Dr. Elisha P. Clarke — My Capture

My Capture: May 17 to June 17, 1864
By Dr. E. P. Clarke, Asst. Surg. 6th Mass. Cav., 31st Mass. Vols.

Elisha P. Clarke Assistant Surgeon Res: Milford (Image from William M. Russo Collection)

Elisha P. Clarke
Assistant Surgeon
Res: Milford
(Image from William M. Russo Collection)

On the 17th day of May 1864, occurred the battle of Marksville. Our army had been on the retreat from Grand Corps [sic: Grand Ecore]; the Rebels had been following us up attacking our rear and trying to cut off any portion of our men who loitered behind.

Sometimes, as at Marksville, it amounted to a battle, when the Cavalry, which formed the rear guard, had to be supported by infantry and artillery, and a stand made until the enemy was beaten back or held in check until our wagon train and the main body of the army had advanced and left the way open in front. Sometimes the enemy was found in front who made feeble attempts to check our advance. Such was the situation at Marksville. Sharp fighting occurred and one division of infantry and one section of artillery had been sent back to support the Cavalry. Our Regiment, the 6th Mass. Cavalry, was with the Cavalry. I knew not how it was, but I think our regiment was well to the rear and in the fight. This left Dr. E. C. Bidwell and myself separated from it and following after the main force. An orderly came from Dr. Bidwell to go and see some officer who was wounded, this leaving me entirely separated from any member of my regiment. I then followed slowly in the rear of those in front supposing my regiment would soon come up with me, until I came to a road running at right angles with the one we had been following. The road intersected ran north and south. As I was at the extreme rear, I looked each way and seeing a company of our men of about fifty, perhaps forty, rods at the north, supposed our army had taken that road. Then I came up with the men I found they were Cavalry belonging to a New York Regiment with a Lieut. Colonel in command. They were dismounted and I supposed awaiting those in the rear to come up. So I dismounted and waited, too. I learned afterward that the army had gone by the south road and that this company had been left to guard our left flank. Just how long I had been thus waiting I do not know, it might have been a half an hour or more, when the cry arose “The Rebs have cut us off,” Looking at that point of the road which intersected the one we were upon I saw a cloud of dust and [a] body of mounted men. Then, I think every one of us took in the situation. We mounted our horses in hot haste and put them at the tops of their speed and rode on and on, knowing we were going directly away from our friends and into an unknown and enemy country. The road ran alongside of one of those sluggish streams so common in the South called bayous. We sped up this road at breakneck speed. A mile or so up the road we passed a house upon the opposite side of the bayou from which two rifle shots were fired into our ranks at short range; the balls whistled, I thought, very near to me, and one poor fellow went down never to rise again. Shot dead. On we rode for about eight miles and then stopped, realizing that farther flight would be useless, gave ourselves up.

The Rebs came up one by one. A Lieut. in command inquired what regiment we belonged to, our rank, etc., etc. Learning that I was a medical officer, he said he thought I would be released soon. One Reb looked at my overcoat and seemed to take quite a fancy to it. He suggested that I would not need it as I was going to a warmer country, I had better give it to him. I told him I would refer the matter to his commanding officer. I heard no more about it after this. With saddened hearts, we retraced our steps slowly back. When we came opposite the house from which the shots had been fired, upon the piazza were two men clothed in grey homespun, and two bare-footed women with uncombed hair, and dressed in what I judged to be white sheeting which had been colored with some kind of bark. They were altogetner a bad-looking mess. They waved their hats and hands and shouted: “You’ve got the Yanks, You’ve got the Yanks. Bully for you, boys,” I do not think any of us enjoyed the demonstration, especially as our dead comrade still lay in the road where he had fallen, unburied. So we left him in silence and sadness. We continued our backward march to the point where I had entered the road, then turning to the right we travelled a mile or so, when we halted in a strip of wood. Here, we turned over our horses and equipment, in fact, everything that belonged to Uncle Sam. We were allowed to retain all our own personal belongings. This done, our men and the Rebs began to fraternize in the most friendly way. They entered upon barter and trade; our men had coffee and the confederates had tobacco, which each was glad to exchange for the other. After remaining here about an hour, we were ordered to march, which we did on foot. As the afternoon was nearly gone, we tramped on until evening when we arrived at Gen. Polenack’s Headquarters. He was said to be a French Prince. After supper of corn-dodgers and rye coffee, I asked permission of the officer in charge of the prisoners to visit the General, which was granted. Escorted by an orderly, I entered the General’s tent, saluting him as one soldier salutes another. He arose and I noticed that he was rather a tall, slightly built man with light hair and mustache, fair skin and grey eyes. His bearing was aristocratic. I informed him I was a medical officer, who had been captured in action that day. I wished to know my status as a prisoner, whether I was held subject to release or held as a prisoner of war — stating that it was understood by us that medical officers were non-combatants and not held as prisoners of war, but subject to release at a suitable time and place. He informed me that he did not know, but thought they were held as prisoners of war, at least your Government holds ours as such. They even put them into a slave pen in New Orleans. This was poor comfort for me and I saluted and retired. I soon stretched myself upon the ground with my overcoat for a blanket and my boots for a pillow, slept dreaming of home and loved ones. The next morning, we left General Polenack’s Headquarters and resumed our tramp over, to me, an unknown country and to an unknown destination. About the middle of the afternoon, we came near General Dick Taylor’s Headquarters. Gen. Taylor was, at this time, General-in-Chief in the Western District embracing Texas and Louisiana.

