Prisoner of War

[JAMES HUFFMAN of Naked Creek, Page County, Virginia, was just past his twenty-first birthday when, on June 17, 1861, he enlisted in Co. I, 10th Virginia Infantry, of Kirby Smith’s brigade and Joe Johnston’s division. He participated in the first and second battles of Bull Run, Chancellorsville, Fredericksburg, Spottsylvania Court House, and many lesser engagements, escaping wounds but not sickness. Fever sent him home after the first battle of Bull Run, here described. This narrative is selected from a longer manuscript account of war and reconstruction, written late in life by Mr. Huffman for the information of his family and with no thought of publication. — THE EDITOR]


THERE were about eighteen of us went out together as recruits for Co. I, 10th Virginia Infantry. We joined our regiment below Winchester. About this time the ranks were very much reduced by sickness—mostly measles and mumps. Every vacant house in Winchester was filled with patients. While we were lying around, we lived on flapjacks, hard enough when cold to knock a Yank down at short range. Beauregard was being hard pressed by the noble army under McDowell at Centerville. About July 19, we started on the famous march to Manassas. After getting strung out along the pike we were halted, and the order was read to each regiment that we were on a forced march to reinforce Beauregard at Manassas Junction. We evaded the Shenandoah River and pressed onward until we came to Piedmont, where we were put on trains. When we arrived at Manassas, we were nearly famished for water. I took a half-dozen canteens and went to several springs so crowded I failed to get any. Hurried on back to find the brigade gone.

When we got off the train, we had lined up and stacked arms. I thought I could get a little water to quench our thirst, but alas! no water — and now a four or five mile race in dust, shoe deep, to save the day, for our men were being beaten back. The brigade gone, I had to run with the canteens jangling about me, and when I overtook them they were double-quicking as rapidly as the men could stand, with such a cloud of dust that one could hardly see them. Running with baggage and equipment, they were almost dying from thirst. The wounded were coming to the rear — some completely whipped, saying, ‘You will all be killed.’ Others looked as though they were just out of a butcher pen; they would cry, ‘Hurrah, boys! Give it to them!’

We were on the left and they were forcing our men back in confusion. Five companies of our regiment were taken to support a battery which was badly cut to pieces. We marched on the extreme flank, our brigade battery playing on them beautifully. After firing a few rounds, we charged; their lines began to waver, then broke and ran. We pressed them across the Stone Bridge in a wild panic; they were falling over each other to get back to Washington. The victory was won; the Grand Army’s cry of ‘On to Richmond’ had been changed to ‘Off for Washington.’ So certain were they of victory that Congressmen, fine ladies, and civilians had driven out to witness the defeat of the Rebels and had brought all kinds of eatables — baskets of champagne and other liquors, fireworks to celebrate the glories of the Union and the downfall of Treason.

President Davis, Johnston, and Beauregard passed us on the field. After following them some distance beyond the Stone Bridge (Bull Run and the Yanks, too), we returned to Manassas, where I dropped exhausted.

The boys got supper and called to me to get up and eat, but I could not. I lay on the ground all night in the rain, and next day marched in the pouring rain and camped in a wheat field. We got a shock of wheat for a mattress on the wet ground. Next day, the twenty-third, we marched to Fairfax Station. Here I suffered dreadful aches and pains.

My father came to see who was left after the slaughter. He knew that I had typhoid fever, but was powerless to do anything and returned home. A day or two after he left, orders were that all must go on drill. By this time I was very bad, so I hobbled to the doctor’s tent near by and was sent at once to the railroad station, used as a hospital. Then I lost my reason, but have a slight recollection of being put in an ambulance and taken to a country log house, where I was as crazy as the bugs that had command of the house.

My father came again to get me. Well, Father hired a one-horse wagon to haul me to Gainesville and he furnished a big chaff tick. They laid me in this onehorse train and started. A bed could not be had that night for love or money, so I had to lie on the floor. He made a pallet for me in an old, dirty boxcar, on some boxes of soap. A beautiful young lady, seeing me prostrated, made a pretty bouquet of flowers and handed it to me, which was the best medicine I had taken and helped me wonderfully on my way home. I kept them until they dried up and fell to pieces and I often thought I would try to hunt up that lady.

