"Gobbled Up" - Prisoners of War
When attempting to create awareness for the importance of saving a particular piece of battlefield, appeals rightly often include mentions of the soldiers who were killed and wounded while fighting there. However, too often overlooked are those men captured in combat, because in many instances their capture led to life-altering situations, too.
Combat in the American Civil War produced many situations that resulted in the capture of enemy combatants. Historians estimate that over 400,000 Union and Confederate soldiers experienced being a prisoner of war during the four-year conflict. The number may be actually much higher. Due to the amount of maneuvering, the style of fighting, environmental factors, and aggressive leadership—who often responded to attacks with counterattacks— the battles of Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, the Wilderness, and Spotsylvania Court House, produced thousands of prisoners of war.
A significant amount of scholarship is available about the experiences of Civil War soldiers while incarcerated in prisoner of war camps. Less examined are the accounts of the situations that led to soldiers’ captures on the field of battle and their movements between their seizure and arrival at prisoner of war camps.
In this edition of CVBT’s history email, we’ll examine a few examples of captures from the battlefields that CVBT works to preserve.
The United States Articles of War, also known as the “Lieber Code,” defined that “a prisoner of war is a public enemy armed or attached to the hostile army for active aid, who has fallen into the hands of the captor, either fighting or wounded, on the field or in the hospital, by individual surrender or by capitulation.” Additionally, it states that, “all enemies who have thrown away their arms and ask for quarter, are prisoners of war, and as such exposed to the inconveniences as well as entitled to the privileges of a prisoner of war.” Early Confederate regulations stipulated that "prisoners of war will be disarmed and sent to the rear, and reported as practicable to the head-quarters,” and that “the private property of prisoners will be duly respected.” As the war wore on some of these outlined formalities went ignored.
On December 13, 1862, while fighting on the south end of the Fredericksburg battlefield, Sgt. Alonzo M. Crapsey, 13th Pennsylvania Reserves, Meade’s Division, First Corps, became a prisoner in the see-saw fighting. Crapsey, who enlisted in May 1861 at 18 or 19 years old, had seen his fair share of combat by Fredericksburg. Some of the companies in the 13th—including Crapsey’s—served in the Shenandoah Valley, fighting at Harrisonburg and Cross Keys before reuniting with the regiment in time for South Mountain and Antietam, where they took heavy casualties.
After becoming a prisoner at Fredericksburg, Crapsey and other captured soldiers went by train to Richmond, under guards, where they spent about three weeks at Libby Prison. Crapsey’s seemingly brief stay appears to have deeply affected him. Eventually paroled, Crapsy spent time at Camp Parole in Annapolis, Maryland, until exchanged. Crapsey returned to his regiment in late May 1863. Suffering noticeably from both physical and mental illness symptoms, Crapsey received a disability discharge three months after Gettysburg. Returning home, Crapsey’s depression continued to worsen, and he tried to commit suicide twice. Crapsey was successful in his third attempt to take his own life in August 1864. He was only 21 years old.
Pathway to Hell: A Tragedy of the American Civil War by Dennis W. Brant, and published in 2010 by Bison Books, covers Sgt. Alonzo Crapsey’s sad life story.
Wounded initially in the face and neck, and then on the hip/back on May 3, 1863, while fighting with the 123rd New York Infantry, Twelfth Corps, Corps, Corp. Rice C. Bull, unable to get away, fell into Confederate hands. “Looking back in the direction of our abandoned line, which I could barely see as the smoke still hung low, was a scattered line of men coming toward us on the double-quick. They advanced to near where we wounded men were lying, as that in some measure put them out of range of our artillery which then seemed to be again working with redoubled energy. Coming to a halt they dressed their line, which was much broken, and lay down. They were not dressed in Union Blue but in Confederate Gray. . . . Most of them seemed and acted as though they had troubles of their own and had no desire to annoy us [wounded], Bull wrote.”
Moved by Confederates to the Fairview section of the Chancellorsville battlefield on May 4, Bull stayed there for several days suffering the horrors of the field hospital. He explained that, “While the stench from nearby dead horses and men was sickening it was not worse than that from the living who lay in their own filth. Finally, not the least of our troubles were the millions of flies that filled the air and covered blood-saturated clothing . . . .”
