Living to Remember: Harry W. Lewis’s Enduring Civil War

Part 3 of 3: “…On yonder Belle Isle” : Making Sense of the Memories of War

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 the concluding article of this 3-part mini-series, Danielle Russell ’25 analyzes how, in the years following the Civil War, Harry W. Lewis struggled to understand his difficult wartime experiences, by seeking to memorialize his town’s sacrifices, sorting through his various encounters with the enemy, and searching for someone to blame for all he endured. Danielle is the 4th-great niece of Harry Lewis.

From 1898 to at least 1909, Harry served as a marshal in Erie’s Decoration Day, and later Memorial Day, parades. Forever faithful to his comrades from the 6th, he also served as the regimental association’s vice president for several years.

Harry W. Lewis as marshal of Erie’s 1909 Decoration Day parade (Image from author’s collection).

In addition to these activities, as Harry grew older, he remained actively involved in the Grand Army of the Republic, as a member of Erie’s Strong Vincent Post No. 67.

Harry W. Lewis with his G.A.R. uniform and ribbons, date unknown (Image from

He frequently attended state and national encampments, and regularly traveled to locations across the country for reunions of Union and Confederate veterans. One of the places he visited most often was Gettysburg, the site of his beloved brother’s death and his own capture. For each place he traveled to during the war, his perception of the landscape had been uniquely shaped by his experiences as a scout for Generals McCook, Pleasanton, Buford, Gregg, Stoneman, and Merritt. Harry asserted that, even decades later, “the whole face of this region…is very vividly stamped in my memory.” He could never forget the events that lingered in his mind.

Veterans of the 6th U.S. Cavalry gathered at Fairfield, date unknown (Image from Fairfield Area Historical Society).

On at least two occasions, he confronted Confederate veterans or sympathizers with the harsh realities of his treatment at Belle Isle. In 1902, while visiting Richmond, he stood before the monument to the Confederacy’s unknown dead in Hollywood Cemetery, looking towards Belle Isle. When a nearby Confederate veteran suggested that the Union prisoner of war camps were just as brutal as the Confederate camps, Harry disagreed. Emphatically gesturing across the river towards Belle Isle, Harry described his experiences at “the prison pen,” and then compared his malnourished condition with that of the well-fed Confederate soldiers he and the squad of sixteen were exchanged for at City Point. Harry once more blamed Jefferson Davis and labeled the Confederate veterans gathered before him as Davis’s “willing white slaves.” Although Harry does not address the Confederate veterans’ reactions to his bold statement, it utterly violates the post-war reconciliatory sentiment prevalent at many reunions, illustrating the myriad, diverse attitudes that Civil War veterans held toward their foe throughout the post-war years.

Monument to the unknown Confederate dead in Hollywood Cemetery (Image by author).

On that same trip in September of 1902, while on a steamship on the James River, traveling towards Richmond, Harry was asked to lunch by a younger man and his wife. Harry accepted and the man, a Virginian, eventually discussed his childhood. The Virginian recognized Harry as the man who, years prior, “killed the cavalryman and the two horses,” and added, “I saw you destroy the bridge.” The man’s memory immediately brought Harry back to the event, on June 26, 1862, when Harry and nineteen other men were sent by Captain John Gregg to “destroy bridges and blockade roads” near Hanover Court House, Virginia. While chopping down trees to block the road, Harry and his squadron had noticed “Jackson’s cavalry” rapidly approaching, and a short time later, artillery fire began, “sending limbs and tree tops all around us.” Harry had falsely believed they were safe, because the Confederates were on the opposite side of the creek, and the destroyed bridges and the creek’s quick-sands prevented the creek from being crossed. Nonetheless, Harry and the men from the 6th watched in horror after realizing “some of the Johnny reb cavalry were on our trail.” After hearing the Virginian’s narrative, Harry inquired how the Confederate cavalry were able to cross the creek. The Virginian laughed and confessed that “My mother sent them after you. We had a private platform bridge below the barn connecting two fields.” Harry and the men of the 6th had failed to destroy that final bridge because it “was hidden by willows growing along the stream.” Instead of feeling angry with the Virginian for laughing at the ambush where at least one of his men was killed, Harry insisted that the Virginian was “a fine man.” Perhaps Harry would have described the Virginian’s mother in less kind terms. Although it is possible that Harry reacted that way because the Virginian was not involved in planning the ambush and was thus not responsible, it is more likely that he was not angry with the man because, as a soldier, he knew to expect death on the battlefield. Roaming in enemy territory, as Harry and the other men from the 6th were the day of the ambush, was an inherently dangerous activity, so Harry was unsurprised by his comrades’ deaths. However, his experiences at Belle Isle, which utterly violated his conceptions of warfare and the prisoner of war system, shocked him beyond his comprehension. Unable to explain or understand the horrific conditions, he was less willing to excuse them as routine, expected aspects of war.

