When a Soldier Comes Home from a Civil War Prison Camp-
Bon Moore’s Story
Children grow a lot in two years. When Bon Moore’s farmhouse came into sight at the end of the long, dirt drive, he saw his two oldest children racing up the road toward him. “Papa! Papa!” they screamed in unison.
A smaller boy sat on a wagon by the steps. “Elisha.” The man whispered to himself. He smiled as the three and a half year old boy looked up at him and then went on with his playing. There was no sign of recognition on this little son’s face. That hurt. It hurt a lot. Then his dear Margaret appeared on the porch with a toddler he had never laid eyes on. He swallowed stiffly to keep the tears from flowing down his cheek.
It had been a long war, and Bon was stiff and sore from the long trip home. He was thirty-six years old and the last two years had weighed heavy on his body and soul. His home in the western tip of North Carolina was a long way from Lake Erie and he had been traveling for some weeks.
Bon breathed in his first deep smell of home, the red clay soil, the pungent scent of new mown hay, the blood red blossoms on the rose bush that he had given Margaret for an anniversary long ago. Margaret ran down the unpainted steps and into his arms, tears streaming down her cheeks.
“Look!” She cried. “it’s your papa come home from the war at last!”
Bon took the small boy from his wife’s arms, but the boy started to whimper. Sadly, he handed him back to his wife and reached to hug his other children, Jack, Susie and Elisha, who were waiting impatiently behind their mothers skirts.
“Oh, Lordy!” he sighed, “It is so good to be home.”
Bon had been a Captain in the 62nd North Carolina Regiment of the Confederate States of America. He had enlisted in the service of his new country on June 18, 1861 in Cherokee County, “for the war”. This term, often found in record books meant for the duration of the war, and for Bon Moore, the war would be over for months before he was able to return home for good. Early in the war, he had come home on several occasions, lingering for weeks, as soldiers often did, in order to plant or gather crops, or take care of family matters. Two of his children had been conceived on these visits. It was a crazy war, a war about states rights, not slavery, to most backwoods southerners like Bon Moore.
Bon’s family were among the first white settlers in the rugged area of North Carolina now known as Clay County. Several of his brothers served in the CSA, one of them as a surgeon. Two cousins had joined the CSA with him on that summer day in 1861. Bon, like most of the Moore men, was short and stocky, only 5’5’’ tall, with soft gray eyes and dark brown hair. His complexion, described as “florid” on the Prisoner of War records, was that of a man who had worked out of doors. Bronzed from the sun, roughly textured from the weather.
The war, for many troops, wasn’t exciting or even dangerous the majority of the time. Soldiers were much more likely to die of disease than from injuries sustained in battle. Still, when a battle or skirmish developed, it was usually devastating to the troops as they fell in droves to bullets and bombs fired at close range.
Most of the men’s time was spend moving from place to place, following the enemy and preparing for any battle that might occur. They would clean the equipment, eat whatever food had been available and sleep in tents strewn across fields or at the edge of towns.
For the 62nd Regiment of North Carolina troops, all of that changed in early September of 1863. After a summer of guarding bridges near Knoxville and conducting operations in East Tennessee, the 62nd found themselves in a very compromising position. On September 9, 1863, Bon Moore was serving under Brigadier General Frazier near Chattanooga, Tennessee when the Brigadier General received news that Knoxville was occupied by Union forces and that CSA General Buckner had been forced to retreat. Upon hearing this news, Brigadier General Frazier, knowing that the Union troops were greatly superior to his own, surrendered his garrison of 2,500 men, 36 guns and 3000 small arms to the Union Forces. In the coming years, he was greatly criticized for this move, but was later exonerated.
Many of the CSA soldiers, stunned and disgusted with this surrender without a battle, took off into the woods, thereby escaping. The officers and soldiers of the 62nd North Carolina Regiment were not so fortunate. They were taken to Johnson’s Island Officers Prison in Sandusky Bay, Ohio, which lies on Lake Erie.
Bon Moore was a prolific writer of letters. During the years he was imprisoned at Sandusky Bay, he frequently wrote to his wife, Margaret. His letters were filled with news from his regiment, who were all imprisoned together. Along with news of friends and relatives were Bon’s beautifully written messages for Margaret. The letters this devoted family man wrote home filled the empty moments of Margaret’s life as well as those of her children and others who had loved ones in prison at Johnson’s Island.
