The Rowan Museum has recently acquired a Union soldier’s letter from the Salisbury Confederate Prison, according to Kaye Brown Hirst, executive director of the museum.
To celebrate the upcoming Salisbury Prison Symposium, the museum will display the letter, beginning Wednesday and keep it as an exhibit through April 16.
It will then be taken off display for conservation work to be done by Bruce Wilson of Fine Frame Gallery in Salisbury.
The museum is located in the old Rowan County Courthouse at 202 N. Main St.
Civil War soldiers’ letters are scarce.
Most concern food, loneliness and questions about family and home. Personal accounts with vivid descriptions and details are hard to find.
Accounts of prison experiences are almost unheard of, and to find one about Salisbury is truly special, according to Hirst.
This letter, written a few months after the war by James Spain, a member of the 164th New York Volunteers, relates the events of his capture at Reams Station, Va., on Aug. 5, 1864, and his ultimate transfer to Salisbury on Oct. 5 of the same year.
He writes of the large prisoner escape attempt on Nov. 25, 1864, when Union soldiers attempted to “burst through the gates” to make their escape to the Union lines.
They were unsuccessful, and many were “shot by the guard” as he writes. He and two other comrades escaped on Feb. 3, 1865, and in two weeks had made their way as far as Shelby, living on the “hospitality of the Negro,” when they were captured by North Carolina Militia.
Tied together with rope, they were returned on the railroad to the dismal stockade, as he calls Salisbury. By the time he returned, the remaining 10 men in his original company had died.
With Union troops closing in on Piedmont North Carolina, the prison was abandoned.
Spain and the other prisoners were paroled on Feb. 22, 1865, which he notes as the “day that gave birth to the father of our country and the day that gave birth to the freedom of the prisoners at Salisbury, N.C.”
Receiving their paroles, the prisoners were given two loaves of bread and marched to Greensboro where they boarded freight cars to Wilmington and then traveled by ship to Fortress Monroe, Va., and ultimate freedom, as he relates.
Mickey Black, owner of the Salisbury Emporium, local collector and expert on the Civil War, and a member of the Museum’s Acquisitions Committee, states that “the letter is historically important in that it describes several of the significant events in the history of the military prison here at Salisbury, written by someone who actually experienced the events.”
Black continues: “It was shown to me two weeks ago at the Maryland Arms Collectors Show in Baltimore by a collector who specializes in rare Civil War documents. I acquired it for the museum feeling that it was a significant addition to the collection of Rowan County artifacts.”
Hirst notes that “this is indeed a wonderful find and brings to life many accounts we have heard and read about life in the infamous prison.
“Mickey Black has a wonderful eye, and we are thrilled he found this piece for our collection.”
Terry Holt, retired history educator, museum board member and chairman of exhibits, stresses what a valuable piece of local history this is for the Rowan Museum.
“The museum,” Holt adds, “is always looking for specific Rowan County historical items to add to our collection.”
For more information, call the museum at 704-633-5946 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This is a transcript of the letter from James H. Spain, who had been a prisoner at the Salisbury Confederate Prison.
It is now part of the Rowan Museum’s collection.
The words in brackets, such as this [ ], have been added. No other additions or corrections of grammar, spelling or punctuation have been made.
Company H, 164th Regt. New York Volunteer Infantry
Ottawa Illinois Febuary 10, 1866
Mr. L L. Doty,
Sir I was taken prisoner at Reheams Station on the Petersburg and Welldon Rail Rode On the 25th day of Augest – I was Sent Richmond and keep in Liby not quite tow[two] weeks I was then Sent to Belle Isle and there I remaind untill the 5th of October and on that day we were Sent to Salisbury N.C. Myself and twelve of my company passed into the Stockade at Salisbury on the 10th day of October 1864 – On the 25 of November the prisoners of Salisbury burst the gates of the Stockade open with the intention of making there escape to the union lines But the attemp was unsuccessfull Besides many of the prisoners got Shot by the guard.
On the 3rd of Febuary myself Micheal Gleason of the same Company and regt I belong to Allso Thomas McClanahan of the 26th Ohio made our escape flom from Salisbury We We traveled by night alone. And living entirely on the Hospitalty of the Negro – We were tow weeks on the tramp when we were recaptured by the N.C.M – at a place Shelby We were teide togeather with rope and Sent back by Rail Rode to Salisbury prison We got Safe back th to the dismal Stockade on the 19th of Febuary We began to think out of Hell theres no redemtion on returning to the prison I found that the last of ten of my Company had died and In fact only tow Hull ones left they were myself and my friend gleason There was one mor but he had his arm Shot of by the reble gaurd on the 25th of Novr. he was in Hospital very sick We got Paroled on the 22nd of Feby that was the day that gave birth to the Father of our Country and that was the [day] that gave birth to Freedon to the prisoners of Salisbury N.C. We got Our tow loavs of bread and was marched to Greensburough N.C. and then we got transportation on freg freaght Cars to Willmington We got to Willmington on the1st of March and remaind there five days to recrust [recruit?] our Selves for a voyage to Forttress Monroe and from thence to Parole Camp Maryland There I got 30 days Furlough dating from the 17th of March I got as far as New York City on my Furlough and In New York City the remetant fever layed tol hands on to me and I be became very Sick Was Sent to David Island New York Harbor There I became very low I was at one time So low that my father had arranged for my when enterment in Flushing L.I. But thanks to allmighty Seen fit to bring me from the brink of the grave to perfect Helth as I am at presant and Ready and Willing to battle for the my native State and Uncle Sam
James H Spain
P.S. If I was a Splended Writer I could write an enteresting History of my life But if you want anything more concerning my life I Shall Send it with pleasure
Address Patrick Spain
East Florence Oneida Co N.Y.