From the Boston Traveller, 4/3/1869, p. 2, c. 4
Battle-fields of the Rebellion.
Condition of Richmond.
BELLE ISLE, LIBBY PRISON, CASTLE THUNDER.
HORRIBLE CONDITION OF THE DEAD.
Finding of Valuables on the Bodies.
Special Correspondence of the Traveller.
RICHMOND, Va., March 27, 1869.
Since our last letter, so many of our friends have taken the pains to write us and request a more detailed description of Richmond, from a “soldier’s point of view,” that we turn back, with pleasure, the leaves of our diary to the page where the significant phrase “On to Richmond!” stared us in the face, with all its attendant train of thoughts, memories and emotions. Richmond is a strange city now. Gorgeous marble buildings have arisen, phoenix-like, from the ashes of the predecessors, and around them stand the staggering, ghastly ruins of warehouses and mills destroyed at the “evacuation.” Blackened and shattered walls have, in many instances, received a new roof. Buildings partially burned have been “reconstructed,” and, like their original owners, present a queer continuation of the good and bad, the old and the new. The Tredegar Iron Mills, so celebrated for the surpassing workmanship displayed in the manufacture of cannon, now occupy a building on their old site, surrounded by an acre of tall ruins. The “Galligo Mills” [Gallego] have recently constructed a large five-story structure on the ground formerly occupied by them, near the canal. When the rebels left the city, they set fire to the stores along one side of Main street, and the warehouses, for half a mile, were destroyed. But the restless, speculating Yankee has rebuilt the whole street, and beautiful warehouses of stone and brick now ornament this part of the burnt district.
THE OLD STATE HOUSE.
The State House, occupied during the rebellion as the capitol of the Confederacy, is in an exceedingly dilapidated condition. The seats of senators and representatives are rickety and broken; the desks are covered with uncouth figures, initials and wry lettering, carved by the ruthless hands of soldiers. Nothing but the old chair in which sat Jefferson and Washington has been respected. The walls are daubed, the doors and stairways worn and decaying, while the exterior of the building is cracked and scarred by the action of frost in the cleaving mastic.
A GOVERNOR ON TRIAL.
In the Mayor’s office on the second floor, we witnessed the trial of provisional Governor Wells for opening a letter addressed to another person. It was an amusing trial. All gab and very little law. That the charges were trumped up by the old secessionists of Virginia to effect Governor Well’s political prospects, there cannot be a doubt. Everybody regarded it in that light. The court-room was crowded with all the politicians of the land, and many tough rebellious speeches were made. We feared the unstable old building would fall when the counsel for the prosecution flew in a rage, stamped his feet and clapped his hands, declaiming against the oppressors of “Old Virginia.”
BOSTONIANS IN OFFICE.
We could not avoid the mental admission that he was right when he said that Virginia was “ruled by the stranger.” For every office, from Governor to Justice of the Peace, seems to be appropriated by Northern men. Under the military rule the soldiers who remained here at the close of the war have been appointed to office, and one would think Boston had depopulated itself in filling the vacant official positions in this State. The mayors, judges, magistrates, sheriffs, inspectors, revenue collectors, post offices, road surveyors, detectives and police, nearly all come from the North, and it seems to be no exaggeration to say that every alternate one comes from Boston.
The original office-holders walk the streets with their hands in their pockets, - where they now keep their anger and chivalry, - and occupy their time in gazing on the rising monuments of Yankee enterprise, or dream away their hours in the “Academy,” listlessly watching the mazes of the French can-can. Yesterday we saw the corpulent Commissioner Ould on a street corner, diligently engaged in whistling, while the grey-headed Henry A. Wise nearly pushed him into the street, as he tottered by him, followed by the pompous, liquor-swilling vagabond who killed young Dahlgren.
Such being the state of things we do not wonder that the remaining Virginia lawyers who are allowed to practice should once in a while taunt their rulers with oppression.
THE SLAYER OF H. RIVES POLLARD.
After leaving the court-room a friend guided us to the outskirts of the city, and after showing us some ancient curiosities in the shape of the stone on which Captain Smith’s head was laid when saved by Pocahontas and the grave of Powhatan, pointed out to us a modern curiosity in the shape of young Grant, who shot H. Rives Pollard. Grant was at the time passing the very spot where Pollard fell, and where the bullet holes in the brick wall show the effect of the warful charge. He did not, however, turn to the right of left, but went his way puffing his cigar, with the air of a great man, and was apparently saying to himself, “Who shot Rives Pollard? I said young Grant, with courage of adamant, I shot Rives Pollard.”
MRS. VAN LEW.
