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Letter Reveals Hardships of VT. Man in Civil War Prison

Montpelier Evening Argus, March 22, 1940

The hardships endured by a Vermont corporal in a Confederate prison during the Civil War are related tersely but graphically in a long but incomplete letter in the archives of the Vermont Historical Society. The soldier was Charles B. Chapin of Williston, a member of Company L of the Vermont first regiment cavalry. He enlisted as a private in August, 1862, was taken prison in May, 1864, pardoned November, 1864, and died of disease January, 1865.

The letter was apparently written by a mother to her son, George, and was dated Williston, February 10, 1865. The writer quotes at length from the diary of Charles B. Chapin.

Excerpts from the letter follow:

“Was up at dawn so stiff and lame I could hardly walk, but had to walk 15 miles. Stopped but three times on the way. I came very near giving out, blisters on my feet two inches long and one wide. Packed 50 into a car, also two guards. Staid in this till next noon. If anybody puts his hand or arm out of the window he is shot if the guard’s aim is steady. One fellow had his forehead marked yesterday in his way."

In Rebel Prison

“Arrived at Camp Sumpter, Andersonville, about 10 o’clock. Set in the sun a long time, then taken to the prison. Such a looking crowd I never saw, some black as niggers, the dirtiest things I ever saw; 25 to 30 die per day. Water poor, washed in a small brook that runs through the camp. A minor deserter was going to mark one of our boy’s head. Luckily he concluded not to. Washed a shirt in cold water without soap.

One of our boys bought about 5 cts worth of soap for one dollar Greenback. Heard Sherman had taken Atlanta; 1,200 prisoners came in today, now about 20,000 here. News good. So much suffering I never dreamed of as there is in this prison. The wrath of God must soon burst on the Confederates; 327 died in 24 hours.

“Drew 12 hard tack for six of us. Got no more till Monday afternoon (two days later.) Thurs. Have drawn no rations since Tuesday — feel very faint. Drew 10 loaves bread, a bit of bacon and a bucket of soup for 20 men. Drew flour and meat for two days, and set up most all night to cook it. Drew about a mouthful of bacon. Paid 10 cts. For a potato about as large as a butternut which I ate raw. Drew a few green beans, but so lame I can’t get wood to cook them. Our boys paid $5 a loaf for not larger than my fist. I gave $20 for six loaves. Drew nothing but a pint of cooked rice, and a very small piece of meat. Did not draw any rations today, expect to draw mush in the morning. (June 26) Pleasant and awful hot. The maggots claimed our beef, but we finally drove them off, had steak for breakfast and soup for dinner. Drew raw meal and bacon so we have nice times cooking without wood.

(Sept 11.) Got admitted to hospital after seeing 17 Sundays in the bullpen. Have no blankets so lay in the dirt, hope to do better soon. (12th) Very hot. Got an old overcoat and piece of a blanket so got along pretty well last night, considering the mosquitoes, flees and lice, the two latter being numerous on the old rags.”

Diary of Charles B. Chapin

From the collections of the Vermont Historical Society (MSS 18, #119) [Transcription by Stephen Kung, 2007]

Williston 10th Feb 1863

My Dear George

You have known and been as deeply affected as any of us at the capture imprisonmentsuffering and death of Charles Chapin. Sad as all these things were there is much to relieve in connection with them. Particularly in Charles’ later religious experience, hopeful and peaceful death. He had that experience which is such a contradiction to the natural man, that which in a [______________] close to life, as he looked [____] fully recalled all the past. It is all right [__________] not have one thing different. “Tell all my associates and friends, to meet me in heaven. “

Charles religious life, if we judge from his letters, the diaries kept, had been for some months maturing [______] never as wholly thoughtless as many he seemed to have been led by exposure and suffering to think more carefully on his ways, renounce all hope in himself, and connect himself wholly to the Lord Jesus, for forgiveness and salvation. Hence, the peaceful and somewhat triumphant close of his earthly life.

