Part 2 of 3: Horrors That “no tongue, no language or pen, can fully describe or explain”: Harry W. Lewis’s Stint as a P.O.W.
By Danielle Russell ’25
After being captured on July 3, 1863, during the Battle of Fairfield, Harry W. Lewis of the 6th U.S. Cavalry was sent to Belle Isle Prison in Richmond, Virginia. Lewis survived the horrors of Belle Isle, but the memories of his experiences plagued his later years as he struggled to comprehend all he had endured. In part 2 of 3 of this mini-series, Danielle Russell ’25 writes about how, despite the atrocities that Harry W. Lewis faced as a P.O.W. on Belle Isle, he was determined to survive, and eventually rejoined his regiment, even though his haunting memories of the prison lingered. Danielle is the 4th-great niece of Harry Lewis.
“Weary March of the Prisoners”
Although Gettysburg was far from his first battle, Harry was shocked by the sheer number of wounded Confederate soldiers who filled the wagons that followed the prisoners south. These men represented the “sorriest, woe-begone looking set of soldiers” he had ever seen, since many displayed some sort of bandaged wounds, while many others had not received any medical attention. While Harry knew any of those men could be responsible for his brother Horatio’s mortal wounding and the deaths of his comrades, he empathized with their suffering. Bodies of deceased Union and Confederate soldiers lay strewn about the roads. Harry noted nearly all of the soldiers had been “stripped of their clothes except their drawers,” and dead for more than twenty-four hours.
Early on the morning of July 6, Harry and the other prisoners were given beef and flour. Unlike the earlier instance, this time, the ravenous Harry was willing to eat the “paste” made from the flour, without any salt or milk.
Aside from the issue of few rations, Harry’s larger challenge arose from the fact, as a cavalryman, he was not accustomed to marching. After the heavy rains following the battle, Harry marched through swollen waters, causing many of his comrades’ leather boots to dry out. Rather than suffer the excruciating blisters that resulted from the friction between the dry boots and the men’s feet, many decided to go barefoot. Before long, as Harry remembered, their “feet became swollen, sore and full of cracks,” making the men walk “like a chicken with frozen feet.” Harry described this as a “pain and torment” unlike any he had ever experienced before. He did not know then that this only marked the beginning of his suffering.
The men crossed the Potomac River using a small ferry capable of carrying twenty men at a time. It took two days and two nights before the men finished crossing the river. From the Potomac, they continued to Martinsburg, in what is now West Virginia.
In Martinsburg, Harry remembered the gratitude he felt when the local women flooded the streets as the prisoners marched past. The women carried all sorts of foodstuffs, including “bread, cakes, pies, milk and water.” It must have seemed a miracle to the poorly fed prisoners. Harry declared with dismay that the Confederate guards coldly forced the women back into their homes, at the threat of their bayonets. Furious, Harry added that he noticed one Confederate dared to “strike several women with the flat of his sword and curse them.” Undeterred and eager to help their captured defenders, the women, upon retreating into their homes, tossed the baked goods from second story windows, so that they fell into the crowds of hungry prisoners. The grateful men “wished we had guns with which we could have shot the cowardly” guard, but, without such an opportunity, they contented themselves to shout, “You dirty, cowardly Reb!” and similar taunts.
Unwilling to let their soldiers go hungry, the women of Martinsburg proposed to bake bread for the Union prisoners if the Confederates supplied the flour. However, once the women completed the task, Harry lamented the fact that the bread and biscuits that resulted from the twenty barrels of flour were largely given to the men assigned to guard the prisoners, rather than the intended recipients. The captured members of the Eleventh Corps consumed the majority of the remaining bread, leaving Harry and the other prisoners hungry and eager for vengeance. That night, Harry and the other captured members of the 6th Cavalry launched a raid on the Eleventh Corps’ “camp,” securing twenty-six haversacks and assorted foodstuffs. Harry and his friend, George Rose, each absconded with their own haversack, and Harry delightedly discovered his contained a tin cup, beef, and some flour. Harry and George Rose divided their spoils among their “less lucky comrades,” and the duo then exchanged the two haversacks with two rebel guards for what Harry described as “a good-sized hoe-cake, which made a couple of mouthfuls apiece among the boys.”
The Steamer New York at Aiken’s Landing in Virginia, date unknown (Image from Library of Congress).
