“My Visit to Camp Ford, Tyler, Texas, and Incidents By the Way”
By John W. Gibbs Co. D
On the Red River Campaign in ’64, I was taken a prisoner while on a raid on the north side of the river. When taken, [I] was placed under a soldier to be taken back to their General commanding on that side of the Red River. One incident that I remember, in taking me back, the Reb that was in charge of me lost his way in the woods, and asked me if I knew where we were and where the road was. I did not. We saw a black man with two horses, halted him, and he allowed me to ride one of the horses. [We] Started with him for guide on our way again.
Soon, came to a road and followed it until we came to a house. We stopped and the guard asked an old man that had been sitting on the piazza, if he could give us something to eat, as he had had nothing that day and that I too, was hungry. The man said, “sit down and I will see”. He went into the house and I heard quite a discussion by him and his wife in regard to giving the Yank anything to eat, but she consented at last, and he came out and said we could have something in a short time. I laid down on the veranda and pretended to sleep, and heard the man and guard talking up my case and what was to be done with me. The talk was not favorable for a long life for me, as the man thought hanging or shooting would be about right in my case. After awhile, we were invited into the house, and the woman had set a bountiful table and said, for my benefit, that she had done the best she could, as we had taken or burned most all they had, which did not spoil my appetite; I expressed my sympathy for their misfortune and made a square meal. After dinner we went on our way, the negro ahead as guide, I came next, and the guard brought up the rear, and in this way we reached their General’s Headquarters. There, I was brought before him and examined and questioned as to Gen. Banks’ future movements and his plans for leaving or remaining in that part of the country. Guard said that I had told nothing but a pack of lies. He said Gen. Banks would have to leave Alexandria, La., where he then was, and the fleet would be left there, which seemed to please those present more than it did a day or two later when a courier came up and reported that the Yankee fleet was below the falls. The next day, they brought in four more prisoners. One of them was Capt. Hall (of Gen. Banks Staff, Asst. Adjt. Gen.), two 2nd Illinois men, and one 3rd Mass. Capt Hall had accompanied us on the road to Bynton’s Mills and where the 3rd Mass. soldier and myself were taken, and he went back with despatches the first night with an escort of ten men of the 2nd Illinois Cavalry. On their way back, they were challenged and, it being in the night, they could not see who it was that challenged them. The Capt. thought it was our picket, the men were for making a charge through them as they were sure that they were not their own men. The Capt. asked one of the men to go and answer the challenge. One of them did so. He rode out; was ordered to dismount and advance. He did so, and came up to a company of rebs, drawn up across the road. Their Capt. was the one that had challenged, and when the soldier reached him, the officer shot him. Then our men charged and part went through, and those that were brought into the rebel camp were those that I mentioned.
Gen. Banks and the army were at Alexandria, and the enemy were just above that place and their Gen. had stations in a line east and west, one on the east side of’the river and then another about five miles from the river on the other side. Then the next one was Gen. Taylor’s about ten miles to the west, and farther to the west was the Commanding General of their army, Kirby Smith. Orders came from General Smith to the General that had us, to send us to the next commander to him; so an escort of ten men took us to the river, crossed, and a guard received us on the other side and took us to their General’s headquarters — that made a ten mile march for us. This General’s name was Steele. He was a gentleman, a large portly man who received us under a large tree in the yard of his house. He sat down and talked with us, but asked us no questions, as he said we knew something that he would like to know but we would not tell him and he was too much of a gentleman to ask. After a while, he said that his orders on receiving us were to turn us over to Gen. Taylor, and called his Adjt. to detail a guard for that duty, and he said, that as we had come so far he might send a wagon ’round for our use. The Adjt. made objections to that and said that we could walk, as that was good enough for the d—— “Yanks”. After some talk, he went away and sent a guard and wagon to take us.
One thing happened the day before, as we were on our way. We saw a log house some distance from the road and it had a hospital flag on it. As we came opposite to it, we met one of their surgeon’s who said he had one of our men in that house who was mortally wounded. And said he was an Illinois man, and asked one of the guard to let one of the 2nd Ill. go and see him, so that if we ever got home we could let his people know of him. One of the men went with him and saw the wounded boy who came from the same state and town, and whose folks were near neighbors and so that was probably how his folks heard of their boy’s death.