Father had left the one-horse carriage. After moving boards from the back seat to the front and doubling a feather tick on the boards, we started out tolerably comfortable. But just think of it! A thirty-mile trip, and the greater part of the road hilly and rough. But Mother was at the other end of it and that stimulated me, for I had not seen her since I entered the army. I stayed at home until I was well and made good use of my time with the ladies. In October I rejoined my command again, in camp near Centerville.


Before we left winter quarters (18621863), I was sent home, against all the protests I could make, to gather up the absentees and all others subject to military duty. It was the most unpleasant duty of the war — taking men from their mothers, sisters, and wives, amid all kinds of abuse and cursings, resistance, bushwhacking, and everything to make the duty anything but pleasant. I would much rather have stayed in the ranks and taken my chances.

Our work extended from near Staunton to down below Strasburg and from the top of the Blue Ridge to the top of North Mountain. Much of it had to be done at night. It was hard service and we gained many personal enemies, some of whom later resorted to private injuries, I being a victim of a loss by fire to the amount of $4000. Some of the laggards were armed to the teeth. Many of our catch were not much good; some ran away again and hid in the mountains, others deserted through the lines and turned traitors, while some became good and true soldiers.

This incident occurred in May 1863, just above Strasburg on the river near Fisher’s Hill. There was a very aristocratic family in a big fine brick house on the river bottom, the home of Major Stover, a prominent officer of our regiment (later killed). The man we sought had married Stover’s sister, and they were still at the Stover home. Our sergeant did not like this man, Funk, for anything. We went there, arrested Funk, and took him to our temporary headquarters in a little church. It was warm, and we were very tired from loss of sleep. I was left on guard while the others were stretched out on the seats, sleeping sweetly. While sitting in one of the seats, I fell asleep, and the next thing I knew Funk had gone without saying good-bye to anybody.

A day or two later we went around in the hills, behind and below Strasburg, all night, getting back about eight o’clock in the morning (Sunday) with several fellows we had taken. Sergeant Spangler stopped at home as we came through town. I told the boys I would walk on and see if I could see anything of Funk. They laughed at me. I went slyly toward the house, which was in from the road, and came right up on Funk as he came out to the well to get water. He must have just come from hiding, thinking we were gone. He had on only pants and shirt, no hat or shoes.

I told him he was the man that ran off from me the other night. ‘Oh, no,’ he said, ‘I am not.’ ‘Yes, you are the man and it is no use to parley.’ Then he begged me to let him dress.

Well, I hated to act mean among good people and I let him go in. His motherin-law came out to entertain me, which put me on nettles. I began to think there was a plot. I left her and walked to the other side of the house, to find Funk loping down through the soft mellow cornfield. I told him to stop or I would kill him, but he had about a hundred yards start and kept on, dodging as he ran.

I raised my little carbine, took aim, and fired; it just blew the ball out and that was all. The gun was issued to me by the Provost Marshal and was probably loaded at the beginning of the war. Funk ran and I ran until my tongue began to lop out. I was obliged to walk, because of carrying all my equipment. Then I got into a ravine, six or seven feet deep, and was delayed by that.

After I scrambled out, Funk was nowhere to be seen. As I walked, chewing the thing over in my mind, I spied him along the river bank under the roots of a big, undermined tree. I told him I was going to kill him. He begged and crawled out up the bank, all muddy. I softened a little, but made him walk two steps ahead while I followed with gun cocked. He was a large, rawboned man and I could see him eyeing me for a chance to fall upon and overpower me. He had the strength, but not much nerve. I had enough nerve, but too much sympathy.

After jogging along awhile, Funk began to beg to go to the house and dress. I softened and consented, for he was in a deplorable condition. His wife and mother-in-law would not do anything for him now, but seemed as mad as hornets and not at all disposed to try to entertain me. We finally landed at the little church and were greeted with wild shouts of ‘Hurrah’ by the boys. My reputation was redeemed. We turned Funk over to the Provost and I heard later he got a government job where there were no bullets singing.

