This letter was written by English emigrant Josiah Coombs (1832-1896), of Cass county, who enlisted as a private in Co. B, 4th Iowa Infantry on 10 July 1861. He survived the war and mustered out with his regiment at Louisville as a private on 24 July 1865 [see Josiah Combs]. After the war, Josiah returned to Cass county where he married and worked as a plasterer. Josiah addressed his letter to Nathaniel Bradley Baker who Governor Kirkwood appointed as adjutant-general of Iowa to coordinate Iowa’s response to the Civil War.
In his letter, Josiah emphatically denies that he was a deserter when he disappeared from the regiment during the Battle of Chickasaw Bluffs in December 1862. Rather, he informs us of his captivity and passage from one “loathsome” Confederate prison to the next until he was finally paroled and returned from New Orleans back to St. Louis by way of the New York. As witness to his remarkable ordeal, Josiah was fortunate to be able to use a high-ranking colonel and a chaplain. I could not find any evidence that either Josiah Coombs or Rev. Arnold Needham wrote any memoirs of their captivity, but Col. Thomas C. Fletcher did.
Fletcher was in command of the Missouri Wide Awake Zouaves (31st Missouri Infantry) when he was wounded and captured at Chickasaw Bluffs near Vicksburg. His tale of captivity was published in Harper’s Weekly and states that they “were kept in the loathsome cells [at the Vicksburg jail] and fed upon the worst fare ever meted out to the vilest criminals for one month. They were then removed to Jackson, Mississippi, and thrust into the old rickety ruin of the bridge that was yet standing above water, the remaining part having fallen down. Here they were kept for another month in the coldest season of the year, without beds or bedding; no fires or lights were allowed them. Three hundred and eighty privates, also prisoners, were put into the bridge with them. Almost every day, two or three were carried out dead, and sometimes the dead lay at the entrance of the bridge unburied for four days.” [See “The Prison over the Pearl River at Jackson, Mississippi, where Union prisoners have been confined,” by Chris Mackowski]
St. Louis, [Missouri]
August 29th 1863
Adjutant-General Baker, Dear Sir,
I take the liberty of addressing these few lines to you hoping you may be able to point out some way for me to proceed.
I was captured on the Yazoo River north bank last winter, taken to Vicksburg, kept there 5 weeks, sent there to Jackson, Mississippi, for six weeks—altogether 75 days in the most loathsome prisons, sent to New Orleans in March where we were reported to the Federal Authorities remaining there six weeks. We were then sent to New York by water, from there here, where I arrived on [ ]. I have not [been] absent one day without leave since reporting in the Federal lines.
I wrote for my descriptive roll but have received no answers. I have been informed that I am marked as a deserter. I have been one year without pay of any kind and I do think that [I’m owed] something for my God knows I have been punished enough over one hundred dollars—my watch, clothes, and everything I had I lost while a prisoner in proof of which I refer you to Col. [Thomas Clement] Fletcher, commanding Brigade where my regiment is at Big Black, [and] Chap[lain Arnold T.] Needham of 13th Illinois Infantry, both fellow prisoners with me.
I am willing to serve my enlistment out faithfully. I am no deserter so help me God and I do not wish the stigma on me, my regiment, or the state. Hoping, sir, you will do me the favor of replying to this note, I remain your obedient servant, — Josiah Coombs
Enclosed is an old descriptive roll of mine. Please send it back and oblige. Yours, — J. C.
Josiah Coombs, Co. B, 4th Regt. Iowa Infantry, P[aroled] P[risoner] Benton Barracks