A Perfect Picture of Hell: Eyewitness Accounts by Civil War Prisoners from the 12th Iowa [NOOK Book]


From the shooting of an unarmed prisoner at Montgomery, Alabama, to a successful escape from Belle Isle, from the swelling floodwaters overtaking Cahaba Prison to the inferno that finally engulfed Andersonville, A Perfect Picture of Hell is a collection of harrowing narratives by soldiers from the 12th Iowa Infantry who survived imprisonment in the South during the Civil War.

Editors Ted Genoways and Hugh Genoways have collected the soldiers' startling accounts from diaries, ...

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A Perfect Picture of Hell: Eyewitness Accounts by Civil War Prisoners from the 12th Iowa

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From the shooting of an unarmed prisoner at Montgomery, Alabama, to a successful escape from Belle Isle, from the swelling floodwaters overtaking Cahaba Prison to the inferno that finally engulfed Andersonville, A Perfect Picture of Hell is a collection of harrowing narratives by soldiers from the 12th Iowa Infantry who survived imprisonment in the South during the Civil War.

Editors Ted Genoways and Hugh Genoways have collected the soldiers' startling accounts from diaries, letters, speeches, newspaper articles, and remembrances. Arranged chronologically, the eyewitness descriptions of the battles of Shiloh, Corinth, Jackson, and Tupelo, together with accompanying accounts of nearly every famous Confederate prison, create a shared vision

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“Editors Ted and Hugh Genoways have brought together the stories of roughly twenty men—captured variously at Shiloh, Corinth, Jackson, and Tupelo—into a moving and informative collection…While the stories of the prisoners in A Perfect Picture of Hell speak eloquently for themselves, they are enhanced by the editors' prologue and other introductory materials, which set both the experiences of the regiment as a whole and the individual authors in context. This anthology, though of obvious value to those interested in the 12th Iowa, is much more than a regimental history. These men's prison experiences speak for those of thousands of other soldiers who served and suffered. As such, this book is a valuable contribution to the literature on Confederate prisons as a whole.”—The Journal of Southern History

“ … an unfailingly fascinating account of the deprivation, maltreatment, and brutality that characterized life in southern prison camps. Insightful and at times heart-wrenching A Perfect Picture of Hell will appeal to anyone with an interest in this aspect of the Civil War.”—Ethan S. Rafuse, Civil War Book Review

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781587293276
  • Publisher: University of Iowa Press
  • Publication date: 4/1/1998
  • Series: NONE Series
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 355
  • File size: 2 MB

Meet the Author

An acquisitions editor at the Minnesota Historical Society Press, Ted Genoways is the founder and former editor of the literary journal Meridian and the editor or author of several books, including the forthcoming In the Trenches: Soldier-Poets of the First World War. Hugh Genoways serves as chair and professor of the Museum Studies Program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
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Read an Excerpt

University of Iowa Press Copyright © 2001 University of Iowa Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-87745-759-6


April 6, 1862

Officers wept as they waved their handkerchiefs in token of surrender. SETH JONES CROWHURST, COMPANY E

Near sundown on November 30, 1861, the fresh recruits of the 12th Iowa Infantry marched from the St. Louis train station to Benton Barracks, near the abandoned fairgrounds. They had a makeshift dinner of coffee and crackers and bedded down for the night. The next morning, as the regiment was ordered out for its first inspection, snow had already begun to fall. By that night, three inches blanketed the fairgrounds. Soaked by snow and rain, these fields where the men drilled were churned to mud in the weeks to come. On January 9, 1862, James F. Zediker of Company I wrote in his diary: "The mud not quite knee deep ... the company most all sick." Indeed, the entire regiment suffered through that harsh, wet winter. Nearly half were hospitalized in those months with measles, mumps, or pneumonia. Seventy-five died.

On January 27, the regiment was ordered to report to General Ulysses S. Grant at Cairo, Illinois. From there, they were sent to the mouth of the Cumberland River, near Smithland, Kentucky, to establish their camp in the field. On February 5, the 12th joined the expedition against Fort Henry but arrived around nine o'clock that evening, in time for the Confederate retreat toward Fort Donelson. On February 12, the regiment was assigned to Cook's brigade, Smith's division, and participated in the ensuing Battle of Fort Donelson, February 13-15. After the rebel surrender, they remained at the fort almost a month. Here the misery and malaise experienced at Benton Barracks only escalated. David W. Reed of Company C wrote: "[T]he barracks occupied by the Twelfth were each supplied with large 'stick and mud' fireplaces in one end and bunks in the other, and were furnished with split log benches.... [T]he warm barracks were appreciated after the experience of several days lying out in the cold rain and snow without shelter." Erastus B. Soper of Company D agreed that their quarters were "warm and comfortable" but noted that "the terrible exposure during the siege told on the boys. Scarcely one escaped the diarrhea, and day and night the skirmish line formed on the side of the hill below the camp was being constantly relieved."