Eventually, after several more days, Harry and the 6th reached Mount Jackson, Virginia, where a Confederate captain noticed Harry’s “pair of $20 high-top patent leather cavalry boots.” Throughout the march, Harry carefully guarded the boots, carrying them on a string. The Confederate captain offered him $75 in Confederate currency, which Harry refused, and insisted he would not sell the boots for less than $200 in Confederate currency. Infuriated, the captain threatened to forcibly take them from Harry. Just as angry, Harry uttered a challenge, daring the man to try to take the boots. Further incensed, the captain stormed off. Fearing the man would “get some help to take the boots,” Harry used his knife to cut the soles out of the heavy boots. Given the terrible experiences Harry had already endured as a prisoner of war, he was unwilling to relinquish the boots, either by choice or by force, as a point of honor. Much to Harry’s dismay, the Confederate captain never returned. However, instead of throwing the worthless boots away, Harry continued to carry them throughout the rest of the march and his time as a prisoner of war and used them as a pillow. Harry only rid himself of the soleless boots after he was paroled, tossing them from the steamer New York into the James River, as he sailed to freedom. That same night, the desperate Harry and George Rose paid a whopping five dollars each for two pounds of bacon, constituting roughly two inches by two inches square per pound.
George Melville Rose, 6th U.S. Cavalry, date unknown (Image from Ancestry.com).
Finally, Harry and the other men boarded a train “composed of several old box cars and an old worn-out engine,” bound for Richmond. In order to cross the Blue Ridge, the train could only successfully pull a single car at a time, meaning it had to make multiple trips. After thirty hours and 130 miles, Harry and the other Union prisoners, “packed full…like sardines in a can,” arrived in Richmond. That night, they were crammed into Libby Prison, on the outskirts of the city, which Harry estimated to be “the best prison the Confederates had during the war,” owing to the adequate ventilation and dry conditions in the converted warehouse. In the twenty-one days it took to reach Richmond, Harry calculated that for about seventeen days, his clothes were wet from rain or sweat. Libby provided much-needed, though still crude, relief.
Libby Prison, where Harry spent the night before being transported to Belle Isle. Image dated August 23, 1863, the day before Harry arrived in Richmond (Image from Library of Congress).
“Belle Isle’s Horrors”
Belle Isle Prison and the James River in 1865 (From the Library of Congress).
The morning after their arrival in Richmond, the Confederates marched Harry and his fellow prisoners across the James River via bridge to Manchester, where they crossed a railroad bridge onto Belle Isle. By Harry’s estimate, it was August 25, 1863. Since the bridge remained roughly fifteen feet in the air, they took a set of stairs to the ground, before arriving at a cornfield, where they were once again searched by their captors. In an odd twist, Harry instantly recognized one of the men, Charles Center, who previously served with him, and deserted from the 6th U.S. Cavalry. Center defected to the Confederates just a few months prior, in May 1863. Even before this unexpected reunion, Harry was thoroughly convinced that Center was “a poor soldier, an all-around crook, gambler, and thief.” Together with Sergeant Cray, of Company F, 6th U.S. Cavalry, Harry “chinned” Center, calling him the names listed above. Enraged, Center threatened that if the two “didn’t shut up he would fix us, so” Harry “chose the better part of valor and kept still.” However, Center did not let the incident go unpunished, and, with the help of a Confederate sergeant, seized Sergeant Cray, before typing him to a tree limb by his thumbs, which, according to Harry, “nearly killed him.”
1860s sketch of Belle Isle Prison with guards, by Alfred Waud (Image from Library of Congress).
By Harry’s estimates, a 4.5-foot-tall embankment surrounded the camp, with a trench on both the outside and the inside. The inner trench, representing the dead-line (the farthest point the prisoners were allowed to travel within the camp without being shot), stood one foot from the embankment and measured about 1.5 feet wide. The embankment stood about “five or six rods” from the James River.
Upon arriving at Belle Isle, Harry witnessed what he termed “an elderly soldier” from an unknown New York regiment ask the commandant, Thomas Turner, to safeguard $140, which was placed in an envelope with the man’s name, regiment, and company. Labeling the poor man as “demented from the hardships and hunger,” Harry knew that moment was “the last he will ever see of his $140.” After a rumor of parole circulated throughout the camp months later, the man approached the commandant and asked for his money to be returned. The commandant refused and shoved the man, and after the New Yorker approached both the commandant and Confederate General Winder, the commandant roughly “grabbed him by the hair and coat collar,” and ordered that the man be bucked and gagged. Furthering the misfortune of the man’s undeserved punishment, the commandant ensured the punishment occurred on a hill, so that, when the commandant kicked the man, he fell onto his side, with his head facing downhill. Much to Harry’s utter horror, the next morning the “poor soldier lay there dead.” Although Harry was near the gate when the punishment was inflicted, he was powerless to help the man, lest he be subjected to a stricter form of discipline. While the lasting impact of this soldier’s death on Harry’s mind is unknown, the fact that he mentioned it decades later in his reminiscences of Belle Isle suggest he felt a degree of anguish, and even possibly guilt, over the fact he was helpless to intervene.
