limbs to swell and burst open and the places would fill up with maggots; in others the scurvy would settle in their mouth and affect the gums so their teeth would drop out and leave the patient toothless. Others were reduced to the pitiful state of idiocy and insanity. I have seen men going around chewing old bones or anything they could get their hands on trying to satisfy their insatiable hunger. My partner, Edwards, had charge of the ward I was in and did all in his power to relieve me, and did succeed in getting me some flour gruel which alleviated my disease, but soon symptoms of dropsy set in and my body became swollen double its size and death seemed to be staring me in the face, but finally the swelling commenced gradually to disappear and I could realize I was gaining a little strength so that by help I could use my feet a little, and then with assistance I would take a short walk each day. My appetite became ungovernable, I was craving something to eat all the time; but the trouble there was to get it. I would walk up to the cook house and lay down under a bench and wait until the cook brought out their meat to cut it up and watch for a piece to fall on the ground, and then grab it, and in that way I spent my time until I got more able to walk. Then I began to trade with the guards. I would get shoes, hats or anything in the line of clothing and trade it to the Johnnies for rations. I have taken the pants off of dead soldiers, gone to the branch, washed them and then would hold them up to the guard, he would make me an offer for them in potatoes, biscuits or beans, so when his relief came on in the night we would make the change in that way and thus I would get extra rations. Perhaps some may think I was rather hard-hearted to strip the poor dead Union soldiers and trade their clothes to the rebel guards for food, but if you had been in my place you would probably think different. The death rate was enormous; new prisoners arriving daily, some were brought in from the Army of the Potomac and some from Sherman’s army, and how anxious we were to hear some tidings of friends or comrades in the army. The new prisoners that were brought in during July and August died off rapidly; about 8,000 died during the month of August, but we had become so accustomed to starvation and death that it impressed us very little. We were excluded from the world so that no news or tidings as to the progress of the war reached us except what we heard from prisoners coming in, which rendered our condition not only inexpressibly wretched, but dreary and lonely. And yet, with all the cruelties inflicted upon us, when any encouraging news did come, crowds would collect together and sing with joy the old patriotic songs, such as “Red, White and  Blue,” “My Country,” and “Star Spangled Banner.” The rebel guards would act as though they hardly knew what it meant. My health still enabled me to keep up my trading with the guards. I was doing a big business with a small capital. Life seemed more dear to me now since I had passed so near death’s door and I hoped that some effort on my part might enable me, as the only survivor out of six taken prisoners out of my company, to reach home.

I should have stated that previous to this my friend Edwards was taken very sick and lived only two days. Poor boy! He was anxious to get back to “God’s country,” as we called it, to see his father and mother, but he never returned, and his body lies buried under the sod of that horrible slaughter-pen at Andersonville.

On or about the 1st of August, I was placed back in the stockade; there I found Wheeler and we both shed tears of joy when we met. He thought when I was taken out in that blanket that it would be the last time on earth he would ever see me, but Providence ordered it otherwise. I will say here that one of the men who assisted in carrying me out in that blanket, accidentally ran across my name in a paper and remembering the incident, called at my office in Carthage about four years ago, coming purposely to see and express his surprise at finding me among the living. On my return to the stockade I found no change for the better had taken place during the two months I was in the hospital; and the appalling scenes which I passed through during my eight months confinement here together with the death of Edwards reminded me that my dream thus far was being verified.

One morning news went through camp that a spring of clear, fresh water had been discovered up by the dead line. This caused great surprise and rejoicing and we named it “Providence spring” from it miraculous and sudden appearance. The good Lord had certainly not forgotten us. I have a bottle of water from this spring at my home, also a cane made from a piece of the stockade. Both were brought to me by a friend who visited the old grounds a few years ago.

Perhaps some have not heard of the hanging of six Union soldiers at Andersonville. They had organized a band of “Raiders” and when any new prisoners arrived they would rob them of everything they had and would even take life to accomplish their purpose. As the rebels took no measures to prevent this, the prisoners took it in hand and organized a police force and when they caught any of the “Raiders” they were placed in stocks and held prisoners. Then they were tried by a jury of six Union soldiers and six were sentenced to be hung. The scaffold was erected in the stockade on high ground so all the prisoners could see them and take warning of what could be their fate for like offense.