Five years later, in 1907, Harry was once more visiting Richmond, when he met an aged woman from New Orleans, who planned to visit the grave of her brother, who had died fighting for the Confederacy. Her father and a second brother had also died during the war, all in service to the Confederate cause. The woman claimed to be “an unreconciled Confederate rebel.” Harry balked at this and implored the woman to reconsider. After speaking with her further, he discovered “she knew literally nothing about most public events,” like the Dred Scott decision, the Missouri Compromise, and the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act. Acting as the historian, Harry explained each of these events to the woman, once more painting Jefferson Davis as the central villain behind the atrocious experiences he endured at Belle Isle. Unable to deny his persuasive rhetoric, the woman “acknowledged that she was ignorant of these things,” and the two continued their conversation over breakfast the next morning. As he strolled through Hollywood Cemetery that afternoon, he found the woman beside her brother’s grave, “weeping most bitterly.” As Harry walked past her, “she smiled through her tears,” and the two never saw each other again. Was the woman crying for her brother and his memory? Were her tears meant to convey a sense of inner conflict as she struggled to reconcile her brother’s memory with the horror stories Harry told her? Did she smile to simply show she recognized Harry, or was it meant as an outward display of her empathy for his experiences?

In his later years, Harry struggled to comprehend the extent of his suffering at Belle Isle Prison. Instead of blaming all Confederates, he insisted that most Confederates “were mere vassals” for the true villains, the “hot-headed southerners,” like Robert Toombs, Francis Wilkinson Pickens, John Buchanan Floyd, David Flavel Jamison, and, above all others, Confederate President Jefferson Davis. For Harry, having lost two younger brothers and a cousin during the war, and after suffering through his own trials at Belle Isle, Jefferson Davis served as the primary symbol for the years of anguish he had endured. Perhaps due to his friendship with Sergeant Hoffman, Harry opted to divide the Confederates in his mind, parsing them into groups based on the interactions, either direct or perceived, that he had with them and how their actions reconciled (or failed to do so) with not only his own political beliefs, but also the cultural ideals of honor, martial masculinity, and traditional combat with which he had grown up. Decades after the war, Harry remained unable to forget or fully forgive his former enemy for the atrocities he witnessed at Belle Isle. Incapable of comprehending how human beings could subject their fellow humans to such cruel treatment, he needed someone to blame; he chose those he deemed most responsible – the ardent secessionists he believed ensured the war’s inevitability, and most notably, Jefferson Davis.

Striving to wrangle this anger and incomprehension into more positive and productive actions befitting the memory of his fallen comrades, Harry dove further into memorializing his fellow veterans from the local community. While he continued to attend various Grand Army of the Republic encampments, and interact with Confederate veterans, he also endeavored to create lasting tributes to Erie’s fallen soldiers. Largely because of Harry’s fundraising efforts, the Lieutenant H.F. Lewis Grand Army of the Republic Post in Fairview, named for his younger brother, erected a monument to the Civil War’s unknown dead in Fairview Cemetery. It was dedicated on May 30, 1895, just a few months after what would have been Horatio’s fiftieth birthday. Perhaps for Harry, the monument was also intended to honor Harry’s younger cousin, Franklin, who died at Fredericksburg and was interred in an unknown plot in the Fredericksburg National Cemetery.

Monument placed in Fairview Cemetery by the Lt. H.F. Lewis G.A.R. post (Image by author).

