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Memoirs of John W Bartleson

As Transcribed and Edited by Tweed Ross

Editor's note: The text has been rendered as near to the original as possible. Minor text errors have been retained, inasmuch as they do not create significant syntax issues, but, in many cases, add to the story. In some cases additional information is provided with brackets and some unreadable words followed by a "sic" notation. In addition, some infolinks are provided to sites with additional information about specific locations.


Chapter One

Chapter Two: Part One - Youth

Chapter Two: Part Two - Battle!

Chapter Two: Part Three - Freedom and Home!

Savannah, GA, Prison J.W. Bartleson

We arrived at Savannah in due time. The night we boarded the trains at Andersonville, we drew a small ration. Among other things, each drew a piece of bacon. Each piece a little longer than your finger, and usually the inside each out by skippers, only the rind and a piece of razor back being le[KU9] ft. Partner and I ate one piece in the dark, placing the other piece in a tin cup for our morning breakfast. The next morning the piece of meat was moving around in the tin cup. I began to rake off the skippers when one of my comrades asked me what I was going to do with them. I answered, “Throw them away.” He said, “Give them to me.” He ate them. I told him they did not hurt the meat, but I had never eaten maggots when I was home and was not going to begin.

Savannah Civil War Prison
Savannah Civil War Prison (Courtesy of My Historic Prints)

The Savannah prison was built on blank boards on end, with dead line and picket fence the same as Andersonville. Here I read a letter from Captain Bartleson. I wrote to Mother in July. It did not reach home until March, 1865, after I had been released from prison. Our Union government offered to feed us and give us clothes, but the Rebels would not permit us to receive them. Any packages sent us were intercepted by the Rebels.

Nothing unusual happened at Savannah, but we were not kept in such fear as at Andersonville, where we were directly under the command of Butcher Wurz. He would often cut off rations of all prisoners, if he would hear of a tunnel being dug that he could not find. Then for a plug of tobacco, some traitor would inform him, but few escaped through tunnels. Every morning the could would be patrolled by blood hounds, to scent escaping prisoners, and if they found him, the dogs would tear him to pieces. Such incidents kept me from make and effort to escape, and always I believed that I would go home and see my Mother.

What sweet dreams we would have in prison of feasts, and then, on wakening, what a disappointment! Our talk constantly was of something to eat. Jim Standing, a little Englishman, forever was telling about his grandmother’s plum pudding.

Camp Lawson or Melvin Prison, GA

About the 12th of October, 1864, we boarded the train for somewhere, and the next day reached Melvin Prison, Georgia. This prison was constructed similar to Andersonville, with stockade, dead line and spring branch running through the grounds, but this spring branch was boarded up with a wooden bottom and rail and was made sanitary, and adequate for carrying away filth. The prison grounds were new and clean, with sand clay soil, with tufts of grass over the ground.

After my partner and I were shown our plot of ground, we set about to prepare fall and winter quarters. We dug a hold [hole], five by six and one half foot in the ground, building a sod chimney and fireplace, built it up a little, secured some poles, pine boughs, covering all with sod, just leaving a little entrance through which we could slide in and climb out. We covered the floor with pine boughs and decided we could be comfortable. Then we began life over. As the season was cooler, out foot was not so spoiled, but there was not greater variety nor more abundant in quantity. Until this time I had felt well, but now I took disentary and became quite weak and much thinner. I could not eat. My chum Bentley, became alarmed, but my strong constitution pulled my through and to a great extent I overcame the illness. The scurvy was increasing among all the prisoners.

My partner could hardly get out or in the dugout. My limbs were good but my gums were swollen and even with my teeth and all the time we oozing pus. I frequently saw and visited with a boy from my old neighborhood in Illinois, by name Louis Smith, half Indian blood. He had enlisted in the 14th Illinois Cavalry when only fourteen years old, had been taken prisoner early in 1864, [and] had been sent to Belle Isle prison. He was one of the first prisoners sent to Andersonville. I had not seen him in some time until one day in Melvin prison we met again. He told me the Rebs wanted him to enlist in the Rebel army and asked my what I thought.

