Thursday, April 25, 2013

Excerpt: The Return of Catesby, by Bob O'Connor

Today we have an excerpt from The Return of Catesby, by Bob O'Connor, currently on tour with Walker Author Tours. Enjoy, and pick up your copy of the book at

August 26, 1865

I hobbled to the hearing room at a quarter after nine so that I made sure I would be on time. Each time I had to walk very far it reminded me how easy a short walk had been before the incident in Keedysville, Maryland in June of 1862. That was when Mr. Newberry, who owned me as his slave, decided to ram a flaming hot iron bar into my thigh to teach me a lesson. My right leg has been of no use to me since then. I drag it behind me and do the best I can. Thank God for my crutch.

            When Mr. Thompson, the steno, arrived he explained that he had a series of questions he would ask me from a form. I was to answer each one slowly and loudly as he would be writing each word for transcription later. He said he was not able to expand on the questions or comment if I didn’t understand what he was asking.

“Are you ready, Mr. Catesby?” he asked.

            “Yes sir.”

            “Question 1 – Please state your name, rank and regiment.”

            “My name is Catesby. I was the blacksmith for the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry.”

            “I am sorry sir. You must give your full name, first and last for the record. Will you please state your name again?”

“Catesby is my full name. I do not have a last name. I am just plain Catesby.”

            “Question 2 – Please state the dates that you were a Union prisoner at the Andersonville Prison in Georgia.”

            “I entered the prison around February 25, 1864 and was transferred out on September 11, 1864.”

            “Question 3 – During your time in the prison, did you know a man named Captain Henry Wirz?”

            “Yes. He was the commandant of the Andersonville Prison during my stay there.”

            “Question 4 – At any time during your time in the prison, did you ever, even once, see Captain Wirz kill one of the prisoners of war?”

            “No, I did not.”

            “That is all, sir. I am sure Major General Wallace will inform you back at the Willard Hotel when or if he wants you to testify.”

            “That’s all you want to know?” I asked in disgust.

            Mr. Thompson had already picked up his pad and was walking out of the room. He looked back at me and said, “Thank you, sir.”

            That was it. I hobbled back to the hotel. Mr. Quinn was waiting. I just shook my head.

            “What’s the matter, Catesby?” he asked.

            “It was a sham. All they wanted to know was did I think Captain Wirz was guilty. When he found out I didn’t think he was, the interview ended. I would bet the blacksmith shop that I will not be called to testify.”

            We sat silently in the lobby for quite a long time. The messenger returned with a note from Major General Wallace. It was brief. I read it out loud.

            “Mr. Catesby. Thank you for your deposition. With 160 witnesses set to testify, I do not feel that you have anything to add to the testimony already lined up.  Sincerely, Major General Lew Wallace”

“Do you mind if we sit in on the trial anyway, since we are here?” Mr. Quinn asked.

            “I would not want to go back home without watching at least a part of it. Let’s go over there right now.”

            We walked to the courtroom. Although the room was quite full, the doorman pointed to two seats in the next to the last row. We quickly found the seats and sat down.

            At the end of the large room was the table where the members of the Military Commission were sitting. I could see some of the name cards that were turned in my direction. Major General Lew Wallace – Major General Lorenzo Thomas – Brigadier General E. L. Bragg. The other names I could not see from where I was sitting. But it was obvious that these were the “brass” of the U.S. Army. All looked overfed. Obviously they had never been in prison.

            Captain Wirz lay on a make-shift bed near the front of the room. I was not sure he was even awake.

            The man testifying was not familiar to me, but he was certainly skinny and sickly as most of the men had been in the prison. He was telling of the conditions. He spoke of irregular rations, sickness of his men, lack of medicine, and the like. He said men were dying every single day. He told of his men not even being able to stand in line for rations because they were so weak.

            The man was testifying about the prison. Any of us could have told the same story. He did not mention Captain Wirz killing anyone.

            The next witness identified himself as Sergeant Boston Corbett, who said he arrived at the prison in July, 1864. He was quite sunburned, possibly from his prison stay. Sgt. Corbett’s testimony was about the deadline, the unclean water, infestation of lice and the filth that was everywhere. Again, any prisoner could have said that. He too said nothing about the killing of prisoners by the commandant.

            A man who said his name was L.D. Brown was next up. He said in May, 1864, Captain Wirz ordered a man with one leg shot. Brown claimed Captain Wirz shouted, “Shoot the one-legged Yankee devil.” A guard shot the prisoner in the head. He died within a few minutes. When the defense asked Brown the one-legged man’s name, Brown said he did not know.

            There were additional arguments between the prosecution and the defense. Court was adjourned early in the afternoon as Captain Wirz had become ill. On our way out, I heard “Catesby. Is that you?”

I turned to see the familiar face of Father Peter Whalen, the priest from the prison. We greeted each other warmly. I introduced him to Mr. Quinn who acknowledged that I had talked of the pastor’s great work in bringing the word of God to a place as close to Hell as any place on earth.

“Will you be testifying?” I asked. 

“I originally thought so, but as the days go by, I am certain that they don’t want to hear from me. They seem to have a guilty agenda. My testimony would not support that,” Father Whalen explained.

“I have the same thought. They didn’t want to hear from me either.”

Father Whalen said he had returned home after Andersonville closed and started a small church. He said it was a Catholic Church but it was open to all denominations. His church was doing quite well.

It didn’t surprise me that even as a Catholic priest, anyone could come to his church. In the prison, Father Whalen hadn’t cared much what religion you practiced or even if you had any religion at all. He had offered to fill a need, bringing God into a place where there hadn’t been much hope for anyone.

I thanked Father Whalen. We parted with a firm handshake.  It had been good to see someone who had done great work for so many at the prison.

Mr. Quinn and I left the courtroom and walked slowly back to the Willard Hotel.

“What did you think?” I asked.

“Seemed to me like the military commission was trying to pin the lack of food, water and medical supplies on Captain Wirz. That would justify a guilty verdict. You had told me you didn’t think the conditions at the prison were his fault.”

“Where do I know that Corbett fellow from?” I asked. “I didn’t know all 34,000 prisoners, but he sure looked familiar.”

“Isn’t he the same Boston Corbett who killed John Wilkes Booth?” Mr. Quinn asked.

“That’s it. I saw a drawing of him in the newspaper. He sure gets around.”

We stayed that night again at the Willard Hotel. We planned to return to Gettysburg the following morning.

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