Joseph L. Hallett — Incidents of Prison Life

Joseph L. Hallett Res.: Springfield Occ.: Accountant  (Image courtesy Special Collections & Archives, Frost Library, Amherst College)

Joseph L. Hallett
Res.: Springfield
Occ.: Accountant
(Image courtesy Special Collections & Archives, Frost Library, Amherst College)

A few weeks after the capitulation of Port Hudson came the memorable Western Louisiana Campaign of 1863-4 — memorable for its long and fatiguing marches, sharp skirmishes and decisive battles.

By Special Order from Signal Corps Headquarters dated New Orleans, Sept. 18, 1863, my party took the train at Algiers for Berwick City, the place of rendezvous, preparatory to an advance into the Red River country. The success of Grant at Vicksburg and surrender of the Rebel forces at Port Hudson, had inspired the Army of the Gulf with ardent zeal and the troops were never in better trim for active campaign and were impatient for more field duty. The equipment under Generals W. B. Franklin, E. B. C. Ord, and other experienced Generals was all that could have been desired.

The Rebels having confiscated my diary of 1863, I am not able to give from memory all the details of the advance on Vermillionville, but [I] quote from a letter written Oct. 16th, 1863:

“Signal Station, six miles from Vermillionville.
It is three weeks since my last letter was written and, as John Brown would say, we have been “Marching on”. Success has crowned the army, thus far. Yesterday morning, the enemy,6000 in number, drove in our cavalry pickets and tried hard to flank us, but couldn’t come it [in?] on the Port Hudson veterans and they were driven three miles after six hours fighting. General Banks’ Headquarters are at Vermillionville with the 13 Corps. General Franklin is in command of a Division at Bayou Carrincrow, ten miles beyond. The country is flat and the atmosphere wavering like heat waves which make it difficult to see far and this station is midway in communication with both Army corps.

Have been here five days. The second day two confederate soldiers, waving white handkerchiefs, came in and gave themselves up as prisoners, being directed to our Camp the night previous by our Signal fires. [They] said they were sick of the war — that there was no hope for the confederate cause and wished to be paroled and sent home to their families who were suffering from want of food — hundreds would do the same, but feared ill treatment if they fell into our hands. We gave them a good breakfast of which they ate heartily — said they would rather be prisoners in our hands than in the Rebel army. General Franklin sent two cavalrymen to escort them to Headquarters.

The people hereabout are mostly of French descent and are in a sad plight for provisions. Coffee was $15 per pound, but is all gone. The family living here has a sick child, but can get no medicine. This is the effect of the blockade, as since Faragut opened the River, neither provisions or stores of any kind could get through our lines into Rebeldom.”

Our station was in an extremely exposed position and not the slightest hindrance to a Rebel visitation. General Franklin knew this, but refused our request for a Guard, saying that the Rebels would not make the attempt unless they knew the exact number and came with sufficient force to take us all. Poor consolation for my little squad of four men, including the teamster. The days were busily employed transmitting messages and our fears had become somewhat dispelled. On the night of the tenth day, a mist settling into rain came on, which made it impossible to signal.  We had orders to break camp the next morning, October 21st, and move to the front, and as we were very tired, the men were told to turn in and get as much rest as possible preparatory to an early start. The order was cheerfully obeyed and by eleven o’clock all were soundly sleeping dreaming of “home and mother.” The station was a deserted building which had been used for a store and our beds were the pine counters. At half past three o’clock, we were awakened by the rattling of sabres and tread of feet on the loose board floor. A second later, an officer stood over me pistol in hand, his men filing into the room with drawn sabres. The epitaphs [epithets?] used by the Rebel Captain in his commands to surrender would not look well in print — it was not the choicest language, but there was no mistaking the meaning — and with only one door to the room and it obstructed with Rebel arms, there was no way to escape. Of course, we obeyed orders and became involuntary guests of the Second Louisiana Cavalry and citizens of the Southern Confederacy. They gathered what equipments we had, demanded our despatches, and mounted on horses under close guard, we were hurried off over the prairie. They were evidently nervous, as in their haste to get off, they left our army wagon well-supplied with provisions, wall tents, and other stores.

My faithful servant Ned was asleep in the farther corner of the room and, awakened by the tumult, took in the situation and in the darkness slid into an empty dry goods box and when the Rebels left, made his escape. Running all the way to Camp, which he reached at daybreak, all color gone from his naturally black face, [he] excitedly explained, “Massa gone up for sho’.” A reconnoitering party was sent out by General Franklin, but the enemy with their prisoners were then ten miles away from the Federal lines. We breakfasted on the wing. About six o’clock, Colonel W. G. Vincent, commanding the regiment, sent for me saying it would be pleasanter to ride at the head of the column with the staff, which courtesy was appreciated, and soon joined him. He didn’t exactly apologise [sic] for the night’s intrusion, but made amends so far as possible by producing the limb of a chicken and hunk of cornbread, which was gladly accepted.

That day, we saw in the distance a cloud of dust rising from the dry road over which our army passed and were sick at heart for the separation. We rode until sundown without rest and camped, weary and hungry, near Washington, fifty miles from the signal station. Dismounting, we were conducted to a staunch corn crib built of logs, and put under lock and key. This seemed providential, as the building was partly filled with corn and we were hungry after the long ride. The chivalrous Colonel had, however, ordered otherwise, for before we had eaten our fill of corn, the guard unlocked the door and took me to a blazing campfire around which sat the Colonel and staff eating supper, of which I was invited to partake. The broiled chicken, roasted sweet potatoes, hot cornbread and corn coffee sufficed to dissipate hunger and produce more cheerful feelings. Returning to the Guard House, the rats were disposed to be social, but when they became acquainted with the strangers who had intruded on their den, they were more quiet and we soon dropped off to sleep.