Despite Harry’s reverence for Captain Gregg and other officers from the 6th, he staunchly advocated for the creation of a monument to the 145th Pennsylvania’s Colonel (later General) Hiram Loomis Brown. The monument was a personal passion project of his, and yet another attempt both to come to terms with the loss of his brother and make sense of the immense suffering and toll that the war years had inflicted on so many like him. Harry insisted that “no soldier more richly deserves a monument to his memory,” and lamented the fact that General Brown’s grave was unmarked for twenty-seven years after his death. In a letter read at the 145th Pennsylvania’s August 1908 reunion, Harry pledged five dollars, or more if necessary, to see the monument constructed “under the shade of a butternut hickory tree planted by General Brown and another boy in 1844.” Three years later, he was still working to raise the necessary funds, and gave a speech at the 83rd Pennsylvania’s September 1911 reunion urging the veterans to complete the project. Tragically, when Harry died a few months later, on March 9, 1912, his dream of a monument for General Brown died with him.

Harry W. Lewis with his great-niece, while visiting his sister’s family in Pasadena, California, early 1900s. Even on vacation, he wore his G.A.R. ribbons (Image from author’s collection).

At Belle Isle, Harry endured starvation and daily struggles with lice, filth, harsh punishments, and insufficient shelter that contradicted his own notions of civilized warfare, human decency, honor, and manhood. As he watched his fellow prisoners and comrades from the 6th wither away into mere skeletons, he searched for someone to blame. Unable to understand the reasons for the cruelty and intense suffering he experienced, his quest to comprehend his time at Belle Isle became confused when he remembered his relationships with Confederate soldiers and sympathizers, like Wesley Atwood Hoffman, and the grieving sister from Hollywood Cemetery. Having forged a sense of mutual understanding with these individuals that allowed him to perceive them as living and breathing humans, rather than unknown and unfeeling figures, Harry opted to blame the Confederacy’s leaders.

Directing his disdain squarely toward Jefferson Davis, the man he deemed most responsible for “Belle Isle’s Horrors,” Harry convinced himself that the Confederacy’s soldiers and civilians were unaware of the atrocities allowed by those who represented them. After all, how could Wesley Hoffman, a man who saved his life, support the very same man whose grave overlooked what Harry saw as the scene of some of the Confederacy’s greatest crimes against humanity? How could the woman at Hollywood Cemetery whose brother died fighting against Union soldiers like Harry, smile at him through her tears, if she supported the actions of men like Davis? How could his conscience allow him to sit calmly next to the Virginian from the train who laughed as he recalled that his mother helped set an ambush for Harry and his men? The only logical explanation for Harry was that these individuals were lied to, deluded into believing the placating words whispered to them by their leaders. Their misguided trust, not any true desire for the deaths of Union soldiers, was to blame. While these men and women recognized that war meant killing and death, Harry believed that they could not possibly sanction the harsh conditions found at Belle Isle. No, the only logical explanation, unless they had witnessed the horrors of a prisoner of war camp like Harry had, was that they were tricked into thinking it was a gentleman’s war where men respected their adversaries as human beings, rather than as objects of hatred and the target of their deadly fire. As a soldier who knew firsthand what the “arm” of Jefferson Davis and his cabinet were capable of, Harry believed he knew a truth that most civilians – and even the average Confederate soldier – never did. And so, Harry wrote. And yet, while he tried his best to impart this truth through his articles, he acknowledged that some details, too numerous or horrible for recollection, would inevitably elude the public; like many of his own remembrances of Belle Isle, these details would live on merely in the minds of fellow veterans as restless shadows, forever lurking, and forever haunting their memories.

Living to Remember: Harry W. Lewis’s Enduring Civil War

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

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

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

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.

Living to Remember: Harry W. Lewis’s Enduring Civil War

Part 1 of 3: Hell Broke Loose”: Surviving 1862 and Capture at Gettysburg

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 1 of 3 in this mini-series, Danielle Russell ’25 describes how, as a member of the 6th U.S. Cavalry, Harry W. Lewis survived the Peninsula Campaign and rescued his younger brother after Fredericksburg, but nothing could prepare him for the events that led to his capture at Gettysburg. Danielle is the 4th-great niece of Harry Lewis.

July 3, 1863, represented a day that twenty-two-year-old Harry Whitlock Lewis would remember for the rest of his life. Decades after the Battle of Gettysburg, he began to revisit the pivotal moment that became inextricably intertwined with his memories of his service with the 6th United States Cavalry.

Born on August 30, 1840, in Harborcreek, Pennsylvania, Harry was the seventh of ten children born to Marcus Lewis and Sarah Allen. His father owned a prosperous farm and steam-powered sawmill, which provided a comfortable existence for Harry and his siblings. Having experienced the deaths of his mother, both grandfathers, an uncle, and an older brother by age fourteen, Harry was no stranger to death. Although he did not know it then, further tragedies awaited him.