We arrived at Dick Taylor’s Headquarters and were turned over to his body guard and were separately taken to his tent, questioned and cross-questioned, and the last word that he said to me was, “I will make you tell all that you know before I get through with you, and if Banks burns Alexandria when he leaves it as he has got to, I will string up to the limbs of these trees every prisoner I have; and on our saying that Gen. Banks had prisoners, he said, “It makes no difference. I shall have every one I have hanging to the trees if that place is burned.” We were then put in charge of the guard, and they were cautioned by their Capt. to look sharp for us and to let us play no Yankee tricks on them, which were always the orders on change of guards.
His body guard was Texas Cavalry. They gathered round us and soon we were as friendly as could be. One said “I will get you something to eat.” After a while, he came to us with some flour biscuit and Rye Coffee. Said that they happened to have a little flour, which was not often, and they wanted to give us the best that they had. We were getting along nicely with these men, and we hardly knew which were prisoners or guard. It was noticed, at last, by the officers, and we were moved to one side and a regular guard placed, and we were not allowed to go more than a rod from our tents.
All the while we were at the front with the men that did the fighting, we were treated well enough, but it was different when we were put under guards that had never fired a gun in battle. One day, they brought in two of their men under arrest and placed them with us and cautioned the guard to look out for them. They sat down with us, but would not talk. We thought that this was strange, as all that we had met before were ready and willing to talk with [us?]. This was the middle of the forenoon. These men laid down and made believe or did sleep. The Guard told us that they were arrested that morning for going to a house and by threatening, forcing the woman there to get them a meal. While there, she sent a slave to report them and a guard went out and brought them in. In the afternoon, the Capt. of the Guard came there with a dozen men, roused these men up, tied their hands behind them, took them out one side, stationed his men, and took one of the two in front of them, blindfolded him and shot him. They did the same, except blindfolding, with the other. He said to the officer, “Don’t cover my eyes, as I am not afraid of powder.” “Very well,” [he] stepped back, gave the order, “Ready! Aim! Fire!” and shot that one, and set a slave to bury them where they fell. Horses and equipments were sent to their Reg. with the order “Shot by General Taylor’s orders for pillaging”. That shows how strict they were with their own men, and I saw afterwards, when on the way to the prison pen, the guards were not even allowed to go into the enclosures about the houses. We thought if they shot their own men in that way, we were not sure of ever seeing God’s country again.
After a few days, we were sent to Kirby Smith, and stayed there until they had gathered up enough prisoners to make up a party to go Camp Ford, Tyler, Texas. The soldiers that I saw were armed with all sorts of arms, shotguns, and rifles of all descriptions. The one that had charge of us one day, had an old style Springfield musket with about six inches cut off the muzzle. When I said “that is a rather poor gun for a soldier,” he said, “that gun suits me, for when down to the front, if the officers come along the line and see a man with a rifle or any good gun they would say, “you go on the skirmish line,” and when they see my gun they say “you stay on the reserve.”
While we were there, one day they brought in 30 or 40 prisoners and they did not look like soldiers. The rebs chafed us about them, as they said they took those men off our picket line. It did make us mad and ashamed that they could take off our picket line, as many as that, without some one getting hurt. We said to the Capt. that we should be very grateful if he would not put them with us, as we were old soldiers and those were a disgrace to any army. He said we were about right, and he would place them under charge separate from us, for which favor we thanked him. We had to bear their pestering about those men for several days; but at last we got the facts, and then we could give them as good as they sent. One day, the guard that was over us was very sober; would not talk (which, by the way, was a very uncommon thing). At last, we asked him what the matter was with him, as he seemed so much different from the others. He said he was feeling badly and that he was one of those that took the men off our picket line. Tell us about it. He said, “Our Capt. proposed that night, as we were down near your lines, that we ride over and stir up the Yankee pickets, so we went on until we could see your pickets and continued to advance until fired on, and then quit. They did not notice us until quite near. When they challenged us for the countersign, we rode up and took them, and from them got the countersign, and went along and took all of that command. We sent them back and they told us that they were the last post, the next was another Regiment’s. We ought to have stopped then, but as we had done so well, had captured a Major that had come out to see that the men were all right, we thought we could get some more, so rode along until we came in sight of the next post. They did not challenge us, as we advanced and as they did not do this, we came quite near when our Capt. said, ‘Why don’t you challenge us?’ The reply was given and he said that one half of his company were killed and captured. That was the 2nd Illinois. They had heard the commotions in the lines next to them and, knowing that they were new troops, they rallied on their first post and when they spoke, knew what to do. After that, when they said anything to us about it, we would ask them why they did not get more?
