Swann - Prison Life at Fort Delaware


Signature: Jno S Swann

Prison Life at Fort Delaware

Transcribed by Neil Allen Bristow

[Transcriber's notes: When captured at Winchester, 19 Sep 1864, John Sterling Swann (1822-1903) was Captain of Company A, 26th Battalion, Virginia Infantry. A brave, outspoken, and sometimes insubordinate officer, he had been wounded at Gardner's Farm, Virginia, 30-31 May 1864, and was in hospital or on furlough through July. He arrived at Fort Delaware 27 Sep 1864 (by coincidence, the very day Tom Coombs gained his freedom) and was released 17 Jun 1865. He returned home to Charleston in what had become West Virginia and resumed the practice of law with his brother, Thomas Belt Swann. For more detail see Terry Lowry, 26th Battalion, Virginia Infantry (Lynchburg: H. E. Howard, 1991), 153.

These notes were written eleven years after his release. The original handwritten pages can be viewed at The Library of Congress, Manuscript Division. Miscellaneous Manuscripts. Transcribed 1998. Spelling and punctuation as in the original. Illegible words shown by ----.]


I was captured, together with some 1200 others at the battle near Winchester in the fall of 1864. It was several days before we were marched to Harpers Ferry, on our route to Fort Delaware. During the time we were confined at Winchester, we were fed by the good women of that Town. On our route to Harpers Ferry, we were again fed by our women, who followed us with baskets of food for some distance until we were halted, when it was distributed to us by these fair and gentle friends. The federal commander of our guard also distributed to us some boxes of crackers, which when opened before our lines were rushed upon and devoured ravenously. When we reached Baltimore women again came to the cars in numbers with baskets of provisions, and large pots of coffee, and many a white handkerchief was waved at us from inside the overlooking windows. Before these provisions were well distributed, a company of youths was marched down the street at a charge bayonet and the women were dispersed, much to our distress for we were very hungry.

We reached Fort Delaware at night, were formed in lines and our persons searched but not in an offensive manner. Our watches, money, and valuables were taken from us, but faithfully kept, the money distributed to us as we needed it and the other things faithfully returned on our release in June 1865.

For myself, I had nothing but a pocket knife and some confederate money which I was allowed to keep. This Fort is situated on an island in a beautiful Bay. The prisoners quarters occupying a square traversed by several ditches, full of water, on the sea level. These quarters built on three sides of the square with an opening for an outlet to the rear grounds were divided into officers and privates quarters by a plank wall some 10 to 15 feet high on the top of which runs a plank walk for the sentinels. These quarters were divided by partitions into quarters divisions, for 140 men each. Each division had three rows of bunks, one above the other, each for two men, constructed along the side of a passage running the length of the division, in the center of which was a large stove. The bottom bunks were touching the earth, and hence so damp and cold that all who could do so avoided them.

After looking around a few days I found a very strange state of things. There were in the officers prison some 2000 officers, many of them well dressed, gay and -----. In the prison generally they amused themselves in singing songs. Many were dejected, ragged, dirty and evidently suffering.

I found just to the rear of the above described square a sutlers establishment, well supplied with provisions, vast quantities of which were sold at very high price to the prisoners, a part of which were cooked by us in the prison grounds. I learned upon inquiry that every one who needed money or clothes could get them if he had any friend or acquaintance in the North disposed to oblige him by writing. And that there were many humane societies in the North for the relief of prisoners. That the officers who looked well and were well clothed got money and clothes in this way, while many got money or tobacco by writing to friends in the South. That those who were ragged and suffering in health had not these advantages. In the course of a week after the excitement had worn off (for excitement is food both for mind and body) I began to suffer very much from hunger and I found from conversation that the larger number of prisoners were suffering as much as I. Two days in the week, we received crackers, instead of loaf of bread, and these were dreaded days. We would frequently warm our bread and meat, mixed together in water, and thus allay our hunger by the increased bulk in the stomach for a few hours.

Those who bought from the sutler frequently gave their rations to the needy and in this way relieved many. Many of the prisoners would sit on their bunks the entire day in order not to whet their appetite by exercise. Finding my health suffering for want of food, and that my whole mind was on something to eat, I determined to sell my socks and handkerchief and purchase some stamps and paper. I washed my socks and sold them for 25 cts, bought some paper and envelopes from the sutler, but while doing so I could not stand the temptation of his rolls, so I gave the balance of my 25 cts for seven rolls, concluding I could sell my handkerchief and get the postage stamps. But I could find no purchaser for my handkerchief. Some weeks passed. The weather was getting very cold. I had no socks, one cotton shirt and pair of drawers and a suit of unlined clothes of wool and cotton, and the silk handkerchief. I determined to make a venture. Meeting the sentinel on his walk in the prison grounds, I said to him in a low voice, showing him the handkerchief, "This handkerchief for five postage stamps, I am freesing and starving." He said, "No more talk." I concluded I would be arrested and punished. Some days afterwards, as I was walking along a sentinel had tracked mine, and a pellet of paper was pushed into my hands and the same sentinel walked rapidly by me. I kept my hands shut, went to my bunk and found I had 15 postage stamps.