Horatio Farnham Lewis, Harry’s younger brother, in early 1863 (Image from author’s collection).

Marcus Lewis Jr., Harry’s younger brother, date unknown (Image from author’s collection).

Harry’s cousin, William Harrison Lewis, in the uniform of John McLane’s three-month regiment (Image from

Many years later, Harry recalled harvesting apples in the orchard at his family’s Fairview farm. He fondly remembered the “monster apples” he sampled with one of his brothers, which required the young boys “to use both of our little hands to hold the apple,” much to the amusement of onlookers. Although he didn’t specifically mention which brother that memory related to, it is possible that it was his brother Horatio, or his brother Marcus, both of whom died fighting for the Union. Harry’s memories were all he had left of his brothers in the post-war years, so it is possible that his particularly prominent remembrance of that childhood incident in the orchard was tied to one of his younger brothers.

Raised in a staunchly Whig and later Republican home, with a younger brother having campaigned for Lincoln during the 1860 presidential election, Harry enlisted in Company K of John McLane’s three-month Erie regiment on April 26, 1861. As Harry recalled years later, the regiment wore “light orange shirts, with blue flannel pants and jackets, trimmed with orange braid” and what he described as “regular army caps.” At the expiration of three months, Harry was discharged from the regiment on July 26, 1861. Waiting a mere three days, on July 29, he enlisted in Company G of the 6th United States Cavalry. At the time of his enlistment, he was twenty-one years old, with light hair, grey eyes, and a fair complexion. He stood just five feet and one-half inches tall.

Harry suffered two injuries in his first year with the 6th, both while the regiment was stationed in the defenses around Washington D.C. According to testimony given by Joseph Kaltenbacher, another member of the 6th, in January 1862, he was riding his horse when it slipped on ice. As he fell to the ground, he was hit by another horse, and injured his right arm. Not long afterwards, he reinjured the same shoulder after trying to prevent Corporal Alanson Alden’s horse from bolting, having been struck by his own horse in the confusion. These injuries rendered him “lame for a long time,” according to Kaltenbacher, but he recovered and continued his service with the 6th. The wound continued to plague him in his later years and became a central factor in his pension application.

Although his injuries and their lasting effects marked significant events in the first year of his service, two other events stood out more prominently in his memory from that time. Between September 1861 and March 1862, Harry and the 6th were stationed outside Washington. Much to Harry’s delight President Lincoln frequently reviewed the regiment, once, as Harry noted “from the front porch of the White House.” While he also recalled seeing Lincoln in February 1863 and August 1864, Harry remembered that “Lincoln was a good horseman and usually wore a tall silk hat.” Harry’s frequent sightings of the President were certainly personally meaningful given that his younger brother, Horatio Lewis, helped campaign for Lincoln in the 1860 election.

The Battle of Fredericksburg constituted a second memory that lingered in Harry’s mind. In what must have been a horrifying experience, on December 13, Harry and the 6th were in a position that enabled them to watch an Erie regiment, the 145th Pennsylvania Infantry, participate in the assault on Marye’s Heights. As he watched the chaos unfold, Harry could not have known that his cousin, eighteen-year-old Franklin Gifford Lewis, of Company D, as killed in the assault, and his younger brother, seventeen-year-old Horatio Farnham Lewis, also of Company D, was wounded. The next day, John Irvin Gregg, also of the 6th, informed Harry that he had learned from the 145th’s injured colonel, Hiram Loomis Brown, that Horatio was lying wounded in a house on Caroline Street.

John Irvin Gregg, who informed Harry of Horatio’s injury at Fredericksburg (Image from

After he rushed to his younger brother’s aid, Harry carried him across the street to a more spacious house and dressed his brother’s wounds before returning to his regiment. Although he could not have known at the time, that day, December 14, 1862, marked the last time the brothers saw each other. Seven months later, Lieutenant Horatio Lewis died of wounds received at the Battle of Gettysburg, while Harry’s Confederate captors forced him to march south towards Richmond. Harry likely did not learn his beloved brother’s fate until his parole in early 1864. Nonetheless, he never forgot his brother and, in his later years, made frequent visits to the 145th’s monument at Gettysburg, near the site of his brother’s mortal wounding, to contemplate his brother’s legacy.