Photograph of Libby Prison showing Commandant Turner, taken by Charles R. Rees (Image from Library of Congress).
The remnants of the earthen walls that marked the dead-line of Belle Isle Prison (Image by author).
The New Yorker’s death marked only the first in a series that Harry witnessed while at Belle Isle. Numerous men, many of them new to the camp, and unaccustomed to the concept of a dead-line, were shot after accidentally stepping across the barrier. Other times, the Confederate guards missed their intended target, and Harry remarked with horror, the bullet “would hit one or two poor defenseless fellows.” In utter contradiction to the Victorian ideal of the “good death” – a glorious battlefield death where one’s last, patriotic words were recorded by a comrade – soldiers at Belle Isle and other prisoner of war camps faced a variety of threats, from illness to accident that emphasized the randomness and cruelties of war.
Much like other prisoner-of-war camps, Belle Isle’s inmates suffered from an extreme lack of adequate rations. Although Harry could not have known that the Confederate government struggled to feed its own troops, or that numerous other prisons in Richmond taxed the city’s already limited resources, he firmly believed the prisoners at Belle Isle were intentionally starved in a form of twisted retribution. Harry blamed Jefferson Davis, convinced that the man acted with a “spite and cruelty” that explained the fact he “deliberately starved so many thousands of poor Union prisoners.” Thoroughly satisfied with this reasoning for the suffering he and his comrades endured, when reflecting on his time at the camp years later, Harry thought it an extremely cruel joke that Davis’s final resting place in Hollywood Cemetery overlooked the site of his tragic crime against humanity.
Jefferson Davis’s grave in Hollywood Cemetery, overlooking Richmond and Belle Isle (Image by author).
Upon their arrival at Belle Isle, the prisoners were sorted into groups of five clusters, each consisting of “hundreds” of men. Once the Confederates brought the prisoner rations inside the prison, they were divided into five groups. The prisoners in charge of each of the groups reported to the cook-house, where they randomly selected one of the fifths, which was then given to that cohort of prisoners. The process began at 9 a.m. each day, and by 11 a.m. all of the rations were distributed. Each man received a piece of lime-raised bread about the size of an average individual’s hand. Much to Harry’s disgust, “it was no uncommon sight to see a small piece of lime in the bread.” The men usually received one or two tiny beef bones or bits of bacon as well. Their supper consisted of bread and soup, which Harry clarified was no more than “hot rain water,” which was “served from 3 to 5 p.m.” If the Confederates could not obtain rice, they used cow peas from North Carolina, allowing Harry and the other prisoners to “imagine it was soup” and not just water with pea pods mixed in. The innutritious diet rendered Harry “so poor in flesh and weak in body that” he needed “to lie down half of the time.”
However, Harry’s biggest battle at Belle Isle was his struggle against the lice which constantly sought to gnaw his “poor scanty life-blood out of” his weakened body. This fight against the lice was a battle for both cleanliness and survival, because, as Harry quickly noticed, “those who didn’t fight them daily, soonest succumbed to disease and death.” Together with the other sixteen prisoners from the 6th U.S. Cavalry, after each meal, Harry removed his clothes, turning them inside out and inspecting them for the dreaded vermin. Unlike most of his comrades, from the beginning of the war Harry had worn a vest beneath his uniform. In the pocket, he kept his greatest weapon for “self-defense” – a comb. Working together to combat their tiny enemy, the sixteen men from the 6th used the comb each day to examine each other’s hair and remove any invading insects. Recognizing they were fighting a losing battle, Harry and his fifteen comrades each gave the Sergeant from Company D of the 1st Vermont Cavalry part of their rations in exchange for him first cutting, and then eventually shaving their heads. Harry recollected the horrifying moment when a severely lice-infested comrade visited the barber. As the barber cut through the hair, and the lice, “the blood would streak down their necks and gather in drops” across the barber’s hands. In one of his many instances of sensitive reflection, while Harry admits the story sounds improbable, he emphasizes that “no tongue, no language or pen, can fully describe or explain the horrors of rebel prison pens.”
