Charles Butterfield Prison Story



At the Weldon RR battle in August 1864 the 39th was subjected to heavy artillery fire and a severe attack by the enemy infantry. On the second day of fighting the rebels gained ground and took many prisoners, including Charles Butterfield. About nineteen of his company and two hundred others of the 39th reg’t were captured and taken to prisoners’ camp. After being marched to Petersburg, they were put into crowded freight-cards where they had to remain standing all night before arriving in Richmond, then taken to Libby Prison, notorious for its bad treatment under Dick Turner. Seventeen hundred prisoners entered on the same day, but many, including Butterfield were moved to Belle Isle surrounded by the James River. Kept outside by “a guard of old men and boys, who were unfit for field-service, stationed every twenty feet; man of whom seemed desirous to catch a prisoner across the “dead line,” that they might have the honor shooting a ‘damned Yankee’…A plank reached across a ditch (within the dead-line),,. over which they passed to get water. One day, as Sergeant French of Company G was crossing, he lost his balance, and fell into the ditch; and while he was getting ut, he was shot dead by a boy fourteen years old. The same boy, the next day, ran his bayonet into the leg of a prisoner named Hardy, for no offence whatever.”


Two of the three months at Libby they were without shelter, and were constantly without rations. Butterfield had “several times the single eye of an animal served to him, which hunger forced him to eat. Diarrhea was a prevailing sickness; and, towards the close of the time, ten or twelve deaths per day would be he average.”


Then several hundred, seventy men packed into each freight-car again standing all the way to Greensborough, NC headed to Salisbury prison-pen. There they found four thousand prisoners, ¾ of whom were unsheltered. “Holes were dug in the ground, using hands for shovels, and side-chambers excavated, to make shelter from the freezing cold.”

            “A day’s rations…was a half-pound of bread per man, with a small piece of meat every three or four weeks. Rice-soup was served about as often as the meat. It was insufficient to support life; and day by day, the squads were thinned by deaths.” Rations were based on numbers in a squad and assertive prisoners like Butterfield soon found a way to draw rations for dead comrades, a practice called ‘flanking’. Butterfield was good at bartering and ‘flanking’ and was able to get three rations, two for himself and one for a friend. Because of this liveliness, Butterfield held the title of Colonel among the prisoners.

            “It was one of the worst features of prison-life that it tended to harden the best sympathies of human nature, and stifle the moral sense. Men would steal from each other without remorse; and all new-comers were the special prey to the old residents.”

            “To be sick there was to die; and death was a welcome relief to many a poor fellow. The average number of deaths was about fifty per day. On one day, a hundred and twenty-four were reported as having died within twenty-four hours.”


Bűutterfield had other stories of deprivation and punishment and an unsuccessful prisoner escape plan resulting in a large number of dead and wounded prisoners, greater strictness of regulations and punishments. Butterfield made up his mind to live through it all. On Feb. 22, 1865 about five thousand of those in the worst condition were ordered into line and told they would get two days’ rations and be paroled. The excitement caused twenty to thirty of the sick and weak to die from the overpowering news of release. The long march to Greensborough brought death to additional men. Butterfield had bare feet that left bloody steps for fifteen miles. But the end was in sight. By train to Raleigh and on to the Union lines where they saw the stars and stripes and were met by a division of US colored troops. The “rebel guard cursed the ‘niggers,’ while the prisoners shouted ‘hurrahs’ to the best of their ability.”


From the Memorial, pp. 67-74, summary & transcription, B. Robinson