Published quarterly by the
Louisiana Historical Association
In cooperation with
The Center for Louisiana Studies
The University of Southwestern Louisiana
(The following article is reprinted by the Young-Sanders Center with
permission granted by the Louisiana Historical Association and
The Center for Louisiana Studies)
Volume XIV, No. 4
Prison Life at Camp Pratt
Edited by: Arthur W. Bergeron, Jr.
Department of History
Louisiana State University
Baton Rouge, Louisiana
In 1882 a former officer in the Union army published his memoirs under the title The miscellaneous Writings of George C. Harding.1 Included in his book was a lengthy section entitled “Shifting Scenes From the Drama of the Late War,” which described his services as a second lieutenant in Company F, 21st Indiana Infantry Regiment, a unit which served in Louisiana during most of the Civil War. Prior to the war Lieutenant Harding had worked as a newspaperman2 and was thus able to write an extremely interesting and readable account of his war service.
One such incident described by Harding was his imprisonment for approximately six weeks at Camp Pratt, a camp of instruction near New Iberia, Louisiana. This story is especially interesting because it is the only published account of what life was like in a Louisiana prison camp.3 On September 24, 1862, Harding had been captured in a skirmish with the 2nd Louisiana Cavalry, 10th Louisiana Infantry Battalion and Captain Oliver J. Semmes’ Confederate Regulars Battery near Mr. Charles Koch’s “Belle Alliance” Plantation below Donaldsonville
A version of this paper as presented at the Sixth Annual Conference of the Attakapas Historical Association on October 28, 1972, in Lafayette, Louisiana.
1 George C. Harding, The Miscellaneous Writings of George C. Harding (Indianapolis, 1882).
2 Harding had written for or edited the Charleston (Illinois) Courier, Cincinnati Commercial, and Houston Telegraph. Harding, Miscellaneous Writings, 5-6.
3 There are published memoirs of Union officers who were captured in Louisiana but not confined in a prison camp. See Charles C. Nott, Sketches in Prison Camps (New York, 1865) and A. J. H. Duganne, Camps and Prisons: Twenty Months in the Department of the Gulf (New York, 1865).
On Bayou Lafourche.4 From there we take up Harding’s narrative:
On the morning of the 26th, I was started for Camp Pratt, on Bayou Teche, in charge of Lieut. Chamberlain.5 We landed at New Iberia about an hour before day, a little town with dirty secrets, and a strong sheepy smell. After daylight a buggy was procured, and, through a long lane, which had more than one turning, I was conveyed to Purgatory, which, in the language of the country, was called “Camp Pratt,” ca camp of conscription and instruction,6 six miles from New Iberia, and fifty miles from the Bay [Berwick’s]. The camp itself was a collection of plank “wedge-tents,” with here and there small editions of the stars and bars flapping their greasy folds in the breeze. I was taken before Col. Burke. Col. Burke was the “big Injun” of Camp Pratt.7
I was turned over, properly receipted for, and then, after taking a formal leave of Lieut. Chamberlain, who had treated me very kindly, I was escorted to the prisoners’ quarters, where one hundred and thirty-seven Yankees, taken at Bayou des Allemands,8 were confined. I was not naturally a lover of Yankees, but, “Fiat Justitia,” though the heavens fall. These were the meanest Yankees
4 U. S. War Department, War of the Rebellion: Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, 128 parts in 70 vols. (Washington, D. C., 1880-1901), Series I, Vol. XV, 142, hereinafter cites as O. R.; Harding Miscellaneous Writings, 318-20; Opelousas Courier, Oct. 11, 1862.
5 First Lieutenant O. L. Chamberlain, Company G, 2nd Louisiana Cavalry, Andrew B. Booth (comp.), Records of Louisiana Confederate Soldiers and Louisiana Confederate Commands, 3 vols. (New Orleans, 1920), II, 306.
6 Camp Pratt, located north of New Iberia on Spanish Lake, had been established as a conscript camp by Governor Thomas Overton Moore in May 1862 after the fall of New Orleans. The camp was named for and originally commanded by Brigadier General John G. Pratt who commanded the Louisiana State Militia in the parishes of St. Mary, Terrebonne, and St. Martin. Major General Richard Taylor established the camp as the camp of instruction for South Louisiana soon after his arrival in the state in August 1862. At Camp Pratt conscripts were collected, given some military training and assigned to units in Virginia or Louisiana. Napier Bartlett, Military Records of Louisiana (Baton Rouge, 1964) 225-56; Vaughn Baker (ed.), “Glimpses of Iberia in the Civil War,” Attakapas Gazette, VI (1971), 87; O. R., 1, XV, 756, 919.
