26 December 2013
Remembering Our Civil War Heritage and Heroes:
Captain Samuel A. Swiggett: From a Civil War Prison
To the Montana Legislature [Part 1]
By Ken Robison
For The River Press
December 25, 2013
This continues a monthly series commemorating the 150th Anniversary of the Civil War and the veterans that came to Montana after the war. This issue features the first of two parts highlighting the adventures of Captain Samuel A. Swiggett who survived a Confederate prisoner of war camp to be elected to the Montana Legislature. Descendants of Montana Civil War veterans are encouraged to send their stories and photos to email@example.com.
Bolstered by an indomitable spirit of optimism, Samuel A. Swiggett survived thirteen months in Confederate prisoner of war camps and left an impressive record of achievement in territorial Montana. Life simply could not keep this good man down.
Samuel was born in Dorchester County, Maryland, May 19, 1834, the son of William H. and Henrietta M. Hurst Swiggett. When he was thirteen years of age, his mother died, and left on his own he became a tailor’s apprentice. In 1852, Samuel moved west to Cambridge City, Indiana and three years later on to Iowa, where he settled at Blakesburg, Wapello County. In 1856 he married Eliza H. Van Cleave of Indiana. Working as a tailor and postmaster with a small general store, on August 8, 1862, Samuel Swiggett enlisted for a three-year term and was mustered in to the 36th Iowa Infantry Regiment at Camp Lincoln, Keokuk, on October 4th. Active in recruiting, he was elected captain of Company B. Capt. Swiggett served three years and one month in Arkansas and Tennessee, and his army experience proved of extraordinary hardship and suffering.
Much of what we know today about the 36th Iowa Infantry and Captain S. A. Swiggett come from a small volume he published in 1895, while he was living in Montana. This book entitled The Bright Side of Prison Life makes his personal experiences and that of his regiment the keynote of the narrative. He wrote about the good and the bad of the war and prison life, filtered by his sunny optimism.
The men of the 36th Iowa were first issued old Austrian and Belgian smoothbore muskets with "sword" bayonets, but these antiques were eventually replaced with more effective Enfield rifled muskets. Following basic training at Camp Lincoln, the regiment departed Keokuk on November 1, 1862 aboard two steamboats for St. Louis to await corps and division assignment and to continue training.
At St. Louis, the 36th Iowa went into garrison at Benton Barracks. They were attached to the 13th Corps, Army of Tennessee, and commenced drill by brigade and division. On December 20, 1862 they embarked a steamboat for the federal garrison at Helena, Arkansas. On board the steamer Captain Swiggett and his men were surrounded by “soldiers, hard tack and coffins,” and he wrote: “None knew where we were going and the conflict between hope and fear was in many a breast—hope of success and glory, and distrust of the issue.”
The steamboat halted at Memphis when local citizens hailed it from shore with an alarming report that Confederate Brigadier General Nathan Bedford Forrest and his cavalry were nearby and were preparing an attack on the city. That night the men of the 36th slept in Jackson Square with their arms stacked nearby. The regiment later moved to old vacated mule-sheds and remained in Memphis performing guard duty until 1 January 1863, when it resumed movement to Helena, Arkansas.
At Helena, the regiment became part of the 1st Brigade, 13th Division, 13th Corps under Maj. Gen. Benjamin M. Prentiss. The regiment was initially quartered in tents but later moved into winter quarters at Fort Curtis in semi-permanent “half-cabins” consisting of log walls with canvas ceilings and dirt floors.
In February 1863, the 36th Iowa, 600 strong, embarked with other elements of the 13th Corps for Mississippi to take part in the Yazoo Pass Expedition. This operation was designed to blow an opening through the east bank of the Mississippi River below Helena to open a channel connecting with an inland water route that would enable General Ulysses Grant to encircle the Confederate stronghold at Vicksburg from the north. Captain Swiggett noted that the 36th Iowa had a "sharp exchange" with the rebels, and the regiment was engaged on this march for 40 days. They found no unguarded route to Vicksburg, and the expedition was abandoned. The men suffered because of almost continuous exposure to the elements on this campaign, including freezing rain, wading through cold swamp water, and high winds that blew their tents down. The constant cold and dampness took a heavy toll with dozens of soldiers suffering with colds, flu, and fever.
Returning to Helena, the 36th began a physically demanding daily routine of drill and fortification building in anticipation of a Confederate attack expected with the arrival of spring weather. The 36th Iowa was assigned to build breast works and trenches in support of Battery A at Fort Curtis, on the northernmost end of the Union defenses. The federal line ran in a semicircle around the town with the Mississippi River on their east flank.
On July 4th, 1863 a Confederate army of 8,000-10,000 under Maj. Gen. Theophilus H. Holmes attacked Helena. With devastating artillery fire and fire support from the U.S. Navy gunboat Tyler anchored offshore, the Union positions repulsed the assault in a savage, bloody all-day downeybrook under a burning hot sun. The Confederates nearly captured some of the federal redoubts where the fighting devolved into gory hand-to-hand combat. The attacking Confederates suffered devastating loss of about 3,200 while victorious Union forces had some 500 killed, wounded, or missing.
On July 5th the 36th Iowa joined other Union forces in celebrating Independence Day a day late by collecting and burying rebel corpses. Vicksburg also surrendered to Gen. Grant on July 4th. These two victories ended further serious Confederate threat to federal operations along the Mississippi River and essentially cut off regular lines of communication and supply between rebel forces on either side of the Mississippi for the duratuon of the war. With New Orleans, Vicksburg, Helena, Memphis and St. Louis all in federal hands, the Mississippi became the uncontested transportation corridor for the Union.
Following the battle at Helena, the 36th Iowa joined 7th Corps under Maj. Gen. Frederick Steele and was ordered into garrison duty at the federal supply base at DuVall's Bluff, Arkansas, on the White River. During July and August, the regiment was sent on guard assignment to Pine Bluff. In early September, Steele's Corps, including the 36th, launched an attack up the Arkansas River, converging on Little Rock and, after a running battle with Confederate forces, captured that city on September 10, 1863. The 36th Iowa went into bivouac on the grounds of the Arkansas state capital, enduring a bitterly cold winter there.
Departing Little Rock on March 23, 1864 Steele's Corps of about 20,000 troops, including the 36th Iowa, began moving to Shreveport, Louisiana to join forces the Maj. Gen. Nathaniel P. Banks who was operating near the Red River. Steele’s Corps immediately encountered rebel skirmishers along their Line of March. As Steele’s column began to cross the Little Missouri River at Elkin’s Ford, rebels, who were laying in ambush at the ford, ferociously attacked as Steele’s men made their crossing. A sharp infantry and artillery exchange ensued in which the 36th played a key role. After an all-day fight, the rebels withdrew. As the federal column proceeded slowly to the southwest, the Confederates alternated harrassment with attacks in force, followed by retreat into the forests.
These Confederate attacks slowed Steele's progress and his Corps managed to move only eighty-two miles in ten days. Growing dangerously short on supplies, Steele placed all troops on half-rations and divert his force to Camden, hoping to resupplying his Corps from local granaries and mills. Steele moved into Camden on April 15 with minor resistance to discover that the rebels had destroyed all the steam gristmills near Camden except Britton's Mill a few miles south of town, Steele ordered the 36th Iowa to seize the mill. After the capture the men of the 36th spent several days protecting the mill and grinding corn meal for the army.
Steele sent scouts foraging for other sources of grain and food, and word soon reached his headquarters that a large cache of corn had been discovered northwest of Camden near Poison Springs. On April 17, Steele ordered the 1st Kansas Infantry (Colored), elements of three Kansas cavalry regiments, a section of light artillery, and 198 wagons to collect the grain. The next day as the loaded federal wagons were returning to Camden, the escort was ambushed, cut-off and virtually wiped out. Union forces suffered more than 300 casualties, including 204 wounded. True to the threats of the Confederate Government and President Jefferson Davis, black troops received no quarter in this battle. Most of the enlisted men of the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry were murdered after they had already surrendered.
Gen. Steele meanwhile received news that Maj. Gen. Nathaniel P. Banks' Union force was now in full retreat along the Red River in Louisiana. The implication was obvious—with Banks withdrawing rapidly, Gen. Kirby Smith could turn the full force of his Confederate Army northward to attack Steele's smaller 7th Corps as it lay completely cut off from supplies and reinforcements miles inside the snake-infested swamps and pine forests of southern Arkansas. Faced with a difficult choice Gen. Steele knew that he would have to fight his way out of Camden to re-occupy Little Rock or face starvation and annihilation by the Confederates. Steele chose to save his army, yet the odds were completely against him.
Steele's Corps consisted of less than 20,000 battle-hardened veterans, and they were now down to just half-rations of hard tack, quarter-rations of salt-pork and coffee. The disaster at Poison Springs had cost him nearly 200 supply wagons and their mules, exacerbating further resupply and foraging efforts. To make matters worse, after the defeat of Gen. Nathaniel Banks on the Red River, Confederate commander E. Kirby Smith was moving rapidly into Arkansas, bringing additional infantry regiments with him from Louisiana and raising more recruits along the way. Gen. Smith had some of the finest Confederate general officers serving under him including the talented Sterling “Pap” Price, John Marmaduke, Samuel Maxey, and cavalry commander James Fagan with his two aggressive division commanders—Joe Shelby and William Cabell.
With supplies dangerously short, Gen. Steele ordered Lt. Colonel Francis Drake, commanding the 36th Iowa, to take temporary command of the 2nd Brigade to escort his remaining wagons back to Pine Bluff. There, Col. Drake was to refill the wagons and escort the train back to Camden.
This critical supply train was heavily escorted by the 36th Iowa, Major A. H. Hamilton in temporary command, the 1st Indiana Cavalry and elements of the 5th Missouri Cavalry, 43rd Indiana Infantry, 77th Ohio Infantry, and a four-gun light battery from Captain Peetz's 2nd Missouri Light Artillery. The 1st Iowa Cavalry, that had served its three year term and was on its way home for furlough and re-enlistment, was ordered to catch up with Drake's train. The brigade also included a section of 75 civilian black laborers whose job it was to move ahead of the train, felling trees and laying them down to build corduroy roads over the muddy, difficult route.
The train with its escort left Camden on Friday, April 22, and Col. Drake found that an additional 50–75 civilian wagons carrying teamsters, sutlers, cotton speculators, about 300 Negro refugees and other assorted camp followers had joined the expedition. Due to very muddy road conditions, progress was slow and according to Capt. Swiggett, the column was harassed by rebel skirmishers and snipers throughout Saturday and Sunday. By mid-afternoon Sunday, Drake's column had reached the western approach to the Moro River, a large creek that habitually went out of its banks in a wide swath during spring rains. Swiggett noted that, while no surface water could be discerned in the Moro Bottom, the ground was so saturated by the recent rains that anyone attempting to cross it would become buried deep in mud.
Gen. Steele had ordered Col. Drake not to attempt to cross the Moro Bottom after dark, and additionally the civilian teamsters were raising trouble about the rigors of the pace, according to Swiggett. Rather than proceed, therefore, Drake halted the column on the west bank of the Moro Bottom. Captain Swiggett later noted in his memoirs that the column halted long before nightfall and in fact had gone into camp on the west bank at 2 pm Sunday. Captain Swiggett believed that, had Drake exhibited more backbone by insisting on moving across Moro Bottom Sunday afternoon, the entire train could have crossed safely before nightfall, would have been well on its way to Pine Bluff, and would have avoided the tragedy to come.
In addition, Swiggett noted that there was a strong sense of gloom and foreboding in the federal camp as they lay there immobile on Sunday afternoon. As it was, Drake posted cavalry squads of 25 troopers each two miles to his front and 5 miles to his rear on Sunday, with orders for them to scout all roads for five miles in all directions at daybreak on Monday.
[To be continued.]
Ken Robison is a local historian and author of Montana Territory and the Civil War: A Frontier Forged on the Battlefield.
Photo: 1. Civil War prison survivor Captain Samuel A. Swiggett.
Remembering Our Civil War Heritage and Heroes:
Captain Samuel A. Swiggett: From a Civil War Prison
To the Montana Legislature [Part 2]
By Ken Robison
For The River Press
This continues a monthly series commemorating the 150th Anniversary of the Civil War and the veterans that came to Montana after the war. This issue features the second of two parts highlighting the adventures of Captain Samuel A. Swiggett who survived a Confederate prisoner of war camp to be elected to the Montana Legislature. Descendants of Montana Civil War veterans are encouraged to send their stories and photos to firstname.lastname@example.org.
In Part 1, Samuel A. Swiggett joined the 36th Iowa Infantry Regiment in 1862 and fought in the important Civil War Battles of Helena and Little Rock, Arkansas. This concludes his story with the drastic defeat and capture of Capt. Swiggett and most of his regiment, his later freedom at the end of the Civil War, and his later sterling career in Montana. Part 1 ended with the 36th Iowa with other Union forces escorting a criticial Union resupply wagon train through dangerous territory in Arkansas.
Sunday night passed without incident and, having received no reports of the enemy from his scouts on Monday morning, Col. Drake ordered the march resumed. The 43rd Indiana was deployed to lead the way, with the 36th Iowa marching on the flank of the wagons. Drake ordered the 77th Ohio to form the rear-guard and that regiment lagged almost three miles to the rear. As the column slowly crossed Moro Bottom and headed to higher ground, federal scouts informed Colonel Norris in command of the 43rd Indiana that they had discovered signs of large, hastily abandoned cavalry encampments to their immediate front. Norris sent that report back to Drake, who dismissed it rather curtly and sent forward orders for the 43rd to pick up the pace. A short distance further, in a clearing at a fork in the road occupied by a few log cabins, the 43rd Indiana was fired on by dismounted rebel cavalry from Maj. Gen. Fagan's command. Fagan had evaded Union scouts the previous night by crossing the Ouachita River below Camden and making a 52-mile forced march to get into position ahead of Drake’s train. That morning they were lying in ambush near the crossroad clearing, known locally as Mark's Mills.
Forming line of battle, the 43rd Indiana charged Fagan's dismounted cavalry. As the charge commenced, Confederate Brig. Gen. William Cabell's mounted cavalry revealed itself from concealed positions in the trees on the south, or right flank. What began as a skirmish at around 8:30 am quickly developed into a very hot firefight with the federals firing in two directions to beat off the assault. The veteran Indiana and Iowa infantry supported by artillery were holding their own concentrating on the rebels to their front and right flank.
At this moment Brig. Gen. Joe Shelby's cavalry brigade charged them from the left flank. Three companies of the 36th Iowa, the entire 43rd Indiana and an artillery battery were now pressed on three sides and were in danger of being encircled. Col. Drake ordered the remainder of the 36th Iowa Infantry, still positioned near the wagons, to charge into Cabell's troopers on the right to push them back, prevent encirclement and attempt a link-up with the 77th Ohio, which was now moving forward to join the battle. Before this charge could be accomplished however, the rebels closed the trap. As the federal troops were surrounded, it quickly became a confused entanglement of small units fighting small units and then it became, according to Capt. Swiggett, "Every man for himself."
The federals fought bravely but were now surrounded and receiving fire from all sides. The ferocious fighting lasted five hours. Some of the 36th Iowa took cover in the log cabins and kept up a deadly fire, holding out from those protected positions until long after the others had surrendered, and until they exhausted their ammunition. When the rebels threatened to burn the cabins down, the Iowans surrendered. According to Captain Swiggett, when capture became certain, most of the Iowa men smashed their rifles against trees rather than hand them over to their captors.
As the men of the 36th and 43rd Indiana were being rounded up and disarmed, a last-ditch effort to break the Confederate lines by some brave federal cavalrymen created enough confusion and diversion for some of the Iowa soldiers to bolt. Several disappeared into the nearby woods and a few headed to the rear to warn the 77th Ohio of the overwhelming size of the enemy force to the front. Reaching the 77th a mile to the rear, the 36th Iowa men were accused of being deserters and their report was not believed. The Commanding Officer of the 77th ordered his regiment forward at the double quick into the melee and soon that regiment was also overwhelmed by the three rebel cavalry divisions and surrendered.
By 3 pm on 25 April, 1864 the 36th Iowa Infantry had ceased to exist. Capt. Swiggett’s Company B had suffered 73 killed and wounded. Capt. Swiggett and 35 of his men were captured, and the Rebels robbed most of them of their possessions and even their clothes. The event of that fateful day that most disturbed Swiggett involved the flag. He wrote:
“We were quietly standing there, awaiting the final [prisoner] count, when we suddenly caught sight of an approaching body of rebels bearing a lot of captured flags, among which I recognized our own, all torn and disfigured as it was, the very scars enabling the recognition.
“We can talk lightly of a flag as being only a distinguishing mark or emblem, but its true emblematic character is not realized until some occasion arises to impress upon us what is meant by the flag of our county.
“When my gaze rested upon that shot-torn flag all the memories of its associations flashed through my mind in an instant, as well as the full realization of what its possession would mean to us and what its absence signified. Words cannot express my feelings. I looked around me for a moment, and meeting the eye of one of our men looking at me, his countenance twitching and his eyes filled with tears, I broke down completely and sobbed like a child for a few minutes.
“O ye men, who have only looked upon our country’s flag as a pretty emblem! You, who only think of it as a necessary distinguishing mark among nations! And the many who never think of it as anything except a piece of bunting! Be ye once in a position where inability to possess that strip of colored fabric means privation, loss of liberty, separation from home and friends, possibly death, and you will then realize what it means to you as no language can depict!”
The prisoners were marched over 1,700 miles, and confined in thirteen jails and prisons along the way in Arkansas, Louisiana and Texas. Finally, they were imprisoned at Camp Ford, Tyler, Texas. Over the next year, many of the prisoners died of malnutrition and disease. In her diary, young Louisiana refugee Kate Stone noted the deaths of some Yankee prisoners "which is not strange as they are so dreadfully crowded and have the roughest fare. But we cannot help them. They should have stayed in their own bountiful country instead of coming down here to kill and destroy."
Among the 4-5,000 prisoners at Camp Ford, the favorite pastime was planning escapes. From tunnels to clever ruses, the prisoners tried every tactic imaginable. Tunnel escapes often proved abortive events with early discovery or construction miscalculations ending the tunnel short of its goal. In one case some 50 prisoners escaped though most were recaptured with a few days. It was a long way to Union lines from Tyler, Texas through rebel territory.
Capt. Swiggett twice made his escape, once succeeding in getting 150 miles from the prison before he was recaptured. On his second escape, he ranged 250 miles from Camp Ford, but again was recaptured. In both his escapes, black slaves defied the Confederates by giving aid and directions to Capt. Swiggett and other Union escapees.
In his first escape attempt in August, 1864 Capt. Swiggett with five other officers of the 36th Iowa, bribed the guards and made their escape. They traveled by night, remained hidden in the woods during the day, and in this way succeeded in covering a distance of 110 miles; but when they reached the vicinity of Boston, Texas, they were recaptured and were marched back to Tyler. When taken, most of the men were exhausted from exposure and want of food, and the return to Tyler was made under great hardship. They were returned to the stockade at Camp Ford in late September. On the 23d of December, Captain Swiggett, with two officers of the 120th Ohio Infantry, made a second attempt to escape, and after traveling twenty-one nights they reached the Codo river, 275 miles from Tyler. Again he and the two officers who were with him were captured, this time being confined from time to time in different jails and finally landed in the stockade at Shreveport before being marched back to Camp Ford
When they weren’t planning escapes, the prisoners were speculating about parole exchanges. Capt. Swiggett observed:
“Exchanges at this time were considerably delayed by the trouble which resulted from the paroles given to the large number of prisoners at Vicksburg. These men were tired of fighting, had no desire to serve the Confederacy again, and not only refrained from again carrying arms against the United States, until regularly exchanged, but sought to avoid doing it at all by keeping out of the way of exchange.”
Capt. Swiggett’s regiment was being exchanged in early 1865 in Shreveport at the time of his second escape attempt. Because of his two escapes Swggett was not allowed to go to freedom with his men. In fact, Capt. Swiggett was the last Yankee prisoner to leave Camp Ford’s stockade on May 22, 1865.