I have said that Chas kept a diary. I think quite likely you were aware of this fact. His diary is a simple daily record of facts he experienced, without comment or reflections. It is all the more valuable because it records not opinions, comments or reflections upon what befell him, what he saw and suffered, but the facts. Mr. Hough, in the public and commemorative service, the Sabbath after that remains were buried here, read at considerable length from this Diary. Chas simple words were [_________] than any rhetoric or declamation or [________]. I should be glad to copy much of the Diary for you, but must content myself to write out some of the records he made of his capture and during his imprisonment and afterwards. I presume you know more of him before his capture than any of us, as he quite often, before this time, spoke of his visits to you and yours to him, I will begin then with Tues, May 3rd “Drilled twice, got [orders] to cross the river at Midnight. Horse stumbled, wet my feet and legs some.” Wed 4th “Crossed the river at Germanna Ford just at the break of day. Made coffee about 1/2 past 5. Our squadron had the advance. Met the enemy about ½ past 2 P.M. Skirmished till dark. Went back three miles then went at most a mile for water for coffee.”

Thurs 5th May Very warm. Was waked at 3 A.M. Started just at day, went about four miles, met the enemy in force. Our Co. was dismounted, skirmished till afternoon very hard, then was relieved. Got back to our horses. In fifteen minutes was ordered out again and I was captured by a rebel in our uniform.”

In another place he writes of his capture. “got all tired out skirmishing. The rebels charged by me. One dressed in blue whom I took for ourselves went by as unconcerned as could be. When within10 feet of him, he put his pistol cocked to my head and I had to surrender. I might have shot him before if I had known he was a reb. They marched us about five miles toward Orange. C.H. stopped in a hollow all wet, where I had to lay on the wet ground with nothing over me, and as the night was cold I slept but little”

Frid. May 6th. "Pleasant and very warm. Marched to Orange C.H. Our names taken also tents and pouches. Laid in the dirt till about midnight. Took the cars for Gordonsville started at daylight. Was searched there. They had several searchers, some of whom took photographs _____.”

In another memorandum of May 6th he writes, “was up at dawn so stiff and lame I could hardly walk, but had to walk 15 miles. Stopped but three times on the way. I came very near giving out. Blister on my feet two inches long and one wide.”

Saturday 7th "Pleasant and very warm. Arrived at Gordonsville about 8 A.M. stood here till noon of the 8th. Was so lame I could hardly step. Drew 12 hard tack for six of us. Got no more till Monday afternoon."

Sunday May 8th “Very warm and pleasant. Started for Lynchburg packed 50 miles into a carr also two guards. Staid in this car till next noon. What we suffered with only one door open and no water only those there can imagine.”

Monday 9th “Got out of the cars at daylight. Marched about a mile to the place we are to stay. It is a hollow about 12 rods wide with hills on each side 70 or 80 ft high and nearly perpendicular. Citizens guard us. Two large guns are [cross posted] to bear on us. There is no shade. A nice brook runs through our camp. Also a nice spring of water which is worth everything to us.”

Tues 10th May. “Pleasant. Washed clothes. Got bushes for a shade. 648 more prisoners came in Sprinkled a little just dark. Drew five hard tack and a bit of bacon.”

Wednesday May 11th “Saw negroes hoeing corn. Cloudy. Washed clothes. About noon, 1100 started out for Danville. Laid on a bridge over Lances River a long time. Our boys paid $5.00 a loaf for not larger than my fist. I gave $20.00 for six loaves.”

Thursday 12th “Showery. Laid in the cars all night. Have drawn no rations since Tuesday. Feel very faint. Cars so full we suffer _____. We have a pretty good feeling crowd and jokes fly swiftly around.”

Friday 13th “Rainy. Arrived at Danville about noon. Divided up into squads of about 20. I draw for one squad in the Southwest corner on the second floor of the prison. If anybody puts his head or arm out of the window he is shot if the guards aim is steady. One fellow had his forehead marked yesterday in this way.”

