The Prisoner

Captured by Confederates

Gilbert Gaul

 

The Prisoner

On the second of March, 1864, General Kilpatrick hand-picked me as one of the four thousand men bound for a raid on Richmond, the capital of the Confederate States of America.

I’m sure one reason the general picked me is my size. At six feet three inches tall, I tower over most other soldiers, Union or Confederate. It certainly wasn’t for my fighting ability, as it is common knowledge throughout the ranks I don’t believe in killing, and will only do so to save myself. I had made this abundantly clear at the battle of Salem Church.

As much as I hate killing a fellow human, I must admit my instinct for self-preservation is stronger than any conscious belief I hold. I was responsible for three casualties during the battle of Salem Church. At various heated moments, I had at least a half dozen Rebs lined up in my rifle sights, but never pulled the trigger. That was my conscious choice. But when their division ripped out of the thick woods uttering that horrifying Rebel Yell and one Reb headed for me with his bayonet fixed at my midsection, I had no choice. I knocked his rifle aside and drove my bayonet into his gut, trying not to pay any mind to that dreadful tearing sound of steel penetrating flesh and the scream of the recipient. Even in my dreams, that combination of sounds is the most horrendous I’ll ever hear. It wasn’t until after I’d done the deed that I saw the face of a 14-year-old on the end of my rifle. My knees wobbled, realizing I had just killed a – boy.

All of a sudden there were three more Rebels running toward me. I yanked the bayonet free, shuddering at the sucking sound the blade made when exiting living flesh. I don’t remember how I did it, but I killed all three Rebs, one after another. Stretched out on the earth around me were four dead confederates.  I didn’t like my responsibility in the matter, but like I said, sometimes instinct dominates choice. Felt terrible about killing three men and a boy, especially when I witnessed the rags hanging from their bony bodies and imagined the hardship they must have endured.  I said a little prayer for them and hoped they found peace beyond the pearly gates, but I had promised my wife and son I would return to them, the one promise I intended to keep.

My comrades weren’t fond of the fact that I never fired a shot at the Rebs, but when I killed the four during the battle at Salem Church, it made up for my previous lack of enthusiasm. No one said squat about me neglecting my duty to kill as many enemy troops as I could. But no matter what anyone did or didn’t say, I still saw my duty differently. While I have my sympathies with Mr. Lincoln and don’t set any store by slavery, I believed us soldiers were pawns in a game played by rich men. The common soldier had little to gain from this war, or to correct myself, the Union soldiers had little to gain. As far as the Rebels go, they were defending their homeland and their way of life, however wrong, from the invaders. That the invaders represented the United States the Confederates once belonged to, was beside the point, and I couldn’t blame them for this. I’d do the same if someone invaded my home and told me what to do.

As the battle progressed, we surged forward by degrees and assaulted the Confederates, who retreated to the woods. Several times we pressed forward, and were repulsed each time. The rebels counterattacked in a grim push forward and gained ground in the morning. They viciously defended their homeland, and by nightfall, we withdrew, exhausted and beaten, across two pontoon bridges at Scott’s Dam under a harassing artillery fire. There were over five thousand casualties during this skirmish.

I asked myself, “Why?”

Ten months of quiet had passed while our army resupplied and got replacements for those killed and wounded. My nightmares of running my bayonet into that boy were getting less frequent. Chosen to go into battle again, I thought about deserting, but I just couldn’t dishonor my father’s name by doing that. I also thought of my son, and if he ever found out I had deserted, what would he think of me.

On February 28th, Kilpatrick led us towards Richmond along the Virginia Central Railroad, tearing up the tracks as we marched. We reached the outskirts of the city on March 1st and The Rebs fought so hard, we had to retreat.

Kilpatrick singled me out to carry a dispatch to the other force that was to attack Richmond from the rear. I headed for the woods to circle around the city and hoped to find the Union force in command of the backside of Richmond. When I got there, the Union army had already retreated. There was nothing for me to do now but try to return to Kilpatrick’s forces.