Some time after this, I was ordered to report to the army which had just returned from the Gettysburg campaign. I joined the company in the latter part of July somewhere near Warrenton. Early in the autumn we were camped about a week on the bank of the Rapidan, just above Orange Mill. The whole army had to be reorganized, as the hard campaign and hard fighting had reduced the ranks to half in some commands.

On or about the twenty-sixth of November, Meade crossed the Rapidan with his whole force, thinking of surprising Lee, who had his army scattered up and down the river. While our little division of three or four brigades under Edward Johnston was marching along the road, not knowing the Yanks were near, we were attacked by French’s corps and had to front load and go right into it, hot. We buckled up against the whole push. As we were about to be beaten back, Johnston ordered a charge. We pressed them back, probably a half mile or so, and held them until night while Lee was bringing up his men and forming a line along Mine Run. Our little company lost one or two killed and several wounded. Fighting against overwhelming numbers, we gave them all the lead we had and the bayonet.

Here is where I had twenty-five holes shot in my shirt. (Now don’t say I am lying until I explain.) It was nearly dark and we had about exhausted our ammunition. Firing had slackened, and as I turned half around, probably to ask someone for a cartridge or two, a ball struck my knapsack, going through my folded shirt and, turned away from my body, passing through again. The holes were all the damage it did.

After dark, Johnston acted a little deception by taking the brigade on the extreme right and marching along the entire line, as if new forces were being brought in to relieve us. The whole division marched away and we took our position in the main line.


In May our brigade packed and left winter quarters for the last time. We were now facing one of the hardest struggles of the war, with almost daily fighting. Who of the stalwart and robust would be sent to their long homes and who would escape the deadly missiles? No one could tell.

Had about twenty or twenty-five miles to march. The first view was of our Colonel Warren, Captain Sellers, and several other officers and men of our company and regiment, all lying in a row in silent death. These men had stood together with us in many hard-contested battles. Such scenes are horrible to look upon, yet after the hardening processes of soldier life one can sit down alongside them, eat, and relish his meal, as we did that evening.

After relieving our hunger, we took our places in the broken ranks and were constantly in line. Charge after charge was made here. They were determined to force our lines. The ground was strewn thick with bluecoats.

Our men lay still here until the Yanks got close. Then the whole division fired and charged. The Federal lines were broken and retreated in disorder. But they had so many troops that another fresh line was pushed forward and so kept the fighting up continually until they had been repulsed six or seven times. The roar of musketry was beyond comprehension or description. Cannon could not be used much in these thickets and jungles. After great slaughter, they moved very quietly to our right, aiming to get near Spottsylvania Court House. But we moved as they moved, and again blocked the way, taking our position in their front and quickly entrenching. Here the country was more open and artillery could be used to a better advantage.

We had been in the line five days with almost continual fighting. The line here included ‘the bloody angle.’ Late on the evening of the tenth, a desperate charge on the centre broke our lines and arrived in Johnston’s rear, when we about-faced and drove them back to the angle as far as our lines reached.

Above the angle we could not drive them. They were pouring mortal volleys into us. Several new lines charged up in our front, which caused a triple fire on our division. Our men gave back without my knowledge, as I was busy loading and firing, near the angle by the side of our flag. after these new lines of Yanks had charged, I looked around to see what our men were going to do, to find myself and four or five others perfectly surrounded. The Yanks above the angle had crossed and were thick as bees in the woods behind me.

When the cloud of Yanks crossed our works, demanding surrender, there was one of two things to do instantly: surrender or be riddled with bullets. Well, I dropped my musket and left there in extra-triple-quick time, with holes in my clothes and a bruise on my shoulder that turned black and was as large as the palm of my hand. When our men rallied and poured forth volleys, I received a ball or piece of shell across my thigh about six inches above my left knee, on the outside. This wound disabled me.

Thus on the evening of the tenth of May, 1864, I ended my days of soldiering in the army and became a prisoner of war, lying on the wet ground with a very sore wounded leg.