The Goolrick-Caldwell House in Fredericksburg, where Harry treated his younger brother Horatio’s injuries (Image by author).

Although Fredericksburg loomed in his later memory, the early actions of the Gettysburg Campaign also impressed themselves upon Harry’s mind. Across several articles, Harry relayed his memories of the June 9, 1863, Battle of Brandy Station. In a September 30, 1907, article he insisted that, even forty-four years later, he could still “see in my mind’s eye those glistening bayonets as we repeatedly charged.” After his squadron commander, Lieutenant Ward, was killed, Harry gained command, and struggled to lead his men off the field, while “one by one the men and horses were picked off.” The nightmarish scene’s impression on Harry’s mind makes sense, especially considering that out of forty-eight men who crossed the river, only nineteen recrossed that evening. Of the twenty-nine casualties, only two men “were ever heard of or reported for duty again.” Given the 6th’s horrific casualties at Gettysburg, Harry’s remembrance of Brandy Station is curious. Perhaps it stemmed from the near sixty-percent casualties, or perhaps it was due to the fact that he was responsible for leading his men back across the river. Even in his position as commander, Harry was unable to save most of his men from the harsh fates that awaited them.

Despite his exciting personal encounters with Lincoln and his extensive campaigning through the war, the dozens of articles about his military service focused primarily on the Gettysburg Campaign and the 1864 Shenandoah Valley Campaigns. Of the Peninsula Campaign, Harry simply wrote “Sherman said, ‘War is hell.’ This was hell broke loose.”

Harry W. Lewis, Feb. 1863 (Image from Hagen History Center, Erie, PA).

Gettysburg and Fairfield

Leading up to Gettysburg, Harry and the 6th “could see the dust clouds hovering over Lee’s army” near the Blue Ridge mountains. On June 21, the 6th passed through Aldie Gap, where their brigade was ambushed in an attack that saw the brigade (what Harry termed) “cut all to pieces” and resulted in more than 125 casualties. Luckily, Harry and the 6th were able to “save the balance of the rifles from being captured.” After the Confederates managed to turn the Army of the Potomac’s left flank near Upperville, Harry, as Sergeant, was instructed to lead a squadron between two regiments that were under the command of the soon-to-be Major General George Armstrong Custer. After General Gregg asked General Pleasanton to “bring up the Sixth cavalry band,” Harry and his squadron “rushed those Johnny Rebs back into and through the woods” to the tune of “The Irish Washerwoman.” The jig’s lively tune certainly seems an odd choice, although the selection of the traditionally Irish song is likely what imprinted the moment in Harry’s memory. The nearly overwhelming chaos of battle clearly left a variety of curious, if not conflicting impressions upon front-line soldiers such as Harry. After encountering some Union troops fleeing for the rear, Harry and the rest of the 6th urged the men to drive back the enemy, which they did. This time, Harry noticed the band played “Bonaparte’s Farewell.”

In the following days, Harry led another squadron of twenty men into Hagerstown, roughly twenty miles from their camp. After discovering the trail left by the Confederates, Harry and his squadron rode into Hagerstown around dusk. Although they had initially discovered numerous “stragglers,” as Harry termed them, once the Confederates noticed Harry and his men, “they vamoused the town in a hurry.”

In his articles, Harry reported little else about the 6th’s actions for July 1st or 2nd, but chose to resume his narrative with July 3rd, when General Merritt tasked the regiment with traveling to nearby Fairfield, where the “reb wagon train” was “loading up grain and flour at a grist mill.” After leaving two companies with General Pleasonton’s headquarters, Harry and the remainder of the 6th marched for three hours, until they had traveled sixteen miles to Fairfield. Noticing that the men were “tired, dusty, and thirsty” in the humid July heat, Harry recalled that the female inhabitants of Fairfield offered them “cups and buckets of water,” which they eagerly accepted while hurrying through town to the grist mill.

