Sunday, January 28, 2024

Memphis’s Irving Block Prison

   “Notorious for its cruel and unsanitary living conditions” is how the Irving Block Prison in Memphis has been described. The building was constructed in 1860 as a hotel. “This section of town was notably tough and iron slates were used to cover the windows,” a 1939 guide to Tennessee recorded. Located on the west side of Court Square, the building was three stories tall. When the war came, the building was used as one of the Confederate hospitals, and it was run by the Southern Mothers. When the Confederates abandoned Memphis in June 1862, Federal officials repurposed the building as a prison for Confederate and Federal soldiers, along with civilians and spies.

   Absalom Grimes was one of the men imprisoned at Irving Block. Grimes was a river boat pilot who was selected by Sterling B. Price to carry or smuggle the mail between the South and the North. Grimes was captured numerous times, including once in Memphis.[1] After being interrogated by the provost marshal, Grimes was taken to the Irving Block Prison. “That prison was on the west side of Jackson Square in Memphis . . . three stories high. A pair of stairs led from the lower storeroom into the basement, where there was an excavated doorway leading into the yard. This doorway had boards nailed over it, and one wide board was off about three feet above the ground,” Grimes wrote after the war. “When I was placed in this cellar a ball with a chain about three feet long was riveted to my right ankle and one end of the chain was stapled to the floor. There were eighteen other prisoners chained to the floor in like manner, placed in a row from the front to the rear of the long cellar. I was chained next to a big stove . . .” Grimes wrote of there being a Federal soldier in the cellar, “imprisoned for stealing government mules out of the corral and selling them.” Grimes was held in the cellar for more than two weeks, “and my daily fare consisted of two stale crackers and a piece of rotten bacon and some water, or coffee made of beans and dried Cherokee rose leaves.” Adjoining the room where Grimes was held was a room for female prisoners. Grimes was eventually transferred to Alton, Illinois.[2]  

 Irving Block Prison in 1864. (Historic-Memphis)

   Some of those female prisoners could have been prostitutes arrested in a raid in mid-1863. The “house of ill repute” was at 115 Beale Street, and the proprietress was Kate Stoner. Six or seven girls were arrested and locked up in the Irving Block Prison until they could be tried. All were found guilty and sent north of Cairo, Illinois, with a promise of imprisonment if they returned to Memphis.[3] Another woman arrested was named Pullen. An officer on picket suspected her of being a smuggler and sent her back to the city where she (and probably her son) were locked up in Irving.[4]

   Colonel R. F. Looney and Capt. A.D. Bright were sent by General Chalmers into west Tennessee to arrest and bring back into Confederate lines Confederate deserters and stragglers. They were captured near Arlington and sent to Memphis and the Irving Block Prison. “They were placed in a back room and strongly guarded, but in a short time the officer ordered that they be moved to the third story, a dirty place, where thieves, thugs, and cut-throats were kept, and where vermin abounded . . . There was not a bed of any description in the long room, neither was there a chair or bench to sit on. They walked the floor all night.” These men were later paroled.[5]  

   In another instance, Lt. Jason Hoey, 17th Arkansas, wrote to the Secretary of War that Lt. Col. Woods had bribed a Federal officer, Lt. Denis Lewis, to allow him to escape. After effecting his escape, Lewis had Woods rearrested. Woods complained that Lewis, “did not act the gentleman with him; he had given Lieutenant Lewis his money and then he (Lewis) betrayed him.” Lewis went to the prison, was shown into the cell where Woods was, and finding Wood asleep, Lewis drew his pistol and shot Woods in the head, killing him. According to Hoey, Lewis was tried by a court-martial, but “went to parts unknown.” He supposedly was tried and convicted of the crime, but escaped.[6] The Memphis Bulletin, in November 1863, related had it was so cold, and fuel in so short of supply, that some of the prisoners tore up fifty bunks to burn and keep warm.[7]

   There were some successful escapes. Captain M.A. Miller was caught smuggling two boxes of cavalry swords across the Mississippi River. He was tried by courts-martial, found guilty, and condemned to death. At this early date, prisoners from the city were allowed to visit their homes with a guard, and under the pretext of having a sick child, Miller was able to escape. Much of the plan previous to his escape was passed along when his family brought him food, “as the prison fare was unfit to eat.”[8] There were reports of sixty or more who escaped in February 1864, and eleven in May 1864.[9]

   U.S. Grant appointed Maj. Gen. Stephen A. Hurlbut as commander in Memphis. While the Irving Block Prison had various commanders, Hurlbut would appoint Capt. George A. Williams in 1863.