These men were the 3rd Maryland Cavalry. It seems that they were gathered from hither and yon, Conscripts and Bounty Jumpers, and made a Batallion and were sent down there under a Major. They now had enough to make up a party to get to the stockade. We were ordered into line, and a company of Cavalry as guard went to the rear, marched to Grand Ecore and were put in the courthouse there. Stayed there until a boat came to take us to Shrevesport. When we arrived at Shrevesport, we were joined by other prisoners that had been taken up in Arkansas and on the river, also the gunboat Clifton’s men and others that were taken at the time we lost the Clifton in the Sabine River. That town was not such a place as I expected to see at the head of the Red River. It was in a dilapitated [sic] condition. One of the prisoners expressed the idea of the company when he said, “What Banks will want of this God forsaken place I don’t see”.
We were marched to the rear of the town and went into camp in the woods and here we had a sample of the food that they fed their prisoners on. Towards night they gave out rations, meal raw, without any cooking utensils. We five that had still kept together received for our ration that day and the next, four spoonsfull apiece, and we cooked ours in a primitive way. We mixed our meal with water on a rubber blanket and then plastered it onto pieces of bark about one half inch thick and set these around the fire, and when one side was done, peeled it off and set the other side out until done.
The next day, we moved on our way to Camp Ford. They gave us severe, long distance marches every day. The country through which we passed was very thinly inhabited. Persons travelling there, camp out, and there were regular camping places a day’s journey from each other, by a spring or stream. On our way, we passed through Marshal, the place that came into notoriety in the labor troubles five years ago. It was than a straggling village of a few dozen houses. We were halted before we reached the town for the purpose of making a display of the Yankees while passing through. We were closed up in two ranks and the guards at certain distance apart on each side and the order to them was “put the but [sic] of your gun on your knee” (with us, it would have been “advance carbines”). Thus we marched through the town and all the people turned out to see the “Yanks” as they passed by. That night, the first one died. He was sick that day and did not keep up and sat down beside the road. They ordered him to move on and when he said he could not, the man put a rope with a slip-knot around the sick man’s neck and started up his horse and the man was led in that way, and when we halted at night, the man dropped down in the road dead. The next day but one, another one went wild, suddenly dashed out of the line and was shot. But I will pass over the rest of the march.
We arrived at our destination at last, and when we halted on a rise of ground near that pen where we had a good view of the whole of it? I wish I could paint a picture of the
sight that met our eyes. The stockade was situated on the side of the hill facing south, containing about four acres. On the lower side, was the spring, which was near the fence, and across that end of the pen was a swamp place that we could not occupy. We were marched inside and divided into detachments of sixtys and given a number. Each 60 had given them an iron kettle that would hold six quarts, a skillet with a cover, (or what we would call a Dutch oven) and a wooden bucket. We stood there in line with a line of guards about us and looked at that crowd of men, many of them without a single rag of clothing upon them and others with the remains of a pair of pants, or a shirt or a few rags was all that many had. Men that had been there two years had had most that they had at the time they went there taken from them, and had nothing in the way of clothing since. Forty-five hundred men in that space would leave but little room for each. I saw in the crowd one of my company and I was allowed, as were others, to join detachments in which were men of the Reg. to which they belonged and there I found thirty-eight of our Reg’t. We had a little spot that we claimed as our own and had to watch it that others did not crowd us out. The stockade was built in the side of the forest and the trees inside and around it were used in its construction. About 12 or 14 ft. high on the inside, logs split in two and set close together with the split side in and the bark on the outside, high enough for the guards to be head and shoulders above it. The “Dead Line“ was an imaginary line said to be 15 ft. from it but it was not safe to go as near as that to it.