Sat. 14th “Rained very hard last night. Showering. Drew 10 loaves bread, a bit of bacon, and a bucket of soup for 211 men. The militia were ordered to Richmond. Assembled near our prison with long faces. Heard our forces were entrenched at Spotsalvania C.H. Also that we were to start for Georgia Thursday.”

Sund. 15th “Rained last night. Sky broken this morn. Heard the Church bell ring. The first Secesh Colors I saw was at this place. Have roll called twice a day. Two missing the first night. Rained towards evening. Heard our men held Gordonsville.”

Mond. 16th “Pleasant. Some of the prisoners started away this noon. Do not think we shall go today. The days are pretty long shut up in an old brick building 250 on each floor. Wrote a letter home and one to the Co. Maj. [Morfit] gave us our choice to stay here or start for Georgia in the noon.”

Tues 17th. “Showery. Started at 4 O clock A.M. rode about 30 miles and then walked ten as it was a new road not yet finished. Did not feel very well this noon. Am better tonight. A train is here for a part of us. Laid all night at Guilford station.”

Wed. 18th. “Pleasant. Saw a splendid flower garden at Greensboro. Our car came off the track did no damage. Sheep are all sheared. Passed through Jamestown High Point there is a great deal of cotton stored here. Passed Glenn Anna Female Seminary at Thomasville. There was a great no. of young ladies on the piazza who seemed right glad to see us. At Lexington they were conscripting from 17. Locusts in bloom.”

Thurs. 19th“Pleasant. Drew flour and meat for two days. Set up most all night to cook it. At Charlotte, a minor deserter was going to mark one of our boys head. Luckily, he concluded not to. Started about 5 P.M traveled all night. Crossed the Catawba. Changed of diet does not agree with me first rate.”

Frid 20th “Passed through Columbia in the night. The boys feel first rate. Drew 15 loaves of bread for 20 men. Went through Augusta in the night and saw but little of it. One of the guard shot a citizen for a yankee.”

Sat. 21st “Changed guard. They are very strict. Kept us in the cars all day suffered from heat. Drew rations in the best I have seen in the South and hard tack.”

Sund 22nd “Very warm arrived at Beacon just as I got up. Arrived at Camp Sumpter Andersonville about 10’ O Clock. Sat in the sun a long time. Was then taken to the prison. Such a looking crowed I never saw, some black as niggers the dirtiest beings I ever saw. 25 to 30 die per day. Water poor washed in a small brook that runs through the camp.”

Mond 23rd “Pleasant and very warm. Washed in the brook at ½ past 4 A.M. got breakfast. Had roll called. Washed a shirt in cold water without soap. Laid in tent a while. Drew rations for 30. Feel a little better than when I first came to this place. One of our boys bought about 5 cents worth of soap for one dollar Green back.”

Tuesday 24th “Very warm. Washed all over in the morn. About 800 prisoners came in last night Am costive have been so for four days. A lot more prisoners came this afternoon. Smallpox is around camp. A good many have been vaccinated.

Wednesday 25th “ Sun very hot. Got some wet. Cleaned off the ground where we lay. It is full of maggots and the boys say it is so all over camp. About 100 men prisoners came in today. News good from the front.”

Frid 27th “Pleasant and hot. There was quite a row last night. Do not get rations till about 9 O Clock P.M. The guard was all drawn up in line of battle. The guns manned and they appeared to be quite alarmed. Heard Sherman had taken Atlanta and that Johnston’s forces were at Macon. The rebs found four places that were tunneled.”

Sat 28th “Very hot. Order of exercises for today. Got up about 5 breakfast about 6. have a wash at the brook. roll called skirmish lay around till dinner. Then read 5 or 6 chapters in the Testament, wash clothes, draw rations for 30. Get to bed about 9-- supper very irregular just as we have rations which are very short. “a few prisoners came in.”