Maj. Gen. Stephen A. Hurlbut (LOC)

   In April 1864, Lt. Col. John F. Marsh, 24th Veterans Reserve Corps, was sent to inspect the prison. March stated that Irving Block Prison was “the filthiest place the inspector ever saw occupied by human beings . . . The whole management and government of the prisoners could not be worse. Discipline and order are unknown. Food sufficient, but badly served. In a dark, wet cellar, I found twenty-eight prisoners chained to a wet floor, where they had been constantly confined, many of them for months, one since November 16, 1863, and are not for a moment released, even to relive the calls of nature.” The prison hospital had a “shiftless appearance ad the guard dirty and inefficient.” There was no “book of memorandum showing the disposition of the prison fund.”[10] Charges were drawn up and Williams arrested. He argued that he had actually done much to improve the prison. It did come out that Hurlburt, and maybe Williams, were running a multi-faceted extortion ring in Memphis. For example, they demanded ransoms from local wealthy families for the release of prisoners. Hurlbert also engaged in profiteering, getting cuts from the cotton that moved through the city. Hurlburt also targeted the Jewish population of Memphis, closing their businesses, but leaving non-Jewish businesses open. Hurlbut was brought up on charges toward the end of the war, but was allowed to resign. [11]

   History says that Lincoln ordered the prison closed in 1865.[12] However, that does not seem to be true. In March 1865, Col. John P.C. Shanks, commanding a cavalry brigade in west Tennessee, makes mention of capturing two “Guerrillas” and sending them to Irving Block Prison.[13] John G. Ryan, on parole, was passing through Memphis in July 1865 when he was arrested and hauled by the provost to Irving Block Prison. Ryan described the third floor room he was taken to as having “shackles, manacles, handcuffs and balls and chains.” A ball and chain was affixed to his left ankle. He was removed to another room and chained to the floor. Several days later, Ryan was sent to Washington, D.C. He was believed to be John H. Surratt, a spy accused of plotting with John Wilkes Booth to kidnap and assassinate Abraham Lincoln. Ryan was not released until October, and later sued the Federal government for false arrest.[14]

   The building was demolished in 1937.  

[1] Ralls County Record, March 31, 1911.

[2] Grimes, Absalon Grimes, Confederate Mail Runner, 150-51, 153.

[3] Lowery, Confederate Heroines, 90-5.

[4] Jackson, The Colonel’s Diary, 98.

[5] Dinkins,  1861 to 1865, by an Old Johnnie, 217-18.

[6] OR, Series II, 5:945; Confederate Veteran, Vol. 27, No. 1, 19.

[7] Memphis Bulletin, December 1, 1863.

[8] Confederate Veteran, 157, Vol. 13, No. 4, 157.

[9] The Illinois State Journal, February 22, 1864; Daily Missouri Republican, May 14, 1864.

[10] OR, Ser. 2, 7:402-3.

[11] Lash, A Politician Turned General, 137; Korn and Nevis, American Jewry and the Civil War, 154.

[12] Daily News, January 10, 2013: “Irving Block Prison”

[13] OR, Series I, Vol. 49, 1:79.

[14] Memphis Avalanche, March 14, 1888; The Boston Globe, July 10, 1888.

Monday, January 22, 2024

Did Robert E. Lee read Poe?

   January 19 is the birthday of both Robert E. Lee and Edgar Allan Poe. Lee was born in 1807 at Stratford Hall, Westmoreland County, Virginia. He grew up in Alexandria, just across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C. Lee attended Eastern View in Fauquier County, and Alexandria Academy before entering West Point in 1825. Poe was born in 1809, two years later, in Boston, Massachusetts. His father abandoned his family in 1810 and his mother died the next year. Poe went to live with the Allan family in Richmond, Virginia. He was educated locally, attended the University of Virginia, dropped out after a year, enlisted in the U.S. Army, then found a substitute and quit the army, but then was appointed to West Point. Poe was admitted in 1830 and was later dismissed for disobedience.

