Spending eight months in Western Penitentiary persuaded five rebel officers to take an oath of allegiance to the U.S. government 150 years ago this month.
They were among 116 captured Confederate officers who were being transferred from the jail in what was then Allegheny City, now the North Side, to a giant prisoner-of-war camp at the southern tip of Maryland.
The men had been imprisoned after their capture in July 1863 in Ohio. They were members of Morgan's Raiders, a Confederate force that sought to bring the Civil War north to communities in Ohio and Indiana. The stone prison where they were held stood on land now occupied by the National Aviary.
The prisoners of war had been the subject of local curiosity, and their jailers had faced some criticism for what many saw as too-easy treatment. The Daily Pittsburgh Gazette had run several stories about the harsh conditions Union prisoners faced in Southern prison camps.
"A rumor of their departure spread over the cities, and a large crowd of people gathered around the Penitentiary to get a sight of the rebels as they passed," according to a story that appeared March 19, 1864, in The Gazette.
"The prisoners appeared to be in excellent condition, and made good appearance," the report said. "They looked neat and clean, and gave evidence of having been well provided for. They conducted themselves very quietly, and seemed pleased at regaining their liberty."
The ranks of the prisoners included a second lieutenant named Van J. Sellers. Postal historian Daniel Telep, of Sewickley Hills, assembled a collection of 21 letters Sellers wrote from Western Penitentiary to a friend between August 1863 and March 1864. His letters to Nannie Lyne of Keene, Ky., provide a first-hand view of POW life at the jail.
Mr. Telep's collection also included envelopes for 20 of the letters. Those covers had markings indicating most of the correspondence had been read and passed by a military censor. Since Kentucky was a border state that did not join the Confederacy, Sellers' letters were sent via regular U.S. mail from Pittsburgh after they had been "examined."
One of the envelopes, however, has a Wheeling, W.Va., postmark. That letter, dated Dec. 30, 1863, was sent "without examination by means of an underground passage by which I can send but not receive," Sellers wrote to Lyne. "Be careful when you write not to mention this letter ..."
In that same piece of correspondence Sellers complained that at least one of his previous letters had not been delivered to his friend. "About that time two of the prisoners attempted to escape, and I suppose all letters mentioning it were considered contraband," he wrote. After that incident, prisoners were confined to their cells, were forbidden to have visitors and could no longer receive outside food items.
The ban on outside food lasted until March 13, 1864, just a few days before the prisoners learned they were to be transferred to the POW camp at Lookout Point, Md. The last letter in Mr. Telep's collection was dated March 18, the day the prisoners left Pittsburgh by train.
"At two o'clock this morning the Lord willing, I shall bid a tearful adieu to the ever to be well remembered walls of the Western Penitentiary," he wrote.
The Gazette's March 19 story indicates that it was 2 p.m. before the Confederates were lined up, counted and then marched "under a strong guard of soldiers" to nearby railroad cars.
"While they were at the [Pennsylvania Railroad] outer depot, a telegraphic dispatch was received by Capt. Wright from Washington, requesting him to detain five men who had expressed their willingness to take the oath of allegiance," the story said. The five were to be sent instead to Camp Chase, in Columbus, Ohio. That army installation housed some prisoners of war, but it also served as a training camp for Union soldiers. The camp buildings all are long gone, but a Confederate cemetery where almost 2,700 rebels are buried is still there.
Capt. Edward S. Wright, the Union officer who oversaw the Confederates while they were at Western Penitentiary, had a post-war association with the jail. He became the civilian warden in 1869.
The Gazette's anonymous reporter wrote that a double rank of guards kept their eyes on the prisoners while they were being transferred to the railroad cars. Two other reports that appeared in the newspaper that week provided evidence that heavy security was a good idea. Escape remained a high priority for the POWs.
On March 20 another 500 rebel prisoners had passed through the city on their way to the Point Lookout prison camp. They had been guarded by soldiers from the Invalid Corps. That unit, also known at the Veteran Reserve Corps, was composed of partially disabled soldiers and veterans. "During their passage over the [Allegheny] mountains, seven of the prisoners succeeded in effecting their escape," according to a March 22 Gazette story.
Another report in that same day's edition said Capt. Wright had received a "telegraphic dispatch" three days after the Confederates left Pittsburgh "announcing that the prisoners sent from the Western Penitentiary to Point Lookout had arrived at their destination." The trip, however, was not peaceful. "During the passage, one of the prisoners, named L.R. Payton ... endeavored to escape." The fleeing man "was shot by one of the guard and instantly killed."
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