Book Review: Thirteen Months in Dixie, or, The Adventures of a Federal Prisoner in Texas by W.F. Oscar Federhen

 

 

One has possibly heard of the Confederate prisoner-of-war camps at places like Andersonville in Georgia or possibly the prison camp in Salisbury, North Carolina. Also famous was the complex that housed Union officers as prisoners in Richmond, Virginia at Libby prison. Less famous was the one located outside the town of Tyler, Texas. Named Camp Ford after Colonel John Salmon Ford, a Texas Ranger, and the Superintendent of Conscripts for the state of Texas, and this prisoner-of-war camp became the largest west of the Mississippi River. Captured Federal soldiers began arriving in August 1863.

Enlisting on March 25, 1864, in Boston, Massachusetts, W.F. Oscar Federhen joined the 13th Massachusetts Independent Battery. The new serviceman then awaited transport to New Orleans and onto Port Hudson where the battery he was joining was supposedly stationed. He arrived on April 25th and three days later was on another boat headed toward Alexandria, Louisiana to report to his unit (pg. 2-3).

Five days later, on May 3, the steamer ran into Confederate artillery stationed along the bank of the Red River and an artillery round perforated the boiler of the steamer Federhen was on. Confederate soldiers boarded after approximately a half-hour of skirmishing with the infantrymen on the boat and induced the surrender of the blue-clad artilleryman as well. (pgs. 7-9). Federhen, all of 39 days of service in the Federal army, was now a prisoner of war.

Federhen would recount what happened next in a publication titled Thirteen Months in Dixie, or, the Adventures of a Federal Prisoner in Texas. Stored away for decades and kept as a prized family heirloom, the greater historical world and Civil War enthusiasts can now enjoy, thanks to publisher Savas Beatie LLC. and editors of the manuscript, Jeaninne Surette Honstein and Steve A. Knowlton. Although Honstein claimed she is not “a seasoned Civil War researcher” she found the “story almost fantastical” and did all Civil War enthusiasts a huge favor by seeking publication of the manuscript (pgs. IX-X).

The amazing odyssey of Federhen continued after his initial capture with “115 miles in five days, sore and sick, and half crazy with hunger as we were” to confinement at Camp Ford (pg.12). From that initial trek, Federhen eventually found a way to escape, was captured again and imprisoned in Gainesville, Texas—in “solitary confinement…five feet underground and only a little filthy straw to make a bed of”—and then evicting another successful escape! (pg. 78).

If this is starting to read more like a fictional adventure novel one would not be blamed. However, Federhen’s account is factual, and the saga continues with an incredible end journey form that time imprisoned in Gainesville, including being captured and imprisoned a third time in Bonham, Texas where his “right ankle began to show signs of scurvy where the iron had torn the flesh off…” (pg. 131)

After his amazing adventure brought him to Shreveport, Louisiana he found a way to secret himself onto a steamboat, which is a story you will have to read yourself to believe. Steamboat was plying down river, in part to deliver ex-Confederate soldiers to attain their paroles. As he finally neared friendly lines and heard how close troops of the United States were, “I thought this was the best news I have ever heard. I went and sat on the bow of the boat so that I might be one of the first to see the Yankees” (pg. 150).

He faced one more arrest, however, this time after returning to Federal lines, as he had started to head to his unit’s rendezvous near New Orleans without an authorized pass. When he did arrive, Col. O.F. Nims, a friend of Federhen’s was summoned and “he was much surprised, for he supposed I was dead” (pg. 158). Federhen was soon released from custody. By end of July 1865 Federhen was back in Boston and discharged from the Federal army with an adventure story of service to rival any former prisoner-of-war in either army. Much is not known about his post-war life and the former soldier passed away on October 2, 1933 at the age of 88 in Chelsea, Massachusetts (pgs. 163-164).

Thanks to Savas Beatie and the two editors, much is now known about Federhen and his travails in the Trans-Mississippi. Sit back and enjoy a non-fiction adventure tale!

 

Thirteen Months in Dixie, or, The Adventures of a Federal Prisoner in Texas

W. F. Oscar Federhen, edited by Jeaninne Surette Honstein & Steven A. Knowlton 

Savas Beatie, LLC., 2022, $29.95

 

 



4 Responses to Book Review: Thirteen Months in Dixie, or, The Adventures of a Federal Prisoner in Texas by W.F. Oscar Federhen

  1. we know very little about my great grandfather John McDowell, from Steubenville, Ohio (as am I) except this:
    He was captured early in the war and was marched all the way to Texas by the Confederates. According to the story, the Texans totally ran out of food for the prisoners and so let them go. On foot, John somehow hiked all the way back to Ohio and freedom.
    Anyone have ideas of how I might track down more of this story?

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