Eyewitness 1863: Politician's capture paralyzes Pennsylvania Senate

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Harry White may have been the man best qualified to evaluate conditions at Western Penitentiary in 1863.

White was one of three state senators appointed that year to examine "the conditions of Institutions owned by the State or to which she makes appropriations," The Pittsburgh Post reported in its Sept. 14 edition.

Those state-funded institutions included the prison in Allegheny City, now Pittsburgh's North Side, where more than 100 Confederate officers were confined. They were members of Morgan's Raiders, Southern cavalrymen who had been captured in Ohio following a month of battles and skirmishes throughout the Midwest.

White, a lawyer from Indiana County, was not able to make the inspection trip to Allegheny County. He was himself a Confederate captive in Libby Prison in Richmond. He had been elected to the state Senate in 1862 while he was on active service as a major with the 67th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry.

President Abraham Lincoln granted him leave to attend to his legislative duties in January 1863, and he returned to the Union Army several months later. Shortly thereafter he was captured on June 15 in Virginia during the Second Battle of Winchester.

White's imprisonment left Sen. George W. Stein. a Democrat, and Sen. Charles McCandless, a Republican, to review conditions at the prison. They "made a careful examination, and manifested entire satisfaction with what they saw there," the Post reported. "The treatment of the Rebel Prisoners received their attention, and they envinced much astonishment in finding how very different from the actual facts were certain verbal and printed reports in regard to this matter, and reflecting on the civil and military officers having custody of these men."

The Post was the city's dominant Democratic newspaper, and that second cryptic sentence in its story likely represented a dig at one of its Republican rivals, The Pittsburgh Evening Chronicle. Stories in the Chronicle had been critical of prison authorities for being too soft on the Confederates. Partisan politics also intruded into negotiations over White's release from Southern captivity.

Republicans, also known as Unionists, held a one-seat majority in the 33-member state Senate in 1863. White was a Republican, and his absence produced a deadlock in the upper house, according to a January 1972 article in the Western Pennsylvania Historical Magazine.

White had made several unsuccessful efforts to escape, one of which landed him in solitary confinement. In November 1863 he wrote out a letter of resignation and smuggled it out of prison, possibly in a Bible.

While Democrats questioned the authenticity of the document, the receipt of White's note opened the way for a special election for his Indiana County seat. The Republican candidate, Dr. Thomas St. Clair, easily won, and with his swearing-in the Senate was back in business.

After being transported to several other prisoner-of-war camps, White finally escaped Southern captivity in October 1864.


Len Barcousky: lbarcousky@post-gazette.com or 724-772-0184. See more Civil War-linked stories in this series by searching "Barcousky" and "Eyewitness" at post-gazette.com.


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