Danville: “When I was in prison…”

by Sarah Webb. 0 Comments

On one occasion a friend was in a bit of a pickle with a Virginia State Trooper in southern Virginia.  (Yes, a friend and it was a long time ago.) Believe it or not, her lawyer actually advised her NOT to attend court; that he would barter with the prosecutor on her behalf to reduce the (ahem) charge.   Of course his explanation was accompanied by a slow southern drawl along with an admonition that didn’t she know-ah bettah because she was  – afterowl – speeding?  Just when she began to wonder whose side her lawyer was on, and if indeed the Confederacy was dead, he explained that as her first offense it shouldn’t be a problem.  Riiiiiiight.

Hmm..barter. Really? As she’s telling her story, I’m picturing how that legal exchange works. Defense to prosecution: “You give me two speeders; and I’ll give you one criminal.”

Leave it to me to find a parallel with John Trout and the Civil War.  In the early stages of the war, parole and prisoner exchange rules and regulations followed traditional European patterns for trading prisoners – a captain for a captain or several privates for an officer, for example.[i]  The exchanges were sporadic at best and in 1862 an attempt was made to formalize the process.  By 1864 U.S. General Grant realized that the South could keep fighting as long as prisoners were returned to replenish the troops, so he prohibited prisoner exchanges after April of that year.[ii]  John Trout was out of luck.  As you may recall, Trout, along with several hundred prisoners from the Battle of Monocacy, marched from Frederick, through the Shenandoah to Danville, Va. during July 1864.  He likely entered the doors of the Confederate prison system in Danville, on July 29, 1864.[iii]

I say likely, because even though we don’t have writings from John Trout that describe his experience, Albert Seelye Roe, of the Ninth New York Heavy Artillery was also captured at the Battle of Monocacy, and left a complete description of his prison experience at Danville.  I can see from prisoner of war records that John Trout’s release dates and locations closely match up with those of Roe.

 photo POWrecord_zps8960713d.jpg

Image Courtesy of fold3.com

Using Roe’s writing, I can surmise that John Trout likely had a similar experience at Danville.

Danville wasn’t the worst in the southern prison system.  At least the six Danville prisons, originally old warehouses, were constructed of brick. Because the South had limited means and resources, they were not prepared to support large prison populations.  By 1864 due to the lack of prisoner exchanges, existing prison buildings quickly filled beyond capacity.  As a result, the South resorted to using barren stockades or grounds like Salisbury, N.C. or Andersonville, Ga.

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Prison at Andersonville, Ga. Courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Arriving in Danville, prisoners from the Battle of Monocacy – and presumably John Trout – entered building number 1.[iv]  It was the largest of the Danville prison buildings with three floors and located at the intersection of Spring and Union Streets.  Each floor had about 2400 bare square feet with central posts.  Prisoners crowded into the top two floors, while guards patrolled the lower level.  Wood stoves occupied the end of each floor, but wood so was scarce that stoves often remained empty.  Broken windows – good for summer air circulation – allowed in freezing winter air.  There were approximately 650 men on each floor, which allowed about four square feet of space for each man.  Men had to sleep in rows so tight that when one man turned over, they all turned over.  Many men had only tatters of clothing, shoes or blankets, and they were covered in bedbugs and lice.[v]

It is fortunate that John Trout ended up in a shelter that protected him from the elements. Nevertheless, problems that plagued soldiers at any prison affected prisoners at Danville.

When John Trout entered the prison in the summer of 1864, rations were scarce.  Soup made from river water often contained spoiled meat with beans covered in worms.[vi]  Prisoners had little choice than to eat the rations offered.  By January 1865 due to limited rations, POWs only received a “brick” (a pound and a half) of cornbread per day.[vii]  Soldiers’ digestive systems became so weak from putrid, inedible food that diarrhea killed them more than starvation between November 1864 and January 1865.[viii]

Living conditions were abominable, and many men died.  By the time the war ended, approximately 23,000 Union troops died as prisoners of war.[ix]  In addition to physical illness, according to Lonnie Speer in Portals to Hell: Military Prisons of the Civil War, soldiers often had a constant battle to fight off depression and thoughts of suicide in these monotonous, filthy conditions.  He also states that Danville ranked third in known prison deaths behind Andersonville and Salisbury.[x]

Under these dire circumstances on the bitterly cold day of February 17, 1865, Confederates paroled John Trout and several other Union POWs[xi].  Rebels packed about eighty men into one train car – standing room only, dysentery or not – and shipped them to Richmond.[xii]

[i] (Haskew, 2013), p. 76

[ii] (Haskew, 2013), p. 78

[iii] (Roe, 1899), p. 330

[iv] (Roe, 1899), p. 332

[v] (Speer, 1997), p. 127, (Roe, 1899), p. 341

[vi] (Haskew, 2013), p. 98, (Roe, 1899), p. 335

[vii] (Speer, 1997), p. 128

[viii] (Speer, 1997),  p. 208

[ix] (Haskew, 2013), p. 74

[x] (Speer, 1997), page 334.

[xi] (Compiled Military Service Records for Andrew J. Trout, 1864-1865).  Trout’s records say February 17th; Roe’s narrative states February 19th.  It is possible they paroled on two different dates.

[xii] (Roe, 1899), p. 351


Compiled Military Service Records for Andrew J. Trout. (1864-1865). Retrieved Fall 2013, from www.fold3.com.

Haskew, M. (2013, Summer). In Wretched Captivity: Civil War Prisons. Civil War Quarterly, pp. 74-83, 98.

Roe, A. S. (1899). The Ninth New York Heavy Artillery. Worcester, MA: F.S. Blanchard and Co. Accessed online Fall 2013 through www.archive.org.

Speer, L. R. (1997). Portals to Hell: Military Prisons of the Civil War. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.


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