1864: Judson Wayland Oliver to Edwin M. Stanton

I could not find an image of Jud dating to the time he was in the Civil War but here is one of John H. Simpson of Co. C, 39th Massachusetts Infantry (Photo Sleuth)

The following letter, addressed to Secretary of War, Edwin M. Stanton, was penned by Judson (“Jud”) Wayland Oliver (1832-1908) of Co. E, 39th Massachusetts Infantry. As he states in his letter, he was taken a prisoner of war near the Rapidan River on 10 October 1863 and held in prison on Belle Island in Richmond through the winter of 1863/64 until exchanged after five months. After more time regaining his health in Union hospitals, he was returned to his regiment where he remained until taken prisoner again in February 1865 at Hatcher’s Run. He was exchanged not long after and mustered out in June 1865.

Judson was the son of William Oliver, Jr. (1795-1880) and Lydia Neagles (1810-1890) of Somerville, Middlesex county, Massachusetts. He was married in 1853 to Sarah Fessenden Hobart (1836-1878) and was the father of two children born before the Civil War began; three more after the close of the war.

Prior to Jud’s capture in October 1863, the 39th Massachusetts had spent the entire previous year performing guard duty in the defenses of Washington D. C., on the upper Potomac River, and near Harper’s Ferry. They were advanced to the Rapidan river and posted there in August and September 1863, but were pulled back to join other commands for the Bristoe Campaign. It was during this retreat from the Rapidan that Jud and the others in his squad were captured by rebel cavalry.

A rare Confederate photograph taken in the field shows tents where Union prisoners of war were housed on Belle Isle, an open-air prison located on an island in the James River across from Richmond. The photographer, Charles R. Rees, took the image from a high point on the island; in the distance, at center left, is the Capitol.


Somerville, Massachusetts
July 20th 1864

To Hon. E. M. Stanton, Secretary of War

I enlisted in the military service of the United States in Co. E, 39th Regt. Massachusetts Volunteers in August 1862 and served to the best of my ability without punishment, reprimand, or reproof until October 11th 1863 when with ten others of our regiment I was taken prisoner by the rebels. I was paroled and arrived at Annapolis, Maryland, from Richmond, Va., on the 24th of March last, having been in prison at the latter place five months. The names of our party who were captured are:

Sergt. Richard J. Hyde, Co. E
Corp. George W. Bean, Co. E
Private Henry Howe, Co. E
Private Washington Lorett, Co. E
Private Joseph W. Whitmore, Co. E
Private Francis J. Oliver, Co. E
Private Judson W. Oliver, Co. E
Private Samuel M. Perry, Co. D
Private J. T. Churchill, Co. G
Private Jno. A. Mead, Co. K
Private F. Norton

The circumstances of our arrest are as follows. With the exception of Mead and Churchill, we had all been out on picket duty near the Rapidan River, Va., and on the evening of the 10th, after dar, we were ordered by Capt. Brigham who was in command of our post, to fall back to the reserve picket, a distance of a mile or more. We marched in good order as directed by Capt. Brigham. When we arrived at the “reserve,” there was considerable noise and confusion. The night was very dark and what officer was there in command, I do not and never did know. There was a general talk among the men (but I heard no order) that we were to “fall back to our regiment camp, get rations, pick up our knapsacks, and such things as we had left there, and follow the regiment which had marched in the direction of Pony Mountain the afternoon before. The whole picket force numbering as I understood one hundred and fifty men did fall back to the camp—a distance of two or three miles—in much disorder. There was much noise and no attempt at military order to my knowledge.

When our squad under Sergt. Hyde arrived at the camp, there was great disorder and confusion. It was about midnight and extremely dark. Some were leaving in squads and others arriving, some trying to find their knapsacks, &c., and many hurrying off without them. So far as I know, there was no attempt to enforce order or discipline by any officer in command. I heard no order whatever from any such officer after the order from Capt. Brigham to “fall back to the reserve.”

