Far From Home: Excerpts
The Diary of Lt. William H. Peel,
Billy Peel wrote the entire diary while in prison, although the earliest entries were probably copied from a previous diary in the form of loose sheets. As the transcriber I made no changes to Peel's text. As an historian, however, I felt that annotation and commentary were necessary additions to help the reader to understand the people to whom Peel alludes and to correct information that Peel had wrongly recorded. Therefore the book has footnotes to cover identification of the people, as well as articles and appendices placed where appropriate. Below are samples of Peel's text and one article by the author about the history behind the entry.
July 3rd,, (culmination of the Pickett-Pettigrew-Trimble Charge)
Four brave men had already fallen under the colors of our Reg't, + now the fifth bore them aloft, + rushed boldly forward, to embrace, if need be, the fate of the other four. The flag staff was now cut in - two midway the flag, but without one moment's pause, the never-flinching little Irishman (Geo. Kidd), his flag now dangling in graceless confusion, from one corner, still pushed fearlessly upon the stone fence. Thirteen of our Reg't had concentrated upon the colors, as if to constitute ourselves its guard. We were some yards in advance of the line, + now found ourselves within about thirty yards of the stone fence.
Immediately before us was a small framed house – about twenty feet square – the farther end of which joined the fence springing forward, I've secured its shelter, gaining at the same time, a position within seventy-five feet of the Yankees behind the fence. The boys betook themselves to the work before them in good earnest.
A number of shots were fired, which must have proven very fatal, as the distance was so small. Thinking the line rather a long time coming up, I looked to the read. The state of my feelings may be imagined, but not described, upon seeing the line broken, + flying in full disorder, at the distance of about one hundred + fifty yards from us.
What was to be done. A momentary consultation decided. Lt. R. A. McDowell + I were the only officers with the party. I being the senior, the responsibility, if indeed there were any, devolved upon me. There were but two alternatives: to surrender, or become the "flying target" of a thousand muskets. We preferred the former, + in a moment more a white flag floated from behind the corner, around which the moment before our accurately aimed muskets had belched their deadly contents into the ranks of the enemy. An old serg't came out + took charge of us, + ordered us through the gate that was open on the left of the house. As passed through, all unarmed, of course, a Yankee soldier brought down his musket + with its muzzle right at the breast of one of our party was on the point of firing. I scringed for the safety of my brave comrades; + shuddered at the thought of seeing him thus butchered, but just at this critical juncture, our serg't spring forward, knocked up the musket + with a word of reproach, asked the soldier if he did not see that these men had surrendered. On passing the line, we were surrounded by a crowd of soldiers, all of whom were anxious to take charge of us. (It is a mighty good thing to get to take prisoners to the rear, especially when the front is as well heated up as that at Gettysburg was.)
August 17th,, – "Small gate," sang out the sentinel on the parapet, as an Officer in the full dress uniform of a Federal Major approached the place of ingress + egress at the South end of the prison yard, thus designated. A clanking of iron honks bare the immediate response, the gate swung open.
The Major approached the gate + was about peering out, when the sentinel on duty there, remarked: "We didn't let you in here, sir." ["]Well I am not quite prepared to contradict you on that point. Perhaps you did not, but somebody did + I suppose it will fall to your lot to let me out." The Corporal had come up, in the meantime + the Major continued, "I suppose you find great caution necessary to keep these fellows in. I am Major Durham, of the ------ Ohio N.G." (National Guard) "I supose Major" said the corp. "you will have no objection to going to Col. Hill's quarters." "None whatever," was the answer + they started off together, the Major + the Corp. On reaching the Col's quarters, the Major walked in, introduced himself + stated why he had come. "Ah, yes – I see," said the Col. "Well, my dear Major, you must pardon this little inconvenience we have put you to. But you see, we have all to keep wide awake. I find these Rebels an intelligent set of fellows. And they are perfectly acquainted with every thing in any wise appertaining to the guard, the Island + the surrounding country, + they take advantage of the slightest chance of escape. They have full suits of our uniform, in there. Where they get them I can't tell. When I search for them there is nothing of the kind to be found, + where they go to is a mystery to me." "I thought, Col. they seemed to be pretty well satisfied in there. They were at all sorts of employment." "Yes, they seem to enjoy themselves, but they must be watched, if they are to be kept here." "O yes, I quite endorce your vigilence + hope you won't think any more about having put me to any inconvenience, but there's the bell. The boat will leave me if I don't hurry down."
"No danger, sir. Keep your seat. The Cap't of the boat always reports to me before it leaves. Here he comes now. But, I see the boat has gone. Capt why is it that you have allowed that boat to leave without seeing me?" Said the Col. sharply. "Here is Maj. Durham, who wanted to cross on this trip, + has been left because I assured him there was no danger."
The Capt., ignoring the Col's interogaton, turned upon Major D. + said, "That is not the Major Durham of my acquaintance." "I imagine," said Col. H, "there is but one Major Durham of that Reg't." "This is not Major Durham of that Reg't." answered the C.
The Major was caught, by this indirect accident + had to own up. Yes, he was a Reb + need not deny it any longer. "Ha, ha, ha –" roard Col. H with both hands pressed to his sides. "Damn me if I don't expect I'll wake up some morning + find these Rebels standing guard all over the Island. Take this Major back to his quarters."
