Eyewitness 1863: POWS from Union Army taken on a miserable ride

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Pittsburgh resident Josiah Copley Jr. saw more of the Confederacy than he wished.

He and his older brother, Albert, members of the 78th Pennsylvania Infantry, were captured separately at the Battle of Stones River, Tenn., on Dec. 31, 1862. Both were put on trains filled with prisoners that were routed and re-routed all over the South.

Albert, however, had been wounded by an exploding shell and was removed from his train at Knoxville, where he died. "He sleeps in an unmarked grave," according to a 1914 history of Armstrong County.

Josiah ultimately was transported back north and confined in Richmond's Libby Prison. He was exchanged after spending three weeks in a jail that he described as being "in a most filthy condition, and swarming with vermin."

The two brothers were the sons of Pittsburgh newspaper editor Josiah Copley. No sooner had Josiah Jr. been freed from the Confederate prison than he wrote a two-part report for The Daily Pittsburgh Gazette on his journey. He described what he had observed as he was transported for 2,000 miles through the rebellious South.

About 800 Union prisoners were crowded into freight and cattle cars -- as many as 70 men to a car -- for a journey that carried them through Chattanooga and Atlanta. "We made a slow progress, not over eight miles an hour," he wrote in a story that appeared Feb. 14, 1863. "Although raining most of the time, I preferred riding on top, to being crowded in the cars, besides it afforded a better chance of seeing the country."

Atlanta was "a new city, mainly built within a few years."

"Here ... new factories of various kinds, mostly for the production of army supplies, were being vigorously undertaken. Most articles were roughly made, but substantial and lasting."

"Montgomery, the first capital of rebeldom, is the only place of note through which we passed in Alabama," he wrote. "The capitol is much like our [Allegheny County] courthouse, and is the only building worth notice in the place ... The war has destroyed the business in this city and it looks extremely dull."

The Rebels' original destination for their prisoners was Mobile, "which we had almost reached, when we were ordered to Richmond." The reason for the change in Confederate plans? Gen. Ulysses S. Grant's attack on Vicksburg endangered Mobile as well.

As the POW train headed back toward Richmond, it stopped at Knoxville. Josiah Jr. makes no mention of his brother Albert's capture or wounding and does not mention him being taken off the train. He may not have known anything about the fate of his older sibling.

Yankee POWs were badly fed during their journey, often waiting a day or more for rations. "The rebel officers did the best they could for us, but often there were no supplies at hand," Josiah Jr. wrote. "Some of them spent their own money freely to supply the want of our men, and Southern soldiers often divided their rations with the prisoners."

While the Northern blockade of Southern ports was having an effect, many Confederates appeared to have embraced the hardships. In the states south of Virginia Josiah Jr. reported seeing few signs of loyalty to the Union.

By 1863, Union supporters who actively opposed secession as partisan fighters had been "hung, or driven from their homes," he wrote. "Where the Unionists took no part in the war, they were not interfered with."


Len Barcousky: lbarcousky@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1159. See more Civil War-linked stories in this series by searching "Barcousky" and "Eyewitness" at post-gazette.com.


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