The experience of Col. De Villiers, of the Eleventh Ohio, regiment, who was captured with others, in Western Virginia, in 1861, and conveyed to Richmond, and who afterwards made his escape, is thus detailed:
“Arrived at Richmond, they were taken to a tobacco warehouse, where they found forty other prisoners. In the room there was neither table nor bed. They were kept without food; no breakfast given them the next morning after their arrival–and when, finally, a little bread was brought them, it was thrown upon the floor as to a dog; and the quantity so small, that every man must make double-quick in grabbing it, or he got none, and was compelled to beg from the others. But there were rich officers, who could buy something to eat; for if the rebels did not love the Northerners, they loved their gold. But to shorten, he got the brain fever in prison, and was removed to the hospital; and here the Colonel took occasion to affirm, that the kindness which had been spoken of, as practised by the physicians, was not from rebels, but from our own surgeons.
“Being by profession a physician, Col. De V., when he had sufficiently recovered, was asked by the hospital doctor to assist, which he consented to do; and he was thus permitted to enjoy more liberty. By good fortune, one day the commanding General gave the physicians liberty to go into the city several times. They wore, as a distinguished body, a red ribbon, or badge, fixed in their button-hole. When he encountered the sentinel, he was challenged, and forbidden to pass on the ground of being a prisoner; the order of the General did not include him. Now, as they called him a French Yankee, he thought he would play them a Yankee trick; so he wrote a note stating that he was included. When he returned to the hospital, the rebel physician said he had been practicing deceit, and must consequently go back among the prisoners. He was again incarcerated and put in irons. He soon made up his mind, however, to escape from there, or die. He was asked to take an oath by the rebels; but, said he, ‘I have taken an oath as an naturalized citizen of the United States, and I will never take another to conflict with it.’ He had been tempted by the offer of position, but he abhorred the enemies of this Union, and could never forget that he came here for Liberty’s sake. He told Col. Woodruff of his determination to escape, for his time had come. Col. W. wished him well, and hoped that he would escape. He set about it, and devised a lie, and stole; for which he felt assured he would be forgiven. He stole the coat and hat of a secession officer, and in that garb passed the guard.
“Col. De Villiers, while Brigade Inspector at Camp Dennison, Ohio, learned a lesson from the soldiers who wanted to go to Cincinnati. They were in the habit of lying in the bushes to hear the countersign, and having obtained it, passed the guard. Without the countersign he could not get out of the gate, even with his full uniform. So he lay for about two hours behind the guard-house, (in the night, as should have been stated,) until he was happy by hearing it. The guard called at his approach, ‘Who comes there?’ ‘A friend, with the countersign.’ He passed the guard, the gate was opened, and he was once more free. He made his way to Manassas Junction, which is nothing but a swamp. About six miles from Richmond, he was encountered by a guard, and to his challenge replied, ‘A friend, without the countersign.’ (He had the precaution to lay the double-barrel shot gun, which he contrived to get before he escaped from Richmond, down, before he approached this guard. He had, besides, a revolver and a bowie knife.)
“Approaching, they asked him where he was from and whither he was going. He replied from Richmond to Petersburg. They then asked why he did not take the railroad, and he said he missed the cars. They then took him in custody, and marched one on each side of him upon a narrow bridge crossing a stream near at hand. The situation was desperate, but he was determined never to go back to Richmond alive; so when he got to about the middle of the bridge, he struck to the right and left, knocking one of the guards on one side and the other on the other side, and giving them both a good swim. Hence he made his way towards Petersburg, subsisting for three days upon nothing but a few raw beans, ‘which was not very good for his digestion.’
“Upon this tramp, for a distance of sixty-five miles, he carried his skiff for crossing rivers (a pine board) upon his shoulder. During his travels he was several times shot at. When he got in the neighborhood of Magruder’s forces, his hardest time began. He tried to pass sentinels several times, and at one time was twice shot at for quick succession. He shot too. He did not know whether he hit the two sentinels of not, but they never answered. But the whole brigade was aroused, and he took to the James River in what he called his skiff, viz., his pine-board companion. He landed on the other side in a swamp, recrossing again near Jamestown, where he lost his gun. He had cast away his officer’s coat, and what remained of his suit was rusty enough. So he took an open course, and resolved to ask for work; but like the poor men in the South, when they ask for work, they are told to go into the service. Even the ladies do not look upon a young man, unless he is in the service; viewed from this test, there were more patriots in the South than in the North; they were all soldiers, old and young.
“He hired with a German blacksmith, at $1.50 per week, having concluded to remain a while, and learn something of the condition of the rebel forces. He staid a fortnight, observing all the rebel movements. At the expiration of this time, he got tired of blacksmithing, and wanted to go home. He found a good German Union man, to whom he told his story, without reservation, just as if he was telling it here to-night. This was of great service to him; he led him for nine days, the Colonel having adopted another Yankee trick, and made a blind man of himself; he couldn’t see, and the German was his guide. Dropping the Yankee French, he became a French subject, and wanted to go back to France, because he could not get any work to do here; and so he told Gen. Huger, when he got into his command. This General promised to send him to Fortress Monroe with a flag of truce. The next flag of truce that was sent he accompanied, blind still, and led by his faithful German Union man.
“He contrived, unobserved, to tell the Captain of the flag party that he was a prisoner, a Union officer, and had assumed blindness as a disguise, and that he should take him; but the young officer said he could not understand it, and said he would inform Gen. Wool. He did so, and Wool, being an old soldier, comprehended the matter at once, immediately sending another boat out to bring him; but it was too late, for the rebel officer said it was not worth while waiting on the Yankees, and hastened off. Having lost German guide, Gen. Huger himself led him (the poor old blind man) with unaffected sympathy, to the hotel, and he assured him that he should go with the next flag of truce which was sent; and he further took the trouble of writing a special letter to Gen. Wool about the ‘old French blind man who wanted to go home.’ Col. De Villiers remarked that Gen. Huger evinced true kindness towards him.
“With the flag, there were, besides, a number of ladies, who ‘left the South for the purpose of going North to do business.’ Though he was blind, he could see the glances they exchanged; and though old and somewhat deaf, he could hear the officers tell the ladies to learn all they could, and come back with the information–wishing them much success. ‘It is surprising what fine spies they make!’
“When he got into save quarters, he threw off his disguise, his decrepitude–saw and was strong–observing, without surprise himself, the astonishment of the ladies at the change.”
Originally posted 2008-11-19 22:36:11.