I saw Wirz, the commander of the prison, daily, as we would ride into the stockade every day and he ruled that prison with all the pomp and dignity of a king. He had neither sympathy nor kind words for any of us, and if ever there was a fiend in human form it was this man Wirz. He seemed to delight in carrying out the hatred and murderous revenge that lurked in his malicious heart. After the fall of Richmond he endeavored to flee from the country, but was captured and sentenced to be hung. On the day of his execution he said “the American eagle was a turkey buzzard.”

About the last of September we noticed quite a stir amongst the rebel officers in command at Andersonville and the news spread through the camp that Sherman’s cavalry was approaching, and in the course of a few days they commenced shipping prisoners out of the stockade to different points telling them they were being sent to the Union lines for exchange. “The same old lie.” The company I belonged to were marched out to the station and loaded in freight cars and the first stop we made was at Augusta, GA. The citizens, men, women and children, turned out to see the “Yankee” prisoners, but we were in no condition at that time to make a very good impression as we had worn our clothing over a year and many at the time were nearly naked. I believe some felt sorry for us to see the horrible condition we were in. The train rolled out of Augusta and the next place we landed in was the city of Charleston, S. C. Gilmore of the Union fleet was shelling the city at that time and the citizens felt very bitter toward Union prisoners, but we had become accustomed to hard treatment and cared very little for the threats they made. They threatened to place us in range of his guns but did not do it; we were marched out to the race track and a strong guard put around us, we remained there three weeks. One day we were told to be ready in the morning to depart, we had no idea as to our destination till we landed in that horrible prison pen of Florence, S. C. It was only a second Andersonville on a smaller scale; not so many prisoners, but the suffering and barbarous cruelties were about the same as Andersonville, for the man in charge filled the place of Wirz admirably. He was very severe to the prisoners and seemed to delight in seeing us suffer from hunger and cold. The weather was very disagreeable in November and few had any shelter. Many of the prisoners dug holes in the ground and would crawl in and lay there to keep out of the storm. I and Wheeler made mud brick and built us a house that we expected to remain in during the winter. About that time he was taken out of the stockade to repair a mill they had near Florence where they ground the corn to feed the prisoners and in a short time through his influence I was also detailed to work outside of the prison. I and an old colored man were sent to haul timber from the woods to build a shed to protect the sick soldiers. During this time I fared better than those in the stockade, received double rations for the work I did, and the old darkey would fill his pockets with meat and cornbread from the quartermaster’s table and divide with me. I was put a back in the stockade every night and as a reward for my industry was allowed to occupy my elegant sleeping apartments. A pack of blood hounds were kept to run down prisoners who were fortunate enough to escape. Very few succeeded in reaching the Union lines and those who were caught and brought back were severely punished. Some were tied up by the thumbs till they were black in the face. I have seen the prisoners crowd up to the gate about ration time, and Lieutenant Barrett, the prisoner commander, would pull his revolver, and commanding them to stand back would shoot into the crowd of men. I often wonder why they didn’t hang him on the same scaffold with Wirz.

I will relate and incident here which occurred one day when I was left in the stockade. I had got a sweet potato and was trying to find some means of roasting it, as fuel was not to be had except what refuse material we could collect and the few roots we were able to dig out of the ground. I saw a man a few yards away making his corn meal coffee over a little fire; I went over to where he was and asked him if I could roast my potato. He replied in a very weak voice that I could. While I was waiting for it to bake there was a voice called out from a dug-out close by, “Duffy, is our coffee done?” I was surprised as well as startled to hear the name Duffy as it was very familiar to me. I asked, “Is your name Duffy?” He said it was. And imagine if you can my astonishment to find in this poor emaciated starved man, one whose body was black and loathsome with scurvy, a son of my mother’s brother, my own cousin, with who I had played in our boyhood days some eight years previous in Pennsylvania. It would be impossible to try to picture his awful condition. His clothes were in tatters and would scarcely hold to his skeleton frame; his hair and beard had neither seen comb or razor since his confinement in that awful place and even yet his image rises up before me as vividly as then. He had been a prisoner about the same length of time I had; was also in Andersonville where his only brother had died from starvation. I will state briefly that he was exchanged and got as far as Annapolis, Maryland, but died before reaching home and friends.*

