The Long Journey Home

On February 24, 1865, a side wheel steamboat chuffed up the James River and eased alongside a makeshift dock at Aiken’s Landing, Virginia, a few miles, as the crow flies, from Richmond.
When the steamboat was secured, a gangplank was extended to the dock. Soon a long line of men – weary, ragged, emaciated – was shuffling slowly down the gangplank. They were Confederate soldiers who’d recently been released from a Union prisoner-of-war camp at Point Lookout, Maryland. They would later board a Confederate steamboat flying a white flag that would take them up the winding river and through Union lines to Richmond.
That’s how close General Ulysses Grant’s troops were to Richmond in February 1865 – a steamboat that left the Confederate capital was behind enemy lines only a few miles downriver. Although Confederate General Robert E. Lee had managed to keep Grant from taking Richmond, his days of working military miracles had passed. Soon Grant would break Lee’s defenses at nearby Petersburg, throwing the door to Richmond wide open.
The war would be over in about six weeks.
A few days earlier, a similar line of bedraggled, tired and alarmingly skinny young men had tramped wearily up a gangplank at Aiken’s Landing to board the steamer New York. They were Union solders who’d just been released from Confederate prisoner-of-war camps.
Confederate leaders have long been justly criticized for the appalling conditions where Union prisoners were held. But what seems less known is that conditions for Confederate prisoners in Union POW camps were little, if any, better. And the POW camp for Confederates at Point Lookout was among the worst.
My great-grandfather, William Crooks Dry, was one of those ragged Confederate soldiers who got off the steamboat at Aiken’s Landing on that February day 150 years ago. He’d been with the 52nd North Carolina Infantry when he was captured at the Battle of Bristoe Station in October 1863. He’d spent 16 months at Point Lookout. The camp was intended for 10,000 prisoners, but the population quickly swelled to 20,000.
The Confederate prisoners had had to endure two bitterly cold winters in tents, sleeping on the ground. Once in a while they were given a few scraps of wood for a fire, but mostly they shivered from November until March. There was never enough food, and the men often caught and cooked rats.
William’s brother Thomas, captured at Gettysburg and imprisoned at Point Lookout at the same time, died there of smallpox in January 1864.
William and the other former POWs were taken to Camp Winder Hospital, a sprawling complex of wooden buildings at the western edge of Richmond. The hospital was organized into divisions, and each division housed soldiers from one of the states in the Confederacy. William went to the Third Division, which cared for soldiers from North Carolina.
The conditions at Camp Winder Hospital were primitive by modern standards, but at least the men slept on cots in buildings heated by woodstoves. And they were fed. It was unappealing institutional food prepared in large quantities from whatever foodstuffs could be scrounged by the dying Confederate government. But it was better – anything was better – than rat soup at Point Lookout.
William hadn’t been paid since June 30, 1863 – the day before the first day’s fighting at the Battle of Gettysburg. On March 4, he received 20 months’ back pay – around $220. That would have been quite a bit of money in 1865, but the payment was in Confederate dollars, which were virtually worthless at that point. In 1907, James Roden, a Confederate soldier who was hospitalized at Camp Winder a few months before William, recalled that he’d spent two months’ pay for a dozen eggs during his hospitalization.
Robert Krick, historian for the Richmond National Battlefield Park, said that soldiers sent to Camp Winder after being released from POW camps typically were very weak from malnourishment. The usual procedure was to keep the men hospitalized until they’d rested and regained enough strength to travel, then send them home on a 30- or 60-day furlough to completely recover.
That’s probably the treatment William received at Winder, Krick said.
Even though William was only 25 years old in 1865, his stamina would have been greatly reduced by 16 months at Point Lookout. Simply getting out of bed and walking across a room could have been exhausting.
There’s no record of how long William was hospitalized. His service records end with his payday on March 4. So there’s no way of knowing for certain how long he was in Richmond, or when he left, or when he arrived at the family farm back home in Cabarrus County, North Carolina. Nor is there any way of knowing how he traveled the 270 miles between Richmond and Cabarrus County.
It would have been weeks before William regained enough strength to travel. By March 24, he would have been recuperating at Camp Winder for one month. It seems unlikely that he would have left before then.
If he left before the end of March, he probably traveled on the Richmond & Danville Railroad (later the Southern Railway) from Richmond to the Cabarrus County seat of Concord. As the train left Greensboro and chugged through the rolling hills of the North Carolina piedmont, he undoubtedly was relieved to see the familiar landscape of his home.
But he was a changed young man after three years of war, and I wonder if that landscape didn’t bring back other memories. During a private guided tour of the Gettysburg battlefield a few years ago, I mentioned to tour guide Gary Kross how much the topography of southern Pennsylvania reminded me of back home. Kross smiled and said many North Carolinians who visit Gettysburg say exactly the same thing.
So as William approached Concord, the familiar landscape may have reminded him less of home than of the horrors of the Battle of Gettysburg, and of the death and gore of Pickett’s Charge. He was coming home to a family decimated by the Civil War. Two brothers, two uncles and a cousin had died. He may have thought that fate could not possibly deal another blow to his family.
But if that thought did cross William’s mind, he was wrong.
The engraving at the top of this post, from Harper's Weekly of March 18, 1865, shows Union soldiers who'd been released from Confederate prisoner-of-war camps boarding the steamboat New York at Aiken's Landing on the James River a few miles downriver from Richmond, Virginia. Three days later, Confederate solders released from the Union POW camp at Point Lookout, Maryland would be unloaded from a steamboat at the same spot.