When we got to the rear, the whole earth seemed to be alive with Yankees. The roads, creeks, and branches were a thin loblolly of mud and slush through which we were forced, sometimes up to our knees. This so angered me that if I had been back in ranks again I would have fought to death rather than be under control of heartless brutes. After several days of this, we were taken on a boat over to Point Lookout.

Grub was short, and treatment rough. Some of the Rebs took in the situation and labored hard for the elevation of the men, physically, mentally, and spiritually. We were organized into companies and divisions; each company had a religious man appointed to look after the welfare and health of the men and report any sickness or suffering from want; each division had a preacher to preach to them and comfort any that might be sick. On Sunday afternoon at public service, each minister made a report of his division, of their welfare, health, morals, and prospect of spiritual advancement. Each company would have morning prayers and song service before roll call. These services were very refreshing and well attended.

Point Lookout was dreadfully hot in summer and cold in winter. The water had copperas in it to the amount of a wheat grain to the pint in some of the wells, so it was not a very healthy place. One thing we did highly appreciate. They opened the gate on Chesapeake side on pretty days so we could go in the bay swimming from nine till three.

A bitter pill was the Negro guards. They became so mean that we stoned them of nights until they had to take them away, after a time, and put white guards over us. Corporal Dick got killed there, and others of his race ought to have met the same fate. There was a graded road or street in front of the cookhouses. A Negro guard was placed there to keep the men from going to the cookhouses between meals. As there were about 8000 men here, when they were going and coming, this road was crowded to its utmost. One day when a man got to the edge of this Negro’s beat, the latter fired into the crowd, killing one man and wounding four or five others. This happened right by my side.

Many times Negro guards around on top of the wall would recognize their masters, saying, ‘Bottom rail on top now.’ Some very impudent, others rather sympathetic.

We had a thoroughly disciplined day school and a competent teacher for any branch of study. This organization was so complete that triflers could not get in. I built my future hope on it. Mr. Morgan, a little man from South Carolina, was a Christian and patriotic soldier at the head of all that was good and noble in the organization of this camp. He had great difficulties to overcome with the Federals, but his energy overcame them all. He obtained a large building for a day school and preaching, and also textbooks. These were obtained mostly from our warm friends in Baltimore.

I hated to leave that school, but on the third of August I was driven on a big vessel, like any other livestock, not having room to lie down full length to sleep, and sailed for New York, landing at Jersey City. There I was put aboard a train for Elmira, New York. We were two days and a night going. The men were almost starved when we arrived at Elmira.

This camp, to look at, would seem a very healthy place, but it was just the reverse. The death rate was much higher than in the army during active hostilities. About half of us Virginians died here in eight to ten months, and I think three quarters of all Southerners in the same length of time. Of our company, half died. In the winter, a large number of North and South Carolinians were captured at a fort on the North Carolina coast, hale, hearty-looking fellows as ever were, but yellow from lying in the trenches. These men crowded us very much at first, but in two to three weeks most of them died. The well water looked pure and good, but was deadly poison to our men — thousands taking chronic diarrhea and all kinds of bowel and kidney trouble. We had smallpox present almost all the time. One doctor there said he killed more Rebs than any soldier at the front.

Half or more of the well men were earning money one way or another. When first put in prison, we stood around and looked at each other, not knowing what to do except to await the call to the mess house to get the little mite allowed each man. Fortunately there were some mechanics, jewelers, who procured some tools — I don’t know how — and went to work making pretty things and selling them. We looked on with stomachs pinching until the thought came, ‘I wonder if I could make anything. I will try.’ I had never done anything but run sawmills, haul logs, and farm. I had no tools, no material, and was shut up in prison. How could I do anything? Hunger puts the mind to action. Mind says to nerves and muscles, ‘Get a move on and try.’