At Shrevesport, where we were joined by the other prisoners that day, there were about six-hundred of us. Part of them were from an Ohio Reg’t that were taken on a boat on the Mississippi River, and when taken the colors were taken from the staff and secreted on the person of one of the men so that the rebs did not get them. On the march they searched us four times for these and also took what other things they chose; but they did NOT get the flag. The last search but one, was just before we went into the pen.
The officer commanding the place was Col. Wright, a Kentucky man, and part of the prisoners in line were from the same place and town and were neighbors and friends before the war, and they had met there for the first time since the war. They called him by name and joked each other on the unexpected meeting, and the talk turned as usual on the slavery question. One of the men said “the niggers won’t fight.” The Col. said, “don’t you believe that, for I have three balls in my body put there by “niggers” at Fort Pillow. A short time after we were there, he was relieved and the cause was said to be that he was not allowed to provide for the prisoners as well as he wished to. The Col. that succeeded him had no conscience to be troubled in regard to those in the pen, and here my pen cannot write, nor can I describe, what a place a prison pen is. No one can possibly imagine what a hell on earth one of them is, unless he has been there. The food we had was meal and fresh beef and as there was no salt given, it was death to many. I sold my boots to one of the guard and with the proceeds bought salt for our men. Three dollars a pound for salt in confederate money. Those in our Reg’t were well fixed to what the most of the prisoners were.
We went down to draw our rations one day. The meal was in barrels, and one of our boys asked to have a barrel to carry the meal in. And after a good many promises that he would bring it back directly, was allowed to take one. We kept the barrel, and it would hold water, and as the spring did not give water enough to supply all, we would go in the night and get some and put in the barrel. So, the next afternoon, when others were out, we had someone guard it with a club to keep it. We had water for ourselves and those sick near us.
When Col. Wright was in command, wood was brought in for us, (that was stopped on his removal) and one day we had a stick of wood about six inches in diameter. We made a trough of that, and it was the rule of our squad that every one must wash all over and pick vermin every day or two, as we said there should not be any of us carried out with our toes tied together, if we could prevent it. One that got sick was sure to die, as when sick they would lose heart and run down very fast. I have seen men there that there was nothing the matter with, get down-hearted and lose spirit, and next would be sick and dead, and every morning those that had died since roll call the day before, were brought to the gates and there were hundreds there begging to be the ones to take them out and bury them. The reason was that they could get some brush or wood for shelter and fire.
Any trinkets were eagerly bought by the rebs. Such things as Yankee notions were not made south, and all kinds of trades were in operation. Our coat and blouse buttons at $5.00 a piece went quick, and tobacco was $5.00 per dozen leaves, so the buttons had to do. I saw a Reb who, in trading for buttons, had a number on his coat. Four behind were cut off and sold to him over again, and when he went out and showed the rest his purchases, they noticed the missing buttons behind, and to say that he was mad would hardly describe his state of mind.
I was appointed to draw the rations for our mess and I used to get the meal on a rubber blanket. We spread the blanket and with a spoon divided it into four piles and the meat in two pans, and then they were divided to each man.
There was an order, said to have come from the Col., that the guards that shot a prisoner for disobeying any rules of the pen, should have a furlough. He denied that he gave such orders, but some of them told us so, and one time for four days running, a prisoner was shot, and not one of the four was guilty of anything. The last one that was shot stood alone near the centre and one guard said to another, “See me drop that Yank,” fired, and killed him. We heard the shot and thousands gathered ’round the dead man, and one large man, a natural leader, as he was the largest and tallest man there, said to the crowd, “This has gone far enough; we will not stay here to be shot down like this; get clubs, axes, anything, and we will go out.” They had heard outside of the disturbance, and turned out the guard, and as that crowd of two or three thousand desperate men went for the gate, no such small line could stop them. The Adjt. of the post rode in with drawn revolver and ordered the men back or he would fire. Our leader just put his hand on his leg and told him to put up his revolver, “for if you shoot, we will tear you limb from limb.” By that time, the commander and our officers had arrived, and one of ours spoke to us for the Col., that if we would disperse he would give orders that no more should be shot, and any one disobeying the rules should he arrested and if guilty should he punished some other way. That satisfied us, as we were not ready to leave there, as the reb army was between us and our lines, and that time of the year there was nothing in the country to live on. I have always thought that we could have gone out that time without any loss, as the guards were old men and half-grown boys who would not face that crowd. A short time after, the guards were reinforced, and two howitzers were posted commanding the prison, and orders were given that any gathering in the pen of men and unusual noise, would he fired upon from those guns. They cut down our rations and put the screws on with a vengeance.