   Poe emerged as a fiction writer in the 1830s, publishing works in various literary magazines and newspapers. His first book was published in 1832, and he wrote numerous pieces and books over the next twenty-plus years. On October 3, 1849, Poe was found in Baltimore in a semiconscious state. He was taken to Washington Medical College, where he died on October 7. His actual cause of death remains a mystery.

   While at school, Lee read a common list for those pursuing a classical education: Homer, Longinus, Tacitus, and Cicero, along with “all the minor classics.”[1] His time at West Point would have been full of military texts, but other books as well. In 1828, between January 26 and May 24, he checked out fifty-two books from the library, including books on seamanship and the works of Alexander Hamilton, along with Rousseau’s Confessions.[2] While superintendent at West Point, Lee returned to checking out books from the library. Biographer Douglas Southall Freeman wrote that in those years, he read “six works on geography . . . one on forestry, eight on architecture, five on military law, two on non-military biography, one on French and Spanish grammar, and fifteen on military biography, history, and the science of war.”[3] Seven of those dealing with war were on Napoleon.

   Lee on campaign, during the war years, read constantly: letters, reports, enemy newspapers. Undoubtedly he kept up his reading in the book of Common Prayer. Lee did mention once in a letter to home that he was sending Mary a copy of Winfield Scott’s autobiography. It was unclear if he had read it.[4] Other details about what Lee might have read for leisure during the war are not clear.

   In 1865, Mrs. Jackson sent Lee Dabney’s Life and Campaigns of Lieut. Gen. Thomas J. Jackson. This was probably the only manuscript regarding the war that he read and about which he had comments. “I am misrepresented at the battle of Chancellorsville in proposing an attack in front, the first evening of our arrival,” Lee wrote. “On the contrary I decided against it, and stated to General Jackson, we must attack on our left as soon as practicable; and the necessary movement of the troops began immediately. In consequence of a report received about that time, from General Fitz Lee, describing the position of the Federal army, and the roads which he held with his cavalry leading to its rear, General Jackson, after some inquiry concerning the roads leading to the Furnace, undertook to throw his command entirely in Hooker’s rear, which he accomplished with equal skill and boldness…”[5]

   Regarding Lee’s post-war reading on the war, Doctor A.T. Bledsoe wrote Lee in 1867, asking for Lee’s opinion of an article in The Southern Review on the battle of Chancellorsville. Lee replied that he had not read the article, or any other books, “published on either side since the termination of hostilities . . . I have as yet felt no desire to revive my recollections of those events, and have been satisfied with the knowledge I possessed of what transpired.” [6]

   In the post-war years, Philip Stanhope sent Lee a new translation of Homer’s Iliad.[7] “That winter,” Robert E. Lee, Jr. wrote, “my father was accustomed to read aloud in the long evenings to my mother and sisters.” A couple of years later, Professor George Long sent Lee a second edition of one of Lee’s favorites, Thoughts of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius.[8]

   Of course, Lee did eventually start to collect material for his own history of the war, one he never finished.

   Concerning the Bible, one was sent to him by an admirer in 1867. Lee sent a reply, thanking him for the gift, and adding that the Bible was “a book which supplies the place of all others, and one that cannot be replaced by any other.”[9]

   Probably the most important piece regarding the original question, did Lee ever read the works of Edgar Allan Poe, comes from a letter Lee wrote his daughter Mildred in December 1866. Lee writes: “I hope you will find time to read and improve your mind. Read history, works of truth, not novels and romances. Get correct views of life, and learn to see the world in its true light.”[10] In the end, we might conclude that Lee probably never read Poe.

[1] Freeman, R.E. Lee, 1:36, 40.

[2] Freeman, R.E. Lee, 1:71.

[3] Freeman, R.E. Lee, 1:353.

[4] Freeman, R.E. Lee, 3:527.

[5] Freeman, R.E. Lee, 2:587.

[6] Freeman, R.E. Lee,  2:588.

