Alabama Public radio is looking back on a pivotal moment in the American Civil War. Next week marks one hundred and fifty years since the battle of Mobile Bay, which was a turning point the War Between the States. APR is also looking at Alabama’s role in the Civil War in 1864. Many people talk about the battles, but some of those who fought were captured and held in POW camps. The Confederate Camp Andersonville often comes to mind. There was also a camp here in Alabama.
It is quiet now in the Old Cahaba Archaeological Park outside of Selma, but this area was once home to a bustling city. At its center was a prisoner of war camp. Many of the captives called it ‘Castle Morgan”.
“This is the wall that originally supposed to be a cotton warehouse, but was then converted into a prison for the captured federal soldiers….”
Linda Derry is the site director at the park. We walk around the grounds of the prison that once held up to three thousand men at one time…
“Now we should move fast because if the guards caught you here next to the wall this was called the “deadline” and they could shoot you dead, and there wasn’t any marking so you just had to remember not to get close to the wall and reportedly several men were shot by the guards.”
And it’s the guard and the prisoners that give historians the most vivid details on life at Castle Morgan. Both captor and captive wrote letters home or kept journals. Prison Melville Cox Robertson was a member of the 93rd Indiana Volunteer Infantry…
“I write this evening because I have nothing else to do – not because I have anything of importance to record. I have tried life in a good many ways, but prison life is rather the most monotonous thing yet. There is so little of congeniality of spirit among those with whom I am associated that I often feel myself almost completely alone in the midst of 500 men.”
This monotony even carried over to the guards. Confederate soldier G.M. Wilson’s job was to watch over men like Robertson…
“My dear brother and sister…it seems a long time since I heard from you or any of my connection. I am very anxious to hear from you all. I am still at cahaba, the same place you heard from me last. I have not heard from you since last spring, I want to know what has become of you. I have not heard from home since I was at your house, I have wrote and wrote and still no answer. If you have ever heard from my family please do not delay to let me know.”
Arlene Chissom, lives in Northport, she doesn’t need old letters or history books to have some idea about what life was like at Castle Morgan. Her great grandfather fought in the Union army and was imprisoned here. One story she heard from her mother was about a piece of bread a horse stepped on.
“He reached down after the horse moved on by and ate that and said that was the tastiest food he had.”
Castle Morgan opened its gates in June of 1863 and housed in all around nine-thousand captives during its active years in the war. Despite the horror stories associated with POW camps, park director Linda Derry says Castle Morgan only lost around one hundred forty-four men.
“If I was fighting in the Civil War and I was captured and could pick where I was sent I would come to Cahaba. It was probably the best conditions anywhere. When they went to parole at the end of the war, they were noticed for being the healthiest of all the prisoners, ‘cause they were far from the front, there was food for them to eat, it wasn’t great but it was almost as good as what the Confederate soldiers were getting.”
Derry says they’re able to know about the conditions from letters they have collected from the descendants of the men held at Castle Morgan. Along with the hardships of captivity, there were signs of normality too. Early on, the union prisoners were allowed to stroll around the town of Cahaba like First Sergeant Charles Sumbardo of the 12th Iowa…
“An English merchant tailor invited me into his store, our few moments conversation in a backroom seemed to be mutually enjoyed. He was opposed to the war, but dare not make it known, his two sons were in the southern army, but not even they were aware of his sentiments. He gave me a quantity of reading matter that afforded much pleasure as it was read and circulated until worn out.”
Sumbardo recalls even the women of the town seemed to take a liking to the captive union soldiers…
“ I was walking on the principle residents street when two young ladies drove leisurely along in a single carriage. In passing I must have glanced at them, for they tossed a rose from the back of the carriage I secured the flower and pressed it to my lips, they waved their pretty hands and drove away.”
But reading material and roses tossed by the townspeople didn’t keep some prisoners from trying to escape. Derry recalls one of the more famous jailbreaks by Hiram Hanchett…It didn’t work out.
“At first it was successful, they got the guards from the prison, locked them in the latrine, things were going well, but it was just bedlam, most of the soldiers didn’t have any idea what was going on. The confederate in charge of the prison did probably the smartest thing he could do, he opened the gate and rolled an artillery piece through the gate and told them in words I don’t want to use on public radio, ‘Lay down or I’ll blow you to wherever!”
Many of the men held at Castle Morgan at the end of the war did not make it home. After surviving combat and for some, years in a prison camp, Derry says another tragedy was waiting on their way home…
“They thought they were going to go home and see their children, their girlfriends, their wives and their mothers and their families. And what happened is they crammed them on this ship called the “Sultana” on the Mississippi and somewhere right above Memphis the boilers exploded and killed most of them and most of those men were from here. It’s considered the largest maritime disaster in U.S. history.”
This story hits home with Arlene Chissom. We met her earlier in this story. Her great grandfather Samuel Jenkins was a prisoner at Castle Morgan. Chissom says he was also one of the survivors of the explosion aboard the Sultana.
“Samuel, who was a great swimmer, and that probably saved his life because he jumped from the upper deck to the lower deck and was injured on a large coil of rope and he got an extreme hernia he had to live with the rest of his life.”
Stories like those of Jenkins and others who were held at Castle Morgan help keep their memory alive. It is these stories and efforts by organizations like the Alabama Historical Commission that help preserve this often forgotten piece of Alabama history.