Freedom at Point Lookout
by Perry F. Louden, Jr
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“Mail Call!” bellowed the broad shouldered Negro sergeant of the guard. “Yesin, for all y’all Johnny Rebs. We got letters from yo mammas and your sweethearts back home on ya plantations. Now when I’sa callin’ yo name, y’all know what to do. I wanna see yo best chicken dance!”
“Private Johnson, William Jay!” Immediately Johnson marched up, arms flapping and squawking like a chicken.
“Now Reb Johnson, that ain’t no chicken dance! Move yo feet boy!” As he said it, he knocked Johnson into the mud. Johnson scrambled back to his feet, flapping arms, squawking, and doing a hop.
The sergeant looked at him and shouted, “Next time do it right the first time, white boy!” as he threw the letter in the mud. “And for the rest of y’all Rebs, like Isa always say, ‘Look out, white boy, the bottom rail is on top now. So you better be careful fo my gun been wantin’ to smoke at ya all day! Private Smith, Abraham Terrance, lets see yo chicken dance boy!”
This went on for some time, as the Negros enjoyed their sport of humiliating each soldier as he came up for his long awaited letter from home. Finally Captain Barnes, the assistant provost marshal, appeared and the guards hurriedly dispensed with their fun and simply called each prisoner up doing the double quick time.
Several more soldiers were called forward, and then he heard it. “Private Prater, Mance Walker!” Mance practically leaped over the 200 men still waiting in formation to get his letter. He took the letter from the sergeant and ran back to his tent to digest the loving words from his home in Tennessee.
TO: Pvt. Mance W. Prater
Lookout Point, MD
FROM: Ethel M. Prater
October 12, 1864
My dearest Mance
I got your letter from July 10 last week. I am thankful to the Good Lord that you are still in the land of the living. I am sorry to hear about your friend that was killed by those horrible Negro guards. It must be very hard in that prison.
We are getting along ok. The garden is full. We got a good harvest of corn and we should get a good quality potato crop. The wheat is growing good to. We start the harvest in a few weeks. Pray that the Lord will supply, cause I do not know how me and your sister will manage.
You asked in your last letter about the Negros. Most of them have stayed where they are cause they aint got no place else to go. Yanks came through a few months back recruiting for their army. A few of the Negros signed up and left with the Yanks. I told old man Puckett bout his slave Jesse Harrod that runned off being in the Yankee army. He said he hoped that God would see to it that Jesse would die a painful death. I told him that I did not think the Lord would oblige him.
We pray each day for your safe return to us. Mance, I am sorry to have to tell you this, but your brother Donald was killed in the battle for Atlanta fightin against General Sherman. The Good Lord giveth and the Good Lord taketh away.
Mance choked back the tears. His only brother was gone. This long, hard war had taken him away from his family, friends, and neighbors. He had seen fellow soldiers shot dead in battle, heard momma tell in her letters about all the boys killed from Woodbury, and now his only brother had perished, and for what? He thought. Stunned, he just laid on his bunk all afternoon, rising only for his meager rations. Just before dark, he managed to scribble out a short reply to his mother.
TO: Ethel M. Prater
FROM: Pvt. Mance W. Prater
Lookout Point, MD
December 30, 1863
It continues to get harder in here. The winter days and nights are bitterly cold. The Negro guards came thru and took my extra blanket yesterday and told me they would shoot me ifn I got another. They put a new boy in our tent. Now we have 8 men in our tent made for 5.
Momma not all the Negros are bad. Most of the ones that runned off had mastas that beat them. Private Jesse Harrod has looked out for me some. When I had the disintary in the summer, he made sure I got good water and extra rations. He told me why he runned off from the Puckett farm. Old man Pucket beat him so bad. He got big scars covering his whole back momma. Then old man Puckett sold his hole family and he aint seen them sinse. I feel sorry for him.
How are things at home? Did yall get the harvest in? Did yo grow enof to last the winter? Is the winter cold with much snow? I think it has snowed everyday here. The nites are bitter cold. 3 soldiers froze to death just last nite. I pray to the Good Lord that he will keep yall warm and safe.