Walking through the woods I heard voices. I stealthily approached to see who it was. To my surprise, it was an old man with a woman who appeared to be his daughter, with two young boys around five and six years old. She was crying and telling her father they needed to find food soon, or her boys would die. They had a roaring fire going, and I envied them for that. She took the boys shirts off to dry them by the fire, and I saw how skinny they were; every rib showed.

I had a good supply of provisions with me and wanted to share with these poor starving folks. If I showed my face they would raise an alarm, and I’d get captured. Capture was a death sentence because they put you in a prison and forgot to feed you. I guess they couldn’t be blamed for that. Their own soldiers were starving, so how can you take food from them to feed POW’s?

The boys were crying, “Mommy I’m hungry.” I thought of my son going hungry, and if it were someone else in my position I’d want him to give whatever help he could.

That made up my mind, I shouted to them, “Hello.” The old man picked up his rifle and wanted to know, “who’s there?” I told him I had food to share, but he needed to put his rifle down. He looked at the two starving boys and made his decision. He laid his rifle on the ground. I approached; handed the woman my backpack with the provisions in it. There were hardtack and biscuits, a feast for all of them. They ate like starving animals.

I sat by the fire while they ate. Soon the woman came to thank me for being so generous. I told her about my son, and how if the situation were reversed I’d hope that a Reb. would feed my son. Being a mother she understood this. She offered to have me spend the night by their fire. I accepted and was soon sleeping.  When I awoke I heard her arguing with her father, but tired, I soon slept again.

In the morning as I drank a cup of hot water the old man burst into the clearing with two Rebel soldiers. He had gone to fetch them last night, and that was what the argument was all about. I was caught flatfooted and couldn’t resist. They searched me looking for weapons and found the dispatches.

The woman tried her best to get them to release me, but once they read the dispatches, release was out of the question. Papers I carried ordered the burning of Richmond, and the assassination of President Davis and his cabinet. Southerners claimed that the North was initiating a war of extermination. From Lincoln on down everybody denied having any knowledge of these papers. When I said, I didn’t know what was in them. No one believed me.

Sent to a prisoner of war camp, I couldn’t believe what went on. There were thousands upon thousands of men living in a compound surrounded by barbed wire and guard towers with sharpshooters in each tower. Upon entering the camp, I was attacked by a crowd of desperate starving men. Lucky for me, I still had my strength and could fight them off.  These men who attacked me were union soldiers like me.

There were gangs of prisoners who would rob and beat other prisoners, taking any food they might have, and anything else of value. Why they’d even yank a gold tooth out of a living prisoner if they saw one. Desperate men do desperate things I knew, but this savagery was unbelievable. Even the water flowing through the camp had to be purchased from the gangs.

They surrounded the water, and wouldn’t let anybody approach without paying a bribe.

There was a line drawn around the perimeter of the camp – five feet inside the barbed wire. Anyone who crossed this line would be shot dead by the sharpshooters in the towers. Many of the prisoners, when they could take no more abuse, would purposely step over that line. The shooters always obliged them.

The weeks and months went by; I was too weak to defend myself from the gangs by now. They had taken all my belongings, even the picture of my wife and son. I started to think the time for me to cross that line was near.

Unknown to me, the woman and children I had given my food to in the woods that day were relatives of General Lee, and he had given her the authority to have me exchanged to the North. She came to the prison camp the next day looking for me. If only I had known.

The next morning I went and stood by the line as I had been doing every day for a week now, trying to get the courage to just step across it. I watched as men would cross and be instantly shot in the head. It was quick, and I believed a quick, painless death was preferable to slow demeaning starvation. I was standing there trying to decide when I heard a woman shout, “there he is, bring him here.” I stumbled as I turned to see her and fell across the line. The last thing I saw was the face of the woman from the woods. (End)

 

 

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