At last, Bon Moore was home. He smiled as he looked out on the field of hay that his brother, Benjamin, had mowed for him only a few days before. He strolled towards the unpainted two story house with his arm around his wife and his children following closely behind.
He thought of Benjamin, his older brother, who had mown the field. He had been a doctor before the war, but his experiences as a surgeon during the war had been an entirely different matter. There were so many dead and dying men in the places that Benjamin had found himself during the war. Bon had never envied his job during the war years.
Several years ago, when Bon and Benjamin had been planting crops while on a furlow home, they had spoken at length about their experiences during the early years of the war. Bon looked out on the fields that Benjamin had so thoughtfully mowed and remembered his brothers words.
“There are never enough supplies,” Benjamin had said, “but there is plenty of suffering. The screams of the wounded rack your soul. You are supposed to help them-save them-sometimes you do. Then you watch them die of infection or limp around on one leg and wonder how God could look down on such a sight without crying himself.”
Bon knew that mowing the field had been a blessing to both his family and his brother. Benjamin worked outdoors to rid his mind of the war. He had once written to Bon when he was held Prisoner and told him that working the fields helped him sleep at night.
Benjamin was setting up an office in Hayesville, the nearby town where he and his family lived. He and his wife, Roxanna had recently become grandparents for the first time.
Bon felt a chill run down his spine as he listened to the creaking of the wooden plank stairs that lead to his front door. Even in summer, the old wooden house entertained a slightly musty, yet welcomed odor.
“I wasn’t sure when you’d arrive,” Margaret apologized. “I haven’t prepared a meal since I fed the children their breakfast.”
“I’ve waited several years for a decent meal,” Bon laughed. “I think I can wait a few more hours!”
Margaret went to the kitchen and brought a plate of cold biscuits and a jar of molasses from the pantry shelf. “Maybe this will hold you ‘till I can prepare you a proper homecoming meal,” she smiled.
She opened a metal can that held a small amount of ground coffee and the wonderful aroma filled the room. “I got it from Uncle John’s store in Hayesville, she whispered. “First time they’ve had it in a while.”
Bon let out a deep laugh as he slapped his hand on the table. “Well, what are you waiting on, woman,” he grinned. “Get that water going and lets have a cup!”
Without waiting on the coffee to brew, Bon lit into the cold biscuits and molasses. He spooned the dark, sweet ‘lasses out onto the white china plate and broke apart a biscuit the size of a jar lid. Margaret saw him put his nose down close to the plate and sniff the fragrant molasses as he sopped them up on his biscuit.
By the time he had finished the plate of biscuits and molasses, Margaret was setting a steaming mug of coffee in front of him. “Oh, my!’ He exclaimed as he took a hot sip. “I believe I’ve died and gone to heaven!”
Margaret laughed as she sat down beside him with a cup of her own. Bon put his finger to his lip and made a “shh” sound as Margaret opened her mouth to speak. He pointed out the window to where the children were playing and they listened joyfully to their conversation for several minutes.
“Papa’s gonna get you for messin’ up that clean shirt!’ Susie scolded.
“Papa knows boys are bound to get dirty.” Jack shouted back.
Baby Bill was watching Elisha pull a cart. “Come play with me, Bill.” Elisha hollered.
Bon leaned back in the dark wooden chair and smiled. “The sound of children…” he sighed. “How I missed it.”
“They missed you, too.” Margaret whispered. “The younger ones will be glad to have their papa around. They’ll grow to love you in no time at all.”
The supper that Margaret had prepared for him that night had been wonderful. There had been fried chicken and thick flour gravy to pour on hot biscuits, sweet peas fresh from the garden and the first of the peaches made up into cobbler. The children had chattered nervously during the meal, something that would not have ordinarily been allowed. Margaret, usually stern about manners, had let Jack and Susie ask their father endless questions about his long absence.
Bon seemed to delight in the sound of their voices and answered their questions with a great degree of patience. It didn’t take a lot to satisfy the curiosity of children their age. Jack had just turned seven while Susie was five and a half. Their father had been absent so much of their lives that having him there was a novelty to them.
Elisha was quiet and solemn like his mother. He listened as his older brother and sister quizzed their father about the war. When Bon rose up from his chair after supper, he went to Elisha and stroked his light brown hair. “Are you glad to see me, little fellow?” he asked.