I was sorry for the boy. I told him that Liberty was sweet, but that I was not capable of advising him. But as for my self I would die and rot in prison before I would join the Rebel army! He said if he did enlist, he would never shoot Union soldiers. I did not see him again in the prison, but met him after the war. He told me he enlisted with the Rebels and that as the first opportunity he deserted to the Union lines. Then he was our prisoner, and now knowing what else to do, the war being over, he joined the regular army, then deserted and went home. The Rebels asked only the young boys and foreigners to join with them.

November was now on, and the Rebels conceived the idea of letting the prisoners vote on election day. They provided white and black beans for ballots, black for Lincoln and white for McClellan. They believed we would vote Democratic, as they had always told us it was the fault of our government that we were not exchanged or paroled. The Rebels, however, wanted our government to give three or four strong Rebel solders for one of our weak starved soldiers, and this was not right, as the Rebel prisoners would immediately be available for active service and so prolong the war. So our government captured and held all prisoners until the Rebels were compelled to surrender in April, ’65.

The election in the prison gave Lincoln four votes to one for McClellan. The boys were loyal. The days went on without much change or news from the outside. On the evening of November 21, 1864, we were ordered to fall in, probably 2000 or 3000 and we marched a mile and then boarded a freight train to some unknown destination. It was a very cool night. We were so thin and lacked circulation. Several died on the train that night. Next morning the train stopped in the country outside Savannah. We got out to stretch ourselves, and I remember saying to partner, “Let us eat this pot of cold rice. It will be easier to carry in our stomachs. It was cold, we were cold. I could force down only a mouthful for my teeth chattered and I could not eat. Then I would catch hold of the side of the car and jumping up and down, so increased by circulation and gained warmth enough to let me go on eating. The Rebels soon found a vacant sandy plot of ground and corralled us on the ground. For four days, no rations were issued to us. Some good women and negroes brought us cooked food in vessels, bread, beans, rice, and the like. We would then be formed in lines and the good people would try to hand us the food. But the prisoners were weak and starving, they could not endure the jam and pressure, and the guards would drive us back with bayonets, so as to stop the distribution of food. Then those who food would take a handful and throw it over, past the guard and it would land in the sand. All the prisoners would dive greedily after the morsel, it looked to me just like a pack of hungry swine. My partner and I always kept a few days food ahead, but this time we ran out.

About November 23, the Rebels began calling for the sickest prisoners, presumably to parole them. My partner went with the first bunch. He could hardly walk. I didn’t see him again and wished him well. On the 24th they called for another bunch. I went to dear friends of my Regiment, William Wallace, a find Scotch boy, and John Cruise, who had shared each other’s friendship and misery since our capture. I told them at the next call let us try to get out. On the 25th of November the call was made. We left all we had with friends, and if we got through all we had, blankets and camp equipment was theirs, taking only our haversack and quart cook can. I don’t remember what the plan was for the others, but I had mine all studied out. I had one of the worse cases of scurvy of any one. I took my old blanket, rubbed my gums with it until the bled and turned the color of my hat. My hair was long, fuzz allover, I hadn’t washed for four days, my skin was the color of pine wood smoke, looking my worst.

Now we had been marched out a mile in an open field, standing in single file with guards on both sides six feet away. I look down the long line to my left. The Doctor was coming, asking questions and passing on the conditions of the prisoners. If he said you could go, you stepped forward, passed the guard and followed those leading in a northeast direction. It was the most critical moment in all my life, before or since. As the doctor approached, I was fully alert. He asked the man ahead of me. “What’s the matter with you? If your time out?” – meaning his term of service. The poor fellow answered No. “Then you can’t go.” I said to myself I would tell a dozen lies if necessary. He was before me saying, “What’s the matter with you?” I almost collapsed, but opened my mouth wide and told him I had the scurvy very bad in my mouth. I intended to lie and tell him it was also in my legs, but he said, “You may go.” I limped forward, passing the guard, expecting any minute to hear him call me back, but I was not hindered. After awhile I ventured to look over my shoulder and there were Wallace and Cruise. I said, “Boys, this is great.”