Many men were too sick from exposure and diarrhea to eat. For those who could, there was a large amount of flour for biscuits and meal to make corn bread in captured Dutch ovens. Some members of Company C even managed to acquire some contraband pork. Unfortunately, the water used to prepare all these meals, according to Reed, "was said to contain sulfur, produced a scourge of diarrhoea, which afflicted nearly every member of the regiment and put a large number of them under the surgeon's care." Soper remembered that most of the 12th's time at Fort Donelson was spent "endeavoring to cook something they could eat, and find some medicine that would relieve the diarrhea; and not succeeding well in either."

On February 21, by General Order No. 6, they were brigaded together with the 2nd, 7th, and 14th Iowa under James M. Tuttle of the 2nd and designated the 1st Brigade. At the time, the order was significant, because it marked the first brigade composed entirely of Iowa soldiers, but in the weeks to come it would take on entirely new importance as this group became known as the Hornet's Nest Brigade.

* * *

On March 7, 1862, the newly formed brigade was ordered to march twelve miles north to Metal Landing - sometimes called Mineral Landing - on the Tennessee River, some four miles north of Fort Henry, to await transport to Pittsburg Landing. Though the men were forced to shoulder heavy loads, not yet reduced to marching weight, and travel mostly on mud-clogged roads, they were pleased to be finally on the move after three weeks at Fort Donelson where, Soper wrote, "we had succeeded the rebels, not only to their huts, but also to their body lice - ever after called 'Graybacks.'"

On March 13, the steamer John Warner arrived at Metal Landing to transport the 12th Iowa and the 1st Minnesota Battery upriver. The horses and mules, together with the artillery and wagons, were loaded onto the lower deck, then the men crowded aboard the guard and hurricane decks. That night the Warner embarked, accompanied by a flotilla of other steamers likewise loaded with troops, all convoyed by the wooden gunboats Tyler and Conestoga. The next morning, a Sunday, the sun came out, and the 12th sensed the first inkling of spring. Soper's excitment is apparent in his description of the scene:

One after another the transports followed, the black smoke pouring from their tall funnels, their decks covered with blue-coated men, and the glinting bayonets of stacked muskets, flags and banners flying, bands playing with here and there a calliope shrieking out its loudest and most melodious strains, Hail Columbia and the Star Spangled Banner. The shores on one bank or the other were generally bluffy, and everywhere heavily wooded. The trees on the bottoms seemingly grew out of the water, the flood covering the bottoms in places from twenty to thirty feet deep, and were everywhere draped with long gray moss hanging in festoons from the limbs two and three feet interspersed with green bunches of mistletoe. Everything was new and strange.

This sense of wonder soon passed. That night a rainstorm soaked the men on the hurricane deck as they pulled into Savannah, Tennessee. Here they remained several days, amid sporadic showers, until they were finally cleared to travel the last eight miles upriver to Pittsburg Landing. Years later, Joseph W. Rich, former private in Company I, recalled the scene:

The Landing itself was a mud bank at the foot of a steep bluff, a single road winding around the bluff and up the hillside to higher ground. At a distance of about a half-mile from the Landing the road forked and a little further on struck the Hamburg and Savannah road, running nearly parallel with the river. Still further on the Corinth road crossed the Hamburg and Purdy road and struck the Bark road, one branch three miles out and the other branch four miles out. Besides these main roads ... there were numerous farm roads winding around the ridges, and the needs of the army made many new roads - all were deep in mud made of the most tenacious clay, so that the unloading of boats and the hauling to camp was a slow and laborious process for both man and mule.

Once the camp was established, the arrival of spring in southern Tennessee was clearly welcome. The long, wet winter at Fort Donelson had taken its toll on the spirit and health of nearly every man in the 12th. On March 28, Fourth Corporal Abner Dunham of Company F wrote his family:

This is as beautiful a spring morning as I ever saw. the sun shines out in his splendor. the grass is growing trees budding out peach trees in full bloom & the little bird singing their sweet songs cannot help but be pleasing to the soldier as it is here at the present time. it does look beautiful to see the peach trees in full bloom. the warm weather wilts us down a little as it always does in the spring but to go out and have a good game of ball and take a sweat seems to drive the old diseases out of our system and we are growing as tough and hearty as when at Camp Union.

