How Did Your Civil War Ancestor Get Home?

Rebel prisoners released at the end of the war faced many hardships on their trip home.

Rebel prisoners released at the end of the war faced many hardships on their trip home.

How did your soldier ancestor get home at the end of the Civil War?

This was the final stage of military service for soldiers of the Union and Confederate armies and this part of their service deserves to be told as much as their battlefield exploits.

Hundreds of thousands of soldiers traveled by train, horse and foot back to their homes. Most trips were uneventful, but not all.

Union soldiers may have been the luckiest in their homeward journey. At least the federal government had a plan to muster out and discharge its veterans.

Sultana

Sultana

But some Union men who had been held in Confederate prisons were not so lucky. On April 27, 1865, 2,100 of them crowded onto the Mississippi River side-wheeler Sultana. As the boat headed downriver to New Orleans, the boiler exploded. The explosion and fire killed up to 1,800 people, almost all of them soldiers. It remains the worst maritime disaster in American history.

With the Confederacy destroyed, former rebel soldiers largely had to find their own way home.

The end of the war came at different times and places for the Poore brothers, Francis, John and William. But all three were in the hands of former enemies and about 800 miles from home and family when it occurred. Francis and William sat in prisoner of war camps—Francis at Camp Chase, Ohio, and William at Point Lookout, Maryland. They remained prisoners until mid-1865. John had been with the Army of Northern Virginia when it made its historic surrender at Appomattox Court House.

None of the brothers left a record that has survived of how they made their way back to southeast Mississippi. But we can reconstruct some aspects of their probable homeward journeys from the accounts of their fellow Mississippians, prisoners and soldiers.

Paroled on April 13, 1865, John made his way home ahead of his brothers. He joined thousands of other haggard, dirty, threadbare and homesick Confederate survivors who trudged down Virginia roads.

John probably took a route home like that taken by Ransom Jones Lightsey. Lightsey had been among the handful of men left from William’s company in the 16th Mississippi Infantry Regiment to surrender at Appomattox and now headed back to his home in Jasper County. So both Lightsey and John traveled toward the same general Piney Woods corner of Mississippi.

Lightsey traveled with three other men from Company F. The trio kept several miles to the north of a large column of other men heading home from Appomattox. “So many had already gone on ahead of us that we knew the country was cleaned up of anything that would do to eat,” Lightsey recalled in later years.

John didn’t travel with Lightsey, but he may have walked along with a larger column of men as did Thomas H. Malone, who had been a member of General Joseph Wheeler’s cavalry. Malone described the column as “several hundred of us, marching as one body but each for himself.”

Whether traveling in small squads or in larger columns of men, John and his comrades faced similar problems of finding friendly civilians who would sell or share their food. The paroled rebels had little if any money. If the money they did have was Confederate paper dollars, then it was the same as having no money. Rebel currency had become practically worthless.

The paroled soldiers sometimes passed through pockets of civilians with strong Union loyalty. Nevertheless, Lightsey recalled that the Unionists treated them kindly and gave them food, “but run it on us about being whipped.”

John and his paroled comrades probably preferred the speed of train travel whenever they could find a working section of a railroad. Otherwise, he and his companions walked or hitched rides on wagons and slowly made their way home.

At Camp Chase military prison, where Francis was held, the camp’s officials released the men in groups of 200 to 300 a day until all were gone, provided they took the Oath of Allegiance to the United States.

Francis’ journey home probably followed the route taken by two other Camp Chase prisoners, Milton Asbury Ryan of the 14th Mississippi Infantry and his comrade M. F. Roberts, possibly Marion F. Roberts of the 20th Mississippi Infantry. Ryan, whose home was in the Jasper County town of Rose Hill and not far from Francis’ parents’ family farm, left a record of his war experiences that included his time at Camp Chase and journey home. He and Roberts took the Oath of Allegiance on June 13, two days after Francis. So it seems highly likely that they all took a similar route home.

Ryan and Roberts walked out of the prison with passes that allowed them free passage on government-run railroads or steamboats. They walked the 4 miles from Camp Chase to Columbus and from there went to Cincinnati, most likely by railroad.

In Cincinnati, Ryan wrote, “the Ladies Aid Society met us with canned goods and second hand clothing; all of which we greatly needed.” From Cincinnati, the two men went to Louisville, Kentucky, either overland by train or down the Ohio River by steamboat.

From Louisville, Ryan and Roberts continued down the Ohio to the Mississippi, stopping at Memphis, Tennessee, and then finally at Vicksburg, Mississippi. The railroad tracks around Vicksburg had been destroyed, so the two men walked 12 miles to Big Rock where they boarded a train to Jackson and on to Hickory in Newton County. Ryan walked the final 12 miles to his parents’ home in Rose Hill, arriving on June 26.

As with his two older brothers, there is no way of being certain what route William took to get back to Mississippi. Franklin Lafayette Riley, fellow Mississippian and prisoner at Camp Lookout, Maryland, noted that some of the paroled rebels refused travel on Yankee steamboats because they feared the federals would take them from Point Lookout out to sea and drop them in the ocean. That, of course didn’t happen.

Possible routes William may have taken are shown by the very different journeys of his two 16th Mississippi comrades, Riley and David Eldred Holt.

Riley traveled a northern route mostly by riverboat and train. After boarding a boat at Point Lookout on June 30, he steamed to Washington, D.C. From there Riley traveled to Ohio passing through Columbus and Cincinnati. He took a steamboat down the Ohio River and reached Cairo, Illinois, on July 5. That night he boarded another boat for the trip down the Mississippi and arrived in Memphis, Tennessee, on July 6.

The next day Riley continued downriver and arrived in Vicksburg, Mississippi, on July 10. Moving overland by rail he reached Jackson on July 12 and home by July 15, a little more than two weeks after he left Maryland.

Holt took a southerly route home which probably was more typical of the path followed by most of the released Mississippi men. Holt’s journey home began aboard a ship to Savannah, Georgia. Then he traveled to Macon on the Georgia Central Railroad. From Macon he went to Fort Valley on the South Western Railroad. There he switched to the Muscogee Railroad for the trip to Columbus, where he took the Columbus Railroad to Opelika, Alabama, and then the Montgomery and West Point Railroad to Montgomery.

Holt boarded a sternwheeler in Montgomery and traveled down the Alabama River to Selma. With the Alabama and Mississippi Railroad to Demopolis out of commission at the time, he had to walk to Meridian, Mississippi, where he was able to board the Southern Railroad train that took him westward to Jackson.

It seems reasonable to suppose that William took a route similar to that of Holt and arrived on his family’s farm by about mid-July.

How did your Civil War ancestor get home? What route did he take? How long was the journey?

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