Wineka column: Document sheds light on Confederate Prison

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Putting together a solid history on anything ó especially something as important as the Salisbury Confederate Prison ó is a process that never stops.
And that’s a good thing.
Not long before he died last June, Wayne Whitman somehow acquired a short letter written on Oct. 23, 1883, by a noteworthy Catholic priest named Egidius Smulders.
The brief document notes that toward the end of the war, Smulders, who served with the 8th Louisiana Regiment of the Confederate Army, was detailed by the War Department “to act as chaplain to Salisbury and Camp Viola in the woods near Salisbury … where the prisoners of war mostly Catholics could attend to their religion.”
The rest of the message basically confirms that a Michael Guinan, a Union soldier from New York, was a prisoner in Salisbury.
“Through my influence,” Smulders wrote, “he was transferred to Camp Viola. There he attended to his religious duties; and would not and did not join the Confe[de]rate Army. He was afterwards transfer[r]ed with his fellow prisoners to Richmond and paroled and sent across the lines.”
The priest signed the letter “E. Smulders AAR.”
Whitman had asked Betty Dan Nicholas Spencer to transcribe his document and research the information therein.
Spencer contacted me about Father Smulders and, since folks are in town this weekend for the 11th Annual Salisbury Confederate Prison Symposium, she thought it might be a good time to share what she had learned.
Spencer says Whitman’s document has helped to shed new light on previously written material about the Salisbury Confederate Prison and Camp York.
“It also brings into question whether the Catholic POWs in the Salisbury Prison really deserted to the Confederacy,” she says in a preface to her research.
Whitman’s letter validates a guard’s statement documented elsewhere about a “Catholic priest from Louisiana,” Spencer says.
Louis A. Brown wrote a definitive book on the Salisbury prison that was revised and enlarged in 1992. In that edition, Brown says that “Lt. Col. Zebulon York was one of several officers authorized to recruit Catholic POWs from the Salisbury Prison and to use one or more Catholic chaplains whose influence could help the recruiting programs.
“By January 1865, recruiters were authorized to recruit any foreign-born Catholics.”
Salisbury’s newspaper, the Carolina Watchman, reported on Nov. 5, 1864, that a Confederate recruiter had obtained 314 recruits at the prison.
“The paper did not say that the recruiter was a Catholic priest,” Spencer says.
An 1897 book by Benjamin F. Booth called “Dark Days of the Rebellion” said that a Catholic priest came into the prison on Dec. 20, 1864, and “offered all who will go out with him better quarters and more wholesome food.”
Brown said that the guard mentioned earlier, N. Alexander who lived near Charlotte, wrote his wife, Sarah, on Jan. 4, 1865, about the Confederacy’s policy of recruiting Catholics and said, “There is a Catholic priest here from Lousana (sic) he is taking out one hundred or more everyday which takes the oath to fight for the Confederacy.”
The guard added that the priest took them to a camp three or four miles from town and that he went into the garrison every morning to see how many prisoners would join him.
Spencer says Brown referred to this camp for Catholics as Camp York. But the letter Whitman had acquired shows Smulders writing that “Camp Viola” was for Catholics.
Spencer also located a letter Father Smulders had written in 1887 from his Holy Redeemers Church in Detroit to Judge Henry B. Kelly.
In that letter, Smulders says Camp Viola was eight miles from town.
“Perhaps in the future,” Spencer says, “another document will surface that will give us the exact location of Camp Viola and clear up the mystery of whether Camp York and Camp Viola were one in the same or two different sites.”
The biographical information Spencer turned up on Father Smulders is interesting.
Born in Belgium (or Holland, I’ve seen both mentioned), he didn’t come to the United States until 1845. He served parishes in Baltimore; New York; Monroe, Mich.; and New Orleans before he was commissioned by Confederate President Jefferson Davis in 1861. Smulders immediately went to Manassas, Va., in September 1861.
During the war he stayed with his regiment or often went to hospitals where he cared for the wounded or carried out his religious responsibilities, which took him to Fredericksburg and Petersburg, Va., and near Winchester, Va., and Gettysburg, Pa.
He apparently was assigned to the Salisbury prison in November 1864.
Here’s what Smulders told Judge Kelly in 1887 about his days at the Salisbury prison:
“My last detail was with Genl Brigadier of the 2nd La. Brig. in Salisbury, N. Carolina to the prisoners of war.
“Poor fellows, without any hope of an exchange, they died between 20 to 30 every day. I gave the last sacraments to several hundreds. Our Genl took about 900 out of the prison and put them in camp 8 miles from Salisbury, all Irishmen and Germans and Catholics.
“They had an opportunity to join our army, few availed themselves of the opportunity.
“I gave them 8 days mission, heard all their confessions and they received holy communion. After service the order was received to return them to prison, where they were paroled and sent cross the lines.”
By special orders, Smulders went to Richmond, Va., toward the end of the war. He took credit with another priest for stopping Confederate rear guards from burning all the bridges around Lynchburg.
That act, he said, may have dissuaded the Union soldiers who entered the city a few days later from burning the city’s public buildings.
He claimed in later years to have attended 10 executions. He baptized four of the men and gave last sacraments to the others.
Smulders died in St. Louis in April 1900. His story demonstrates once again how the Salisbury prison touched lives and families across the country and why people today ó more than 140 years later ó still crave to know more.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or mwineka@salisburypost. com.