7 Lieutenant Colonel Ross E. Burke, 2nd Louisiana Infantry. Lieutenant Colonel Burke had been sent to Louisiana from his regiment in Virginia to forward conscripts to that theater. General Taylor had assigned him to command Camp Pratt when it was made a camp of instruction, and he retained this command until December 1862. Booth (ed.), Records of Louisiana Confederate Soldiers, II, 187-88; O. R., 1, XV, 919.
8 Four officers and 137 men of the 8th Vermont Infantry were captured on September 4, 1862, at a post on Bayou des Allemands by Major Ed. Waller’s 13th Texas Cavalry Battalion. George N. Carpenter, History of the Eighth Regiment Vermont Volunteers (Boston, 1886), 55; O. R., 1, XV, 134-35.
I ever saw. Of course there were honorable exceptions, but I never saw as much petty meanness and selfishness in my life as I witnessed among them. They annoyed me, and disgusted me more completely than anything I saw in rebeldom. The officers, however, were very clever, but one of them was the most inveterate Yankee I ever met. He had been five years in the regular army, and still his enunciation of “cow” would have insured him “a long cord and short shrift” in the days of Kansas border ruffianism. He always called me “Howsier,” and really seemed to enjoy the wit of the thing so highly that I could not find it in my heart to get angry at him.9 I contrived, however, to let him know in the course of our acquaintance, that so far from being ashamed of being a Hoosier, I was proud of it, and that I did not agree with him in believing that the hub of the universe was located in New England.
There I also found Connelly and Cox, our two lieutenants, who were captured in May last.10 Poor fellows! They had been confined for three months and fifteen days in [the] Opelousas jail before coming to Camp Pratt.11 Camp Pratt was filled with Cajunn [sic] conscripts. I will try and tell what a Cajunn [sic] is. He is a half-savage creature, of mixed French and Indian blood; lives in swamps, and subsists by hunting and fishing and cultivating small patches of corn and sweet potatoes. They are sallow, dried up, and mummy-like in appearance, and stolid and stupid in expression. The wants of the Cajunn [sic] are few, and his habits are simple. With a bit of a cornbread, a potato, and a clove of garlic, with an occasional indulgence in stewed crawfish, he gets along quite comfortably, and for luxuries, smokes husk cigarettes and drinks rum—when he can get it. The Cajunn [sic] has great powers of endurance, but not much stomach for fight.12 Of the herd at Camp
9 This officer has not been identified. The officers of the 8th Vermont captured at Des Allemands were Captain Edward Hall, First Lieutenant Job W. Green, Second Lieutenant Andrew J. Sargent and Second Lieutenant John B. Mead. Carpenter, History of the Eighth Vermont, 55.
10 Second Lieut. James W. Connelly and Clayton Cox, Companies H and K, 21st Indiana, respectively. Connelly and Cox had been captured by Captain E. W. Fuller’s St. Martin Rangers militia company on May 25, 1862, while riding on a train from Brashear City (now Morgan City) to New Orleans. O. R., 2, IV, 507; Bartlett, Military Record of Louisiana, 256.
11 On September 11, 1862, Lieutenants Connelly and Cox wrote to Union Major General Benjamin E. Butler from the Opelousas jail concerning their confinement: “We have been confined in one of the most pleasant rooms of the jail and generally speaking have had fair treatment. The rumor of our being confined in irons is not true.” O. R., 2, IV, 507.
12 This was at least partially true of the conscripts at Camp Pratt. At the Battle of Labadieville, October 27, 1862, a unit composed largely of conscripts from Camp Pratt reportedly threw away their weapons and equipment and ran uncontrollably to the rear, “boasting…that they had not fired a gun.” Franklin Attakapas Register, Oct. 30, 1862, quoted in New Orleans Daily Picayune
Pratt, desertions were quite frequent, sometimes as many as thirty or forty stampeding in a single night. But they would be caught, brought back, made to wear a barrell [sic] for a week or two, and were finally broke in.13
I can not say that we were abused by the Cajunns [sic]. They did not insult, but exasperated us dreadfully. In the cool of the evening, they would gather about our quarters, and stand, or sit squatted on their haunches, for hours, not saying a word to us or to each other, but regarding us with a grim, stupid stare, reminding me strongly of the manner in which the lower class of Choctaws, in the Indian country, sit and gaze at a circus bill.