Lt. Gen. Richard Taylor, C.S.A. (Image Library of Congress)

Lt. Gen. Richard Taylor, C.S.A.
(Image Library of Congress)

We were halted at a building which had been used as a store, and went in to rest ourselves, while the officer went to make his report at Headquarters. While waiting here, the meanest thing happened that occurred personally to me during my captivity. I laid my overcoat on the counter which run around two sides of the room, resting myself upon it, also; happening to look around, I saw my coat disappearing under the counter in the hands of one of our men. I am glad to say he was not a member of the 6th Mass. I stepped around back of the counter pretty quickly and fetched my coat out, speaking somewhat sternly to the thief asking him what he was doing with my overcoat. Would you believe it? He was angry and had some notion of licking me, but when I straightened up my full six feet in height and looked into his eyes he thought better of it. The officer soon returned with an orderly from Gen. Taylor bidding me come to his Headquarters, where I was met by his Adjutant, and treated in a most courteous manner and assigned to a wall tent near the General’s to be occupied by myself and Father P.J.R. Murphy, Chaplain, 58th Illinois Volunteers, a Roman Catholic priest who was captured the same day I was at Marksville. The Adjutant asked me to see some of our sick men who were prisoners and to call on their medical director, for any medical supply needed. I visited the men and found them to be ill with dysentery, chills, fever, etc. I called upon the Medical Director for medicines and in a very pleasant way, he informed me that just now the medicine supply was very low his whole stock of medicine being nine three-grain quinine pills, which he very generously offered to divide with me.

Father Murphy proved to be a whole-souled comrade who gave and received sympathy in our mutual misfortunes in a manner that endeared him to me for all time. He was sent through the lines and released on the second or third day, bearing a letter from me to my wife which was received by her about four months afterward. I also sent a letter by him to Dr. Bidwell. I remained at Taylor’s Headquarters for three days, when the camp was broken up and I was sent to Cheneyville, a small village about twenty miles away, which distance I marched on foot in good style. On arriving at Cheneyville, I was quartered in a sugar house. Here I found four or five surgeons and about fifty sick and wounded men. During my stay in this place, I experienced great kindness, as we all did, from the people — had the liberty of the town, going where we pleased without any question. The officers even had invitations to visit in some of the families. After about three weeks, we were ordered to Alexandria; from there, down the Red River to the Mississippi. There, the prisoners were exchanged and Medical officers set free, as they were not held as prisoners of war. After a two days tramp, we arrived at Alexandria, one of the old towns in Louisiana situated on the Red River. Here we were quartered in a large, brick building, the upper part of which was occupied by Rebel prisoners, who had deserted; I think there must have been from four to six hundred of them. They were in close confinement, but were taken out at times and exercised in squads about the town. They were placarded with boards suspended from the shoulder, both upon the breast and back, upon which all sorts of inscriptions could be seen, such as: “I am a deserter.” “I deserted my country.” “I was false to my flag.””I fled from my Regiment when in the face of the enemy.” etc. Here, I was requested to give my parole of honor, which was made in duplicate, one was given to me and one returned by the Confederates. The following is a copy of the original, which I have carefully preserved.

“Confederate States of America.
District of Western Louisiana,
Alexandria, June 12th, 1864,
I, E. P. Clarke, Asst. Surgeon of the 6th Mass. Cavalry in the service of the United States of America, do solemnly swear and pledge this my parole of honor, that I will not leave the limits of the town of Alexandria, without permission previously obtained from the proper military authorities of the Confederate States of America; that I will not communicate any information to any of the enemies of the Confederate States of America, in writing or otherwise; that I will not attempt to escape, and that I will hold this parole sacred until revoked by the proper military authorities of the Confederate States of America.
So help me God.
E. P. Clarke
Asst. Surgeon 6th Mass. Cav.

Witnessed and approved by:
Daniel Scully
Capt. Com. Post”

The following day we embarked on a steamer down the Red River, which I think is fitly named, as its water is of a red bricky color. I enjoyed my passage very much, knowing I should soon be with my friends. In about two days we arrived at the mouth of the river where it enters into the Mississippi. Here, we found awaiting us a large steamer. No sooner were we within range when the air was filled with hardtack thrown at us by the hundred, and our fellows went for it greedily. I tell you it tasted about as nice as anything I ever put into my mouth. From this point, we sailed down the Mississippi to a place on its right bank called Morganza. Here I found my Regiment and received a welcome from both officers and men which I shall never forget. This day I shall always remember it being the 17th day of June. I had been gone just one month. The next day, Dr. Bidwell received the following letter:

“Vicksburg, Miss.

Dr. Bidwell,
Surgeon 6th Mass. Cav.

Sir: –
I enclose some documents from Dr. Clarke of your regiment, with whom I spent a few days in captivity, last week, among the Confederates. The Dr. was treated very kindly by the Rebs. He was captured on the 17th day of May, Inst. It was the intention of the Confederates’ medical director to send Dr. Clarke to the hospital at Cheneyville, to take charge of the Federal wounded. The Dr. was perfectly well on the 20th inst. when I left him at Mooreville.
Respectfully,
P.J.R. Murphy,
Chaplain 58th Ill. Vols.”

I was released unconditionally on the 21st.

This letter, upon its back, bears the following endorsements:

“Headquarters Cavalry Forces
19th Army Corps
June 18th, 1864

Received and respectfully forwarded
E. C. Bidwell, Surgeon, etc.

Dear Wife: Keep this as a memento of my captivity. It arrived twenty-four hours after my release.
E. P. Clarke, Asst. Surgeon”

Thus ends the chapter of my captivity.
E. P. Clarke,
Late Asst. Surgeon 6th Mass. Cavalry.

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