Doubtless every soldier who has ever received food and clothing from that “unknown friend” while in Libby or Castle Thunder, as well as the friends of Col. Dahlgren, whose naked body she took from the roadside, where the barbarous Confederates left it, and buried it, carefully, in her beautiful garden, will echo us, when we say, God bless Mrs. Van Lew! At the risk of her life, and with the prospect of losing her valuable estate, by consideration, this noble woman aided, in every way she could, the suffering Union soldiers. At a time when the Freemasons of Richmond were especially forbidden, by orders from the Commanding General, to aid in any way the starving prisoners, she defied the orders which men even of that noble Order fearer, and prepared food for them with her own hands. Again we say, God bless her! She has recently been appointed Postmistress of Richmond by President Grant, much to the chagrin of the old rebel office-holders, and enters upon her duties today. The nation to which she so fearlessly adhered cannot do too much for her.
Belle Isle is a place of but little at present to any one except those who were held there as prisoners of war. It is simply a little hill set down in the middle of James River at the Rapids. The nail works on one side, which were in full blast during the war, emit the same stream of black smoke to-day. The camping ground on the flat at the foot of the hill where Union soldiers dragged out a miserable existence is now ploughed up and used as a garden. The foundations of the old soup house and the graves of the dead still remain, however, - the former to revive again that mockery of feeding the captives, and the latter to remind one of the simple and hard burial service succeeding the death of comrades. The little old church in which divine service was conducted, and to which the unfortunate soldiers had access, has become a dwelling house, and so completely remodeled as to disguise its former character. Along the beach where trod the rebel guards, the workmen in the nail factory now draw up their canoes. The old sycamore, near which lay the path to the river, and against which the guard so often leaned to rest, has become a mooring post for skiffs and boats. The fish traps in the broad stream that so often were blocked with the bodies of soldiers who were shot or drowned while attempting to cross the river, still stand as a source of revenue to the poor whites on the opposite bank. A flower bed now blooms in the place where stood the rickety hospital tent in which so many soldier lay suffering and dying, - lingering in misery there rather than go to certain death at the Chimborazo Hospital. How many a man has laid there through the feverish night, listening to the ceaseless roar of the cataracts around him and gazing at the red glare on the canvas reflected from the chimneys of the Tredegar Iron Works, thinking of food on his table he was never to taste, and of a dear mother or wife he was never to see! Here died Sergeant French and Arthur Dunn of the Mass. 29th, Sergeant Boswell of the 35th, and Geo. H. Nichols of the 32nd, whose history we have heard repeated to-day. The graveyard where the dead were buried just outside the camp, was so near the river that since the removal of bodies to the cemetery, at least one half of it has washed away. And here has been a singular exhibition of partiality, for the graves of the negro soldiers have never been touched, and many of them have caved in or been washed out; and the day before our visit a cow, grazing on the hill, fell into one of those graves, which had caved in, and broker her leg. The owner, instead of regretting his own carelessness, or blaming the authorities which leave a soldier’s grave unprotected, expended all his breath in cursing the “d-d nigger” for whom the grave was dug.
When we were conversing with acquaintances, since our visit to Belle Isle, in regard to the suffering there, a Confederate soldier came up and exhibited a beautiful gold watch bearing the inscription, “To E. D. M., from Maria,” which he said a friend of his bought of a prisoner for five loaves of bread. Since then we have seen coats, pen knives, rings, &c., &c., which were exchanged by Union soldiers for a single meal.
Libby Prison has not changed materially in its outward look, having the same dingy appearance. Inside, however, it has undergone great changed. Partitions have been built, doorways walled up, cells for close confinement torn out, and each apartment fitted up for the uses for which it was built. The cellars are filled with bales of cornstalks and boxes of merchandise, while the upper stories are filled with all the variety of goods found in any commission warehouse. In one a man is employed as a clerk who was a prisoner there for over a year.
In tearing down the walls little notes to friends, keepsakes, &c., were found stowed away, to be recovered if the prisoners ever returned. Nearly all of these have been destroyed or sent away to the friends to whom they were addressed. We are searching now for a workmen who is said to have found $50 in greenbacks behind a brick in the wall, and with it a note to a friend in New York, saying that the money was for his daughter, if he (the prisoner) never lived to see them, and closed with the words, “Great God, must I starve here?” It was evidently a part of an uncompleted letter, and was stowed away for safe keeping till the writer could finish it.
The balcony around Castle Thunder, on which trod the sentinels, has been torn down. The outside has been painted crimson and the inside renovated and changed. It is now used as a tobacco manufactory, and over a hundred hands are employed drying, pressing and rolling tobacco. It is surrounded by ruins, and it is a matter of surprise that, in the great conflagration when the city was destroyed, Libby and Castle Thunder should be omitted.
COLD HARBOR BATTLE-FIELD.
“How sleep the brave who sink to rest,
By all their country’s honors blest?”
