His Arrest by a Vigilance Committee and incarceration in a Memphis Prison – Eighty five Union Men Whipped and have their heads shaved-the Cruelties of Siberia Exceeded-A Northern Woman Brutally beaten with a Knout [sic] –Escape to Cairo
So many discrepancies have found their was into the statements published by me respecting my arrest, imprisonment and escaped, in and from the City of Memphis, Tennessee, that I must request the use of your columns to correct the, and reconcile what now see, and justly, conflicting statements.
I think no one will question the assertion, that in Memphis there exists a feeling of greater hostility to the North than in any other portion of the South; that the public sentiment of that people countenance and approve more flagrant outrages upon the persons and property of those known or supposed to have Union proclivities, that would be tolerated anywhere else. I presume this to be the fact, because there is scarcely an account of some indignity towards those who are indisposed to blacken their souls with treason, and subject themselves to the just censure of true men everywhere.
To those who are familiar with the state of affairs in that vicinity for the past five months, this has been known; and it has been accounted for solely upon the ground that in no city [in the] Southis there a larger proportion of Northern men, and of a class, too, who have no regard for the principles which should actuate all Americans in this crisis. Men who have learned, in the midst of starving, to forget all the principles which they were so well calculated to instill, and have become more Southern than the Southerner, and are now seeking, with the zeal of apostates, to prove themselves worthy [of] the of those among whom their lots have been cast; trampling under foot, in their eagerness to accomplish this end, all the claims of a common humanity, and rendering themselves amenable to the just vengeance of every man who loves his country, or abhors cruelty and oppression.
In the statement I am about to give, I shall speak only of "that which I have seen," and in no case draw upon my fancy.
I am a Southern man myself, by birth, education and feeling all my prejudices have been with the South, and I would not now say one work to cast odium upon a people whom I love, and for whom I would willingly sacrifice my own life, were it necessary, in defence of their rights, or in the maintenance of any principle.But when no wrong has been inflicted, no injury sustained, and no principle is contended for on their part, I cannot, and will not, prove my devotion to the South by avowing myself a traitor the country, for the sole purpose of aiding in the aggrandizement of those who have long since proven themselves unworthy [of] the confidence not only of the South, but of honest men everywhere. Men who, were it necessary to accomplish their own ambitious ends, would lay their hands upon the pillars of the temple of liberty and pull them too the earth, though in the doing so they buried every hope of freedom throughout the world. Men politically and morally lost to all the principles of honor, and actuated solely by the selfish desire to elevate themselves event to ignoble positions, if they promise power and wealth.
It was my misfortune to view the present revolution in this light; and hence I became at once obnoxious to the goof people of Memphis, who are unable to understand how it is possible for any one to regard it otherwise than as a war for freedom and the rights of man.
Being thus blinded, I had the temerity to address a communication to the New York Tribune, in March last, commenting somewhat severely upon the conduct of the Memphisians in according an honorable reception a band of sturdy souls fro Mississippi, on their way to the seat of war in Florida. In that latter some surprise was expressed, and a body of men marching under a flag hostile to their own, with the avowed purpose of joining an army soon, as was expected, to engage ours in deadly conflict, should receive such cordial welcome, and bear away with them such unmistakable manifestations of friendship.
The character of Tennesseans had always been that of honorable men, and it could but excite surprise that, while receiving all the benefits and blessing resulting from the Union, they should permit those avowedly their enemies to march unmolested through their streets, and carry with them the impr5ession that Memphis was already as unanimous as Mississippi.
This was regarded as a crime far too heinous to go unpunished; and accordingly, when the contents of that letter became know to the people of that righteous city there was an universal demand for the author-couched, however, in such terms and promising him such evidences of their regard ad induced him-modest man as the was-to keep them ignorant as to his identity thus avoiding the hospitalities and honors which have been thrust upon him. Let no one imagine, however, that I was safe, unless some proof was brought forward and the authorship of the letter clearly established. Noting could be more erroneous than such an ideal Suspicion only as requisite, and this could easily be directed against me by any one who cherishes any ill will towards me.
This was soon apparent, and a few days after the letter had been copied from the Tribune into the Avalance, I had the honor of being visited by a select number of the immortal "Vigilance Committee," who respectfully requested to examine my effects.Nothing could have been more respectful than their demeanor; indeed, it was entirely too much so, and excited itself some apprehension and gave me a tickling sensation in the region of the thorax. After a thorough examination had been made, and innumerable questions asked, tending to fix the authorship of that particular letter upon me, all of which were in vain, I was politely informed that they "believed me to be a ____ Abolitionist, and intended to settle my case in the morning.
The precise meaning of this was readily understood, and I was locked up, that evening, under the firm conviction that it was my last night on earth. Excitement ran high, and the general demand was for the execution of an Abolitionist, or one supposed to be tinctured with this heresy. And, from what I knew and had seen of the disposition made of such, I was justified in regarding my position as exceedingly critical.
