This is the diary of Stephen H. Wright, a soldier in the New York 75th Infantry during the American Civil War (1861-1865) who was captured during the Second Battle of Sabine Pass on September 8, 1863. This battle was part of a failed attempt by the Union Army to invade Texas, a Confederate state.
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Private Wright, aged 20, enlisted on September 20, 1861 at Victory, NY to serve three years in Company B. He mustered out at Auburn, NY, on November 25, 1864.
The diary begins when Pvt. Wright’s gunboat, the Clifton, is forced to surrender during the Union’s attempt to enter the Sabine River from the Gulf of Mexico to defeat Fort Sabine on the Texas side of the river.
Pvt. Wright is among about 200 taken prisoner, 85 of them from the New York 75th Infantry. He describes the events of the battle in the bay, and lists the names of some of the many who “lost their lives. Some by shot, others found a watery grave striving to get ashore.”
The diary goes on to describe his experiences in Texas following capture and ends slightly over a year later as he is about to sail back to New York on a 30-day furlough. Pvt. Wright and his comrades spend time at several Confederate POW camps including Camp Groce, and experience numerous southern towns and cities on the marches.
Though he doesn’t write frequently, his descriptions provide a detailed and usually quite funny insider’s perspective of life under the Civil War Prisoner of War Exchange and Parole Cartel.
During most of the Civil War, both sides relied on an honor-based system of paroling and exchanging prisoners to deal with huge numbers of captured troops.
The system was formalized in the Dix–Hill Cartel (signed by Union Major General John A. Dix and Confederate Major General D.H. Hill). While Pvt. Wright and his group are being marched from camp to camp he notes a couple of times that they have hope of being exchanged soon because “the Cartel is closed.”
As Pvt. Wright makes clear, soldiers in parole detention suffered from inadequate shelter and clothing, food shortages, poor sanitation, and had to put up with scoundrels among themselves.
After being marched into yet another temporary camp, some of the men, “swifter and more strong and persevering than others” claim the sheds and shanties while the rest are forced to take shelter outdoors. But the men in the buildings soon join the men outside “for myriads of fleas had disputed their right or put in their bill and drove them all out.”
Of course, sleeping outsides presents its own challenges: “Occasionally we make the acquaintance of scorpions, centipedes, and tarantulas.” And the weather is always a challenge: “a heavy rain sets in, and many who have holes in the ground have to come out.”
When it’s not raining, “Sand fills the air, our victuals, eyes, and mouths, if the latter are not kept closed.”
Speaking of victuals, the men are issued pitiful rations and cooking utensils, and they do their cooking over open fires. “We begin trying our hand at making corn dodgers, a trade we all had a good chance to learn as cornmeal was given us first, last, and every time when anything like grub was given,” says Pvt. Wright.
According to the rules, soldiers on parole were honor-bound not to participate in combat, and technically could not do any job that would free up other soldiers for combat. That didn’t stop the officers in charge from trying to get parolees to perform guard duty, help with construction, go West to fight Indians, etc. Parolees were often angered by this affront to their honor.
Because of that insult, the abuse hurled at them by townspeople, and the deplorable living conditions, men frequently tried to escape back to the army or to home. Pvt. Wright notes some of the strategies used by would-be escapees, including: “An underground passage had been undertaken for some fifteen rods, to reach beyond the stockade, but our castle (not in the air) fell.”
“We are cautioned not to stray too far from camp,” he says, “as some of our friends might shoot us. This seemed to be the desire of the good people of the place.”
After a mass escape from one of the camps is thwarted by bloodhounds “a notice was posted in camp that no more escaped prisoners would be brought back alive.”
Pvt. Wright tells of the hundreds of miles they march from one camp to another, the various Texan towns they pass through, and the news and rumors they hear of the war. And he details the prices of many commodities: “We pass through the village of Rusk where another lady imparts the startling information that you can’t whip our boys . . . Pork 80 cents per lb, Sweet potatoes 6 lbs for $1.00, brass buttons bring $1.00 apiece.”
As they finally pass through Marshall, Texas, bound for Shreveport, Louisiana to be exchanged, “We shake the soil from our feet and rejoice that another landmark is passed, and we are nearer the Lord’s Country.”
As per the Dix–Hill Cartel, each side appointed agents to handle the exchange and parole of prisoners. Pvt. Wright’s group, after having their hopes of imminent exchange dashed more than once, are approaching their transport boats at Red River to be exchanged at last when “Colonel Dwight came in sight. We always thought him good looking, but now no man on earth looked so well, being Commissioner of Exchange, he had come after us.” (Charles C. Dwight had been a Captain in the 75th until he was promoted and transferred to the 160th.)
After Colonel Dwight handles their exchange, they are transported to New Orleans where they get new uniforms and burn their rags, are issued passes, pose for a group photo, and sail off to New York on a 30-day furlough.
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Preview of Captured at Sabine: The True Account of a Union POW after the Battle of Sabine Pass II
This preview of Captured at Sabine: The True Account of a Union POW after the Battle of Sabine Pass II contains Private Stephen H. Wright’s account of the Second Battle of Sabine Pass and the beginning of his capture.
To read the complete diary, detailing his journey as a POW, order it in softcover or eBook on Amazon. (How to Read for Free: You can read the full diary for free on your computer, smartphone, tablet, or Kindle by signing up for a free 30-day trial of Amazon Kindle Unlimited.)