At Belle Isle, Harry knew two brothers, “whose clothes fell off from them” due to the harsh conditions. The brothers possessed one blanket between them, which they tore in half, it being “all they had to cover their nakedness.” Perhaps from this terrifying ordeal, or from their combat experiences, “both became demented,” and one day, were discovered dead, lying at each other’s side. Recoiling from the sight in terror, Harry wrote that it would have been impossible to “put your fingers on their heads, arms or legs, not mentioning their blankets, without putting it on a dozen line-backs. Those blankets were literally quivering from the motion of the millions of vermin on their bodies under the blankets.”
Nonetheless, despite his hellish experiences at Belle Isle, Harry consciously admitted that it “was a paradise beside Andersonville…The only advantage Andersonville had was that the climate was warmer.” Given the horrors he experienced, one wonders how Harry managed to emotionally and physically survive the months he spent at Belle Isle. Unfortunately, none of the more than two hundred post-war newspaper articles he authored explain how he coped with such struggles, aside from relying on the companionship and support of fellow prisoners.
Upon their arrival at Belle Isle, Harry and the fifteen men from the 6th had been assigned to the 22 Hundred. The men were paroled in numerical order, with the lowest number paroled first. Although parole began at Belle Isle by as late as May 1863, it was an irregular process. Frail and fatigued, they feared they would likely not survive if they remained prisoners, Harry and his fifteen comrades, which included one soldier from the 64th New York Volunteer Infantry, snuck into the group labeled as the First Hundred. In an incredibly lucky twist of fate, the man in charge of the First Hundred, a Sergeant Herman, had sixteen free spaces, his group number only eighty-four men, owing to the deaths of sixteen men. Of the First Hundred, sixty-four men were sailors, not infantrymen, so the Confederates opted to parole them separately. After the sailors were paroled, the guards called for a Sergeant Herman’s group of sixteen. Acting quickly, George Chase, another man from the 6th captured at Fairfield, answered “Here we are!”
George William Chase of the 6th U.S. Cavalry, in 1905 (Image from Ancestry.com).
Demanding to know where Sergeant Herman was, Chase answered “Dead.” Since the sixteen soldiers originally assigned to Herman’s group were deceased, the ruse worked, and Harry and the fifteen were paroled with the group of sixty-four sailors. Just when it looked like they were finally free, the men were taken back into the camp, because of a problem with the sailors’ parole. Having been just steps away from freedom, Harry and his comrades’ “hearts ached and our hopes fell.” The 6th’s squad of sixteen and the sixty-four sailors were placed into the Second Hundred, and, after a few days, the Second Hundred was paroled. Once more, the squad of sixteen “answered to our names and went out with the sailors.”
As Harry and the other fifteen men sat on the ground near the gate, past the camp’s embankment, they heard the camp’s lieutenant call their names. Another prisoner informed the lieutenant that “Those fellows went out with the sailors.” Hearing this, the lieutenant “flew into” what Harry could only describe as “a towering rage.” The lieutenant screamed at Harry and George Chase, and the two men stood, though their malnourished frames were visibly weak. Once again so close to freedom, the lieutenant threatened the men, calling them “starved-looking hounds,” and threatened to kill them, or imprison them in Castle Thunder. Another Richmond prison, Castle Thunder had a reputation for housing criminals and spies, and was notorious for its reportedly brutal guards and conditions. Luckily, the lieutenant’s threats went unfulfilled. Harry, and the other fifteen men, were paroled with the entirety of the Second Hundred. Harry never explained why the lieutenant failed to carry out his threats, but perhaps it was owing to Belle Isle’s already overcrowded conditions. Nonetheless, Harry’s parole must have provided him with some sort of relief. While Harry carried his memories of Belle Isle for the rest of his life, he was finally free from the prison’s confines.
Private William M. Smith, Co. D, 8th Kentucky, taken on June 1, 1864, at Camp Parole’s general hospital, following his release from Belle Isle (Image from Library of Congress).
Harry boarded the New York at City Point, Virginia, and traveled to Annapolis, Maryland. Reaching his destination on February 17, 1864, he spent three weeks at College Green Barracks recovering his strength, feasting on salted crabs he caught with the other men from the squad of sixteen. From College Green Barracks, he was transferred to Camp Parole, where, after a week, the quartermaster assigned him to command the First Battalion cook-house and commissary. From their seven days’ rations, the men received potatoes, turnips or beets, pepper, salt, beans, onions, coffee, tea, and soap, as well as two days’ rations of corned beef and salt pork. At noon each day, every soldier received a twenty-two-ounce loaf of fresh bread.
