Soldier's Story: Prison Life and Other Incidents in the War of 1861-'65

Miles Osborne Sherrill (26 July 1841-8 Apr. 1919), Confederate soldier and state librarian, was born at Sherrills Ford, Catawba County, the son of Hiram and Sarah Osborne Sherrill. On 27 Apr. 1861 he joined the North Carolina 12th Infantry Regiment, Catawba County troops in anticipation of secession. Mustered in as a corporal, he was promoted to first sergeant in May 1863. In May 1864 he was wounded in the right leg and captured at Spotsylvania Court House, Va. After the amputation of his leg he was sent to Federal hospitals until October, when he was confined to the Old Capitol Prison in Washington, D.C. In December 1864 he was transferred to a prison in Elmira, N.Y., and held until his transfer to Cox's Wharf on the James River in Virginia for exchange. He includes a description of his time in prison and his release in February of 1865.

With his return to civilian status in Catawba County, Sherrill became clerk of the superior court. He also represented his county in the General Assembly, serving in the house in 1883 and the senate in 1885 and 1893. Sherrill's most significant contribution to North Carolina was as state librarian between 1899 and 1916.

The original book gives many details on individual men in the war, and we have added complete rosters of the regiment - a total of 3069 men. Sherrill was shot and captured at Spottsylvania in 1864 and sent to the Elmira Prison Camp in New York. The 12th North Carolina Regiment was a part of General R. D. Johnston's brigade which was made up of the Fifth, Twelfth, Twentieth and Twenty-third N. C. Regiments. Our edition also includes a bibliography of resources for researching these units.

Sherrill gives an account of his being shot, his capture, and subsequent amputation of his leg.

“ I was shot in the first charge that was made at Spottsylvania Court House, Virginia, early on the morning of the 9th day of May, 1864. The charge was made by our brigade, composed of the Fifth, Twelfth, Twentieth and Twenty-third N. C. Regiments, led by General R. D. Johnston. The charge was a success so far as the enemy in our front were concerned, but our lines were overlapped by Burnside's troops. Our regiment (the Twelfth) and our company (A), being on the extreme right, were exposed to an enfilading fire clear across an open field; so we were exposed to a fire from front and from the right. The enemy had torn down a rail fence and made temporary breastworks in our front, from which our men drove them, but could not hold the position because Burnside's whole army corps was on hand, and could easily have cut off our little brigade; so General Johnston gave the command to fall back. As our troops fell back, Sergeant Silas Smyre (now county commissioner of Catawba) and Corporal E. G. Bost endeavored to carry me from the battlefield. They were so exhausted from marching and fighting that they could not hold me up so as to prevent the crushed leg from dragging on the ground. To prevent their being captured, I begged them to leave me to my fate. (May I never forget this act of kindness by these brave men, who risked so much for me.) I was in the broiling hot sun, without water, my canteen having been shot in the fight, and the water all run out.

I was concealed from the enemy by some shrubbery. Late in the afternoon I realized that I could not live without water. The loss of blood, together with the burning rays of the sun, made me feel that life was about to ebb out; so I called to the enemy and surrendered. Here I commenced the life of a prisoner, which lasted ten months. Besides the suffering from wounds, the humility, the loss of liberty, the absence of all friends and loved ones, no face but that of enemies, was just about as much as I could bear up under in my condition. In that hour home and friends would have been "a haven of rest" sure enough.

The day following, May 10, 1864; when I was laid on the slaughter table, my eyes caught the sight of arms and legs piled on the ground—an indication of what I might expect. Dr. Cox, of Ohio, examined my leg. The only conversation that passed between us was this: I said, "Doctor, can you save my leg?" He replied, "I fear not, Johnny." Chloroform was applied, and when restored to consciousness I was minus one limb. I lay there in what was designated "a field hospital" for two or three days without any further attention to the wound, and the result was the flies "blowed" the amputated limb, and when I reached Alexandria City, some days later, the nurse who dressed the wound found that I was being eat up by the vermin.”

Here is an excerpt of Sherrill’s account of prison at Elmira.

“I had to spend several days in the barracks before I was transferred to the surgical or hospital ward. I was there long enough to know why Cousin Nicholas was so anxious for my bread. After I was placed in the surgical ward of the hospital I fared fairly well—a great improvement over the fare out in the wards of the regular prison. After a few weeks I was taken with smallpox, and of course was transferred over S. Creek to the smallpox camp. I was carried over on a cot, "stretcher," with blanket thrown over my face. When I reached the place, and the blanket was removed, I found myself in a large "wall tent," with several cots, or "bunks," about two and a half feet wide, with two Confederates on each "bunk," in reverse order, i.e., A's head at one end and B's at the other—so your bed-fellow's feet were in very close proximity to your face. They were all sandwiched in this way, because the bed was too narrow to admit of the two to lay shoulder to shoulder. On waking up on a morning one of these poor fellows would be dead and the other alive; this, of course, occurred day after day, and night after night. Well might those poor fellows, who had spent at least a part of the night with a corpse for bed-fellow, have exclaimed with St. Paul, "Who shall deliver me from the body of this death?" When I took in the situation, I told the man who was going to place me on a bunk by the side of a poor fellow bad off with that awful disease (and who finally died) "that he could not put me on there." He replied "that he would show me whether he could or not." I stuck to it that I would not be put there. The fellow went and brought in the ward master, and when he appeared it was Jack Redman, from Cleveland County, Company E, my regiment. Redman said, "Why, hello, Sherrill, was it you that was raising such a racket?" I told him it was. He wanted to know what was the matter. I explained that with my amputated limb it would never do to put me on a bunk with another fellow, and he finally consented to arrange for me to have one to myself. I said: "Redman, you must grant me another favor." He wished to know what it was. I replied: "I want you to let me keep my blanket that came over from the surgical ward." "Why so, Sherrill?" I said: "Jack, you see those blankets that you fellows have been using on these men—there are five 'army lice' to every hair on the blankets." Redman took a hearty laugh. He knew there was more truth in it than poetry, so he granted my request. Redman had had small-pox and was an "immune," hence was made a ward master.”

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