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Dee Burris Blakley ([personal profile] dee_burris) wrote2011-01-30 09:15

Military Monday: James Alexander Meek

Because of my southern roots, nearly all of my male ancestors in the 19th century fought for the Confederate States of America in the Civil War.

James Alexander Meek was one of them. He dutifully signed up in his daddy's unit, the 42 Mississippi Infantry, Co. I, on 28 Apr 1862 in his hometown of Sardis, Panola County, MS. His father, Jefferson J Meek, was the Captain of the 42 Miss. Infantry until his resignation on 5 Aug 1863.

According to the letter of resignation, Jefferson J Meek considered the Civil War "our holy cause."

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Nonetheless, he resigned.

I think it may have been because he realized just how much that "holy cause" was costing him...


Capt. Meek thought James was dead.

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My son in law and my two sons have perished in our holy cause and my now aged and infirm wife has been left with no male members of the family to provide and care for her...

He was right about his son-in-law, William Waldron, who died on 3 Jul 1863. Capt. Meek's son, Robert, died of smallpox a month earlier in a POW camp in Alton, IL.

And when he heard of James' wounding and capture during the Battle of Gettysburg on 8 Jul 1863, he probably had every reason to believe that he was dead, too.

James may have wished he was dead.


James was sent to the POW camp at Fort Delaware, on Pea Patch Island. Most Confederate soldiers captured during the Battle of Gettysburg were imprisoned there. By August 1863, there were 11,000 prisoners there. By the end of the war, that number had swelled to 33,000. About 2,400 prisoners died at Fort Delaware.

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Photo from Library of Congress


Family lore has always contained rumors that James was required to catch and eat rats to survive during his imprisonment. I wondered about that until I read excerpts of Capt. John S Swann's imprisonment at Fort Delaware. (See excerpts of the document, here.)

...On the raised plank walkway seperating (sic) the two prisons the sargeant (sic) or some other would often appear and call out, "Money or boxes." He would then, when the prisoners came around, give out the names listed and either give them a memorandum of what he had for them, or take them through the gateway etc. These calls were termed "Money calls or box calls" as the case might be. In the banks of the ditches and under the plank walkway were rat holes and numbers of rats. The sargeant (sic) or some one would come around often with a squad of men with force pumps and hose and rat tarriers, sticks etc. The hose would be put in the rat holes, the force pump applied and the rats would run out and be killed. Numbers were sometimes caught in this way. When money or boxes were to be delivered you could hear all over the prison yard "Money call or box call" (I will say comparatively few ever heard this call for themselves.) Not long after my arrival I heard a cry "Rat call! Rat call!" I went out to see what this meant. A number of prisoners were moving and some running up near the partition, over which a sargeant (sic) was standing and presently he began throwing rats down. The prisoners scrambled for the rats like school boys for apples, none but some of the most needy prisoners, and the needy were the large majority, would scramble for these rats. Of course but few were lucky enough to get a rat. The rats were cleaned, put in salt water a while and fried. Their flesh was tender and not unpleasant to the taste.

When you are hungry, you think about food all the time, as illustrated by Capt. Swann's memory:

...On the next morning I found myself very hungry. I was up early and walked around the prison grounds observing and hearing what I could. Presently a bell or something I forget what, gave the breakfast signal. We formed in line and marched to the mess hall, in which were several long rows of plank tables with pieces of bread and meat arranged along the sides at intervales (sic) of some two feet. When we were in place each prisoner took one ration. The bread was made of rye and wheat flour, well cooked, but the piece very small, about half enough for a well man. The meat a small chunk of beef. Occasionally all sinew or mostly bone. It was cut up very carelessly and very small, not half a ration. Some days the bread was substituted with crackers, and these were hard days on us. We were permitted to take these rations to our bunks. I ate mine but remained very hungry. When dinner came the same thing was repeated, except there was occasionally a tin cup of what was called corn soup very tasteless and insipid, with little or no grease.

By next day I was ravenously hungry and so continued as did all who had no money or tobacco, untill (sic) I got the means to buy from the sutler. No one can immagine (sic) the effect of continuous hunger who has not experienced it, judging of others by its effects on me, and when it continues with no hopes of relief its effects are very demoralizing and the man is ready for almost anything. He thinks about eating all day and all sorts of devices to get food come into his mind. All night his dreams are most singular and sometimes fascinating about food and feasting. Every thing he has ever eaten, dinner parties, suppers, girls bearing flowers and fruit, his boyhood scenes at hog killings such as frying liver etc. and whatever food he has ever seen or eaten comes vividly before his disturbed senses, and he sometimes awakens dazed and half conscious that it was but a dream.



At the war's end, many Confederate POWs at Fort Delaware refused to believe the CSA had lost the war and that all who were willing to sign an Oath of Allegiance to the United States of America would be restored to full citizenship. From Swann's text:

...Some did not believe we were conquered. They believed, or rather persuaded themselves to believe, that the bulk of the army had gone off in squads and was not captured, and would re-form somewhere. That Johnston would soon be in the field with an army. That our soldiers would come to it in thousands, and began to take courage. But most of us gave up the Cause as lost. I did not at any time talk to any one that came into the prison grounds. But some did. Each Division had a chief who occasionally went outside, as we termed it, for one or another purpose. They noted a very different bearing towards them. A different everything all around them: recognition of citizenship, as it were. This they reported to us. The sentinels were now familiar. Seemed as if they thought the war was over; talked to us a little, and kindly. Their very looks were kindly. We saw manifestations of kindness everywhere. Feelings of forgiveness were rapidly growing. The sutler was ready to take orders for anything we wanted and send for them, clothing, shoes etc. It was rumored that all willing to take the oath of allegiance would be released, provided with necessary things, and sent home, by the Government. That such was the purpose of Mr. Lincoln, and General Grant we did not doubt. We thought this was dictated by a generous kindness and designed to save us from humiliation and mortification, by making us citizens at once if we wished to become so; and that the Federal Government thought the war was over. We did not think such an offer would be made unless Grant and Lincoln thought the war over. It would have been an insult, and we knew these men were wholly incapable of insulting us in prison. These things had a powerful effect on us. We felt that the generosity of Grant and Lincoln had silenced Stanton, Johnson, Stevenson and such, and this was true, beyond doubt. There are some things better learned from general appearances than from words. Words may deceive, but there is something eloquent, and unmistakable in the language of the countenance. Perhaps the language of the angels; and this was all around us.


James Alexander Meek signed the Oath of Allegiance, and was released from Fort Delaware on 11 Jun 1865 as documented in his Civil War service record (accessed at Footnote on 17 Jan 2011).

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He returned home to Mississippi, and to his wife and son. He and Mary divorced in 1871, following the birth of two daughters, and death of one.

James died on 28 Nov 19181917*, and was buried beside his second wife, Mary Ann Linder, in Oxford Memorial Cemetery in Oxford, Lafayette Co., MS.

ETA: On 31 Oct 2012, I received a copy of James' death certificate in the mail from the State of Mississippi. It lists his date of death as 28 Nov 1917, date of burial as 29 Nov 1917, and says that he died of "debility from old age," secondary to a cold.

(Anonymous) 2011-04-14 23:19 (UTC)(link)
Hmm. leave it me to forget to sign my name!

Bill West

[identity profile] dee-burris.livejournal.com 2011-04-15 00:52 (UTC)(link)
Thanks, Bill.

It is fascinating to me to see the varying views held by my ancestors and other kin about this bloodiest of all American wars.