The 4th of July, at the centre of that pen, was a gathering of a mass of men from all quarters and no noise. Setting it small there were two thousand, and all of a sudden the stars and stripes appeared above the crowd, and were given three cheers, and as suddenly went down and the men scattered. The Reb officers on guard came on the double quick time for that flag, but did not get it. They made a search for it, but were unable to find it, and gave orders that no more rations should be given until the flag was given up, and for two days they starved us. Our officers told them that there was but one man who knew where the flag was, and no one knew who that man was, and that he would probably never give it up, and it was useless to starve the rest.
It had now come to the time of year that corn was in the roasting ear, and prisoners were missing at roll call. They had been missing all the while, but more were getting away now. They had a pack of hounds for the purpose of catching escaped prisoners, and after guard mounting, if any were missing, the dogs were let loose and their keeper took them in a circle round the pen. They would take any track; if he thought it was the right one let them go: if not, called them off until they started on the right one. The men went with the pack, and so the prisoners had no chance, and the orders were that a prisoner, caught five miles from the stockade, was not to be brought in, so we did not know what success they had, as the rebs always said that they caught them. I have seen men go out with that pack to hunt down refugees, and have seen them driving them bound before them into camp, men in rags and torn by the dogs. None were exempt, but were conscripted and forced into it. How they would fight; but they did not get all that got away. I expect that a small number of those that got away were overtaken.
Occasionally, the post boy would come by; then they would get Houston papers and someone would get on a stump outside and guards gather round him as he read the news; and of all the lies, great Confederate Victories, and great slaughters of Federals. As a specimen, I remember the paper reported a great Confederate victory in Virginia. It said that the Federal army made an assault on Richmond under Burnside. They were repulsed and most of them killed, were captured, and could never be got together again to face the victorious southern army. We had gathered as near as we dared to them so as to hear what was read, and when that was read we cheered, and they asked us why we were pleased with such news? We told them, that with all the victories that they claimed, our army was still pressing them back and had arrived at Richmond. We thought our army had gained considerable out of the great Confederate victories if they had fought at Richmond.
Rumors of an exchange were ’round, and for a wonder it was so. The Generals had agreed to exchange one thousand men, and arrangements were made to take a thousand out. They would have to march to Shrevesport, so no sick or feeble ones could he taken, and so they picked the men, not all from one Reg’t, but a few from this and that one, and it was a sight to see men at the gate, that were sick and feeble, trying to stand and not show their true condition, so as to get passed. Our Reg’t did not expect to get out that time, as Capt. Hall had been in to see us and he had tried to get us out, as we were taken when he was, but without success. At last they had the prisoners in line ready to start. We had sent word by those that we knew, so that our friends would know of our whereabouts. I was down by the gate looking out at them in line, and wishing I was with them. As a last thing, to make sure, they counted them and found that they lacked 39 men, and Capt. Hall suggested that there was just that number inside, all of one Reg’t (which was ours). “Well, as we are ready to start, we will take them if they have just the number.” An orderly came and called for us to come out and sign our parole. I was not slow to get our boys together and we went out. As one of our men had died, we took a sailor, one of the Clifton’s crew, in his place, and made him take oath that he would answer to the name of John Jones, and if they had the record of the death of J. Jones he should step out. They had no such record, so he came out with us. Then for some unaccountable reason, we were all turned back into the stockade again, and we thought that was all up, and we were down in the mouth to think the thing was over with. The next day, we were given three days rations and started for the mouth of the Red River. Before we left, we found some of our Reg’t that had been sent in from the hospital and one that we all knew. He was Orderly for Gen. Banks, an English soldier that wore on his breast a medal received from service in the Crimean War. He had been captured after having his furlough, and had been stripped of all of his clothes and given rags in place of them. Had lost his medal and did not belong to any detachment. To him, we left our palace and furniture, and went with him to the gate, and through the kindness of the Officer of the Day, his medal was returned. We made long marches until we reached Shrevesport, and were to be carried the rest of the way on a steamer. One steamboat took part and started. They had another boat with a Capt. and Pilot but no crew. After sometime, we anxiously waiting, they proposed that if we would work as crew, they would take us, if not, we must remain. To those that would work they would give $5.00 per day or a drink of whiskey ($5.00 in Confederate money was the price of a drink). We accepted the offer and started. The Capt. said that if we would give him steam enough that we would go by the other boat before we arrived at Alexandria. We could not get there any too quickly, so we made short stops for wood, as all that were able would help, and as the other crew were slaves, we soon overtook them and went by to show what Yankee crews could do .When we arrived at Alexandria we landed above the falls. The dam was still there as good as ever. They could run boats down, but could not run up again. We marched down to the town and stayed there, and that night the report spread that the exchange was off, and four died that night.