I go to church service every Sunday and Wednesday now. It is warmer in the chapel so I can concentrate on what the Padre says. He is from Huntsville, Alabama and preaches on how we need to keep Gods Commandments. Jesus said in John 14 and 15, “If you love me, keep my commandments.” Momma I am determined to do that. Even here in this awful prison. Pray for me momma.
I Love ya momma
The New Prisoner
Private Michael John Bush had arrived in camp three days before Christmas after being taken prisoner at Cedar Creek Virginia. Even though Michael was assigned to Mance’s tent, he seemed to have been the only prisoner in camp that had not gotten the news of the front from the new boy yet.
Michael had been captured after Marse Sheridan’s long Shenandoah Valley Campaign that ended in disaster for his army. There was also news of Marse(see note 1) Lee’s fight with General Grant, how Lee routed Grant time and time again, but Grant just keeps coming. Now there was a long siege at Petersburg, but even though General Grant was not winning battles, he was depleting Lee of men, supplies, and morale.
With Sheridan’s forces defeated and Lee’s forces barely holding on the war in the east looked pretty bleak. The Mississippi River including everything west of it had been lost since the year before. Tennessee was probably lost for good also. Sherman was obliterating Georgia, and who knew where he would go rampaging next. Soon Mance could see all the Yankee armies emerging on Virginia and that would surely be the end.
“Mance, how did you end up here?” Michael inquired.
“I was captured at Gettysburg. My company rushed a stone wall in the center on Cemetery Ridge on the third day. We made it, but no other units did. The Yanks soon surrounded us. First they took me to Ft. McHenry, and it was much better there. We had barracks and more food, but it soon became over crowded. I was brought here on the 11th day of August, 1863, almost a year and a half ago.
“Has anyone ever escaped?” Michael inquired.
“Nope,” Mance continued. “It’s too far across the bay and the ironclad U.S.S. Roanoke patrols it day and night. But even if the guards suspect you of trying to escape, they will shoot you. Most of the Negros are runaway slaves and they enjoy making us pay for what their former mastas did to them. They are not all that way though and Captain Barnes, the assistant provost is a good, fair man, but Major Brady, the Provost Marshall, is harsh and lets the Negros do about what ever they want. It’s hard here Michael.”
The Death of Konroy
Konroy, a harsh, arrogant guard from a plantation in South Carolina, often taunted the prisoners, baring his back to display the numerous deep, long, jagged scars. “Boy,” he would say, “I make ya pay for what that cracker (see note 2) did to me and my family!” He was often drunk on duty and this combined with reports to the Commandant of his excessive cruelty to the prisoners had kept him from making corporal. Mance was torn on Konroy, sure he was brutal and looked for any reason to extract vengeance on the representatives of his former masters. It was also true that Konroy had been severely beaten by his master and had seen his entire family beat and sold off. Mance shuttered at the thought of his family being treated in a similar manner.
It was a cold, moonless, dreary night. Konroy had been drinking all day and then went on duty. As he stumbled across the parapet walkway near cookhouse #1 he stubbed his toe on a brick that had become dislodged from the top of the wall and fallen on the walkway. Konroy picked up the brick and hurled it down at a lone prisoner foraging around the cookhouse looking for wood chips for the fire. The brick hit the unsuspecting prisoner in the leg with enormous force. The prisoner dropped his load and fell over in excruciating pain. Realizing that it was a brick, in bewilderment he grabbed it and hurled it back up from where it seemed to come from, and then scampered off back to his tent. Konroy was struck in the head with the brick, lost his balance and fell face first on to the jagged rocks of the roadway below. The blood flooded from the abrasion on his head and his neck was broke from the fall. He was dead.
Mance warmed himself by the fire and tried to nurse his aching leg. The blood had run down into his worn boot, and he had no linens to wrap around it. From the light of fire, he determined that it wasn’t very deep, but it still had not stopped bleeding. He slipped his britches off under his blanket and wrapped it around his calf.
The next morning Konroy was discovered in a pool of coagulating blood behind the cookhouse, with a brick nearby. The guards called the officer on duty, and began asking who saw what happened. No one came forward. When Major Brady heard of the incident and the fact that the culprit had not been flushed out, he decided to take on the investigation himself.
