Tuesday, October 27, 2009

William Tillman Bishop, POW

In the book by Forrest Reed, Itawamba: A History, my grandfather Luke Robinson noted that his great-grandfather William Tillman Bishop was captured by Union soldiers and kept prisoner for more than a year, until after the war ended. This is true, and there is even more to the story of his capture and imprisonment as we shall see.

The website for the Marion County Historical Society indicates in a county history that Union troops identified as "Wilson's Raiders" burned much of the area around Bexar during the war, and this was likely when William was taken prisoner. Union prisoner records show that he was captured on June 20, 1863 at "Baxter" (actually, Bexar) in Marion County. Miss Elliott Key, a long-time Marion County teacher, wrote in her memoir: "There was a large body of Federal Troops. These were real Federal Cavalry. They had some prisoners they had taken about Bexar. One was Squire Bishop. This raid was entirely unlooked for." It is possible that some of William's unionist relatives knew of his whereabouts and alerted the raiders.

After capture, William was sent to the Union prison camp at Alton, Illinois. He spent some time in the prison hospital, suffering from chronic diarrhea, before being transferred to Johnson's Island on August 6, 1863. Johnson's Island is a small island located in Lake Erie off the coast of Sandusky, Ohio. It was a prison camp operated exclusively for Confederate officers, and as a First Lieutenant, William T. Bishop qualified for housing there.

In a letter dated October 20, 1863, William wrote from Johnson's Island that he expected to spend the winter there as he did not believe "there will be an exchange agreed upon shortly." He noted that he was sending his wife a ring "that I have made for you which I want you to wear in remembrance of me." Prisoners often had much time on their hands, and to fill their time they made rings out of the materials on hand, including mussel shells, bones, and rubber, to send to their families and friends back home.

The prison camp at Johnson's Island was newly built for the war, and the green lumber than enclosed the prison blocks shrank as it cured, creating many gaps. W. T. Bishop likely felt a brutally cold draft through those gaps during the winter as the winds blew off of Lake Erie. However, compared to later prison housing for William, the prison at Johnson's Island was luxury accommodations.

In February 1864, William was transferred to Baltimore to the prison at Point Lookout, located on the tip of a peninsula where the Potomac River meets the Chesapeake Bay. Sitting at sea level, barely above high tide, the camp saw every extreme of weather, and due to poor drainage, polluted water was the norm. Although the capacity of the camp was 10,000 prisoners, it housed over 20,000 at its peak. William's transfer to Point Lookout seemed to indicate that a prisoner exchange was imminent, however that was not to be the case. It was about this time that the Union and Confederate armies stopped their prisoner exchange programs.

Records at the Point Lookout camp include a sutler's receipt dated March 12, 1864 issued to W. T. Bishop by L. H. James, sutler. A sutler was essentially a traveling salesman who visited prison camps to sell various goods to prisoners. Tobacco was a popular item as were patent medicines (usually 40% alcohol), coffee, sewing kits, and suspenders for the illfitting prisoner trousers.

Early in 1864, shortly after William arrived at Point Lookout, camp officials received instructions to present a questionnaire to the prisoners. The questionnaire included four questions, composed by President Lincoln himself, to be asked of each prisoner at the camp. Some 8,000 prisoners were interrogated to determine their allegiance to the U.S. Those prisoners who demonstrated allegiance by answering correctly and then signing an oath were drafted into service by the Union. About one in eight prisoners took the oath, and by late April they were on their way to the frontier to fight hostile Indians. W. T. Bishop refused to take such an oath and instead of fighting Indians or fellow Southerners, he was sent to Fort Delaware on June 23, 1864.

Fort Delaware was located on a small, marshy island in the middle of the Delaware River off the coast of Philadelphia. Overcrowding was a problem, and diseases such as smallpox and dysentery were common. Swampy conditions led to infestations of rats, lice and mosquitoes carrying malaria. But perhaps the greatest hardship was the starvation diet imposed upon the prisoners. In retaliation for the treatment of Union prisoners in Southern prison camps, the officials at Fort Delaware reduced the rations of its Confederate prisoners. Because of the inhumane conditions that existed, Fort Delaware accrued a reputation as being one of the worst Union prison camps.

One prisoner wrote that he was so nearly starved that he went from weighing 140 pounds to 80 pounds. Rations were usually one-fourth to one-half pound of bread twice a day, occasionally an Irish potato, and about one mouthful of meat some days. The "soup was slop… filled with white worms a half-inch long." Water was another problem, often putrefied and contaminated with tadpoles, dead fishes and leaves, the smell of which was "enough to revolt the stomach." Adding insult to injury, the commander of the prison, General Albin F. Schoepf made life even more miserable for the inmates. Schoepf was a socialist from Hungary who participated in the socialist revolution in 1848 in Europe. Called "General Terror," he was dreaded by the Confederate prisoners whose diaries told tales of his ordering the shooting of a prisoner who moved too slowly and other horrible stories. Schoepf and his assistants delighted in eating fresh fruit in front of the prisoners and watching them scramble for the peels that were thrown their way. Occasionally Union soldiers would yell "rat call" and prisoners would scramble for rats that the soldiers would throw down to them. The lucky prisoners would clean their rat, soak it in salt water and fry it up. The rat was "tender and not unpleasant to the taste."

William was held at Fort Delaware about two months so he did not endure a lengthy torture at the camp, but the conditions ahead of him were about to worsen beyond imagination as he becomes of the Immortal 600. Come back tomorrow for the rest of the story.

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