A Prussian officer, accompanied by a Colonel of a British regiment, who was surveying the battle-field of Cold Harbor just before our visit, is said to have accused the keeper of the cemetery at that point of telling a falsehood, for saying that the Union line of works was fourteen miles long. But when they rode along the fortifications and had been on the road for two hours, they began to believe the cemetery keeper’s story, and constantly exclaimed, “Beganton coontree,” “wonderful, astonishing,” &c. And even to an American who knows well the strength of our army, the magnitude of this battle is seldom comprehended. Many a soldier – and even Grant himself – has returned to the field since the war and could not find one familiar spot. So great is the change from a field of armies to a barren plain. The battle-field of Cold Harbor has been of especial concern to us as there fell so many of our friends and acquaintances. It was with feelings of the deepest interest we tramped about through pine groves, over sundry fields, ravines and breastworks, following in the footsteps of the men we knew. Long we lingered about the angles occupied by the 10th, 27th, 25th, 19th, 11th and 12th Massachusetts, and searched about as if some memento might be left to tell where our friends stood in that terrible hour. Two thousand killed in ten minutes! No other battle of the war has such a history as that. Ah, that was a terrible day! And as we thought it over we sat down upon the earthwork which the 25th Massachusetts and 7th Connecticut threw up with their tin cups and plates, and then we counted over the troops from our native states who participated in that fight. The 7th, 21st, 20th, 9th, 11th, 12th, 13th, 15th, 16th, 18th, 19th, 58th, 59th, 35th, 28th, 32nd, 40th, 37th, 27th, 25th Infantry, 1st Heavy Artillery, the 1st, 5th, 9th, 10th, 11th, 14th Light Batteries were there, and consequently this field must be of especial interest to Massachusetts men; and there, too, were the 2nd, 5th and 6th New Hampshire, the 7th and 11th Connecticut. But why enumerate? For hardly a state or town in the North that did not lose a valuable citizen in the first ten minutes of the fight on the morning of June 3, 1864. Our province is not with the history of the field, but with its present condition.
The earthworks are fast disappearing under the hands of the diligent lead searchers who are found everywhere along the line; a profitable business they make of it too; tons of old iron and lead are carted into Richmond from this field, for which a round price is paid. We met several negroes with large sacks collecting the bones of dead horses, which they sold to the bone grinders in Richmond; upon questioning them to ascertain it they also carried off human bones, they emphatically replied, “No, sah; we don’t want no ghosts axing us fur der bones.” Without doubt this superstitious people, who nail a horseshoe over their door that visitors may bring good luck, and who believe in all manner of signs and ghosts withal, do abstain from disturbing the bones of soldiers; but it is questionable if this is the case with all the white people.
The trees and stumps everywhere show the marks of battle, and the traces of ricocheting shot can be distinctly observed. Much of the field has been ploughed up and cultivated since the battle, thus destroying many landmarks that might otherwise be found. But the ruins of the old Gaines’s Mill stand just as they have stood since McClellan’s battle in ‘62.
But the saddest part of our letter remains. So much has the sights we saw and the sadness we felt on that battle-field affected us that our thoughts will not flow; our hand is far from steady; skeletons and ghosts haunt us in our dreams, and grinning skulls are all we can think of by day. It has been supposed that the Union dead were all buried in the cemeteries by the government, and that all the respect due the dead was now shown. But far is this from the case. The burial corps established a cemetery at Cold Harbor, and took up all the bodies they could find, and gave them a decent burial, although in one case they were obliged to bury six hundred and thirty-one in a single grave, and in another over three hundred. The men were then discharged, and no authority given the cemetery people to proceed any further with the work. Since then the negroes have dug up many bodies, and the bones of Union and Confederate soldiers. We found in all parts of the field, that skulls, ribs, legs and arm-bones lay scattered about in fearful array, while the bones of many and many a poor soldier lay partially exposed through the action of the rain. While we were walking along the works we found a negro who had just exhumed a body that was buried in a salient on the Barker’s Mill road, occupied during the battle by the First Massachusetts Artillery. The clothing and cap were that of an artilleryman, and a hole in the skull indicated that he was shot through the head. With it was found a silver watch, which we purchased of the negro, and send with this letter to Mr. Worthington, proprietor of the Traveller, hoping it may be identified. Many a watch has thus been found, which the negroes keep or sell. Another body was discovered by a negro the same day, wrapped in a rubber blanket, bearing the mark Co. E, 106th N. Y. S. V. The cemetery keeper stated that he had made a report in regard to the bodies, and doubtless the government would soon see them properly buried.
Knowing that a plant, called here pokeberry, always grows from the graves, we searched through the swamps and fields for it, and in no case were we deceived. For wherever we found the poke bush we found a grave beneath it. In one place there were some thirty or forty graves undiscovered before by the burial corps.