Mance awoke just before roll call and breakfast. He unwrapped his leg and slid his trousers back on. Fortunately the blood had clotted rather quickly with pressure and his trousers had little soiling on them. He did notice the large black and blue area running the entire length of his calf. When roll call was over he managed to limp through the chow line and return to the tent. He said little regarding the incident to his tent mates, and spent the day on his bunk cleaning the dried blood out of his boot and trousers with a small stick.
That evening the temperature was well below freezing. After taps, the guards, on orders from Major Brady, rushed into cookhouse #1 and ordered out the thirty two sleeping prisoners inside with only shirts and trousers on. They were escorted and placed in a cold blockhouse with no food, no water, no blankets, and no fire. When asked why they were being treated this way, the guards simply said because one of them had killed the Negro guard, and the others were hiding it from the guards. When the facts were known, then they could go back to their quarters. If no one came forward, they would be shot on the following day.
Mance did not attend to his normal routine for a couple of day, and only left the tent for his two meals and to use the latrine. In between reading a chapter or two in the little Bible that his mother had given him, he dozed, rested and nursed his aching leg.
As the cold, sleepless night passed, day light finally peered through he little window in the door. Now came the jeers of the off duty guards. “Mornin’ white boys, I can’t wait to see a cap popped on ya’ll. Day after tomorrow, Ya’ll be dead just like ol’ Konroy! Bang, Bang!” And so it went all day. The next evening was just as cold and no one had any nourishment since being expelled from their quarters. Major Brady called out the 32, weak, shaking prisoners for a mock trial before the executions.
The morning was wearing on as Mance continued to lie on his bed. Suddenly Michael came running up shouting, “Mance, have ya heard? Major Brady is holding a trial of the cooks to see who killed the Negro guard two nights ago. He is bound and determined to ferret out the killer.”
Mance rubbed the sleep from his eyes, and asked, “Where did they find that Negro?”
“Behind cookhouse #1. He was hit in the head with a brick and fell off the parapet, and they found him in the morning. The Major put all 32 cooks in a blockhouse without blankets or food and is cruelly interrogating them. After the trial he is going to shoot them all if the guilty one doesn’t come forward.”
Mance was stunned! His thoughts were racing. “How could this be? He had just been out for wood chips because he was cold, and now 32 innocent men were going to be shot. What was he to do?”
“Michael, go get the Capt’n!”
Michael ran to get Captain Barnes. Mance followed in a slow trot favoring his mending leg. The Captain and Michael met Mance in the open yard. Mance explained what had happened. The Captain ordered two soldiers to ride over the blockhouse where the Major was having the “trial” and tell him the real culprit had been found.
When Mance arrived, Major Brady was waiting for him with all the off duty Negro guards and the 32 half clothed, shivering, and starving cooks. Mance was told to sit on a large, wooden box for questioning. The Major began with several mocking and irrelevant questions like “How many innocent Yankee soldiers have you killed?” and “How many slaves did you beat on your plantation?”
Finally the Major gave Mance the opportunity to explain his story.
“I was having a hard time sleeping that night. My only blanket was wearing thin and the fire was flickering lower and lower in the wind as the wood chips slowly burned to coals. I decided to go look for some more chips around the cook tent. I had a handful and was about to return to my tent with my find, when from no where some heavy object struck my leg with such force I dropped my load. It took all I had in me not to let out a shriek so loud it would wake up the whole camp. In frustration I hurled the brick back where it came from” Mance lifted his trouser leg and displayed his still swollen, purple calf. “I heard the sound of a man falling from the ten foot high parapet. I quickly scooped up my errand, and limped hurriedly back to his tent. The parapet is only ten feet high there, and I had no idea that the man was dead.”
After wards he concluded with, “I'm very sorry that Isa didn't know that ya were bestowin' this cruelty on these men, for I'd 'ave come forward and made known these things to ya.”
With that, Major Brady told the 32 men to go back to their quarters. He also ordered clothes and extra rations for them. Mance waited in the box terrified about what his punishment would be. Would he be taken out and shot? Would he be put in solitary confinement? Would he be put on hard labor for the rest of the war? Then he saw Corporal Jesse Horrod walk over to the Major and say something to him. He could not make it out, but the Major turned to Mance and told him to go back to his tent. Nothing more was ever said about the incident.