[7] Lee, Recollections and Letters, 213.

[8] Lee, Recollections and Letters, 215.

[9] Jones, Personal Reminiscences, 114-15.

[10] Lee, Recollections and Letters, 247-48.

Saturday, January 06, 2024

Confederate Defenses in Memphis

    Even before Tennessee left the Union, there was a call to build defensive works along the Mississippi River to protect the city of Memphis. Gideon J. Pillow wrote to Confederate Secretary of War Leroy P. Walker on April 20, 1861, asking that an engineer be sent to the city to direct “military defensive works.” Walker replied three days later that an engineer was on his way.[1] On April 26, Pillow reported that “Captain Stockton,” Philip Stockton, was working on batteries, but that the city was in a “most defenseless condition for want of arms.”[2] Walker responded that next day writing that Pillow could keep 3,000 muskets, and that in “addition to the large guns heretofore sent you, I have this day ordered four 32-pounders to go forward. I feel a deep interest in the defense of Memphis, and will do everything to render it secure.” Pillow then mentioned a point at Randolph as the “most eligible situation for a battery to protect Memphis,” seeking permission to fortify this location as well.[3] Walker consented on April 30. Randolph is about 30 miles north of Memphis. 

Fort Pickering, from a Federal sketch. (LOC)

   Directly in command of Memphis was John L. T. Sneed. Born in Raleigh, North Carolina, Sneed moved to Memphis in 1843 where he practiced law and served in the higher ranks of state government, including the General Assembly and state attorney general, and even unsuccessfully ran for Congress in 1869. Tennessee governor Isham Harrison appointed Sneed one of three state generals in 1861. When Tennessee joined the Confederacy, Sneed was not transferred with the troops to Confederate service.[4] Likewise, Stockton was replaced as Engineer in August by Maj Lewis G. De Russy.[5]

   Leonidas Polk was in command of the First Geographical Division or, Department Number Two, at various times from June 25, 1861 to March 5, 1862.  Local command in Memphis passed to Col. Lucius M. Walker, 40th Tennessee Infantry. Walker was a nephew of US President James K. Polk and a brother-in-law of Frank Armstrong. Walker was also a West Point graduate but had resigned a year or so after being commissioned. On March 11, 1862, he was promoted to brigadier general. There is very little in Walker’s Compiled Service Record regarding his work in Memphis.[6]

   According to one early historian, it did not take long for Memphis to become “a great military center.” He also contends that the first steps to organize what became the Army of Tennessee took place in April 1861 in Memphis. More than fifty companies were organized in Memphis in the first year of the war.[7]

   By the end of April 1861, two batteries were under construction at Memphis, with additional works being constructed at Forts Harris and Wright (Randolph). Fort Harris was about six miles above Memphis, and under the command of Capt. William D. Pickett, supervising construction. Later, officials deemed the site “of little strategic importance and ordered the removal of the cannon.”. The main Confederate entrenchments at Memphis were constructed at the old Fort Pickering site. The site had seen numerous forts over the centuries. The original Fort Pickering was a frontier trading post in operation from 1798 to 1814. Confederates constructed a line two miles long, placing 55 cannons along the line to defend Memphis from attack.[8]

   The Confederate works in Memphis proper were never tested. They were ordered to be evacuated once the forts on the upper Mississippi River were evacuated and the Federal navy began its sojourn down the river. There is probably more to learn about the Confederate works, maybe an inventory conducted after their capture by the Federals in June 1862, or descriptions from Confederate soldiers stationed in Memphis proper and charged with building the works.

[1] OR Vol. 52, 2, 57-8.

[2] OR, Vol. 52, 2, 72.

[3] OR, Vol. 52, 2, 73.

[4] Allardice, More Generals in Gray, 212-13.

[5] Phillip Stockton, CMSR, RG109, NA.

[6] Prouty and Barker, Civil War High Commands, 550, 870, 884; Lucius M. Walker, CMSR, RG109, NA.

[7] Lindsley, A Survey of Civil War Period Military Sites in West Tennessee, 5; Young, Standard History of Memphis, 337.

[8] Prouty and Barker, A Survey of Civil War Period Military Sites in West Tennessee, 5.