We kept on until we reached some negro cabins. I held out my cook can and said, Aunty, give us a little meal. She answered, “Honey I can spare only a spoonful. She put it in my can and gave a little, too, to the other boys. At the next cabin we had the same success: at the third the old negress [sic] put a few potato parings in the can. Then we added water, building a fire with weeds, heated the water and when the meal had swelled, we ate it all.

After of lunch of meal and potato parings, we followed on with the column. After while we were halted on a flat stretch of ground, with guards all around us. There were about 1100 prisoners. The night came on very cold, with frosty air and stiff sea breeze. I was better off for clothes than most of the men. I had saved my good pair of pants and knit wool shirt and old shoes during the summer, and with old blouse, fairly well protected. During the night we were all called out and parolled. I do not know what oath we swore, but mattered little. As the night grew colder, the suffering of the prisoners increased. The Rebels brought us two four-mule wagon loads of split pine wood; everyone crowed to the wagons for a stick of wood, not all could be supplied, when all the wood was removed from the wagons, the drivers cracked their whips, driving right through, over the men. Then began a fight for wood. I had secured a stick and strong men tried to take it from me. I fell on the ground on top of the wood, yelling like murder. Others took pity on me and made the quit, saying, “Don’t you see he is crazy?” They left me and I picked up my stick of wood. By this time, fires had started. I went through the camp hunting a fire, and offering my stick in return for a share of the warmth. I finally found a suitable place and from there until morning was burned and smoked on one side and frozen on the other.

We were glad to seen the sun rise. Many died in the camp that night. I was hungry and thought I would try my luck at skirmishing for something to eat. I tackled a good natured and young guard and asked him for food. He asked what I had to trade. I said I had nothing. He noticed a small gutta percha ring with silver settings that I was wearing and offered to trade my corn bread for the ring. I took it from my finger and he gave me the sweetest piece of corn dodger I have ever ate.

Well the day, the 26th of November [1864], was wearing along, and we began to thing the parole was all a hoax. But toward noon we fell in and marched to the Savannah River, boarded a steam boat, and down the river, out into the ocean we saw our ships at anchor. Old Glory was waving in the breeze. I can not describe my feelings, but I surely believed that our mean would not let our boat turn around and carry us back to prison. (See Note)

You could never realize the joy of the prisoners. We yelled and cheered louder and louder. A door on the side of the ship opened, we all now in the hold of the great ship. A Colonel of our men came down and made us a speech, promising us as soon as we were washed and cleaned up we would be taken above and given clean clothes and all we wanted to eat. Water and soap were furnished to us. I washed as soon as I could. We then began looking around to see how we would be taken out of the hold. I noticed a trap door away up at the top. Just before sundown, a long ladder was let down from the opening and we began climbing out. I was among the first. On reaching the top, we were given a full outfit of clothing, with blanket, ordered to through out infested clothes in the sea. Then, passing to another ship, were given four big crackers, a piece of fat port, an onion and large cup of black coffee. I ate and drank with relish and helped out some of the boys who were not very well.

Then began our four days journey to Annapolis, Maryland, around by Cape Hatteras, where the sea is always rough, nearly every one was sea sick. I just barely escaped, but before reaching Annapolis, I had eaten so much fat port, a reaction set in and I could hardly look at meat, I was so turned against it.

It is wonder that not more died from over-eating. A nice young Red Cross was there to say, “Johnny, I would be more careful.” At Annapolis my favorite fare was mince pie, all you wanted, with plenty of whiskey.

On landing at Annapolis, we drew new clothes, bathed, and once more were free from vermin. We were put into wood unplastered barracks, three board bunks deep on the side. Everyone drew two months pay, $32, and 25 cents day compensation for the time we had been in prison. It was now December. We all drew common rations, what we did not want we threw away, flanked the ration line and drew again of our choice.

We drew no knickknacks, but could buy plenty of mince pies, oysters and whiskey. I had the disentary badly for awhile, from eating too much fat pork, but it seemed that nothing was going to overcome me. I bloated badly in my face and my limbs would nearly creak when I walked, but after a while over came the rouble [sic]. When I reached home, December 25, it took a long time for my system to eradicate all the poison; maybe the whiskey help to kill the poison.