The rations that we received when we left the pen did not hold out to Shrevesport, as a good many ate all they had, the first day out; we had more at Shrevesport, and we were out again at Alexandria. While there, in the night, a wagon came to where we were camped, and we were called out to get rations. I saw there was but one wagon, and knowing that was not enough to go ’round, when I was near. But I did not know where the man was that had the rubber blanket that I got the meal in, so I pulled off my shirt, turned it and tied the sleeves around the neck, held it up and got meal for my squad. The meal did not hold out for all, but with us we had meal as well as some meat.
Again we went aboard other boats and started for the Mississippi, but as neither of the pilots had been over the bar that season, they ran where the channel was when they last crossed, and as a result both boats were aground. But right out in the Mississippi was one of our Monitors and the old flag flying. We thought our troubles would soon be over. As soon as they saw us from the Monitor, an officer came over to us in a boat, and the Reb officers took him into the cabin. We were worried because we saw no men in boats to give for us. When he came down, we crowded by the guards and asked him if we had to go back. He said, “I do not know anything about this exchange, but you need not go back; if they attempt to take you, every man of you jump overboard, there is not three feet of water anywhere about here, and I will have boats out to pick you up”. One of the prisoners said, “The guards will fire on us.” The Officer said, “my men are going to stand by my guns all day and if there is a shot fired on these boats, I will blow them to h—.” That settled the old question of our going back. A good many had had nothing for two days to eat and were starving. Our Officer when he came on board was taken aback when he saw men lying almost dead all around the deck. He expressed his opinion of their treatment to us when in the cabin, in very plain English, but for all they had not had anything to eat, that was not what was first called for. As the sailors were alongside, they asked if they had any tobacco. One of them came on deck, and with his sheath knife cut up what tobacco he had into chews, and took his mates’ tobacco also, and by the time it was all cut up, there was a contented lot sitting on that deck chewing, and you could hear them say, “This is something like it. Ain’t had a chaw like this for two years.” In the afternoon, one of our Quartermaster’s boats came up with the prisoners to give for us. She tied up a short distance below us, and while our Officers and the Reb Officers were making arrangements for the exchange, we went ashore, and that flag that they had tried so often to get, was fastened to a stick and we surrounded it and cheered it again and again, and waved it in plain view of those Reb Officers and men, and dared them to come and get it now. We marched down to our boat with our flag in our midst. A guard was placed to keep the two lots separate, we on the land and the Rebs. on the boat. Boxes of hard tack were broken on the boat and contents thrown to us and we soon had all we could eat. We thought at the time that they ought to give us more than bread, but they were wiser than we were, for if we had been allowed to eat all that we wanted,we should have killed ourselves.
After the transfer, we started for New Orleans, and it was the most joyful trip of the many that we took on the river. On arriving at New Orleans, we marched down and halted in front of the St. Charles Hotel, and we were inspected by the General Commanding and the Surgeon General, who condemned the whole lot as unfit for duty. One thing that the men were questioned about were the sores on their arms. One time in the stockade a man was said to have a dread of the Small Pox, and all the prisoners were ordered to come to the gate and be vaccinated. Those that went and had it done had terribly bad arms and could not wear anything over the arm, and others had it break out in other places. I heard that the matter was brought to the attention of the Reb General by our General, but do not know. In what I have written, I have intended not to write anything but what I personally saw or heard.
— John W. Gibbs
For more information about Camp Ford, Tyler, Texas, visit the Smith County Historical Society website: