Sunday, October 20, 2013

Teach Them Nothing You Wish Them to Unlearn

On July 4, 1863, James McKill, Confederate Army Captain from Missouri, was taken prisoner of war by the Union Army. He was held for a total of 21 months, until the end of the war. Captain McKill was my great-great-great grandfather. 

On November 14, 1863, he arrived at the prison on Johnson's Island in Ohio. Here, in a letter to his wife, are his own words.

(To fully experience this post, you need to listen to this right now as you read! No excuses.)

Dear Wife. . .November 14th, a cold rainy day, the rain coming down in true fall style, between fifty and sixty of us were ordered to be ready in two hours for a move. Accordingly, at 10 a.m., we were called out, a guard placed around us, and away we started on foot, through the rain and mud for Columbus. Part of which way we were marched double quick, to be in time for the train. While marching through the streets of Columbus, I could hardly fail to contrast my present, with a former visit to this city twenty-six years ago. Then I was a happy boy of seven years. My time here was spent in a quiet house on the outskirts of the town, overlooking the tranquil Scioto. A kind father, an indulgent mother, and a dear brother were then beside me, each doing for me, all that duty bid, or affections prompted. But now, I am here as a prisoner of war, wet, weary and covered with mud, hurried through the streets, with the idle and curious gazing at me from every window and door. 

. . .At half past eight p.m., we were consigned to Johnson Island's Prison, wet, cold, and hungry. We had eaten nothing since early breakfast, but no food was given us. No lights or fires being permitted after 9:00, we were necessarily compelled to look around in haste for a place to sleep. We (that is, my bunk mate and I), at length, found an empty bunk. We spread our wet blankets upon the boards, and turned in to rest our wearied frames in sleep or to ruminate upon the vicissitudes of life, whichever might best suit our feelings. 

Our food, although plain, is wholesome and in quantity, sufficient. The number of prisoners occupying each block is about 180. They are, I believe, all officers and of all ranks from 3rd Lt. to Major General and there is no state in Dixie from Virginia to Texas, from Georgia to Missouri, but what is well represented, as also every trade and occupation followed by man in civilized life. Here is the Legislator who has vacated his seat in the hall. Here is the Farmer, whose broad fields are left untilled. Here is the Minister whose voice is no more heard in the sanctuary of the Lord. Here is the Lawyer whose briefs and law books together lie molding on the dusty shelf. Here is the Merchant, the Mechanic, the Grocer Clerks. . . Our occupations here are almost as varied as formerly-- Cooking, Washing, (I have become a pretty fair washerman), and Ironing. Also, the Jewelers trade has a great run at present, almost to every man, having become proficient in the art. I have done something in my leisure moments, having made a ring for you, a breast pin for little Ella, and am now at work on one for Monroe. These I think I shall keep and have the pleasure of presenting you when first we meet.

Fourteen months have fled, Dear Wife, since we parted last. Since then, I have been much exposed to danger and disease. I have twice stood on the bloody battlefield and saw men by the score hurried to their last accounts. I have been where hundreds have sickened and died, but in all this time, no danger has harmed me, no disease has prostrated me. I see from your letters that yourself and my family have also been spared. I should be thankful to God for all this, and trust that I am. 
Belle McKill, wife of James

Now, Dear Wife, the time may be long or it may be short 'ere we meet again. Not knowing which, let us constantly put our trust in God and pray that He will speedily send us peace and restore us again to each others' society. Those little babes of ours, I know you love equally as much, if not more, than I do or can, but Dear Wife, do not-- because I am absent-- hasten them to their lust. Cultivate in them moral as well as their mental facilities. Teach them nothing that you would wish them to unlearn. Teach them to hate falsehood, to love truth, and walk in the ways of virtue. Tell my aged mother, I long to see her once more. I would, that I could, be with her to comfort her and protect her in her declining years, and return to her, at least in part, that core and affection which she for so many years bestowed upon her wayward boy. 

. . .In conclusion, Dear Wife, what shall I say to you-- that I long to see you, or that I love you? No, but that such so I have been for nine years past, I will still remain while life shall last. 

Your husband,
James McKill

Prisoners on Johnson's Island were treated pretty well. At first, prisoners were kept only about 5 months, but those who came later (as McKill) were kept up to 16 months. Prisoners found ways to prevent boredom, which was one of the worst conditions they suffered. They wrote letters, kept diaries, and participated in original theatrical productions. They also kept autograph albums, signed by prisoners, including their ranks, service, addresses, and where they were captured. Many played baseball, chess and checkers, and were even able to garden. Prisoners took to writing poems to express their feelings. We have a few that McKill wrote during his time there. 

Originally, letters were only allowed to be one page. But Missouri General M. Jeff Thompson struck a secret deal, offering to pay the censors 2.5 cents for each page read in the evenings. The scheme worked well until a prisoner complained to a Commandant he had to pay a dime tax to receive a four-page-letter. The matter was investigated, and the one-page rule was put back in effect. 

This probably explains why all of McKill's letters after this first one appear to be about the same length, probably a handwritten page. 

Captain McKill returned to his family at the end of the war. He never intended to join the war, but he was in a unique situation. Living on the Missouri/Kansas border, he felt it was the only way to save his farm and those of his neighbors. The reasons for war were complicated, and many were thrust into choosing a side. It was a terrible time for all. I am thankful my ancestor made it home, but I ache for all the families who never saw their soldiers again. 

(Prison information taken from the Johnson's Island website).

(The letters and family pictures were taken from a book edited by a family member. I have further edited the words of the letter to be more understandable).

Have you found any old family letters? Have you discovered anything interesting from them?


  1. Wow, Christina, reading your blog while listening to the suggested soundtrack was a powerful experience! Ken Burns, move over! Thanks for sharing a slice of American history that has particular significance for our clan.

    1. Thank you. I hope it does some honor to his memory. I've been touched by his and Belle's story.

  2. I agree with Lyndell whose comment above started out: WOW! This was a very powerful blog. Of course, you knew I'd love it, given that I write in the Civil-War era. James McKill was tremendously articulate given the day, and I'm glad that he was so that you could share his lovely piece of family history with us. I enjoyed it and the music that helped tell his story as a prisoner on Johnson's Island.

    1. Thank you, Lisa! I knew you'd have a connection here. . .I have been able to enjoy this research more, now that there is a more personal side. Yes, he was articulate and all of his letters are beautiful like this. I may inquire to see if Johnson's Island Museum is interested in copies (if they don't already have them). I wish I had his autograph book!

  3. This is FABULOUS! Learning about our past histories is such a fascinating thing! I'm reading up on one of my more infamous Pitts relations right now . . . Charlie Pitts, who ran with the James gang during their height of fame. ;) It's nice to know there is a balance between the good and the not so good.

    1. Thank you~ and wow about Charlie! I'll have to check into that a little more.