I got a big six-inch spike nail and drove it through a neat stick. This was my hammer. I got a file at the store. Out of two spike nails I made a neat pair of pincers, broke the point off of needles, and fastened them in a rod. Bow and sweep completed a drill, and a pocket knife made up the outfit, with which I made nice rings that sold at good prices. I mention this to illustrate the energy of thousands who worked up beef bones, horsehair, little scraps of lumber, pearl, silver, gold, gutta-percha, and other waste, into fancy articles the fastidious appreciated. Some of us were manufacturing, some selling at wholesale, some retailing, and altogether making a perfect network of business.

Yet there were a lot of drones or lifeless, do-less persons who moped about, pining away for want of food, losing their humanity, eating almost anything a brute would eat. These were known by their pallid color and lifeless movements. Most of them died there, not from disease, but pining away for lack of food, sending word to their friends at home that they were being starved to death.

Our manufactured articles were purchased mostly by outsiders. The guards bought largely and sold again to others outside. At first it was hard for visitors to get in. High observatories were built on the outside and the owners charged admission fees for people to go up and look at the Rebs. No doubt the reader thinks my anxiety for school soon waned away. The authorities here would not let us organize anything. I got a slate and an arithmetic and studied with the assistance of friends.

Another fellow and I read the Bible, sang a hymn, and had prayers at night. There was not the religious feeling that had existed at Point Lookout. We kept this up until I was assigned to attend the hospital wards, where we read and had prayers and song service for the patients — sick and dying men whose friends were a thousand miles away. Four of us would go together and attend three and four wards each night. Other groups would attend the other wards, so all hospital wards had services each night, twelve or fourteen in all. Few of these sick ever went away.


From the first of December, 1864, to the last of February, all the snow that fell lay on the ground packed down, three or four feet deep. The weather was so extremely cold that some of the men froze their feet while standing on the snow and ice at roll call of mornings. The last of February, I was elated over being on the list to be exchanged. Everything was all ready and waiting for the government train, when a warm rain set in and melted the snow in the Pennsylvania and New York mountains.

The river banks began to overflow. Water spread over the wide bottom, sweeping away our pest hospitals, and over the prison walls to the foot of our hill. It rose until our entire camp was under water. The sick were taken out in boats and a great many died. Our number had been greatly reduced by sickness and death, so that we could all get in the second and third tiers of bunks. In this position we had to remain until the water receded, and food was brought in on boats. The railroad down this river to Harrisburg was torn to pieces, much of it carried away. This foiled my hopes, and my exchange never came.

As soon as the water began to fall, some of the boys waded in and got some choice hams intended for Yankee officers. Perhaps you can form some idea of the mud left all over the camp, in the buildings, everywhere you would turn your eyes. Still we had to live or die in it. Some of us lived, but we had lost much of our humanity. The death rate was about thirty-two a day for a while.

After the big flood we were forbidden to organize in any way by which we could have made better use of our time. We dragged along through March into April, when Lincoln was assassinated — on the night of April 14, 1865. All Southerners, prisoners and all, were accused of the crime and made to suffer for it.

On June 23, 1865, I took leave of Elmira Prison. I got home on the thirtieth, being seven days on the road, to find destruction, waste, and poverty. Nothing to do with. The whole estate practically lost. There was no time to waste, for the country was stripped, and bread must be dug from the soil. Everybody was living short. There was no money; the start must be made from the bottom. I went to work with a will.

Even preaching and Sunday school had gone down at our church. Almost all the families on the creek had lost some of their members during the war, either being killed or dying of disease, and they had lost interest in everything except the necessaries of life. Many of the church members had become cold and careless and do-less, with shadows of gloom resting upon them. There was one preacher who preached once a month. I determined to revive a deeper interest, spiritually; one preaching day before the benediction, I organized a Sunday school.

While I did not feel worthy, I resolved to do all I could, and went to work in earnest. After we selected a full choir of workers, we met each Sunday morning. It was a hard tug to start. However, our labors were most abundantly blest with a great revival, in which nearly all of our Sunday school were converted and brought into the church. All the old, cold, lukewarm, and backsliding members were happily reinstated and former happiness restored. This was part of the reward for the trials, temptations, sore afflictions, and bereavements suffered in the ups and downs of my long life.