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A Civil War Memoir:
Union Prisoner Recalls Rail Ride To Danville

By Henry H. Mitchell

In the article “Capt. John Dooley Documents Pittsylvania/Danville During Surrender Week 1865” in the last issue of The Packet, Confederate Captain John Dooley was quoted as commenting on his April 1865 approach to Pannill's Bridge into northern Pittsylvania that he was crossing “a portion of the State that has never felt the scorching breath of war or drunk the warm life blood of the South's bravest men. Here rise tall fences enclosing rich pastures, fields of waving wheat and sprouting corn. But the plenty scattered here appears in strange contrast with the desolation and exhaustion of the rest of the State.”

A starkly different impression of parts of south central Virginia during the Civil War was recorded by A. O. Abbott, 1st Lt., New York Dragoons, who traveled from Richmond to Danville by rail on May 31, 1864, as a prisoner. The following account by Abbott is found in Prison Life in the South: at Richmond, Macon, Savannah, Charleston, Columbia, Charlotte, Raleigh, Goldsborough, and Andersonville, During the Years of 1864 and 1865 by A. O. Abbott, Harper & Brothers, New York, 1865.

Leaving Richmond

“On the morning of the 31st of May we were aroused at 5 o'clock by the sergeant (at Libby Prison in Richmond), and ordered to get ready to go South at once… They marched us over the James River to Manchester and halted us alongside of the Danville Railroad, made up a train of box-cars and loaded us in…

“We left Manchester at 7:30 a.m.... just as the battle of Cold Harbor was opening. We soon found that traveling on a Rebel railroad was very different from what it would be on one in our Northern States. Their rolling stock was nearly worn out, the rails broken, splintered, and battered, the ties rotten, and altogether, it was a dangerous matter to ride at all upon them, to say nothing of speed. For greater safety, their fastest trains were limited to twelve miles an hour by Act of Congress. Their stops are frequent for their wheezy old engines use double the fuel they would if they were in good repair; and their wood and water stations are separate thus making a stop every four or five miles.

Stations Dilapidated, Countryside Poor

“During this ride we suffered for water, for the day was intensely hot, and we had nothing to get it in, but had to drink it from our hands or from the holes by the side of the track. The stations along this route are not villages such as you find on our Northern roads but consist of five or six houses dignified with a name high sounding enough for a corporation. The depots are small unpainted buildings with but a few conveniences and much dilapidation. [The train would have passed stations at ‘Coal Fields’ (Midlothian Coal Pits), Amelia Courthouse, Jetersville, Jennings Ordinary, Burkeville, Meherrin, Keysville, Mossingford, Clover, South Boston, New's Ferry, Barksdale; and late in the evening in Pittsylvania County, Ringgold, and Dan River. The Richmond & Danville line's construction had begun in 1865, a testimony to the determination of Pittsylvania visionary Whitmell P. Tunstall. But by 1864, the stresses of wartime had apparently almost put the Richmond & Danville out of operation.]

“The county through which we passed was very poor, the cultivated portions of it being planted to corn by the negros… Very few white men to be seen….

Abbot Describes Danville

“We arrived at Danville about one o'clock the next (Wednesday) morning… Here our old guard was relieved by some Virginia militia under command of Lieutenant Gray, 3rd Virginia Infantry (Hampton's Legion).

“Danville is situated on the south side of the Dan River, one hundred and forty-eight miles from Richmond, and had at this time a population of about five thousand. It had increased in numbers since the war, many of the refugees from Northern Virginia coming here with their families to escape from the immediate horrors of the battle-field. It had several government hospitals, and at times Federal prisoners have been confined here, but at this time nearly all had been sent farther South. It was also a depot for supplies in transit from Georgia and North Carolina.

“The railroad was connecting Danville with Greensboro is a new one, built in 1863,'4, by the Rebel government, and we were among the first that went over it. The train did not make over eight miles per hour.” [Lt. Abbot and his fellow prisoners continued under conditions of great difficulty to Greensboro, Salisbury, Charlotte, Columbia, Augusta and Macon.]


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