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 Ancestry.com).
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.