When 2,000 Confederate soldiers tramped through the streets of Pittsburgh on June 8, 1863, city residents did not panic.
The Southerners were prisoners of war captured during battles near Haines Bluff and Vicksburg in Mississippi, and they were changing trains on their way to a POW camp called Fort Delaware. The camp was about 300 miles east of Pittsburgh on an island in the Delaware River between Delaware and New Jersey.
"They reached here between eight and nine o'clock, and were at once transported from the western to the eastern [railroad] cars by walking from Penn to Liberty streets," The Daily Pittsburgh Gazette reported on July 9. "They were a hard-looking set, so far as dress was concerned, but physically they appeared to be in good condition." Four hundred Ohio troops guarded the Rebels as they passed through Pittsburgh.
This was not luxury travel for the Confederates.
"They were shipped in common freight cars, fitted up with seats," the story said. The Union Army used the same kind of transport for its own soldiers, according to the newspaper. About 50 prisoners rode in each car.
Mealtimes were equally informal. Soldiers drove a supply wagon along the platform next to the POW trains and threw a half dozen hams into each car. "This, with a supply of bread and water, will constitute their fare while traveling," the story said.
The Southern prisoners "generally appeared to be ragged and saucy, and were rather proud of the excitement which they occasioned," the Gazette's on-the-scene reporter wrote.
The Gazette was the city's primary Republican newspaper, and its writer couldn't resist a dig at Confederate morale. "We have not the slightest doubt that they would much rather remain prisoners in the North than go back as soldiers to the South," the story concluded.
Those 2,000 POWs were not the only Southerners to pass through Pittsburgh that month. By June 13, a total of 2,900 Confederate prisoners had come and gone, The Daily Post reported on June 15. One man briefly escaped on June 13 by jumping from a freight car when his train stopped along what is now Liberty Avenue. He was captured "in a forlorn condition" that same evening in Allegheny City, now Pittsburgh's North Side.
In an interview with a Post reporter that appeared June 16, the escaped prisoner claimed he had been an unwilling Confederate soldier. His name was S.A. West and he had been a member of the 1st Missouri Artillery. He had been captured at the Battle of Big Black River Bridge. That Union victory tightened the ring that troops under Gen. Ulysses S. Grant's had forged around the Confederate stronghold of Vicksburg.
"He denies ever having been a rebel, but says that he was conscripted," the Post reported. As a result, West found himself caught between prison camp and a firing squad. "He wanted to take the oath [of loyalty to the Union], but did not wish to be placed in a position to be drafted [into the U.S. Army]," the story said. If he were captured by former Confederate comrades wearing a Union soldier's uniform "his certain fate would be death."
Capt. Edward S. Wright, the army provost marshal for Pittsburgh, told the Post he was referring the problem up the chain of command. West "would be sent on to Fort Delaware, where he would have an opportunity of proving his loyalty ..."
Len Barcousky: email@example.com or 724-772-0184. See more Civil War-linked stories in this series by searching "Barcousky" and "Eyewitness" at post-gazette.com.