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Truman SMITH

I WAS born in New Castle, Pa., February 6, 1848, and enlisted in the service of the United States at Gun Plains, Allegan county, Mich., August 4, 1864, in Company B, 8th Regiment Michigan Cavalry. On the 24th of November we met the enemy near Henryville, Tenn. There was but a handful of us against the army of Hood and Forrest. As the firing grew sharp orders came for us to mount and retreat to the barricade, but my horse was gone.

I made my escape into the woods with the rebel cavalry in close pursuit. Fortune favored me. There was a small marsh just ahead and I went through the mire and came out on the opposite side. The rebel cavalry tried to follow me but the horses mired. I thought I would try and find my regiment. I stayed at the house of a Union man all night and then started next morning for Columbia, Tenn. On my way I came across a wagon train which I supposed was our own, but it proved to be a rebel train. I rode two miles, and under the pretense of joining a rebel army that was passing, got off. I then went to the house of a Union man who gave me a blanket and some provisions and conducted me to a cave, saying it would not be safe for me to stay at the house as there were so many rebels around. I remained there two days and then started for the woods, but was met, not ten feet away, by some rebels. Of course I had to surrender. They took my arms and robbed me of everything. Then I was taken to their camp. The night was very dark and I slipped past the guard and made my escape, but was soon captured again by a squad of rebel cavalry. They hurried us on until we reached Columbia, where they pat us in Fort Misner. There were about 1,700 Union prisoners there. The rebels were on one side of Duck river and the Union forces on the other. We remained here several days until Hood was defeated at Nashville. Our rations consisted of corn on the cob from once to twice a day. We left in December for the Tennessee river. The ground was covered with ice and some of the boys had no shoes on—you could track them by the blood from their feet. We forded streams and camped where night overtook us. We crossed the Tennessee, river and here about 400 escaped. The rebels pricked us with bayonets and drove us like cattle to Corinth, where we stayed a day or two and then started for Meridian arriving there on the 25th of December. There were two stockades, one for Union prisoners and one for rebel deserters. A squad of us were put in the latter place. A day or two later we started for Cahaba, reaching there about the 1st of January. We were put in prison with about 3,000 others. Our rations here consisted of about a pint of meal (ground cob and all), and that mouldy; once in ten days we would receive about two ounces of meat to the man. This we cut ap in bits, and made porridge with our meal.

There was one attempt made to liberate the prisoners worthy of note. The author of the scheme was Capt. Hanchett: His idea was to overpower the guards, take their guns and fight our way out. About one o'clock A. M. when everything was still and the guards had made their rounds, we heard a cry for help. They had succeeded in capturing the interior guard, but as they made for the door the bar was dropped in place and we were securely trapped. A long struggle ensued before the guards found out the leader of the revolt. They furnished neither rations nor allowed us to build a fire until our leader should be produced. For three days we had nothing to eat and no fire, and then Capt. Hanchett gave himself up, saying it was better that he should die than should hundreds, who would surely perish in their famished condition. They took him out, tried him by court martial and sentenced him to be shot. He never gave away those who were associated with him in the plot to liberate the prisoners.

We remained at Meridian until March. One day an order came for 300 men to load a boat with wood. We went down the Alabama river about seven miles, when the boat went ashore and we were taken off to load wood. We carried steadily until we had some 200 cords aboard. This occupied the whole day and we then started back to Cahaba. We were permitted to stay on the boat that night. In the morning we were taken to Selma and put in the stockade, we remaining there but a few days, when the other prisoners from Cahaba were sent there. We crossed the river the same night and then took the train for Meridian, Miss., arriving there just at dark and found ourselves back in the old stockade once more. The following morning we took the train for Jackson, reaching there about night. Now we were nearing our lines and learned that our troops were near the Black river—less than forty miles. We were several days making the march. What a glorious sight met our eyes when we got there! On the opposite side floated the stars and stripes. Orders were to go into camp for the night, but I stole away and swam across the river and was once more under the old flag.

Everything was excitement here. News came of the fall of Richmond and the surrender of Lee. Everybody was wild with joy and the thought of a speedy return to our homes. Salutes were fired from all the forts. Our joy, however, was of short duration, for on the 14th of April, as we got up in the morning, we found the colors at half mast. It was sometime before we knew the cause and then we learned that President Lincoln had been assassinated. All thought of home was banished for the time being and every man swore revenge. Everything was gloomy till about the 24th of April, when word came to get ready to go home. Everybody was ready.