“Mama said you would come home.” Elisha smiled, looking up at Bon. “Will you pull me in the wagon?”
“You bet I will!” Bon told him. “You and Bill both.”
Bill was sitting in the wooden high chair that Bon had made for Jack when he was a baby. Bill was hitting his hand on the table and babbling in a language only he knew. He had finished up the biscuits and gravy in his bowl and was a mess.
“Margaret, our little one needs some work,” Bon laughed.
Margaret got a rag and wet it in a pan of water. She came over to Bill and gently washed his face and hands, then took off his bib and put him in his fathers arms.
Elisha was waiting in the wagon, and Bon put Bill in front of him and told Elisha to hold onto the baby as he pulled them around the dirt front yard. When Margaret had finished cleaning up the supper dishes, Bon took the baby back in to her.
He looked at Margaret and whispered, “I’ll be back in a bit.” He walked out the back door and headed for the barn. Margaret watched him out the kitchen window as he drifted around the barnyard. He touched the aging gray wood on the barn and then took a few steps towards the fence. He seemed to be taking in every detail of the home he had loved and missed.
He bent down and grabbed a hand full of the red clay soil and watched as it sifted out of his hand back onto the ground. When Margaret saw Bon walking down the rows of corn towards the far fields, she returned to her work in the house and left him to his thoughts.
Bon was not yet acclimated to home. He would close his eyes for a moment and the prison camp would close in on him. Although he didn’t know that nearly 26,000 Confederate soldiers had died in Yankee prisons, he knew personally of hundreds who had died within his sight. Sanitary conditions had been deplorable. Rats and filth were everywhere. In every letter that he had written to his wife while in the prison camp in Ohio, he would report who had been sick and who had died since his last letter. If no one he knew had died, he counted it a blessing.
He walked for a long time on that summer evening, his first back home in over two years. He pondered the fate of the country that he had grown to love so well during the war years. As the sun dipped lower in the sky, the humidity and heat made sweat pour from Bon’s body, yet he seemed unaware of it. He thought back on the day that he and his cousins had traveled to a nearby county to join the war effort. He questioned their idealism, the reasons they had felt they were fighting. Weren’t they fighting for state’s rights? Hadn’t the call to arms been against the north’s efforts at controlling the way the south governed itself?
He grew sad at the thought of how slavery had become the primary issue. Maybe the southerners like himself had turned their eyes from the evils of slavery. The laborers who lived on the property of backcountry white southerners had little in common with the slaves on big plantations. Bon thought back on the time, before the war, that he had gone to court to help prove that a young woman that he knew was not, by law, a slave.
“Should anyone be a slave?” Bon thought as he walked through the pastureland near his home. He remembered his time as a prisoner of war, a time when he had no rights, no choices and little hope. He imagined that would be what life as a slave was like. Yes, his family had been slave owners at one time. They never had many slaves and Bon felt that they had been well treated. Still, it bothered him, now that the war was over.
His older brothers and sisters from his father’s first marriage had been cared for by a slave, a dear member of the household after their mother had died. Moriah had been like a mother to them. The youngest child, James had been less than a year old when his mother passed away. Bon, himself remembered Moriah, who still lived and worked in the house when John Moore had remarried and had a second set of children. He realized that he had never thought of Moriah as a slave. She had her own family and her own cabin on the farm.
Bon sat down under a maple tree to catch his breath. He thought of Moriah and her family. “Wonder what even became of them?” he mumbled to him self. He thought of his own family. What hardship would they face now that the war was over? Bon listened to the rustling of summer’s green canopy of leaves. As he watched the shadows of the leaves waver across the grasses, so many thoughts filled his head. What did the north have in store for the battered south now that the war had ended?
Bon shivered as a thought of the prison flashed upon his mind. He had little trust in the desire of the Yankees to put the war behind them. They had been as cold and thoughtless as the winters on Lake Erie. He remembered well the chill and the humidity around the lake. In the winter, cold was a constant source of misery for the prisoners, many of them sick and malnourished. There was a great lack of clothing to keep them warm during those long cold winters. Their quarters offered little protection form the chill of the wind and freezing temperatures. Their barracks were heated with coal, when it was available. Often, it was not. Coal dust and smoke irritated the lungs of the already sickly men, worsening their fragile condition. Many men died during winter. Pneumonia, tuberculosis, often called consumption, and bloody flux, an intestinal ailment abounded in camp.