Indeed, the entire regiment was recovering, due not only to the spring weather but also their improved diet. They received dried vegetables to make soup and gathered berries from nearby ravines. In the meantime, steamer transports loaded with troops arrived daily at the landing, until the bluffs and woods were crowded with men. Many of those arriving in early April were green recruits, some receiving their rifles and drilling for the first time when they arrived in camp.

In the years that followed the battle, there was much debate as to whether the Union troops at Pittsburg Landing were taken by surprise when the first shots were fired on April 6. It is possible that the 12th was not as prepared as other regiments. The strain of the move to Pittsburg Landing, coupled with the constant exposure to the rain and cold at Fort Donelson, had exacerbated Major Samuel D. Brodtbeck's rheumatism and caused him to resign his command. Only one day before the fighting began at Shiloh, Captain Samuel R. Edgington of Company A was promoted to major to assume Brodtbeck's position, second in command to Colonel Joseph J. Woods. The change of command may have reduced the amount of information the men were receiving about the skirmishes going on along the Corinth road.

What is certain, reading the accounts of the 12th Iowa soldiers, is that they were not in a state of heightened readiness. Zediker wrote in his diary for April 5 that the men "cooked most all day making cakes and pies." Soper remembered that "the cavalry reported no enemy of any consequence nearer than Corinth." When reveille sounded the next morning, there was still no reason for alarm. Soper wrote:

Sunday morning, April 6th, 1862, was delightful. The air was warm and calm. The sun shone warm and brightly. The fruit trees were in full bloom, and peaceful. Breakfast was dispatched and everyone was busy in preparation. All at once the startling cry rang through the camp - "Fall in 12th Iowa," "Fall in," followed by the ominous long roll. Quickly the men responded.... As soon as formed the Brigade hastened to the front at a brisk gait, marching some two miles back from the landing, somewhat impeded and its ranks now and then broken, by stragglers from the front, running leaping, yelling with very much the appearance of having been stampeded.

The 12th Iowa formed their lines in an old washed-out wagon trace. The road had so eroded that it now created a slight depression at the edge of the open field, a position that in the years to come would be known as the Sunken Road. The embankment at the road's edge - varying from a few inches to as much as three feet deep - provided a natural entrenchment. About fifty feet ahead of them, the road was further protected by a rail fence, overgrown with blackberry bushes. Once the troops were ready, Colonel James Tuttle rode down the line, repeating: "Remember you are from Iowa" and "Hold your ground at all hazards." The air had already begun to buzz with the sound of bullets fired from the opposite side of the field. The next day Philo Woods of Company C recorded in his diary: "It was 11 o'clock and 20 minutes when we first fired on the rebels...." The young men of the 12th Iowa had spent less than six months in active service.



Account of Surrender at Shiloh

Excerpted from John H. Stibbs's Memoirs, n.d. (Box F23, Folder 13b, Federal Collection. Nashville: Tennessee State Archives, Civil War Collection, Confederate and Federal, 1861-1865).