Over the next few days, three of the cooks died from that torturous ordeal.
The Courier Service
“Private Walker, the provost wanna to see ya now boy!” bellowed the guard. Mance hesitantly looks up from his morning fare.
“What does he want with me?” Mance asked wondering if he was finally going to get the punishment that he knew would eventually come to him.
“I no ax him what he want, Reb boy. I just do what ‘e say. And double quick time it, boy!”
Mance scurried to the Provost office and reported.
“I need a courier, boy. And you’ll be it.” Major Brady stated flatly, then asked, “How’s that leg.”
“It, ah, has healed up good, sir….ah, I beg your pardon Major Brady, but why did you pick me?”
“My Negro Corporal Harrod told me that I could trust you. I can can’t I?”
“Now run this request down to the hospital and give it to Dr. Adams.”
Mance took off feeling somewhat apprehensive about leaving the camp. It had been a year and half since he entered the front gate. The guards had always boasted about shooting any Reb that stepped outside the walls, now they opened the gate and let him waltz on through.
“Major Brady’s courier?” Mance pondered to himself. “I never would have thunk it”
TO: Ethel M. Prater
FROM: Pvt. Mance W. Prater
Lookout Point, MD
January 27, 1864
I got a job! The Provost made me his courier. Can you believ it! Now I run messages all over the Point Lookout and get all the news about the war. I don’t get money for runnin messages but I do get extra rations and they gave me a warmer set of clothes and boots to. I gave my other clothes to Michael so he can stay warmer and I often share the rations with some of the undernourished prisoners. Still so many soldiers are dying from the bitter cold and malnutrition.
The war is goin real bad momma. I hear that Marse Lee is very short on men, bullets and supplies. General Sherman took Savannah and is now working his way threw South Carolina. They say his men are destroying everything because that is where the Rebellion started.
Most of the colored troops are gone now. The white Yankee guards are not as mean, but they still like to make fun of us. I do pray to the Good Lord that soon we can all live in peace - the Negro the Yankee and the Reb. Do you think it will happen momma?
I hope you are doing well. I pray for you momma. Maybe I will be home soon.
Your loving son
The sun was bright that May morning. Mance felt warm for the first time since last summer. As he freshened up, he read a passage from his little Bible that his mother had sent to him, and said his morning prayer. He felt thankful to the Good Lord for his care and protection for the past four years that he had been away from home, during the fighting with the 1st Tennessee Infantry and while he was imprisoned here at Camp Hoffman. Suddenly he was startled out of his meditation.
“Prater! Report to the Provost Marshalls office. Double quick time it, boy!”
As Mance sprinted to the Majors office, he couldn’t help wondering to himself, “Could this be the day!”
When he arrived there were a dozen or so other soldiers there already from Tennessee and North Carolina. Each man had his name called and stepped forward. Finally, he heard his name!
“Private Mance Walker Prater of Tennessee! You are being discharged from Camp Hoffman Military Prison. Raise your right hand and repeat after me.
“I, Mance Walker Prater, do solemnly swear, in presence of Almighty God, that I will henceforth faithfully support, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States, and the union of the States thereunder; and that I will, in like manner, abide by, and faithfully support all laws and proclamations which have been made during the existing rebellion with reference to the emancipation of slaves. So help me God.”
“Yes, sir, I do!”
“You are herby free to depart Camp Hoffman at Point Lookout, Maryland and return to your home in Woodbury, Tennessee on this 6th day of June in the year of our Lord, 1865.”
As Mance was departing from his camp of captivity to the land of liberation, he overheard Sergeant Jesse Harrod singing.
Oh freedom, Oh freedom,
Oh freedom over me.
And before I’ll be a slave,
I’ll be buried in my grave
And go home to my Lord and be free.
The old Negro spiritual, now belonged to Mance.
Historical portions taken for “Prison Life at Lookout Point, by Rev J.B. Traywick”
http:www.csa-dixie.com/csa/prisoners/t62.htm, and the Library of Congress, Civil War Collection
(1) Marse is a shortened, altered form of Master, as in slave master. The southern soldiers often referred to their generals and other superiors with this title and they were the slaves of their generals.
(2) Cracker is a derogatory term meaning one that does the whipping, the cracker of the whip.
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