About the 15th of December, we received a furlough home with orders to report back within thirty days to the parole camp at Benton Barracks, St. Louis, Mo. We left Annapolis on a steamer up the Chespeake, landing at Baltimore. Here was a long train of box cars, heading for Bellaire, Ohio and Wheeling, West Virginia. After buying a few better clothes, as we were going home, and wanted to look well, we boarded the train. We were 48 hours traveling the distance of 400 miles through the mountains of Virginia. It was a long train, but the weather was fine. One day I got on top of a car, while we were stopping at a station. Pretty soon, looking forward, I noticed that the engine was entering a tunnel. This was new to me. I scrambled down and hung to the iron ladder at the end of the car until the next stop, glad enough then to go inside. At another time the train had stopped just on the rise of a slope of ground, while across a small depression and to a slope 100 feet away was a dwelling facing the train. The dining room table could be seen with dinner spread on it. I was hungry for good things, so I ran across the space, jumped onto the porch, on through the open door and grabbed from the table a good supply of food, retracing my steps in haste. This was just one prank of a bold young soldier boy.

We arrived at Wheeling, West Virginia, just across from Bellaire, Ohio about dusk. There was no bridge over the Ohio River so we crossed on a ferry and went to a hotel. They put me on a feather bed. I dreamed of drowning all night. Maybe the dreams were caused by the first hot biscuits I had eaten in a long time.

The next day was Sunday. Another special freight train was made up for us. I would not go on it, since the day was Sunday. No passenger trains ran that day. On Monday morning we got on the passenger train for home. We went through Columbus, Ohio, Indianapolis and Terre Haute, Indiana and at Mattoon, Illinois, we were blocked with snow drifts for two days. How the time did drag! We finally reached the Illinois Central railroad. At Duguoin, Illinois, a sister of mine lived. I stopped off one day for a visit with her. The next night I took the passenger for Wetang, Illinois, the nearest point to my home. My old partner, Bentley had reached home about a week before. I inquired the way to his farm, which was about one and one-half miles out in the woods. It was nearly morning, and moonlight. I found his place and ate breakfast with him. It was a glad meeting for us both. I asked him if he would hitch up his horses and take me home. He said he would go as far as he could. There was some snow and much ice on the swamps. His horses could not cross the ice on Big Cash swamp, so I walked across the swamp two or three miles to the home of Dan Hill, with whom I was well acquainted.

He took my horseback probably three miles, coming to a wide water course, covered with ice. His horse could not cross, so I paid him $2 and started out on foot with three miles or more before I could hope for relief. Snow was heavier here. After a long pull I came in sight of a farm home belonging to John Smith. His house was at the top of a long hill. John, a good man, saw me coming, and came to meet me, saying it looked like my ghost. I only said, “John, I want to see Mother.” He said, “You will see her, go into the house.” He hitched a team of gray mares to a sleigh. It was nearly dark, but he drove the remaining three miles at a trot, and just as Mother, sister and family were sitting down to supper, I burst into the kitchen at a run. A stranger sitting at the table drew his revolver, but Mother knew me.

All were glad to see me. Mother had heard nothing from me since the battle of the previous June 10. My sister planned a round of parties for me. I was not strong enough to enjoy them as I did a few months later. I was thin and weak, through my face was bloated and my color bad, but I gained quite rapidly with no backsets.

In January, 1865, I report at Benton Barracks, broke. I sold my pocket knife for 15 cents to pay my fare from the city six miles out to the camp. While in St Louis the camp was fine but the boys were wild. We were paid here and we all had money. About the 8th of March I secured another furlough. I was now building up in fine shape physically. I enjoyed every day at home, and, as there were not many soldier boys at home, there were plenty of girls for all.

About the 8th of April I returned to St Louis, finding all things in readiness to start out for different Regiments. So on the evening of April 9, we went to Schofield barracks in the city. On the 11th of April we marched aboard a steamer and steamed down the Mississippi River, past Cairo, Illinois, up the Ohio river to the junction of the Cumberland, up the Cumberland to Nashville, Tennessee. Here we stopped one night in the Zolicoffer house. This was the night President Lincoln was assassinated [April 14]. It was sad new for us all. The war had ended on April 6, 1865/ [Note: Gen. R.T. Lee surrended, April 9. Other units surrendered over a period of several months.]