29th 1200 "Prisoners came in today. now about 20,000 here. News good. Butler and Grant had met. we are at the White house and Hanover C.H. a very long line."

Tuesday 31st “Very hot. then was a little muss near our shanty today. drew raw meat and bacon so we have nice times cooking without wood. Washed clothes just dark. The brook is so small there is hardly room to get into it before nine at night or after three in the morn.”

June 5th “Showery. My head aches very hard and I am about used up. Got one of the boys to draw rations for me and give them out. got cooked rations. No reliable news -- things wag about the same day in and day out. One month a prisoner.”

7th “A rainbow was visible a short time but soon hid its face because no doubt it could not see our sufferings longer.”

Thurs. 9th “Drew rations and they wont let us after wood unless we swear we wont run away and live on half rations if one of the squads should get away till he is retaken.”

10th “Went across on the other side of the brook for the first time.”

11th “Very hot. Had a fight close to us this morn. Rained in afternoon and all night got pretty wet. Our squad of 270 lost pretty much all our meat. Gave out rations in the rain.”

12th “Drew nothing but a pint of cooked rice and a very small piece of meat.”

13th “Rainy cold northeast wind men shivering around with their overcoats on. (Those that are so fortunate as to have them) I borrowed one after shaking all the forenoon. So much suffering I never dreamed of as there is in this prison. The wrath of God must soon burst on the Confederates.”

Wed. 22 “The rebs found a tunnel on the other side of the camp. Gen Windertold them they should draw no rations till they filled it up.”

23rd “Did not draw any rations today expect to draw much in the morning.”

25th “Drew raw rations. Fresh beef for the first time. 35 prisoners came in from Sherman’s army. All that had money taken from them had orders to report and they should have it back again.”

26th “Pleasant and awful hot. The maggots claimed our beef but we finally drove them off. Had steak for breakfast and soup for dinner.”

Frid July 1st “Very hot. Moved into the new stockade today. It is in a very warm place and crowded worse than the old by half.”

4th July “A little mockingbird sings most of the time. It is the nicest bird I ever heard.”

5th “The rebs cut down the tree and drove off our mocking bird. Makes it seem lonesome. The rebs say Grant has got Richmond. So many of the guards say it, I think it is so.”

12th “Saw the six men drop yesterday. The first I ever saw hung. One ran about 20 rods before they caught him. One rope broke and the fellow begged not to hang him over but it was no use, he had to swing.”

22nd “Two months today since I came into this pen.”

23rd “Got a hard cold. All the boys are complaining a little today. Hope they will be all right tomorrow.”

25th “Beef soup with rice in it three times a day. found a tunnel 20 ft underground.”

28th “Very hot. One poor fellow shot dead. Got his head under the line while dipping water yesterday.”

Mond. Aug. 1st “August beings with but little hope for the confed. Prisoners.”

2nd “Am very unwell. Went out to see the Dr but got no medicine. For three days have got nothing but very poor rice.”

Sund. Aug 7th “Went over to see Fred Bliss who is crazy. Again in the eve. He says he is going to kill himself.”

8th “Dissentry makes me very weak.”

12th “327 died in 24 hours.”

14th “Fred Bliss died last night at sunset.”

16th “Drew about a mouthful of bacon.”

22nd “3 months since I came into the bullpen. Three men died from our Reg last night, Barnes Co. F, Nouns Co. C, Benoit Co. D. Finished reading Testament 2nd time since I came to the army.”

24th “I am getting stiff very fast mouth some sore.”

26th “Very hot. Paid 10 cts for a potatoe about as large as a butternut, which I ate raw, and I have a touch of scurvy.”

29th “Can hardly step on my leg.”

30th “Very hot. I am quite sick today and very lame. At night so weak I can hardly walk with a cane.”

Sund. Sept 4 “My leg pains me so I could not sleep last night. I cannot bear my weight on it this morn. O God deliver me from this prison this month.”

9th “Diarrhea rather bad, but hope I shall live to get to our lines.”

