The Escape Artist

“I am writing now from Gladys, Campbell County, Virginia, my present home. It has been 47 years since I visited this place, and now here I am, after so many years, writing about some of the happenings of that long ago period.”
  With these lines, septuagenarian William D. Woodson opened the fourth in a series of letters to the Fincastle Herald detailing his experiences in the Civil War—a conflict in which the Old Rebel was “twice wounded, twice captured.” Fifty years prior, the native of Botetourt County had enlisted in Company K of the 28th Infantry regiment as a second sergeant determined to defend the Southern Confederacy against what he viewed was a hostile invasion by Mr. Lincoln’s armies. His talent for organization was quickly recognized by his superiors and he was promoted to ordnance sergeant the following January. By December of the same year, he was promoted to 2nd Lieutenant, a rank at which he would remain for the balance of the war.
  Betwixt those promotions, the Virginian lay wounded and surrounded by battlefield carnage following the desperate Battle of Gaines Mill. In what began as an uncharacteristically disorganized attack by Gen. Robert E. Lee, Confederate forces consolidated their 57,000 troops and initiated a massive assault upon the Union line. Federal forces, stunned and beaten back, thus commenced a retreat that ended their nearly successful campaign to capture the Confederate capital at Richmond. The fateful day of June 27, 1862, had begun with Woodson leading his company against the enemy when, in the midst of all of his activity, the sergeant’s haversack slung around to his front. Attempting to adjust his haversack back to its rightful place on his left hip, Wood- The Artist by Michael Hudson Escape 36 Lynch’s ferr y son demurred, thinking, “some protection is better than none.” No sooner had the thought crossed his mind than a Yankee bullet struck his haversack filled with captured Union hardtack crackers. Though Federal soldiers had cheekily referred to these flour-and-water shingles as “bullet stoppers,” the hardtack served only to slow down the bullet. It entered Woodson’s groin, but its path of destruction was ultimately cut short thanks to the hardtack obstruction it was compelled to first pass through. While his comrades celebrated their victory, Woodson was sequestered in the hospital and spent July through October recuperating from that wound.
  Lee’s triumph that summer led to a series of impressive victories over numerically superior Union forces. By the summer of 1863, Lee’s confidence was high, and he determined that the time was right to invade Pennsylvania with his Army of Northern Virginia. Before the grand battle of Gettysburg was fought, however, Woodson was sighted by a contingent of cavalry that the young Confederate mistook for friendly horsemen. He soon found himself an unwilling guest of the federal government at a prisoner-of-war camp situated at Baltimore’s Fort McHenry, the stronghold that fifty years prior had been the setting for the events described in The Star-Spangled Banner. Overcrowding in the camp likely was the impetus for Woodson’s transfer to Fort Delaware where similar circumstances already existed. From there Woodson was sent to a prison camp at Johnson’s Island, located in Ohio on Lake Erie and in close proximity to the city of Sandusky.
  The camp at Johnson’s Island was opened in the spring of 1862 and operated through the summer following the war’s end. The island was just over sixteen acres and contained a hospital with a dozen barracks arranged in long rows. The compound was surrounded by a formidable stockade and guarded by two forts. The captives were guarded by bluecoats recruited from the Sandusky area.
  For seven months, Woodson suffered the indignities and hardships of life as a POW in the world’s worst lakeside resort. This camp had opened the previous year exclusively to host Confederate officers but by the end of the war, 15,000 men had passed through its gates. While all prisoner-of-war camps were generally unpleasant places to be held, Johnson’s Island was not as horrific as the infamous Point Lookout or Elmira (nicknamed “Hell-mira” by Southern captives). Accounts by inmates at Johnson’s Island tell of theatrical endeavors starring prisoners, opportunities to exercise, and permission to read periodicals. Inmates often received care packages from home containing letters, soap, ginger cakes, or other delicacies. Unfortunately, these packages were often “searched for contraband materials” by the Ohioan guards and were often delivered to the prisoners much lighter than they had arrived. Additionally, entrepreneurs called “sutlers” secured contracts with the government to sell wares to the men at exorbitant prices. Destitute Rebs must have found it intolerable to have the miseries of prison life compounded by the offerings of fineries as lice combs and peppermint candy that they could not purchase.
  Prison commandant William Pierson ordered the prison guards under his command to inflict punishments on disobedient and uncooperative captives. Men who met the wrath of the guards were made to endure tortures such as being hanged by their thumbs with their feet barely touching—or, in some cases, slightly off—the ground. Despite the treatment of Southerners by Commandant Pierson, the camp featured relatively low mortality rates (an estimated 300 died out of 10,000 that entered the island’s stockade). Pierson maintained that his prison camp was firmly based upon the principles of humanity when he wrote, “it should be taken into consideration that many [prisoners] came here after great exposure in camp, on marches, and on the battlefield; many wounded many sick on their arrival, and many very much emaciated… The truth is that the health of the prisoners greatly improves while at this [camp].” The better treatment of inmates at Johnson’s Island was likely predicated upon the status of its inhabitants: 98 percent of the prison’s population was comprised of Confederate officers at the end of 1863.
  While disease and malnutrition were not quite as severe at Johnson’s Island as in other prison camps, Woodson found that talking back to his guards could potentially shorten his life expectancy. One evening, Woodson stepped outside to shake dirt from his blanket. A sentry walked up and warned him, “I guess you had better get inside.” To this admonishment, Woodson sassed, “I guess you will let a man shake his blanket.” That night, every man in Woodson’s barracks awakened with a start. A guard’s hot bullet was found lodged in Woodson’s bunk—a stern warning from a vindictive warden.

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