About the 1st of December, 1864, the report was circulated among the prisoners that an exchange of the sick soldiers was soon to commence. We had been disappointed so many times before that we hardly believed it. One day orders came that all the men working outside of the stockade should be placed back in it. I and Wheeler met again after being separated for about one month. Then they commenced the exchange, but the orders were very exact, as no one was to be exchanged unless they were thought to be wholly incapable of any further service; so fearing lest there might be a possibility of myself not being included in that number, and in my desperation, knowing that to stay in that horrid pit much longer meant death, I began to contrive some means whereby I could make my exchange sure. At last I settled on a plan which I hoped would be a success. I had some Cayenne pepper which I had got from a colored woman while at Charleston, S. C. On the day the “hundred” I belonged to were ordered out to be examined I took the pepper and after washing my eyes thoroughly with it, and tying an old handkerchief over them, fell in line with the rest of the walking skeletons and was marched up to the gate which had so long held us in captivity. The pain would have been almost unbearable but for the thoughts of liberty so near at hand. The rebel surgeon passed down the line examining each one and those he thought beyond help were passed out for exchange. My eyes were very much inflamed and altogether I was a pitiful looking object. As I stood there waiting to know my fate, at last he reached me, and in a gruff voice said: “What is the matter with you?” I replied in a faint whisper that I was nearly blind. He ordered the handkerchief removed, and after examining them pronounced them very bad and said “Pass out.” That, without doubt, was the happiest moment of my life, and I should have shouted for joy if I had dared give vent to my emotions. It is needless to say I had no regrets at leaving this loathsome, sickening place, although it was very trying to have to leave those behind us who were too weak to go. Farewell old prison pens, though plague spot of the Southern Confederacy, though will be remembered only with the saddest associations! The awful sufferings there endured, the cruelty, abuse and revenge poured out upon our brave heroes, who preferred death in those “pens” to disloyalty to their country’s flag, will never be forgotten! Farewell to hunger and thirst and filth and rags and vermin and despair and death! Farewell, old Wirz, thou tyrant-fiend in human form, doomed to meet thy just desserts, and none too soon. And all hail liberty, and boys in blue and stars and stripes, and home and friends!

After passing out of the gate I went to a stream of water than ran near the stockade and bathed my eyes thoroughly and they soon quit hurting. Only ten in my “hundred” got out on that exchange. We were loaded on stock cars and shipped to Charleston, where we were put on a rebel transport and sailed down near Fort Sumter, and when we got in sight of our government steamer, “The City of New York,” and saw the dear old flag welcoming us back once more to its protection, loud prolonged cheering burst forth from every heart; those too weak to cheer, cried with joy.

Thus my dream previously spoken of was entirely fulfilled. After boarding our vessel we divested ourselves of our filthy rags, and were given new and comfortable clothing and our craving appetites were once more satisfied with a good army meal. But many of the poor starved men, having no control over their appetite, stole back and ate three or four men’s rations and died in consequence, on the way. Others were too far gone with scurvy and other diseases to survive the trip home. Poor fellows, it was a comfort to know they died in God’s country anyway. After arriving at Annapolis, Md., we were placed in good quarters and everything done for our comfort that could be, I and my true friend, Wheeler, were given a furlough of thirty days and returned to our homes in Illinois December 29, 1864, to meet again with friends who had given us up as dead. After thirty days expired I reported to Columbus, O., and was sent from there to Springfield, Ill., were on 28th day of February, 1865, I received my discharge, having served three years and two months. Here Wheeler and I parted and have never met since. He is living at the present time in Carthage, Mo.

Thus I have carried you hastily through my personal experience in the Confederate prisons, but find it beyond my power to convey to you scenes which I witnessed during my fifteen months confinement there and which will follow me to my grave. For the benefit of those who are ignorant of the loss of life due to these prison holes, I will say there are over 36,000 Union soldiers buried in these rebel prisons, 14,000 in Andersonville alone; 11,000 after being released died before reaching home, and a large number have never been accounted for.

—M. V. Riley

*Jasper Newton Moore, a member of Company C of the Fifty-First Illinois was another of those men who was released from Confederate prison but died before reaching home. Moore, also, got as far as Annapolis and is buried there.