Sergt. Hyde appeared annoyed at the want of order and objected to our squad’s recklessly hurrying off as many did, without “picking up our luggage, getting our rations, and starting fairly.” Sufficient time was taken for this purpose and when by aid of lights our luggage had all been selected from the mixed mass, our rations taken, and the men refreshed with coffee, Sergt. Hyde ordered us to march, the hallooing of those who had already gone, being still within our hearing through the woods. Privates J. T. Churchill and John A. Mead were still at the camp with us, but had not been on picket duty. Mead had been left by the regiment in charge of the rations as he said, and Church had been left behind with a written permit to “follow the regiment as best he could, as he was sick.”

I had been sick all the day before and had on that account been excused from duty on that night by Capt. Brigham who had given me medicine when I turned in early in the evening. This medicine affected me disagreeably and I was quite sick and exhausted when we arrived at the camp. I had wrapped myself in my blanket and laid down on arriving there and one of my comrades searched out my luggage for me.

When Sergt. Hyde ordered us to march, I at once told him he would have to leave me as it was impossible for me to go. I was too sick and Church said the same. He appeared perplexed and disappointed at this, and he and others spoke of carrying us along, but on account of the strange route through the woods, this was decided to be impossible in the darkness of the night. Sergt. Hyde then inquired of myself and Churchill if we felt that we would be able to go on after sleeping and resting till morning, and upon our answering in the affirmative, he said, “then we will not leave you but we will all lie down till morning, and then take you along somehow.” We did all stop till morning ad after the rest and refreshment, started off together. But after traveling several hours and getting near to the regiment, we were captured by the rebel cavalry who took us to Culpeper and from there to Richmond.

While we were at Culpeper, Private Charles A. Spaulding of Co. G of our regiment was brought there a prisoner and was taken to Richmond with us, but where or under what circumstances he was taken, I do not know. He was not on picket duty to my knowledge and he was not of our party till he was brought into Culpeper the day after we were captured.

Our privations and sufferings in Richmond (from which Private Henry Howe died in December) were probably as extreme as those of an of our Union prisoners. I was sick and considered beyond the hope of recovery for some weeks in February and early in March and on getting out of the hospital but a short time before being paroled, I learned that the rest of my comrades of the 39th Regiment except Mead—who was also paroled—had been sent to Columbus, Georgia. Since I was paroled, I have been in the hospital at Annapolis and Annapolis Junction, Maryland, and Mason Hospital [in] Boston, and a furlough and “Pass” till the present time. Myself and unfortunate comrades are branded on the return rolls or “reports” of the regiment as “Deserters” and this as I am informed for the reason that we did not leave the regimental camp and follow the regiment more promptly.

I have nothing to add to what I have already said in regard to those circumstances and the want of military order and command except to declare that insubordination or wrong doing was wholly and entirely foreign from the intent and purpose of anyone of us. From what we heard of the requirement of the picket force (in absence of any actual order), we were fully impressed with the belief that to collect and carry along our knapsacks and spare luggage was but to do our duty and that to recklessly hurry off without taking this property was to violate our duty. This was Sergt. Hyde’s honest feeling in the matter and he so avowed in presence of some who left their knapsacks behind, and I most solemnly declare that I believe he would have started with his squad and followed the regiment that night, after having collected the luggage as before described, but for the impossibility of taking Churchill and myself along with them. I feel that my sickness and that of Churchill was really the cause and the only cause of the others remaining till morning, and that while it was the feeling of humanity which induced Sergt. Hyde to remain, neither that nor any other impulse or motive would have induced him to violate any known military order.

Our hardships, privations, and sickness in Belle Isle prison, grievous as they were, were mild compared with the sufferings of myself and comrades in the feeling that we are branded as the worst of criminals and our dependent families thereby deprived of all legal aid and support. I refer with confidence to my company officers, and to the entire regiment for the previous good conduct of our squad and our standing as dutiful, trustworthy soldiers, and I respectfully pray that we may be relieved from this reproach and disability, and restored to our former standing and position in the regiment, so far as this charge is concerned.

—Judon W. Oliver

In the presence of Charles S. Lincoln [Justice of the Peace, Somerville, Mass.]

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