Arriving at a crossroads near the grist mill, Harry and the 6th discovered the Sixth and Eleventh Virginia Infantry regiments. With a stone wall on one end of the soon-to-be battlefield and a newly installed rail fence on the other, the 6th Cavalry dismounted and began firing. Once the Eleventh Virginia tore down the fence “and swarmed on our flank,” Harry realized that their “fate was sealed.” After a short battle of roughly half an hour, Harry and over 150 men of the 6th were captured. Along with a group of other men from the 6th, Harry was forced to give up his revolver to his captors. Much to his horror, as he did so, “three men at my right were shot with their own revolvers.” Instead of being afforded the fair treatment that surrendering soldiers on both sides expected from their foe, the Confederates’ cold-blooded murder of Harry’s comrades stood in stark contrast with the dignified surrender they anticipated. Having just relinquished his own weapon, Harry was even more horrified when the Confederate pointed the revolver back at him. Before his captor had a chance to pull the trigger, a Confederate officer rode up and, after recognizing Harry, “sprang from his horse,” asking, “Hello, Lewis, how are you?” The man was Sergeant Wesley Atwood Hoffman, of the 7th Virginia Cavalry, who had previously been captured by Harry just a few months prior, in October 1862, near Harper’s Ferry. Relieved, Harry remembered him, replying “All right old, boy.” After exchanging pleasantries and discussing the status of two other men Hoffman knew from his time a prisoner-of-war when captured by the 6th, Harry and the roughly 150 other prisoners were led to the Gettysburg-Hagerstown pike, where they were “corralled in a field” with other prisoners. One of the prisoners yelled to Harry’s group, inquiring “What troops are those?” Harry responded, to which the man replied “Is Sergeant Harry Lewis there?” Harry walked over to the man, John Starr, of Company B, of the 145th Pennsylvania Infantry. Starr informed Harry that his younger brother, Horatio, a Lieutenant in Company D, 145th Pennsylvania, “had been badly wounded, his left leg broken (bone shattered) near the body.” Although Starr and other comrades attempted to rescue Horatio, they were overwhelmed by the advancing Confederates, and captured before the young lieutenant could be taken to the rear. In his newspaper article that recounted the event, Harry described the way that Starr plainly told him his eighteen-year-old brother “would probably bleed to death.” Harry was no stranger to death, of both family members and comrades, but he was almost certainly stricken by this news. Remembering Horatio’s recovery after a wound received at the Battle of Fredericksburg just a few months prior, it is possible Harry may have held out hope that his brother was capable of recovery; however, the tone of Starr’s announcement would likely haunt him for weeks. Although Harry likely never knew it until his release months later, Lieutenant Horatio Lewis died at the Second Corps hospital on the Jacob Schwarz Farm on July 20, 1863, at the age of eighteen. The uncertainty surrounding his beloved younger brother surely plagued Harry during the duration of his captivity. Tragically, none of Harry’s wartime letters survive, so it is not known for sure whether he attempted to write home and inquire as to Horatio’s predicament, but he likely did.

Later that evening, Sergeant Hoffman once again approached Harry, this time bringing “a piece of hoecake and a chunk of bacon.” In parting, Harry remembered Hoffman said, “Good-bye, Sergeant Lewis, we have to move on up the road.” Harry lamented their parting, noting in his October 5, 1907, article that he “never met the fine fellow” again. Although their loyalties differed, Harry and Sergeant Hoffman shared the bond of all soldiers as well as a mutual code of honor that often imbued the martial interactions of men in the 19th-century. Additionally, the two were connected through their alternating experiences of captor and prisoner of war. The respect they accorded each other sprang from the just treatment they received while serving time as each other’s prisoner.

The Confederate captors provided the Federal prisoners with flour and kettles from a nearby farmhouse, but Harry felt unwilling to eat what he termed “paste,” at least, not “without any salt or milk.” However, some of his fellow prisoners were hungry enough to attempt to make a meal from the scant rations. Shortly afterward, it began to rain, until it seemed to Harry that “the whole country was afloat.”

Positioned between two brigades of General Longstreet’s First Corps, the prisoners began their southward march on July 5, two days after their capture. Much to Harry’s great interest, his position afforded him numerous opportunities to see the famous General Longstreet that day – an experience he likely never expected to have during the war.

General James Longstreet (Image from Library of Congress).

Harry noted that multiple prisoners attempted to escape, but each attempt failed, and the men “were driven back at the point of a bayonet.” The repeated escapes convinced the Confederates it was necessary to surround the prisoners with two columns of guards, one on either side. While Harry does not explicitly state whether he joined his comrades in attempting to escape, when referring to the escape attempts, he uses the term “us,” suggesting it was possible. His mind likely still on his severely wounded brother and comrades from whom each step southward he was becoming more distanced, Harry looked to his fellow prisoners-in-arms for comfort and strength to complete the long march to Richmond.