The past few posts have given us glimpses at the 6th Corps’ struggles during the Chancellorsville Campaign. Not until recently did I contemplate the plight of that corps’ prisoners of war. The battle ended on May 5, but for more than 1,400 6th Corps lads, their privations were just beginning.
Here’s how it happened:
On May 4, 1863, John Sedgwick’s 6th Corps held fast at Banks’s Ford. The previous day’s fighting had cost it about 4,600 men, such that only 18,000 soldiers were capable of continuing the fight. Sedgwick needed every last man, because the Army of Northern Virginia had him surrounded. The corps had taken up a position in the shape of a U, with its flanks anchored against the south bank of the Rappahannock River. Only one escape route remained open, the River Road, which led to Banks’s Ford and to another crossing, Scott’s Ford. By midday, Lee’s Army of the Northern Virginia had assembled 23,000 infantry and artillery, encircling the 6th Corps on its three sides: south, west, and east.
(This map by Hal Jeperson shows the position of 6th Corps near Banks's Ford.)
Throughout the afternoon of May 4, three Confederate divisions pummeled the Union line, bending it, but never quite breaking it. After dark, Sedgwick ordered his beleaguered men to pull back to the ford, to cross the river on pontoon bridges, and then regroup with the main body of the Army of the Potomac. By 4 A.M., May 5, the majority of the corps had escaped. However, it was not a clean break. The 6th Corps counted 1,454 men missing, most of them taken prisoner as the Corps retired to the Rappahannock. The rebels gobbled up the better part of two regiments—the 31st and 43rd New York; the staff officers had neglected to let the regimental officers know that it was time to retire.
Sergeant Henry I. Wilson of Company C, 43rd New York, was among those captured. He gets to tell this tale.
The night of their capture, the Confederates marched the 210 New York prisoners (seventy-seven from the 31st New York, and 133 from the 43rd New York) to the rear. The prisoners marched about two miles, reaching Salem Church, the scene of the battle of May 3. Wilson described the horrible tableau: “the sight that met my gaze was truly heart-sickening. Our dead were all of them nearly stripped, and the pockets of each turned inside out and robbed of all they contained.” Additionally, their captors showed off their trophies, items they had looted from the dead. Many rebels had collected greenbacks, knives, watches, and pocketbooks, making “brags that they got their money from our dead.”
On the afternoon of May 5, the captive 6th Corps soldiers fell into line and marched another eighteen miles “through one of the most terrible rain storms I ever witnessed,” lamented Sergeant Wilson. He claimed, “It literally poured in torrents, lasting the balance of the afternoon and a portion of the next day.” When crossing the rain-swollen Massaponax Creek, the blue-coated prisoners struggled to stay upright. Wilson remembered laughing when a clumsy lieutenant got dunked three times by the rushing water, but then he ceased his mirth when the rapids nearly carried the unfortunate officer downstream. Wilson cursed the imbecility (which he pleased to call cruelty) of the Confederate general in charge of the march, General Lafayette McLaws, pointing out that by going down a different road, the entire column could have crossed over a bridge. But instead, McLaws marched the prisoners through the deepest part of the stream, allowing his soldiers to mock their prisoners mercilessly.
Continuing his account, Wilson wrote:
But what made matters worse, before we started, Gen. McLaws, the brute, took our woolen and rubber blankets, also our canteens and pieces of tent from us, consequently that night we had to lie on the cold, damp ground, drenched to the skin. They would not even allow us fires to dry ourselves with. Every man was shaking as if with the ague. Very few of us slept any that night I can assure you. The next morning, at daylight, we were again in motion and went to Guinea’s Station, distance twelve miles, where we remained about three days. As yet we had not received anything from the Rebels in the shape of eatables, not until the next day, and then the miserable pittance of five crackers, one cup of flour, a small piece of salt junk, and a something that looked like salt; and even that had to last us two days longer. On the morning of the fourth day we again moved on to Richmond, (telling the folks on the way that we were the advance of Fighting Joe’s [Hooker’s] Grand Army)[.] . . . After a great deal of grumbling by our men for something to eat, we at length arrived at Hanover Junction, and our eyes were gladdened with the sight of rations once more, which were soon after dealt to us, giving us a small piece of bacon and seven crackers, which had to last us four days; it was intended for two days, but we did not get anything more for four days, with the exception of what we managed to buy on the sly at fabulous prices.
On May 8, the prisoners marched another ten miles, reaching Bowling Green, a small village near the Mattaponi River. Here, as Wilson continued, the women of the village “paraded themselves in strong force,” making crude remarks at the hungry, water-logged prisoners. One cutting remark shocked the twenty-eight-year-old New Yorker. As Wilson passed through the town, a young lady with “a very pretty face” held up her hand. She had a ring made of human bone. It had been cut from the skeleton of a dead Union soldier. Eyeing Wilson, she boasted she would soon get a chance to get herself another Yankee bone ring, just as soon as one of them died from exhaustion.
On May 10, the prisoners reached Richmond, but they found they could not purchase anything from the local shops. For several days, the stores closed their doors; the shopkeepers wanted to honor the memory of the late Stonewall Jackson. After two days’ respite at Belle Isle, the prisoners marched again. This time, they covered thirty-four miles in twenty-four hours. (The prisoners marched nineteen miles from 2 P.M. to 9 P.M., then slept, only to be awakened at daybreak and marched an addition fifteen miles, reaching City Point at 2 P.M.). The captain who in charge of the prisoners—described by Wilson as a “black-hearted, drunken villain”—killed two prisoners with his saber and left three more prisoners to die in the road. He told Wilson, “that he had orders to leave none alive behind.”
Thus, on May 16, twelve days after his capture, Wilson found himself paroled and heading back to Union lines. To be precise, he was heading to the parole camp at Annapolis, Maryland, on board a prisoner exchange ship, State of Maine. Writing to a friend, he exuberantly claimed that he had, “got out of the hands of the Philistines.”
Wilson expressed throbbing bitterness at his twelve-day incarceration. He complained, “the rascally Rebs tried to kill us off, by marching, rough usage, and starvation[.] . . . I pity the poor secesh that falls into the hands of some of our boys, as they have sworn to have satisfaction, and get even with them.”
Wilson survived the war, but I wonder if he ever achieved that satisfaction he so craved in May 1863.