It was a short march to Vicksburg where, lashed to the wharf, was the ill-fated steamer "Sultana," on which a still greater horror was in store for the boys. We numbered about 2,200 from Castle Morgan and Andersonville, the greater part from Castle Morgan. When we boarded the "Sultana" every foot of her deck was covered with men who had fought starvation, vermin and filth. Memphis was reached without accident and we got off the boat and went to the "Soldiers' Rest," where I got something to eat. It was about midnight when the boat again got started up the river, and just after everybody had got settled down to sleep, except those in charge of the boat, there was a crash and all at once confusion. Some one cried out that the rebels had fired onto us. I thought a shell had exploded near me, but found it was hot steam. I jumped up, threw off the blankets and found that the boat was wrecked. The boilers had exploded and the boat was on fire. I started around to see what the chances were for getting ashore. The fire was burning fast and furious, and men who were buried beneath the wreck were crying for help. When the fire lit up the water men could be seen in every direction and also pieces of the wreck.

The first one of our company that I met after the explosion was Henry Norton. He had lost a bundle of clothes and swore that he would shoot the man who stole them. I told him he had better let the clothes go and make up his mind to swim ashore. He said not until he found his clothes. He was an excellent swimmer and thought he could swim ashore in a few minutes. I left him there and went to look around. I saw that the pilot house was gone and that one stack lay across the deck. The fire was making great headway and men were begging, for God's sake, to have some one help them. It was getting so hot that I concluded to leave the boat. I looked around for something to hold me up in the water, but could find nothing as we were on the hurricane deck and had slept on the wheel house. The only thing that I could see was an empty pork barrel, and thinking, perhaps, that would hold me, threw it into the water and jumped in after it. At this time I had all my clothes on. My barrel was worthless and sank. I started to swim but found that some one had hold of me and I could not get loose. We had a struggle in the water and I freed myself by giving him my blouse. The night was dark and I could not see which way to go. I swam but a few feet when I found myself with four or five others. It seemed as though we all wanted to get hold of each other. I succeeded in getting the rest of my clothes off and got rid of my company. It was only a few minutes before some one had hold of me again. This time I came near drowning. I kept getting away from the boat and about an hour after it blew up I heard some one calling for help. I had a piece of four foot wood that would keep me up nicely. I swam towards the comrade and found it was Henry Norton. I gave him the piece of wood and swam away. He must have been chilled through for he was found clinging to the piece of wood. I swam on trying to make shore. There was a large tree floating down the river and on the roots were three or four men. They were singing the "Star Spangled Banner." As I swam away I heard some one coughing and swam toward him. As I came near he kept swimming away. I called him and asked what regiment he belonged to. He asked what I wanted to know for. I told him I would write to his people in case he drowned and I should get out. He said I must not come any closer, and we made a bargain that if one should die and the other get ashore the survivor should write the parents and let them know. We kept swimming till near daylight, when some one cried "Halt!" We swam toward shore and as we came closer the command to "Halt," was repeated. I replied that we could not as we were in the water. Finally we got to shore and we were told to get out, but my limbs were so benumbed that I could not. The man came to the water's edge, took me by the arm and pulled me ashore, but I could not stand on my feet. He called his comrade who was in the tent and they together picked me up and put me in their bed, and then went back and rescued my comrade. They built a fire and rubbed us and gave us some clothes.

After a while we saw a boat coming up the river and we hailed it. It had started to pick up the survivors of the wreck. I was the first and my comrade next. The first thing after we got on the boat they brought me a tin cup of whiskey which I drank. I had got so that I could walk by this time. We kept going up the river, picking up men and making them comfortable as possible. We picked up about one hundred and started for Memphis, reaching there about eight o'clock. The dock was covered with ladies belonging to the Christian and Sanitary Commissions, who gave us each a pair of drawers and a shirt. I started up town, but at the first block I came to there was a great crowd and they wanted to know if I was on the boat. I said yes, and they gave me a suit of clothes and thirteen dollars in money. From there I went to the "Soldiers' Rest" and was afterwards sent to the hospital. I called for paper and wrote a letter home, giving a detailed account of the disaster. Then I became sick and was unconscious. What became of the clothes and money I never knew. I was taken care of by Comrade White. My journey to Columbus must have been a tedious one. Here we met several of our regiment and among them was Chas. Seabury, he having his hands and face badly burned from the fire on the boat. We also met Ezra Spencer.

Present occupation, Captain No. 5 steamer, Grand Rapids fire department. Postoffice address, No. 5 Engine House, Grand Rapids, Mich.

Full List of Michigan Men  |  Reminiscences Of Survivors

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Civil War Files On This Site

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African Americans Who Served From Michigan | 1st Michigan Sharp Shooters Co. K | Loss of the Sultana
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