After the Battle of Chickamauga on Sept. 20, 1863, the Confederates captured nearly 8,000 Federal prisoners. One of them, Cpl. Nelson Purdum of the 33rd Ohio Regiment, later wrote an insightful account of his experiences as a POW inside what he called “the great Southern humbug.”
He and his fellow prisoners were marched from the battlefield to Ringgold, Tunnel Hill and Dalton where they boarded trains to Atlanta. From there they were sent to Richmond, Va., and confined in Libby Prison.
Eventually, by locating a Confederate uniform and disguising himself as a Rebel soldier, Purdum escaped back across Federal lines to his home.
Purdum’s account of his experiences in north Georgia (the early part of his story) provides an intriguing eyewitness perspective into the views of Northerners and Southerners toward each other during the war. Like many soldiers, he identified them as “Yankees” and “Rebs.”
The first night after capture Purdum and his companions were treated well. “It was on the evening of the 20th of September, 1863,” he wrote, “that myself, in company with a number of others from the 33d [Ohio] and other regiments, was taken prisoner by a part of Longstreet’s corps. We were taken a short distance to the rear of their first line, and camped for the night. The Rebs used us very well at first, and were very civil and polite.”
The following day they were marched to Ringgold, arriving about 2 p.m., where they were presented to the Confederate provost marshal (military police) who recorded their service information. After about two hours they continued their march to Tunnel Hill.
“We were started forward again,” Purdum reported, “bound for Tunnel Hill Station, which place we arrived at about 9 o’clock at night, and were turned into a field to remain the rest of the night. We were very tired and hungry, having marched twenty-two miles [with] no rations.”
They finally received food, but neither its substance, nor its time of distribution, was pleasing, resulting in a few good-humored complaints by the corporal and his hapless associates.
“We lay down to rest ourselves and get some sleep,” he said, “but were called up at 2 o’clock to draw some rations (if it could be called such). They consisted of a little meal and bacon, which was so strong the boys said it could almost walk alone.”
The prisoners were disappointed to learn they could not board the train at Tunnel Hill and had to march seven more miles to Dalton. By then, what was left of their rubber blankets, knapsacks and canteens had been confiscated, and they were “not … in the best of humor.” To express their displeasure they annoyed the Confederate guards on the march.
“The road being very dusty … we struck out almost on a double-quick in order to tire out the guards, and several times we were stopped for them to rest and get to their places.”
Along the way, Purdum stopped at a house to buy some bread. He was successful, but thought the price outrageous. “I … had to pay one dollar,” he complained, “for three small biscuits.” He concluded he was thankful he did not have to live in the South. “[I] went on my way, rejoicing that my lot was not permanently cast in the land of cotton and starvation.”
Arriving in Dalton, the prisoners ate supper, described as “a mixture of dough, flour and tainted bacon.” Once again, they thought they would board the rail cars, but they were in for a surprise.
Instead, they were paraded around town to be viewed by citizens, many of whom had never seen a “Yankee.”
“We were marched through the town,” Purdum recounted, “as we thought, to get on the cars; but I guess it was done in order that the citizens might satisfy their curiosity by seeing the ‘Yankees,’ as we were taken back to the same place and kept till morning.”
The next morning they boarded the train for Atlanta. Throughout the journey the Yankees were subjected to verbal scorn and ridicule by citizens. Not to be outdone, the prisoners delivered a few “opinions” of their own.
“On the way,” wrote Purdum, “we were subject to a great many insults, not only from the men, but the women. They came out as we passed, and threw clubs and stones at us, and did everything they could to express their hatred of the ‘Yankees,’ but they soon got tired, for the boys were not in the humor to be outdone by these so-called Southern ladies, and paid them back in their own coin, till they would go back into their houses or silently look on and wonder at the impudence the ‘Yankees’ had to insult them.”
In Atlanta curious crowds again gathered to see the strange species called Yankees. “We were met by crowds of men, women, and children,” Purdum recalled, “both white and black, and of all ages, from old gray-headed men and women down to the little urchins that could scarcely walk — all gazing with the greatest eagerness to get a sight of us, to see if we did really look like human beings.”
By then the Yankees had regained their humor, and enjoyed a joke on the Rebs. “Many appeared surprised at seeing us,” Purdum observed, “and I could hear them saying, ‘Is them Yankees?’ One old woman came running out and asked me if we were really Yankees. I told her we were, ‘but as we had come from the West, and were younger ones than those in the East, our horns had not yet appeared.’ This answer seemed to satisfy her, for she went off and said no more about Yankees.”
Purdum and his companions must have had a good chuckle over this as they continued their journey toward Richmond. And chances are, when the war was over and the years passed by, these aging veterans told some pretty tall tales about those ole Rebs they had met, way down there in “the great Southern humbug.”
This article is part of a series of stories about Dalton and life in Dalton during the Civil War. The stories run on Sunday and are provided by the Dalton 150th Civil War Commission. To find out more about the committee, go to www.dalton150th.com. If you have material that you would like to contribute for a future article contact Robert Jenkins at (706) 259-4626 or firstname.lastname@example.org.