In the last two posts, I profiled the prison experiences of two enlisted men from the 7th Pennsylvania Reserves. In this post, I intend to follow the experiences of an officer. Unlike the enlisted ranks, this man experienced an easier time in captivity, and even witnessed several escape attempts.
Lieutenant Jacob Heffelfinger was a 24-year-old teacher from Cumberland County. Interestingly, he had been captured twice already. He had been wounded at Gaines Mill and Fredericksburg, and both times, the Confederates overran the position where he fell. On May 5, 1864, Heffelfinger was among the contingent from the 7th Reserves that surrendered to the 61st Georgia. On May 8, three days after his third capture, Heffelfinger wrote in his diary, comparing his three prison experiences: “This is a blue day to me. Although this is my third imprisonment, yet it seems to me that I have never realized untill now, what it is to be a prisoner. Before I was wounded and disabled—felt like a useless thing picked up by the rebels—a burden instead of a prize. But now it is mortifying to ones feelings in the extreme—hearty, strong, disarmed and guarded by the rebels.”
Unlike his previous imprisonments, in 1864, Heffelfinger did not expect an immediate exchange. After the massacre of surrendering soldiers at Fort Pillow, Ulysses Grant brought a halt to the prisoner-exchange system. Further, Heffelfinger did not travel with the enlisted men. At Lynchburg, the Confederates weeded out the officers and put them on a different train. Instead of going to Andersonville, Heffelfinger went to Camp Oglethorpe, in Macon, Georgia. He arrived there on May 24 along with the other officers taken at the Wilderness. Like Andersonville, a wooden stockade surrounded the prison, but the 1,600 inmates had shelter in the form of abandoned fair grounds buildings.
Life was easier at Camp Oglethorpe, but it was no picnic. The inmates received decent rations, but nothing in which to cook them. Dust infested everything. The prison commandant threatened death to any inmate for failure to arrive at morning roll call. The guards shot at soldiers randomly. Heffelfinger had been there only a few days when a cruel guard killed a lieutenant in an Ohio regiment for no apparent reason.
Despite all the horrors they faced, the Union officers were a feisty bunch, and took every opportunity to tunnel their way to freedom. On June 27, several officers escaped by burrowing through the sink. When Confederate guards searched the camp, they discovered three other tunnels nearly ready for use. By late July, when the escape attempts became more numerous, the inmates were transferred by rail to Savannah Prison Camp. On July 31, at this new prison pen, several inmates tunneled under the walls and escaped. On August 12, an officer almost escaped by passing out the main gate by wearing rebel clothing. Then, on August 8, the officers attempted another tunneling scheme, but again came up short. Heffelfinger got a good look at this one:
A tunnel had been opened in a tent near our squad and completed to the outside of the enclosure. It only remained to open the further end and the means of Exodus would be complete. Dozens of officers were ready to take their departure. All being ready one of the number opened the hole, and on raising his head above ground discovered a sentry pacing his beat not three feet from the hole. It was afterward discovered that a line of sentries surrounded the wall on the outside, in addition to those on top of the wall. Thus a nicely laid scheme was brought to nought. 6 PM. This afternoon Maj. Wayne, commanding the prison, entered the camp with a few men and commenced tearing down all tents not raised from the ground. This was done without any previous order of notice, and can only be termed a mean, contemptible trick. Many of the officers are without shelter.
Despite the profusion of escape attempts, Heffelfinger never participated in any of them. However, in March 1865, he participated in a large-scale officer prisoner exchange, joining Union lines in Eastern North Carolina. Heffelfinger wrote:
The happy day has at length arrived. Prison life is ended, and we are free again beneath the stars & stripes. . . . The scene was indescribable, and the exuberance of our feelings, it is beyond our power to narrate. Cheer upon cheer rent the air, cornmeal was thrown to the winds, and corn bread was trampled underfoot.
However joyful he felt, Heffelfinger could not silence feelings of guilt. As an officer, he had endured a less gruesome prison experience than the enlisted men of his regiment. Further, he had been exchanged. Tens of thousands of enlisted men were still in captivity. Heffelfinger wrote, “We have only one thing to mar our joy, and that is the knowledge that many of our brave enlisted men are left back to die, just on the eve of the day for which they have long hoped and prayed.” Heffelfinger knew that the enlisted men endured worse trials than he did. He could not imagine what the hell of Andersonville or Florence Stockade felt like, but he probably spoke for many members of the 7th Pennsylvania Reserves when he wrote, “Hell will have swallowed hell when this Confederacy receives its just doom.”
|Lieutenant Jacob Heffelfinger, Co. H, 7th Pennsylvania Reserve Infantry, was captured and endured 11 months in Confederate prisons.|
|This image depicts Heffelfinger as a sergeant. He is the man in the center.|
|Here is yet another image of Heffelfinger, this time as lieutenant, standing in front of his company.|
|This sketch depicts Camp Oglethorpe, the first prison pen that held Heffelfinger. According to him, it initially housed more than 900 Union officers, but the population eventually grew to 1,600.|
|In late-July 1864, Heffelfinger and dozens of other officers received a transfer to Savannah Jail. This illustration by Robert K. Sneden depicts the Savannah stockade prison as it appeared about October 1864, when it was filled to capacity.|