The Road to Danville

by Sarah Webb. 0 Comments

Confederates rounded up 600 Union prisoners after the Battle of Monocacy.  They marched their prisoners south along what is now Georgetown Pike, or Route 355.  Although John Trout was illiterate when he enlisted in the cavalry, Alfred Seelye Roe, from the Ninth New York Heavy Artillery, was also captured.  Roe left an account of their march to Danville and their imprisonment.  I hope Roe’s descendants don’t mind me yelling, “Yea!”  It’s always a great bonus to come across narratives that illuminate experiences, which are otherwise lost to time.

On the morning of July 10, Confederate General Jubal Early still had a plan to attack Washington.  The demoralized Union prisoners – some barefoot  – traveled through Urbana, Hyattstown, Clarksburg, and Rockville.   The forced march was made worse by loss of equipment.  In their hasty retreat the night before, many Union soldiers left their rations, blankets, and canteens.  Whatever they might have had left, Confederates absconded at different stops throughout their march towards Washington.  The rebels approached Fort Stevens  by July 12 – where Abraham Lincoln famously stood facing the onslaught of enemy fire – but to no avail.

After the unsuccessful bid to attack Washington, Early led his troops through Poolesville, Maryland, and crossed the Potomac at White’s Ford.  Roe’s account describes the crossing as shallow, but precarious.  Many Union soldiers lost their footing and suffered an “involuntary baptism.”  Fortunately, the hot July weather may have helped this wet predicament!

In Roe’s book, various soldiers related stories of blistered feet, attempted escapes, and loss of valuables to Confederates.  He described one soldier’s foot “as though the sole had quite separated from the foot.”  Many resorted to hiding what little money or tobacco they had left in order to have something to barter with later on.  If troops were lucky, kind citizens placed barrels of water or apples by the road as they traveled, although that became less likely after crossing the Potomac.

By the 14th of July, any remaining Monocacy rations were gone, and from then on, soldiers ate Confederate rations.  Apparently, Confederates had no hardtack, only loose flour.  It was up to soldiers at evening camps to concoct something edible with the flour.  Roe described how he mixed his flour with as little water as possible, rolled it into a thin string, and wound it around a stick to cook over an open fire.  Union soldiers found the idea of making their own bread tiresome after a long day’s march and not so much to their liking.  Highly regarded items like tobacco and coffee were seldom available to a prisoner.

The trip on foot for the prisoners was monotonous, but mostly uneventful except for the occasional thunderstorm and low supply of rations. According to Roe’s account, the places they passed through included: Leesburg, Ashby Gap, Millwood, Winchester, Strasburg, Woodstock, Willow Springs, and Staunton.  Winchester was out of the way slightly, but Roe relates that they were taken there specifically to be paraded in front of the town as prisoners.  Roe says of the trek, “Under other circumstances a prospect of a trip up the ninety-two miles leading to Staunton would have been delightful.”  Although the exact route can’t be duplicated, according to Mapquest, that route between Leesburg and Staunton is about 150 miles.

In Staunton rebels loaded the prisoners into stock cars for the remainder of the trip.  At this point they didn’t know where their final destination lay.  They had only heard rumors of Libby, Andersonville, and about conditions inside Confederate prisons in general.  They had every reason to be fearful.

From Staunton via the towns of Charlottesville, Lynchburg, and Burkeville, they arrived in Danville, Virginia, on July 29, 1864.  While the train provided walking relief, it was not comfortable being packed in a freight car that made frequent stops due to track work and train repairs in the hot July sun.  Roe observed that most soldiers  – suffering from exhaustion – did not care by that time.

Upon arrival, Confederates marched the Union prisoners through Danville until coming upon an open plaza with three buildings surrounding a courtyard.  The enlisted men entered building one, while the officers were assigned to another building.

Roe writes, “..what misery might be yet within those walls, the future had not revealed.”

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