When I saw the sentinel again I attempted to slip the handkerchief in his hands. He said "I cannot take it." In describing my own condition, I but describe more than 1000 in that prison. It was some 3 weeks before I got answers to my letters. In this time I had suffered greatly from hunger and cold and want of comfortable sleep.

On the platform above described, the sergeant would come around a while and call out money or boxes as the case might be. These were good days with us. These calls were named money calls or box calls, Hearing my name sometime after my letters were sent out, I answered and got a box of clothing sent me by a brother Mason from Philadelphia, a venerable, noble, distinguished brother, whose honored son is now in the service of his country, animated by these generous sentiments, which may yet make our country worthy of such men as the poor sentinel at Fort Delaware. I never needed any more clothes although I received some, as well as money from some generous friends on Charleston, W. Va., among them a true lady whom I shall nor forget. I afterwards received a quantity of tobacco from my brother. While in possession of these things I did not forget the example of the poor sentinel during my imprisonment. I witnessed the suffering of many, consequent on want of food, clothing and warmth, and many died from these causes. I have seen many go to the hospital never to return. When the winter came on we suffered greatly. The division — our quarters were made of white pine planks, nailed up vertically. It had shrunk and left large cracks between the planks and there being but one stove to the division, and only one blanket allowed to each person, we of course suffered greatly from cold. We were at night continually getting up and coming to the stove and when a little warm we would return to our bunks. So the stove was always crowded. Hence we got but little sleep.

I pass over many things. I will mention a few. We had a saying in the prison, "Those who go to the hospital seldom return." There were many rats in the prison grounds. They burrowed under the plank walks and into the sides of the ditches. The more needy prisoners, when they could kill them, eat them with avidity. The sergeant frequently came into the prison grounds, pumped the rats out of their holes with a hand pump, when they were caught by his tarriers, and then carried on the platform. The cry would then be, "Rat Call," and the more needy prisoners would gather below the platform and scramble for the rats as they were thrown to them.

On one occasion quite a number of prisoners, who some months before had been sent from Fort Delaware and put under fire in front of Fort Sumpter, were returned to Fort Delaware. The most of them were taken to the hospital. Those who came into the prison were in a horrible condition. Scurvy, Chronic dirohea &c had brought them low. We went to work for their relief. Some gave money, some tobacco, some clothing, and we got up a theater for their benefit. In this way we provided them with vegetables, &c, purchased from the sutler. Numbers of them died, and but few if any had recovered when we left the prison.

I forbear to detail all the stories of horror they told of their suffering before Charleston, SC under fire. The assassination of Mr. Lincoln was announced in prison early one morning, by 8 a m we were informed privately by a sentinel, that if more than three of us were seen together in the prison grounds, we would be fired upon. When the[y] received rumors that Andy Johnson was party to Mr. Lincoln's assassination. But before many hours elapsed the commandant learned we were in sympathy with Mr. Lincoln, abhorred the assassination, and were horrified at the thought of falling into Andy Johnson's hands. The order to shoot us was at once countermanded. The cause of the insufficiency of food and clothes we could never learn. Some said it was in retaliation, some that it was done to increase the sutlers sales and profits, who was thought to be in partnership with some official. Many thought the Government allowed us sufficient food, but that it was stolen. But of these matters we knew nothing. Winters some flannel shirts were occasionally brought around and distributed by a little soldier, I forget his name, but we thought this was private charity, for the number was exceedingly small. Prison inspectors frequently visited the prison. We always got notice from the sutler a few days in advance, and supplied ourselves with 3 days rations. When the inspector came around, there would be nothing in the sutlers establishment, but a little stationery and a few trifles. But the inspector would see the crafts ---- ---- ---- but before his establishment would be full of provisions, and we on a rush to buy.

But for this sutler we would have died in numbers. I have written this in the cause of truth. Let the Government order an inquiry and investigate these things if it is thought advisable, and truth will vindicate her own.

Jno. S. Swann

Charleston, W. Va.

June 26, 1876

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Transcription copyright © 2000, Neil Allen Bristow. All rights reserved.
This page updated 3 June 2005.