From Nashville, we crossed the river and took the train for Louisville, Kentucky. We came down the long street of Louisville after night on foot. It was a pretty sight. From Louisville we went by train to the Illinois Central, then by freight train to Cairo, where we had been the week before. We went aboard steamboats, most of us on the hurricane or upper deck. The leaves were beginning to appear on the trees, and we enjoyed the ride. We made short stops at Memphis, Vicksburg, Baton Rouge and New Orleans. Leaving Orleans, we marched to Lake Ponchatrain, seven miles away. Then we took the steamer and crossed the lake to Dolphin Island. Here my brother, Captain Robert Bartleson of the 11th Illinois was camped. We spent a pleasant evening together. We then crossed the bay to Mobile, Alabama. My Regiment had done their last fighting at Mobile and now were encamped at Montgomery, Alabama.

We took the steamers to Mobile and steamed up the Alabama river, past Selma, reaching Montgomery. There we joined the Regiment and Company for which we have been separated for eleven months.

Soldiering at Montgomery, Alabama

At Montgomery, our Regiment was camped in the suburbs of the city in a beautiful grove of oaks, at the end of Maiden Lane street. Our duty was strolling guard duty and guarding the jail in the city. We had a pleasant time, could go to the city any time we wanted to, [and] some of us almost lived in town. Another soldier took the rations assigned to us to a widow near our camp. She sweetened it up with a few vegetables and we ate together. The weather was beautiful in Alabama.

About the first day in July, an order came from Headquaters to discharge all soldiers who had been prisoners of war. So, on the 14th of July, 1865, I with others received our Honorable Discharge. The three years time of the Regiment expired in August when all were discharged except the recruits of the Regiment, who were transferred to the 56th Illinois and held until the summer of 1866, when they, too, were discharged.

We who received our discharge went aboard a steamboat, went down the river to Selma, and there boarded a train for Vicksburg, Mississippi. Arriving at Jackson, Mississippi, we found the railroad was not in condition to run trains and were compelled to march. I had brought my gun and cartridge box of ammunition and had quite a load. The march to Black River was very hard. July is a hot month in Mississippi and we were not used to marching. At Black River we took the train for the last 12 miles. At Vicksburg we boarded a steamer bound for Cairo and arriving there were paid off, all due us from the government. We went into the clothing stores to outfit for home. Unfortunately I went into a Jew store and selected what I thought I wanted. He would not price anything until I completed the selection and they he went over it. It would cost $150. I wanted to leave, but they had put away my gun and baggage and asked me to wait. I took the articles piece by piece and estimated them at $75. After hesitating, the Jew accepted my figure. I am sure I paid him much more than the goods were worth.

The Paducah and Cairo packet steamers were waiting to take us up the Ohio River. I reached Caladonia, Illinois, my home town, late in the evening, having served my county in the Civil War one year, nine months and five days. I had returned home apparently well and sound, with exception of scurvy in my mouth. My gums were always diseased, gradually eating my gums and loosening my teeth until all my teeth were gone.

I went home, nine miles from Caladonia, met with my mother, and all relatives and friends, going first to my sister Mary and her husband G W Bristow, who were living in the old house on the old home stead. I had had plenty of experience, and I was not yet 19 years old. Without this experience my life would not seem to be a blank. My days of young manhood new begin.

[Written in long hand by J W Bartleson, in six days 1929]

End of Book One


1. In August 1864, (Confederate Exchange Agent) Robert Ould accepted a Union proposal to make equal exchanges, "officer for officer and man for man" with the first releases going to those "longest in captivity." While Ould's offer circulated through Federal government, Butler wrote to Ould in September proposing a special exchange of all "sick and invalid officers and men . . . unfit for duty and likely to remain so for sixty days." To make the transfer easier, he proposed that the exchange occur at Fort Pulaski outside Savannah, Georgia. By the end of November, the belligerents had transferred several thousand prisoners near Savannah, and conducted a second transfer under similar terms in Charleston. From Wikipedia: Dix-Hill Cartel (Back to Text)

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