We were up at the usual hour that Sunday morning had our breakfast and my company was forming for Sunday morning inspection when the long roll began beating at Regimental Headquarters and within a very few minutes we were on our way to the front. My guess would be that it was then about eight o'clock a.m. There may have been some in the regiment who had heard sounds of the fighting but I am very sure that no one in my immediate vicinity knew that the battle was on until the roll was beaten. I never pretended to know how far we marched before we struck the enemy but Major Reed says it was one and one-half miles and I assume he is correct. I know we marched rapidly and I was much impressed by the remarks of the horde of beaten men who passed us on their way to the rear. It seemed to me that four out of every five of them made use of the same expression, to wit: "You will ketch hell if you go much further", and this naturally caused us to conclude we would find something awaiting us when we reached the front. But our men were soldiers and no one of them attempted to fall out of line. On reaching the ridge just back of the hornet's nest our line was formed, and I remember it as though it was yesterday, how Gen. Tuttle looked as he rode along the line addressing each regiment separately and charging us to remember we were from Iowa and that the eyes of our friends were on us and every man was expected to do his full duty. Then the order to advance was given and we moved forward to our position in the Hornet's Nest. Whether we were placed there by design or by accident I never knew but our arrival there was at a most opportune time. There was a gap in our line there and the enemy, flushed with victory, were pushing forward to crush the remnants of Prentiss' Division, which they had driven back from the front, and that they would have accomplished their purpose but for the arrival of Tuttle's Brigade no one acquainted with the facts doubts for a moment and had they done so our army would have been divided and probably would have been hopelessly defeated; but Tuttle's men were in line and in a most advantageous position when the shock came and they were there to stay; there was no excitement in our ranks, no wavering; but each man gripped his musket and held his fire until when our volley was delivered every man felt his shot had not been wasted; the enemy's advance was checked on the instant and a moment later they were falling back in confusion; following this we remained on that line for hours and repelled charge after charge, each of which only served to strengthen the confidence of our men in their ability to hold the line indefinitely. But along in the afternoon, I would say about 2.30 or 3.00 o'clock, we discovered by the sound of the guns that our army was being driven back on both flanks until it became apparent to all of us that we were being surrounded. Finally we saw the Second and Seventh leave the line and start for the rear and then came the order to our Regiment, the 12th, to about face and march slowly to the rear; on reaching the ridge back of us we found in front of us a very strong force of the enemy and we attacked them at once. The fighting was desperate but we drove the enemy back in confusion and had someone been on the ground to order our movement forward in line I believe the Twelfth and Fourteenth would have fought their way to the rear, but Gen. Wallace had been mortally wounded and Gen. Tuttle had gone to the rear with the Second and Seventh. I thought at the time that it was an error on his part in leaving one-half of the Brigade in the midst of a fight with no one to command them but I concluded later on that it was simply a part of God's providence to leave us there as a sacrifice in order that the army at the rear might be saved. Had we gone on the enemy would have been in close pursuit and they had their army so concentrated at that point that no one short of The Almighty could safely say what the result would have been had they made a final and determined assault on our last line of defense. Many valuable minutes were lost as we stood there in line after the repulse of the enemy. I went to Col. Woods and pointed out to him the rear of the Seventh Iowa as they were going through the gap still open and called his attention to the masses of the enemy closing in right and left on us, but he hesitated, saying he was hoping to have some order from Gens. Wallace or Tuttle; I then ran back to my company and myself gave the order to march by the flank and we started on our wild rush across Hell's Hollow for the rear but before this, men of the Eighteenth Wisconsin, and other men of Prentiss' Division, had broken in on our rear and merged with our men and by the time we reached the camp of the Third Iowa our organization was completely broken and at that point the fire became so hot that our men halted and each began to fight on his own account. No one had to look twice to find a Gray Jacket to shoot at and the firing was fast and furious.


Excerpted from A PERFECT PICTURE OF HELL Copyright © 2001 by University of Iowa Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Table of Contents



Editors’ Note


Captured at Shiloh, April 6, 1862

Eyewitness Account

-John H. Stibbs, Company D, Account of Surrender at Shiloh

Prison Accounts: Enlisted Men

-Charles L. Sumbardo, Company I, Incidents of Prison Life

-George Erwin Comstock, Company C, Reminiscences of S.C. Beck in Prison Life

-Seth Jones Crowhurst, Company E, Reminiscences of a Union Soldier, Letter: October 24, 1862, and Letter: November 5, 1862

-Bryon P. Zuver, Company D, Prisoner of War

Prison Accounts: Lieutenants

-Luther W. Jackson, Company H, A Prison Diary

-John W. Gift, Company F, Speech Delivered in Delhi, Iowa, November 1862

-Joseph B. Dorr, Company I, Journal of My Imprisonment in the Rebellion, Letter: June 11, 1862, and Letter: July 16, 1862

Prison Accounts: Officers

-John H. Stibbs, Company D, An Account of Southern Prisons, An Open Letter

-Edward M. Van Duzee, Company I, Incidents of Prison Life in 1862

William W. Warner, Company C, Letter: April 29, 1862, May 23, 1862, May 28, 1862, and June 13, 1862

Release and Parole

-Erastus B. Soper, Company D, Paroled Prisoners from Macon, Georgia, to St. Louis

Captured at Cornith, October 3, 1862

Eyewitness Account

-Erastus B. Soper, Company D, Excerpts from the “History of Company D, 12th Iowa”

Prison Account

-Allen M. Blanchard, Company D, Reminiscences of the Capture and Detention of Allen M. Blanchard, as a Prisoner of War

Captured at Jackson, July 11, 1863

Prison Account

-George Erwin Comstock, Company D, A Prison Diary

Captured at Tupelo, July 13 and 15, 1864

Eyewitness Accounts

-Frederick Humphrey, Chaplain, The 12th Iowa at the Battle of Tupelo: Letter from an Eye Witness

-William L. Henderson, Company C, Letter: July 21, 1864

Prison Accounts

-Edwin A. Buttolph, Company D, Reminiscences of the Second Capture of Edwin A. Buttolph on July 13, 1864, and His Detention in Rebel Prisons: Prepared by Himself

-John De Vine, Company I, An Account of Castle Morgan, Cahaba

-J. Warren Cotes, Company I, A Brief Account of the Experience in Captivity of the Men Captured at Tupelo, July 15th, 1864, An Open Letter


-John H. Stibbs, Andersonville and the Trial of Henry Wirz

Biographies of Individuals Mentioned in the Accounts


Literature Cited


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