September 2d,, – There was a Confederate soldier hanged on the Island at 1 oclock to-day. There are some Officers here who were well-acquainted with him. They say he was a very nice man + belonged to quite a respectable family. He enlisted in our army three years ago. After two years service, he rec'd a furlough to go home to Kentucky. During his absence from home, it seems that two Union men had murdered an uncle of his. After his return these two men happened to pass near his hiding place (for he had to keep himself pretty close, on account of the Unionists). He could not have been seen by them, had he remained quiet, but the sight of his Uncles murderers fired him with a spirit of revenge, +, knowing they would attempt to arrest him, he revealed himself to them. He did try to arrest them, + in the fight that ensued, he killed them both. On his way back to his command he was captured by a party of Yankees, + after an imprisonment of nearly a year, was sent, a few days since to the Island. He was not told his doom until after his arrival here.
He was charged with, + convicted of murder. His cousin, who is a prisoner here, was obliged to go out to see him this morning. He proposed himself ready to die, but said the charge of murder was false. He killed the men – enemies to his country, but in fair fight + in self defense.
Billy was undoubtedly an honest young man, but too trusting in the goodness of human nature. In the case of Pvt. John J. Nickell, Billy proved himself a poor judge of a fellow Confederate’s character.
Nickell, a resident of Morgan County, Kentucky, was born in 1844. With the conflict Kentucky’s people were split between north and south, but the state remained within the Union. Those who served the Confederacy within the state were deemed outlaws and renegades.
In early February 1863, John J. and two others (Lewis Henry, Jr. and John Calvin) under orders from Capt. John T. Williams were sent to arrest Logan Wilson, a Union sympathizer. When they returned without the prisoner, Nickell explained that Wilson had been shot trying to escape. He neglected to mention that Wilson had pneumonia and was too ill to rise from bed.
On the evening of Feb 7, Nickell arrived at the farm house of his second cousin, John DeSha Nickell at Licking River, Kentucky. With Pvt. Nickell were four fellow Confederate renegades. Priscilla Nickell recognized her husband’s cousin and invited him in. Her husband, a known Union sympathizer, was busy making shoes for his son. No sooner was Pvt. Nickell inside than he announced that the men were there to arrest DeSha, to take him to Bloomington to be tried before a Confederate court martial. Pvt. Nickell then threatened to show his cousin him “how scalp taking was done” – in his own home with his wife and children watching,
DeSha Nickell was marched into the icy night by the intruders. Once outside there were three shots. His wife and children searched for him by lantern, but did not find his body until daylight revealed the murdered man lying in the briars about 300 yards from the house. Frozen to the ground, the body had to be chopped free before it could be prepared for burial.
John J. Nickell was arrested by Federal authorities and tried by a Union military court in Columbus, Ohio in 1864 for “violations of the Law of War,” for the murders of Logan Wilson and Desha Nickell. Among the witnesses was Preston Pettit, a Kentucky man shot when he refused to let Nickell’s guerrillas “requisition” his horses. Left lame and walking with a cane, Pettit remained pro-Union.
Because he served the Confederacy from within a Union state, Nickell could not use his Confederate status as a defense nor claim any of the rights of a prisoner of war. He was convicted in May 1864, sentenced to death and transferred to Johnson’s Island, where he was hanged on September 2. He was 20 years old. His gravestone gives his occupation as a “surgeon,” a lingering mystery to researchers of the case, since no evidence of medical training or skill has been reported.
January 16th,, – Lieu't. Charles Pierce, of New Orleans, who was one of the party that attempted to break out about a month ago, has made several attempts, since, to get out by strategy. The Yanks came in, the other night + caught him, at the head of a party, in a tunnel.
The Federal Officer told him it was useless to attempt to get out by that meanes, as they knew of his designs within half an hour after he began his work. He satisfied Pierce of the truth of his statement, too, by telling the time he had commenced to dig.
They are kept perfected posted on all these points + it seems impossible for us to catch their spies.
Pierce's master stroke was reserved for last-night. Late in the evening, he went up + told a sentinel on the parapet that a "rush" from Block 8 (his own Block) was contemplated at 8 O'clock. Of course A Officer, with a squad of men, came in a short time before that hour to take out their ladders, +c. Finding no particular demonstration they concluded the alarm was false, + started out of the yard. Just before reaching the gate, the Officer noticed that one of his men had no cartridge box. Asking where it was, he was answered that it had been forgotten in the hurry of preparation. The Officer asked him if it was not a flagrant violation of orders, to come into the yard without one. The man answered it was, but declared he had entirely forgotten it. These remarks naturally directed the attention of the party to the offender. "That's a hell of grin you've got anyhow," said the man next to him.
Upon taking hold of it the Officer found the gun a spurious one indeed. Pierce's genius had been at work. He had contrived to get, by some means, a Yankee uniform + had manufactured himself a musket. The stock was of wood + the barrel, of tin. Thus armed + equipped, he had fallen in with the squad, +, if he had had a cartridge box would, in all probablity have made his escape.
Pierce was taken to Col. Hill, who laughed very heartily when the case was laid before him. He complimented Pierce on his ingenuity + shrewdness, + declared he would send the musket to Mr. Barnum, for exhibition in his Museum.
In entries spanning more than a year, Peel reveals both the horrors and the humanity of the hell that surrounds him. As an artistic young man trying to make sense of a world gone mad, Peel describes his despair amidst touches of wit. Memoirs of generals and reports of officers from the battlefield tell the story as they wanted it told, as they wished their roles to be remembered. Peel tells his story with no anticipation of importance, then or now, thus giving voice to the common man's experience.