Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Taking Prisoners, Taking Their Gear

I've been finding some pretty good prisoner accounts while looking through regimental histories of some units that served during the Petersburg Campaign. About a month ago I shared the story of Capt. Theodore Gregg of the 45th Pennsylvania Infantry (IX Corps), who refused to be captured at the Battle of the Crater. One of Gregg's future men, Pvt. Alexander Duncan, also Company C, was not as fortunate as Gregg. However, Pvt. Duncan did not end up a POW at the Crater, he actually enlisted in the 45th back in Norristown, Pennsylvania, that very day (July 30, 1864). Instead, Duncan got "gobbled up" at the Battle of Peebles Farm, on September 30, 1864.

In his account, printed among others in the History of the Forty-fifth Regiment Pennsylvania Veteran Volunteer Infantry, 1861-1865 (1912), Duncan informs readers that he caught up with his regiment just south of Petersburg near the Weldon Railroad at the end of August. On September 29, Duncan and the 45th broke camp. After maneuvering on that day and the next, the 45th made toward the Confederate defenses along Squirrel Level Road.

During the combined V Corps and IX Corps fighting, Duncan relates that the 45th halted and received permission to rest. While taking this break Duncan's rear rank file partner, Pvt. Jacob Gear, rested leaning forward and by doing so barely missed having his head taken off by a Confederate solid shot.

Following this pause the 45th moved forward toward the Confederates who had retreated. After a 20-minute fire fight, Duncan stated that the 51st New York Infantry, who was on the right of the 45th, "fled along our rear and the panic spread along the whole line to the extreme left and there was a stampede to the rear." Apparently, left without support and with about only 70 men under Capt. Gregg's command, they became enveloped. Gregg advised "let every man look out for himself!" Duncan explained that is exactly what they all tried to do, but, "In less than an hour we were all prisoners."

Pvt. Duncan was captured just about dark by some of Gen. Wade Hampton's cavalry and "marched to the place where the prisoners were being collected and placed under guard." One of the things that I am trying to gain a better understanding about is how recent captives were removed from the battlefield and held. This account gives some insight to that.

Although Capt. Gregg escaped capture at the Crater, he was gobbled up with Duncan at Pebbles Farm. He tried to comfort the men by telling them: "Boys! . . . Keep a stiff upper lip, all will be with us yet." In what appears to be a common practice with the Confederates during the Petersburg Campaign, they took advantage of this gathering of Federals to exchange their worn out gear with that of their enemy. Pvt. Duncan stated, "The Rebels now came among us and helped themselves to our to our hats, overcoats, blankets, and everything they fancied . . . ." Also, another common practice was to remove the prisoners to Petersburg for eventual railroad transport. Such was the case for Duncan and his comrades, too. He claims they were placed on an island in the Appomattox River.

After Duncan took a brief rest under a tree it began to rain, and rained through the morning and afternoon. Soon, Duncan and his comrades received another round of robbery from their captors. "The Rebels then helped themselves to anything we had left over from the plunder the night before, so that we had nothing but the clothes we wore," he related. He continued, "When I saw what they were doing, I looked around and seeing a Rebel soldier, who was looking on, I showed him my blanket and asked him to give me some bread for it. He went away and soon came back again with a pound loaf, for which I gave my blanket." It was probably not a bad trade to get at least something before all was taken anyway.

The prisoners were moved to a large brick building in Petersburg where they were kept until the next day. They were then placed on railroad cars and transported to Richmond. After being processed at Richmond, Duncan moved on to the prisoner of war camp in Salisbury, North Carolina. He remained at Salisbury until he was exchanged in March 1865. He mustered out with the regiment in July 1865.

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