10th “Made up my mind to go to the hospital if I can get there.”

Sund 11th “Got admitted to Hopt. After seeing 17 Sundays in the bullpen. Got into nearby the cook shanties & the smell is not very sweet. Have no blanket so lay in the dirt. Hope to do better soon.”

12 “Very hot. Got an old overcoat and piece of a blanket so got along pretty well last night considering the mosquitoes, flees and lice, the two latter being numerous on the old rags.”

13th “Drew a few green beans, but so lame I cant get wood to cook them.”

14th “Cars smashed up last night killing ninety who expected to see home and friends in a short time.”

16th “Feel a little better today. Perhaps it is owing to the order that we are to start for Sherman’s lines tonight or tomorrow. The order is a hoax.”

Sund. Sept 18th “My legs are no better and my teeth are all getting loose and very sore. I can’t eat corn bread.”

23rd “Borrowed an old shoe so don’t have to go in stockings.”

26th “Hands as well as feet swollen this morning. Had the boil or scurvy sore burnt with caustic. Feel very bad legs very sore can hardly touch them.”

Mond. Oct. 10 “Hands and face swelled pretty badly don’t see the cause.”

11th “Very cold night. Liked to froze had a chill in the morn and the awfulest pain through the body I ever had. Went to the stewards tent got some pepper tea and laudanam which made my head ache all day & feel very sleepy. Paid for 1 ½ Doz. sweet potatoes to get tomorrow morn. Hope I shant fail to get them.”

12th “Team ran over our tent tore it into moved into another one three of us together. Did not get my potatoes. Am very weak. __ guards say 300 sick left the stockade last night to be exchanged. No appetite since the chill yesterday, left me very weak.”

Oct. 15 “Had a nice potatoe given me it tasted very nice. Got some flour & browned it for diarrehaea. Am very weak. Appetite coming slowly again.”

Sund 16th “Got my clothes scalded. They were very lousy. Got some sweet potatoes. Laid in my tent all day for my clothes to dry.”

Thurs 20th “Drew a potatoe about as large as an egg.”

Sund 23rd “Slept very cold all night. Legs so stiff I cant walk. Went to bed ½ past 5 and did not get up the 24 till near 10 slept pretty warm.”

24th “Have to go on crutches if I go at all”

27th “Grub very scarce cannot get half enough to eat. Bought a little piece of raw meat the first I have had for two months.”

Tues. Nov 1st “Got orders to leave. Started about the middle of the afternoon. Was hardly able to get to the stockade. Rained that night laid in the water most frozen as wet as if I had been in a river before morn.”

Nov 2nd “Rained very hard. Cold wind. Had orders to pack up and leave. Got to the gate. Staid all day. no train came. Put up a tent. Drew nothing but half pint of rice and slice of bread. So stiff can hardly walk.”

7th “Washed a pair of drawers the 1st since August for me.”

9th “Rallied on a beefs insides took them away from him. The men are nearly starved for meat. Have no salt whatever.”

11th “Grubvery short and getting shorter.”

Tues. 13th “Pleasant. Started about 7 o clock at Macon at sundown. Sat up most all night had the diarrhaea very bad.”

16th “At day light were marched into a field staid awhile and were ordered to the bullpen. Night found us in the pen with no shelter, wood, or anything to make comfortable with.”

17th “Drew a little bit of soap the 1st since I came into the Confederacy.”

Sat 19th “Commenced to take us out about 9. I started to walk to the depot. Was so weak so had to lie down till a team came up. Got loaded into a car and drew 1 ½ hard tack, a bit of beef and some raw potatoes, and started just dark without a guard for Savannah. Just 6 ½ months prisoner for me.”

Sund. Nov. 20 “Cloudy rained a good deal. Got to Savannah just day light. Started immediately for the boats. Were parolled on our boats by 3 o cock PM and by 9 was eatingU.S. hard tack, and drinking his coffee. The happiest boy you ever did see.”