Bull was fortunate that he did not have to endure a longer captivity in a formal prison of war camp. He and other Union wounded prisoners received quick paroles. Federal ambulances arrived on May 12 that took the wounded to Acquia Creek and then on to hospitals in and around Washington D.C. Corp. Bull recovered and returned to his regiment in fall of 1863, now in Tennessee. Bull’s harrowing account is found in Soldiering: The Civil War Diary of Rice C. Bull, edited by K. Jack Bauer, Presidio Press, 1977.
Pvt. John Worrel Northup, 76th New York Infantry, Fifth Corps, was in the service for about eight months when the spring 1864 campaign began. He kept a diary of his experiences that he published 1904 that also included his recollections. On May 5, 1864, in the tangled woods of the Wilderness, Northup and others ended up separated, mixed, and captured. Below is his telling of the event:
“I heard Captain Swan say ‘Its no use, better surrender;’ Some attempted to break their guns against trees, but Rebel bayonets were so near and so many, that we desisted. The wounded in our midst begged us not to fire. Plunging the bayonet which I had fixed to my Springfield, into the ground, I said ‘Boys you’ve got us.’ ‘Come heah,’ they said, and I did, cutting my straps at the same time. I tore the bugle from my hat, not caring to indulge the Rebel craze for Yankee trinkets. Just after an officer rode up to the next man and said, ‘Gimme that bugle on your hat suh (a brass ornament for hat or cap.) Johnnies mixed feely with us to trade canteens, knives, caps, rubber blankets, tobacco boxes, etc. Excitement chiefly over we marched about 30 rods to a strip in of clearing where we found a division of Hill’s corps in line of battle of receive us. One said to me they had been watching for us all the afternoon.”
Northup and other Union prisoners marched to Orange Court House, then Gordonsville, and from there took trains to Amelia, Lynchburg, and Danville, and ultimately to Andersonville. Unlike so many others, Northup survived Andersonville. He received a discharge from the army in June 1865. His book, Chronicles of a War Prisoner in Andersonville is available on GoogleBooks.
Spotsylvania Court House
The assaults by the Army of the Potomac at Spotsylvania Court House on May 10 and May 12 netted thousands of Confederate prisoners. Included among those taken on May 12 were Maj. Gen. Edward “Allegheny” Johnson and Brig. Gen. George “Maryland” Steuart. More commonly captured were the multitude of enlisted men and non-commissioned officers throughout the almost two-week fight at Spotsylvania. One such soldier was Sgt. Miles Sherrill, Company A, 12th North Carolina Infantry.
Sherrill, from Catawba County, North Carolina, enlisted at age 19 in 1861. The 12th North Carolina fought in the Seven Days’ battles, South Mountain, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, and the Wilderness. Other than a few hospital visits for illness, Sgt. Sherrill went unscathed. However, his previous good fortune ran out at Spotsylvania on May 9, 1864.
During an assault with Gen. D. R. Johnston’s Brigade, the 12th N.C. ended up flanked by the Union Ninth Corps. In the fight Sherrill received a grievous wound to the left knee. According to his service records, a shell fragment caused the damage. Sherrill remembered years later: “As our troops fell back, Sergeant Silas Smyre and Corporal E. G. Bost endeavored to carry me from the battlefield. They were so exhausted from marching and fighting that they could not hold me up so as to prevent the crushed leg from dragging on the ground. To protect them from being captured, I begged them to leave me to my fate.” Without water, due to a bullet hole through his canteen, Sherrill lay on the field until overpowering thirst and the fear of bleeding to death caused him to call to the enemy and surrender.
Operated on the following day, an amputation procedure under chloroform that took his left leg off at the thigh, Sherrill remained in a field hospital for “two or three days” until taken on an excruciating ambulance ride from the field hospital to a landing. He then traveled by boat to Alexandria. Sherill spent about three months recovering at the Marshall House hospital, the site of Elmer Ellsworth’s death in 1861. Sherrill next spent time at Lincoln Hospital in Washington City before he received crutches and a transfer to Old Capital Prison. In November 1864, Sherrill received another transfer, this time to Elmira prison in New York state. Fortunately for Sherill, his stay at Elmira proved rather short as he was formally exchanged in February 1865 and returned home. Sherrill eventually became the North Carolina state librarian. He died in 1916. His account is available in A Soldier’s Story: Prison Life and Other Incidents in the War of 1861-1865, which was published in 1904.
“We lost several killed, great many wounded, most of them thrust with bayonets and nearly all prisoners. . . .” Capt. Asbury Hull Jackson, Asst. Comm. of Sub., Dole’s Brigade, Rhode’s Division on the Col. Emory Upton-led May 10, 1864, assault at Spotsylvania.