Food supplies were sporadic, there never seemed to be enough and the quality was often very poor. January of 1864 had been especially cruel, with below zero temperatures and strong winds persisting throughout the month. In the spring of that year, Bon had written home with hopes of being released in the near future. Another hard year in the Yankee prison had come and gone before the war was over and the last of the prisoners went home.
The men found little to do with their time a prisoners. They passed the days taking with each other, remembering stories of their homes and families. Sometimes, newspapers, supposedly forbidden, would make their way into the camps. Since most of the prisoners at Sandusky Bay were officers and literate, they enjoyed these glimpses from the outside world.
After a while, Bon forced his thoughts away from his days as a prisoner and made his way through the fields. He stood by the well not far from the kitchen door and took a deep breath. He reached up and turned the pulley above the well until he had retrieved a bucket of fresh mountain water from the darkness below. He dipped a dipper of water out of the bucket and sipped it thoughtfully. “No more briny lake water, “ he thought and finished drinking the scoop of water. He scooped up some water from the bucket with his hand and splashed it on his face. The coolness of the droplets mixed with the sweat on his brow and washed down his face in rivulets. He whooped out with joy at this simple pleasure, and soon made his way back to the house.
It had been nearly the middle of July, 1865 by the time Bon Moore returned home to North Carolina. It was hot and muggy in the wood-frame house but even July in the mountains holds a wonderful coolness after sunset. By the time Bon returned to the house, his wife was preparing the children for bed. They walked the children to their rooms upstairs and read them a chapter from the Bible. The children each said a grateful prayer for their father’s return. Margaret tucked a thin sheet around each child and quietly walked down the stairs.
She and Bon went out onto the front steps and sat down. Bon reached into his pocket and drew out a folded sheet of paper. It was worn and damp, but he gently unfolded it and handed it to his wife.
“My oath of allegiance to the United States.” He said.
Margaret knew that it was reluctance to sign this document that had slowed his release and delayed his return home. She ran her finger over the date of his release: June 12, 1865. Some of the men in Bon’s regiment had started out their long trip home together., but had separated along the way. Bon saw long, hot days of foot travel as he headed homeward. As he drew further south, there were times when a willing soul who had a horse and wagon would offer the soldiers a ride to the next village or town.
Bon took Margaret’s hand in his as they sat in the moonlight on the unpainted steps. There was little of the spoken word between them on that night. There was to much to say, so much time to make up for. On that first night, they found words both inadequate and unnecessary.
Margaret laid her head on Bon’s shoulder. Somehow, this night made her feel very old. She would turn 29 on the 22nd of July. No gift could be greater than having her husband home again. She took the pins that had held her hair tightly in a bun and laid them beside her. Bon reached up and stroked her hair, still damp near the nape of her neck from the swelter of the daylight hours.
There would be time to decide what the future held after the crops were gathered in the fall. Maybe Bon would go back to surveying or maybe he would buy more land and farm. Right now, all that mattered was that he was home with his family. He felt whole and alive again. He would watch his children grow-maybe more children would come along. He would visit with his family, go to church on Sundays, work the fields until he thought he could work no more.
There would be laughter, and joy, challenges and obstacles, but he and Margaret would face them together. He would write letters to his family in Georgia, maybe visit in the fall.
A soft breeze enveloped Bon and Margaret as they sat on their front steps that night. For the first time in years, there was hope in their hearts. For many years, the pain and suffering of the war would linger, but they were survivors-proud and determined. Their love and courage would live on for many years.
Even their grandchildren’s great grandchildren would hear their story and read the letters that Bon wrote to Margaret, and later to his son, Elisha. Bon Moore’s story is one of hardship and hope. His story was repeated a million times as southerners and northerners alike tried to reclaim their lives after the war. We are here today to tell of their victory over circumstances. Their story is our story. We hold onto their voices of the past and preserve them reverently for those yet to come.
My grandfather told me that as long as someone remembers a person, they continue to live. With love and admiration, we pass these stories, the dreams and sorrows of those that came before us onto each new generation. Through the words and deeds of those would forged the paths that we now walk on, we find our paths to be smoother, our place in life secured.
This story is dedicated to all of the generations of my family that I have herd stories about, researched and have grown to know and love. You will continue to live in all of our hearts, never to be forgotten.
Brenda Culbreth Lewis
May 13, 1999