Once the Lewis family learned Harry was at Camp Parole, his older cousin and namesake, Harry Whitlock, was dispatched from Warsaw, New York, to check on him. After a short visit in Annapolis, Whitlock traveled to Washington, D.C., where he enlisted another cousin, Wisconsin Senator James Rood Doolittle, and Pennsylvania Senator Edgar Cowen, who helped him secure a furlough for Harry. Whitlock took his younger cousin home, where he spent time recuperating in Buffalo, New York, and Erie. It was Harry’s first visit home in years, and after the deaths of his cousin and younger brother in 1862 and 1863, respectively, his family must have welcomed him with open arms.
Senator James Reed Doolittle (Image from Library of Congress).
When Harry returned to Camp Parole from his furlough, he was assigned to help the first battalion clerk with the clothing accounts. The clerk noticed that the men from the 6th were being charged for new uniforms, which marked “the first time the prisoners have been charged for their first suit when they came into our lines at Annapolis.” While they should have received the new uniforms for free, the clothing account attested that Union Army officials intended to charge them for the uniforms. Harry waited until the clerk left for the day, and then hurled the clothing account into the office’s coal stove, reasoning that “If the other paroled prisoners did not pay for their first suit, we won’t pay for ours.” Luckily for Harry, the matter was never discussed again.
Unidentified Union soldier following release from Belle Isle. Photograph taken at Camp Parole’s general hospital by A. Hill Messinger, date unknown (Image from Library of Congress).
On May 9, 1864, Harry was exchanged and sent to what he termed “Dismounted camp,” roughly three miles south of Washington D.C. After discovering that a detachment would be sent to the front lines the next morning, Harry asked the first lieutenant in command if he could be included in that group. Evidently the lieutenant took offense to Harry’s request, and, as Harry recounted, “the ungentlemanly cur cursed me and damned me and ordered me back to my quarters.” An orderly arrived, and inquired for Harry W. Lewis, and, upon answering to his name, Harry was ordered to report immediately to the provost marshal. Although the order likely worried him, at the provost marshal’s office, Harry discovered he had been summoned by Captain John Bell Dinsmore, of the 9th New York Cavalry, whom he described as “an old boyhood friend.” They had not seen each other for nearly two years at that point, so when Captain Dinsmore saw Harry’s name on the list of new arrivals at the camp, he swiftly sent for his friend. Eager to finally rejoin his old unit, Harry asked Captain Dinsmore if he could be added to the detachment leaving the next morning, and Captain Dinsmore provided him with the necessary paperwork. Harry returned to the camp to be fitted with the necessary accoutrements, the most important being a horse. The lieutenant from earlier, unwilling to admit his orders had been circumvented, ensured that Harry was the very last man to pick a horse. Fortunately, the “homely, little black gelding” he selected “proved to be a good horse” that “could jump any fence he could look over.”
Harry rejoined the 6th Cavalry on May 25, 1864, and continued to serve for a little over two months, until he was discharged at City Point, on July 29, 1864. Similar to his return following previous battles, like the ambush he faced in 1862, Harry’s homecoming to his regiment must have been met with both surprise and relief from his comrades.
Despite his return to the 6th, his time as a POW had clearly taken a toll on Harry. Before his capture, Harry had weighed around 165 pounds, but when he arrived at College Green Barracks, he weighed just 105 pounds, having lost roughly sixty pounds in seven months. Fortunately, once more amongst friends and family, and re-immersed in vastly improved conditions, by January 1, 1865, he weighed 171 pounds, having made a seemingly miraculous recovery.
Nonetheless, for Harry, the war never truly ended. The memory of his experiences lingered in his mind, and the physical scars of his time in the cavalry remained. In many regards, his post-war experience echoed that of thousands of soldiers. After developing rheumatism and catarrh (a system characterized by the presence of excess mucus in airways), he retired from farming to become a mail carrier.
Postal worker Harry W. Lewis with his mail cart, date unknown (Image from Ancestry.com).
However, he became a noted historian in Erie County, of both the Civil War and the county’s early history.
In his later years, Harry made repeated visits to the battlefields of his youth, such as Gettysburg, but he also visited Richmond. While the reason for his visits are unknown, Harry likely felt compelled to return, as he struggled to heal the emotional scars that remained from his military service and tried to make sense of all he had endured.