Christmas as a Prisoner of War, Richmond, 1863

Private Michael Dougherty of Falcarragh, Co. Donegal, served in the ranks of the 13th Pennsylvania Cavalry during the American Civil War. His bravery in combat would be recognised in 1897, when he was awarded the Medal of Honor. However, as Christmas Day 1863 approached the only thing on Michael Dougherty’s mind was survival, as he languished in a Confederate prison at Pemberton, Richmond. His would be a very different Christmas to those of friends and family back home.

The Donegal man had been captured on 12th October 1863 in Jefferson, Virginia, during the action that would earn him the Medal of Honor. In December 1863 he found himself in the Pemberton prison in Richmond, Virginia. Located opposite the notorious Libby prison in the Confederate capital, the Pemberton building was a large former tobacco warehouse that was thirty feet wide and ninety feet deep, with three floors. During Dougherty’s time there it accommodated some 700 Federal prisoners.  The Irishman recorded the harsh conditions of life as a prisoner of war, although by his own admission ‘no one can form an idea of what suffering there is here, and no pen can describe the hardships we have to endure.’ (1)

Michael Dougherty kept a prison diary during his confinement to pass the time. On 1st December 1863 he recorded that his room contained 300 men, kept in a space of 30 by 90 feet, lying all over the floor. They were treated ‘more like hogs then men’ and they were packed so tightly that it was impossible to move around. To pass the time the half-naked soldiers spent much of the day catching lice, with mealtime offering the only distraction. The rations they received were often paltry- on the 9th December the men received only two biscuits and four ounces of pork each. As conditions worsened a large proportion of the prisoners began falling ill, and were removed to hospital. The 12th December was Dougherty’s two month anniversary as a prisoner, and he already estimated his weight loss at 25 pounds. Those who became sick could not lift themselves from the floor in the cramped conditions, and risked the additional injury of being trampled by other inmates. (2)

Michael Dougherty, 13th Pennsylvania Cavalry, in later life

Michael Dougherty, 13th Pennsylvania Cavalry, in later life

On the 20th December the Confederate Quartermaster called the prisoners together, telling the men that boxes had arrived for some of them. A month previously, on 23rd November, the 19 year old Donegal man had written to his mother in Bristol, Pennsylvania, asking her to send him a Christmas present with some ‘shirts and notions’ in it. Now was the time Michael would find out if his mother had been successful. All the men remained silent and expectant as the names of those lucky few who were to receive boxes was read out. At last, Michael’s name was called; the Irishman recorded in his diary: ‘Oh! how glad I was when I heard that name!’ (3)

Delighted, the young man went to receive his parcel, which was being checked by the guards. One of the Confederates decided to keep a book for himself, ‘The Collegians of Ireland’ but Dougherty said nothing, as that would guarantee that all of the contents would be confiscated. Afterwards, the unfortunate men who had not received any packages crowded around to see what treats the Irishman had received. His mother had sent him a large sweet cake, tea, coffee and sugar, salt, pepper, ham, beef tongues, writing paper and envelopes, two pairs of drawers and shirts and some stockings. According to the cavalryman this Christmas present was ‘more appreciated than any I ever received.’ (4)

Some of the men’s packages were stolen that night, but luckily Michael’s remained safe. Prisoners from his company took turns in keeping watch on his prized possession. On the 21st December he shared some of his tea with the sick men around him, while wishing he had enough for everyone to enjoy. Luxury came at a price, however. In his emaciated state Michael ate too much, and by the 23rd December he had become sick as a result. That night, Webb and Gallagher, fellow prisoners from the 13th Pennsylvania, kept watch on Michael’s box. On Christmas Eve the Donegal man was sufficiently well recovered to stand sentry over it himself, accompanied by another comrade named Culberson. Starving prisoners attempting to steal any food they could get their hands on made such precautions necessary. (5)

Eventually Christmas Day arrived. Michael Dougherty recorded the day in his diary:

Christmas Day, 1863, and still in the Confederacy. Thinking of our friends at home, enjoying themselves, and condition we are in. The most barbarous country would hardly treat a prisoner thus. One of my regiment died last night. It was a relief to a great deal of suffering. There was a hole under his arm large enough to put your fist in. Rations two biscuits, half a loaf of corn dodger and two spoonfuls of molasses, for our Christmas present, but I will attend to my box to-day. The Richmond papers state that the stench from the prison is endangering the health and the lives of all in the City, and it would be well to remove those “Lincoln hirelings” to where scant fare and cold weather would reduce them in number; consequently we will be removed to Bell Isle. (6)

Michael Dougherty and his comrades were removed to Belle Isle prison, and would later be taken to the most notorious camp operated during the American Civil War- Andersonville. The Irishman was so ill in Christmas 1864 that he could not record his thoughts in his diary, as he was close to death and confined to the camp hospital. Miraculously he survived, and the hardy trooper would get the opportunity to spend Christmas 1865 with his family and loved ones in Pennsylvania. Unfortunately, many of his comrades who crowded around his parcel in Richmond that December night in 1863 were not so fortunate; for many, that miserable winter in Pemberton was to be their last.

(1) Dougherty 1908: 9, 14; (2) Dougherty 1908: 14-17; (3) Dougherty 1908: 11, 18-19; (4) Dougherty 1908:18-19; (5) Dougherty 1908: 19; (6) Dougherty 1908: 20;

References

Dougherty, Michael (edited by James T. Navary) 2009. The Prison Diary of Michael Dougherty: Union Survivor of Two Years Confinement in Confederate Prisons (1st Edition 1908)

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Categories: 13th Pennsylvania, Donegal, Pennsylvania

Author:Damian Shiels

I am an archaeologist based in Ireland, specialising in conflict archaeology.

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2 Comments on “Christmas as a Prisoner of War, Richmond, 1863”

  1. December 23, 2011 at 7:30 pm #

    Michael Kerwin was originally a captain in the 13th Cavalry. When first announced, the unit was called Galligher’s Irish Dragoon’s and was slated to serve in the 5th regiment Irish Brigade. The New Yorkers had the European idea that a regiment of mixed artillery and cavalry would be acceptable by the War department. This was not true. So the Galligher’s Irish Dragoons later became the first squadron for the huge 13th Pa. cavalry. The original squadron even had an Irish company formed in western Pennsylvania by Captain Patrick Kane, a former regular in the Mexican war and first lieutenant in the Shields Light Guards in Pittsbrugh. (Kane was later KIA with the 13th Pa. cavalry.) Kerwin replaced Galligher as colonel after Galligher resigned from illnesss. Colonel Kerwin was elected secretary or war for the whole Fenian Brotherhood in 1869. Kerwin followed the resignation of General Sweeny….

    Was the Webb you mentioned Walter Webb? WW served in the 13th Pennnsylvania cavalry and was the brother-in-law of Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa. Rossa’s brother, John Donovan, served with the 69th Pennsylvania and was wounded at Gettysburg. The O’Donovan/Donovan family settled in Philadelphia and O’Donovan Rossa visited them many times.

  2. December 28, 2011 at 11:39 am #

    Hi Michael, thanks for the additional info! I have been looking into Webb, there seems to have been two, Walter and David in the 13th- I must do some more digging to see if it is Walter, as that is quite a connection!

    Kind Regards,

    Damian.

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