Early next day, we were corralled and taken in charge by as rough-looking [a] fellow as we had ever seen. His attire was a red flannel shirt, leather trousers, slouched hat, top boots, and physique of the roughest sort, and wore a leather belt filled with cartridges, two pistols, and a bowie knife. His principal business was to hunt refugees for the Confederate
service and had shot and killed fifteen men in one week because they refused to join the Rebel army. His men were well-mounted and kept a keen eye on us while we walked.

We walked several days camping at night in the woods or fields, subsisting on what we could pick up, pecan nuts and sugar cane being our main dependance. At night, campfires were built of logs, beds of leaves gathered to lie on, and with feet to the fire, [we] slept warm and comfortably. Nothing of special interest occurred except that in the villages the people turned out to see the curiosities, having never seen any Yankees, and we were equally interested in seeing them. Passing through the town of New Iberia, our attention was attracted to a group of slaves that were being sold at auction from the steps of a public building. At the moment, a woman was on the block and the auctioneer’s sharp cry — going, going — sounded in our ears as we passed along the street.

We arrived at Alexandria October 28th, and were turned over to Captain Smith, Provost Marshall. Here, we occupied the second story of the Court House which stood in the public square. Our companions were deserters from the Rebel army, conscripts, murderers, thieves, and negroes; one aged white man wore a ball and chain, his crime being that he would not disclose the hiding place of his sons.

Happening to be the first officer captured in the campaign and for reasons that I could not explain, I was allowed some special privileges. [I] was taken into the street one hour every day under guard, and walked about the town both for exercise and public exhibition. Two rations a day of cornbread and jerked beef with beans for desert was the regular diet, while for pastime we chewed stalks of sugar cane which the soldiers used to toss up to the windows from the yard below.

My purse contained eighteen dollars in greenbacks, which was bartered for one hundred and twenty-five dollars Confederate money and I was permitted to take one meal a day at the public hotel, charges five dollars a plate, the guard standing behind the chair while I ate from the bill-o-fare.

Two weeks after our arrival at Alexandria, one thousand prisoners were brought in, among them twenty-six officers and Mr. Gatchell, reporter for the New York Herald. The enlisted men were put in a sugar house and the others in the Court House. As misery loves company, I was delighted to see so many friends and shook hands heartily as they filed into the room. Among the first to greet was Lieut. George H. Herbert of the Signal Corps, who had gone unaccompanied to look after my mule team and stores, which the Rebels had left, and was himself captured by a sharp shooter. We staid [sic] here a week longer and then took up our march Texas-ward and came to Natchitoches after four days’ tramp. Here, we were the guests of Captain Hatton who treated us as prisoners of war should be, himself having been a prisoner and not unmindful of the bountiful rations and care received while in the Federal keeping. We had cornbread, flour, beef and vegetables to eat and meal coffee to drink. One day, the Captain came to the Guard House with the unexpected, but cheerful word that there had been a “truce” between General Banks and General Dick Taylor of the confederate forces and we were to be exchanged, both sides having taken about an equal number of prisoners. Words cannot express the feeling of delight as the news came to our ears. Songs and other expressions of joy were indulged in, for we were to escape the Rebel stockade at Tyler, Texas, and it is needless to add that our shoes and wardrobe were pretty well demoralized. Gladly, we took up the line of march toward the Federal lines singing, “Tramp, Tramp, Tramp, the boys are marching. Cheer up, comrades, we will come,” and other patriotic war songs. [We] were not many days in reaching the flag of truce where the preliminaries of exchange were effected at midnight. We had sojourned sixty-six days in the Southern Confederacy and had walked five hundred miles. The 25th day of December was one of double rejoicing for we were again with our comrades under the old flag.

It is impossible, after a lapse of twenty-five years, to give many items of interest that happened then, but I recall one that was of special interest. Six miles east of Alexandria en route to Natchitoches, while resting a few moments by the wayside, a gentleman drove up and inquired if any one of the twenty-six were from New England. I was the only one to
answer, the others being from New York and Western Regiments. Giving my residence, he said he was from Springfield, Massachusetts, too. After some parleying with the Rebel officer, permission was given to ride in his gig with the promise to deliver me, again, to the guard at 12 o’clock. His name was Orrin Taylor and, as we rode along, [he] told the story of his life in the South. He was particularly anxious that his father should know that his sympathies were with the North — that he had kept from bearing arms by contracting to supply shoes to the Confederates, etc. Visiting Springfield in February, 1864, I met the father, who was rejoiced to hear from his son, and especially of his loyalty. Returning to New Orleans in March, among the first news from home was the death of this aged man.

I joined the forces which were then in the vicinity of Mansfield, retreated with the army to Alexandria, over the same roads I had so recently been escorted by Johny [sic] Rebs. At the latter place, I happily met Orrin Taylor, told him of my seeing his father and communicated to him the intelligence of his death. Taylor, thereafter, remained in our lines and went to New Orleans.

As before intimated, the officers of the Second Louisiana Cavalry were as courteous and respectful as could be expected under the circumstances. While they took our weapons of defence [sic], my diary, and despatches, we retained all personal effects.

I much regretted the loss of a valuable sword, presented by friends as our regiment was about leaving for the “seat of war in 1862.” Imagine my surprise when one day, after the close of the war, the express company handed me a package which was nothing else than the sword which was taken on the memorable morning of October 21st, 1863. It had unmistakable signs of having been in the Rebel service, being soiled with the red mud of Louisiana. Not a word came to tell who sent it. It is now cherished as a memento of “war times.”

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