In the morning, however, I was brought before the Vigilance Committee and underwent another examination, in which all the members who desired participated. It was evident that there was no disposition to find me "not guilty?' the only object being to find an excuse to justify my execution. Here I stood before sixty men, every man of who was eager to sigh my death warrant. Not one of them evinced the least disposition to give me their benefit of circumstances in my favor; but all were actuated by the determination to find me guilty, and where justly or unjustly. And while admitting that there was no tangible evidence against me, going to show that I was even a Northern man, much less an Abolitionist, they communicated their intention to confine me in the dungeon of the jail until they could ascertain from their friends in Baltimore and Washington what my real sentiments were. Accordingly, I was thrown into an underground apartment, rendered horrible by the absence of light and air, and loathsome by the presence of the accumulated filth of years; a prison quite equal to the famous "Blackhole of Calcutta," in its abominations.
The fare was in keeping with the quarters, and consisted of corn bread and as small quantity of water doled out in the morning of each day. Here, with the thermometer at about 95, I was compelled to remain from the 25th of April to the 6th of June, denied the privileges of communicating with my friends, and all access to me from them forbidden.
While here, I was frequently an eyewitness to some of the cruelest outrages that I believe it [is] possible for the ingenuity or depravity of man to devise. Outrages so entirely at variance with all my former conceptions of Southern character as (had I not witnessed them myself,) would have appeared not only improbable, but impossible, to have been committed by them, and I cannot believe that in any other portions of the South, or among purely Southern men, such acts would be tolerated for a moment-indignities and enormities towards not only men but women, which have almost frozen the blood in my veins, and aroused "a vengeance blood alone can quell;" a feeling of bitter and unrelenting hostility, which cannot be eradicated until a retribution as righteous as just, have been visited upon every an who has been a participant in such demoniac pleasures. Towards men, these cruelties were of daily occurrence, and the evidence of every man in Cairo connected with our army, will corroborate my statement-that more than eighty five men have had their heads shaved and their backs lacerated by the knout since the middle of last April. [sic] More than that number have found their way to Cairo, and are not waiting an opportunity to return and inflict summary punishment upon the people of that doomed city.
To this I had almost become accustomed, and looked quite naturally every morning for the perpetration of such outrages, but even this had not prepared me for what I had to witness before I left their prison. In all my imaginings, I never dreamed that in any moment of excitement there could be found, in any portion of this land, one single man who would be base enough and fiend enough, to lay the lash upon the back of an innocent and defenceless woman. [sic] Incredible as it appears, it was done in the City of Memphis, on the 19th of May. [sic] The victim was a young, beautiful, refined and accomplished lady, who had resided there for one year. Her offence was being from Maine, and expressing to loudly here wishes for the success of our arms.
She purchased a ticket for Cairo, and it appears was congratulating herself upon soon reaching a land of liberty, when an officer by the name of THURMAN arrested and brought here in the jail. She was confined all night, and in the morning about six o'clock she was brought in front of the rear door of the jail (in the yard), and after three [sic] men had been whipped with the knout, [sic] and their heads shaved, she was stripped to the waist, and thirteen lashes given her with a strap, and the right side of her head shaved. [sic] The wretch who did the whipping is named John Durall, and was originally a resident of Cleveland, Ohio, while this other fiend who held her arms, had recently left Syracuse, New York, and is named Thomas McElroy.
The outrage took place not more than five feet from where I was standing, inside the passage in the yard, and she fell back against the door when released. I spoke to her fully five minutes, and know her name and address, and have her likeness now in my possession. I shall never forget her appearance while suffering the infliction of this tremendous outrage. No one work escaped her lips; not a groan came up fro her breast; not a sight was audible. But, the livid hue of her face, the compressed lips, the quivering of every muscle, attested how terrible was her woe, how keenly she felt the impious wrong. Would to God the advancing columns of our army could, at that moment, have entered that yard, and torn those incarnate devils limb from limb, and meted [sic] out to all concerned in this infamous proceeding-whether as participants or spectators-a punishment commensurate with their crime. And should the day come, when Union men dare to avow their sentiments in that city, and the presence of our army enable the eye witnesses to this transaction to return, there will be a terrible reckoning required at the hands of these barbarians.
I remained in this prison until the 6th of June, when, through the instrumentality of a true and noble woman, I was enabled to affect my escape. Money, of which there was a scarcity, triumphed on the fidelity of one of the attaches of the jail. My den was opened and I was free. That I lost no time in finding other quarters may readily be imagined, and I succeeded in securing a hiding place with an old Irish woman until I could leave the city. This I did on the 11th of June, with but five dollars in my pocket, which carried me to Jackson, and from that point I was compelled to make my way to Cairo-one hundred and twenty miles without one cent, and through a section country where I would have been hung in a moment if suspected of being from the North. I succeeded, however, after a jouironey of three days, with a mouthful to eat, in reaching the land of promise.
When I came in sight of the "Stars and Stripes" floating from the encampment at Bird's Point, all fatigue was forgotten, and with horse speed I ran until I was with the line of our troops No mortal man, unless under similar circumstances, can form an idea of the feeling which possessed me at that moment-the deep and profound gratitude to God for having guided me through so may perils and dangers, and brought me once again to freedom….
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July 18, 1861
Jno. McLean Collins
Philadelphia Inquirer, July 22, 1861