Seven of us were stowed in one tent—a dirty, greasy pen, densely populated with vermin. We had three blankets among us, and as Northers would occasionally blow up, one might imagine our sleep was not “balmy.” We had about a quarter of an acre of ground for one hundred and forty persons to exercise upon, with a guard of one Cajunn [sic], with a double-barreled shot-gun, to every fourteen feet of ground. For food, we had yellow cornmeal, beef, and sugar, issued to us, with the alternative of cooking it ourselves or eating it raw. The Yankees boiled their beef, and made a thick mush of the meal, which they called pudding. Boiled beef is the meanest thing on earth, except half-cooked, yellow mush. I ate the mush for three or four days, until my stomach utterly revolted, and an attempt to eat it was followed by the most violent retching. Then I subsisted on beef alone for a time. To tell the truth, I came near being starved. The ghost of every good dinner I ever ate in my life, haunted my weary slumbers. The shade of a mince pie, which an esteemed lady friend had sent me years ago, was particularly obtrusive. After feasting upon all manner of delicacies and substantial in my troubled sleep, I would wake to the realization of captivity, and the cussed mush and beef.
Camp Pratt was short of crockery, and the boys, for plates, used all sorts of contrivances, so that they frequently ate their mush from pieces of gourd calabashes, the shoulder-blades of deceased oxen and other unique vessels.
While the men had men had money they would buy milk at twenty-five cents a quart; eggs, fifty cents per dozen; sweet potatoes, four dollars per bushel; a twelve-ounce loaf for fifty cents, etc.; but after they had eaten up their knapsacks, haversacks, canteens, and, in some instances, their shoes, they had to return to mush and
13 General Taylor wrote on December 30, 1862, that “the number of conscripts recently brought to the camps is small, and these have to be hunted down by detachments from the small command which I have at my disposal and brought in tied and sometimes ironed.” O. R., XV, 919.
beef. As for me, i had no money, and so nobody offered to lend me any, i had a full course of the nutritious diet alluded to. Connelly and Cox were in the same fix. The only time when we departed from the bill of fare was when we devoured Connelly’s watch.
In justice to the Camp Pratt officers, I must say they gave us just what they did to their own men. Indeed, I generally found them willing to oblige us, when in their power. One might naturally imagine the days at Camp Pratt were long and irksome. The entire literary resources of our party amounted to an old magazine, a Dutch dictionary, a catholic prayer-book, in French, and a well-worn edition of “Robinson Cruesoe [sic].” Robinson was good for thirty or forty perusals, but after that became a little stale.
Connelly and Cox, having been nearly five months in captivity, and seeing no signs of ever being released, concluded to risk the fearful chances of a journey through the swamps, to escape. Knowing more than they of the horrors of a Louisiana swamp, I tried to dissuade them; but, finding them determined, I resolved to risk my fate with theirs. One dark night they both succeeded in getting away, but I was stopped by the guard. This I regarded at the time as another exemplification of my constitutional ill-luck; but I soon had occasion to look up it as the only good luck I ever had in my life. The very next day after the skedaddle, we learned that we were to have been sent to Vicksburg, to be paroled, and in a week we went. Connelly and Cox, I afterwards learned, after suffering unheard-of hardships from cold, hunger, and venomous insects, were recaptured at Donaldsonville, utterly barefooted, and with bleeding, mangled feet.14
From the time of leaving Camp Pratt, we fared well. Captain Renshaw, or Ransom,15 who had us in charge, treated us very kindly. We came down the Teche and up Atchafalaya [sic], on the
14 The Franklin Attakapas Register reported on October 30, 1862, that Connelly and Cox had been recaptured near Donaldsonville by Confederate pickets and that the two officers “made their way through the country disguised as superintendents of the line of telegraph from New Iberia to Des Allemands… They passed through this place [Franklin] in broad daylight and took a drink at Evin’s.” Quoted in Daily Picayune, Nov. 21, 1862. The two were finally paroled on December 3, 1863. O. R., 2, IV, 725; service records of Lieut. James Connelly and Clayton Cox in the National Archives.
15 Possibly Captain Louis Ranson of the Confederate Army of First Lieut. Renshaw of the Confederate navy, the latter of whom was on army duty at this time. As a former gunboat commander, Renshaw was often referred to as Captain. Daily Picayune, Sept. 17, 1861
“Cricket,” to the mouth of Red River, and from thence on the “Louis d’Or” to Vicksburg…16
Lieutenant Harding and the other prisoners from Camp Pratt arrived at Vicksburg on October 29, 1862, and were paroled on November 13.17 Harding remained in service for only about a year, tendering his resignation on December 22, 1863, it being accepted January 31, 1864. He then went to work for the New Orleans Times for six months. After he left New Orleans, Harding returned to the North where he worked for newspapers in St. Louis and Louisville until his death in 1881.18
16 Harding, Miscellaneous Writings, 322-27.
17 O. R., 2, IV, 932; service record of Lieutenant George C. Harding in the National Archives.
18 Harding’s service record; Harding, Miscellaneous Writings, 7-8.