With his release, on board a Rebel transport boat enroute return to the Union fleet, Capt. Swiggett talked with the Confederate prisoner exchange commissioner. In his conversation with the commissioner, Colonel Samansky, who was a Pole who had risen to Colonel in the Confederate army, Swiggett was asked how he had been treated as a prisoner. He replied:
“The only complaint that I could consistently make against those having me in charge was that I had not been exchanged with my regiment. I claimed to him that I had been of more service to the Union as a prisoner than I could have been if I had remained in the service, as I had kept, on an average, two men busy watching me ever since I had been captured.
Capt. Swiggett continued to describe his release:
“At the mouth of the Red River we met some Federal boats coming up with Confederate prisoners. [The prisoners were exchanged at that time so Swiggett was back in Union hands.] One notable feature of this occasion was the fact remarked by everyone that you could tell a Yankee from a rebel as far as you could see him, even without his clothes. The reason for this was that our confinement in the open air had caused us to be burned brown by the sun, even through our clothing, while the rebels were white from confinement within walls.”
Capt. Swiggett and the other released prisoners were taken down to New Orleans and housed there ten days in a cotton press. From the time of his capture to his arrival in New Orleans he had only once been able to get word through to his wife so he promptly wrote to her. He heard later that she had learned of his condition through an earlier escaped prisoner. On the way back to Benton Barracks, St. Louis Swiggett learned that his reconstituted 36th Iowa Infantry Regiment was at Duval’s Bluff on guard duty. After a great reception with his 36th Iowa and being mustered out, Swiggett proceeded home to Iowa.
Throughout his ordeal Capt. Swiggett remained positive about the future. As he observed, “My natural disposition being to see the bright side only, the hardships of which I had to tell were made to have another aspect than the usual one presented of prison life.” He continued:
“There were cases of personal ill treatment which came under my notice, but they were the great exceptions, and, as a rule, the rebels of my acquaintance did for their prisoners all that was possible with the means in their power and treated them as well as prisoners could expect to be treated.
“The war is over. Our foes had neither our resources nor our advantages in its prosecution, and many things that were easy for us were impossible for them . . . Incidents by the thousand of heroic, heart-touching actions performed for humanity’s sake during our war by those on one side for those on the other reflect as much credit upon rebels as upon Yankees, and I have always felt that, on the whole, our antagonists did the best they could for their prisoners.”
Returning to his family in Iowa, Swiggett was elected sheriff of Wapello County in 1869, remaining in office until 1874. In 1887 he caught Montana mining fever and moved west to settle at Clancy, Jefferson County. He bought an interest in a quartz mine and engaged in mining. Although he’d been a resident for just one year, he attended the Jefferson County Republican convention. There were sixty-two members in the convention, only two of whom he knew; nevertheless, he was nominated on the Legislative ticket. That fall he was elected to the 16th and last Territorial House of Representatives, and from January to March 1889 he served on the important committee on mines and minerals.
Capt. Swiggett continued mining until 1890, when he was appointed by President Benjamin Harrison as register of the United States Land Office at Helena. In March 1894, Republican Gov. John E. Rickards named Swiggett as register of the newly created State Land Office. He served just two years before Democratic Gov. Robert B. Smith removed him because of Swiggett’s opposition to free silver. In 1896 the Merchants & Miners National Bank of Philipsburg failed. Capt. Swiggett was appointed receiver and within twelve months had skillfully paid all creditors 100 cents on the dollar.
Mrs. Eliza Swiggett died in 1894 and a year later Capt. Swiggett married Mrs. Florence (Grabill) Kelly. A lifelong Republican, Swiggett cast his first vote for the first Republican presidential candidate John C. Fremont in 1856. Capt. Swiggett was a prominent member of the Grand Army of the Republic. In August 1898, he was appointed United States deputy collector of customs based in Great Falls, and he remained in office until his death on July 22, 1904 in Helena. Fellow Civil War veterans Colonel Wilbur Fisk Sanders (Union) and Shirley C. Ashby (Confederate) served as honorary pallbearers. Old soldier, prison survivor, and eternal optimist, Captain Samuel A. Swiggett rests today with his first wife in Ottumwa Cemetery, Wapello County, Iowa.
Ken Robison is a local historian and author of Montana Territory and the Civil War: A Frontier Forged on the Battlefield.
Photo: 1. Captain S. A. Swiggett’s Gravestone in Ottumwa Cemetery, Iowa.