A Look Inside The Bright Side of Prison Life

The Bright Side of Prison Life: Experiences, In Prison and Out, of an Involuntary Sojourner in Rebeldom, by Captain S. A. Swiggett was published in 1897 by Press of Fleet, Mcginley & Co. in Baltimore. This volume is full of colorful anecdotes about the author and his fellow wartime prisoners during the Civil War. From bad whiskey to escape tunnels to ‘hoss swapping’, Captain Swiggett shares the good and bad in a way makes you want to keep going.

This volume is part of our Civil War Collection. It can be found in Part V: Iowa’s Perspective. This collection consists of memoirs, pamphlets, and regimental histories from the Civil War holdings at the University of Iowa. Iowa provided more troops per capita than any other Union state, and these writings reflect the experiences of Iowa soldiers as they fought in nearly all the campaigns and major battles throughout the war years.

Captain Swiggett’s sense of humor comes through in the Preface of this book:


The author’s name and reputation may sell this book — miracles have happened; but he does not intend to permit the possible deception of a confiding public into the belief that they cannot exist without reading it. The possible purchaser is hereby warned that it is different from any other book he ever read.

It is without plot, moral, historical value, mystery, romance, horrors and murderous scenes. The best excuse to be offered for its existence is the fact that the author’s numerous friends have repeatedly urged him to print what they call an interesting and unusual series of incidents.

The responsibility for any injury to the public must rest upon the heads of these friends, the author not holding himself accountable for anything except the truth of the narration. My friends being pleased with this publication, it may be safe for others to try it, but they must not blame me for any lack of appreciation.

Trusting that this warning will prevent the unsuspecting from buying the book solely on account of the author’s literary reputation, the result is awaited with fear and trembling.

S. A. Swiggett
March, 1895

Table of Contents

  • CHAPTER I. — Preliminaries — Minor skirmishes and battles in which Company B was engaged have not been noticed, as the object is to chronicle only the principal events which led up to the prison life and efforts to escape.
  • CHAPTER II. — The Capture — Everyone in camp felt a foreboding of evil to come, and when we arose on Monday morning it was with a feeling of keen apprehension and distrust.
  • CHAPTER III. — On the March — During the march all our boys were constantly regretting that we had made no attempt to escape, and calling themselves idiots for being hoodwinked by the clever Colonel Hill and his talk of parole.
  • CHAPTER IV. — Bright Spots — We were pretty well used up by our constant traveling, were having little to eat, and I was not feeling very well, perhaps looking even worse than I felt.
  • CHAPTER V. — The Stockade — My company was directed to the southwest corner of the enclosure, and assigned to quarters consisting of tree stumps, tangled oaks and scrubby pine brush.
  • CHAPTER VI. — Incidents — These men were tired of fighting-, had no desire to serve the Confederacy again, and not only refrained from again carrying arms against the United States, until regularly exchanged, but sought to avoid doing it at all by keeping out of the way of exchange.
  • CHAPTER VII. — Events — A noteworthy and impressive feature of our stockade life should not be overlooked. I refer to the religious services held regularly by many of the prisoners. On every Sunday morning a crowd would gather in one corner of the stockade, and men representing numerous religious creeds would meet in unison to worship Him.
  • CHAPTER VIII. — An Escape — At last we got through the fence, and at once struck a pace for the woods, which would have carried us to Iowa in short order if we could have kept it up.
  • CHAPTER IX. — On the Tramp — The capture of the animal was effected with the aid of my suspenders and a few honeyed words, and we quickly became quite friendly, his master loudly calling and whistling for him, while we caressed and fondled him to distract his attention and prevent his barking in reply.
  • CHAPTER X. — Recaptured — Our breakfast consisted of biscuits and sow belly, the latter not being remarkable for its freshness.
  • CHAPTER XI. — The Back Track — Again partaking of some liquid refreshments, the captain took up the gun, following the hogs in their movements, with an uncertain aim, which again and again caused a scattering among us and much amusement to him. Finally the gun went off in an apparently accidental way, but the finest hog in the lot was killed, and we had roast pork for supper.
  • CHAPTER XII. — The Return to the Stockade — Our own men gathered about us, and soon dragged us off to our old quarters, where we were plied with question after question, and had to relate all our experiences in detail.
  • CHAPTER XIII. — Incidents, and Another Escape — I soon became a stockholder in a tunnel enterprise which was prosecuted vigorously and gave many hopes of success. We started the tunnel inside of an old cabin, using various expedients to conceal the work and get rid of the dirt, all of which were successful.
  • CHAPTER XIV. — Tramps Ouce More — About midnight we met a negro and learned that we were on the Shreveport road instead of the Gilmore road, which latter we wanted to follow. The darkey sized us up correctly in short order, but, as usual with the negroes, the fact that we were escaped prisoners only seemed to make him the more eager to help us, and he asked us if we would not “accommodate” him by allowing him to show us a short cut through the woods to the Gilmore road.
  • CHAPTER XV. — Diplomacy — Miller was anxious to show that he could brave the water in some cases, so he pulled off his pants, handed them to me for safe keeping, and started right in to wade the stream. He took two steps and disappeared from view. We fished him out and concluded that we would wait for daylight before proceeding farther.
  • CHAPTER XVI. — Making Progress — When we reached the boat we found our friend with the wagon and negro driver, together with several other parties, already there, and I was much relieved to see that the three soldiers had not arrived.
  • CHAPTER XVII. — A Puzzle, and Incidents — As soon as we were recovered from our scare and momentary confusion we found that our slide down the bank had landed us within easy reach of a canoe, the very thing most needed by us at that time.
  • CHAPTER XV1I1. — Experiences — We had to be very careful, but boldness was an essential part of the policy of being careful, and we walked through the outskirts of the town as if we owned it, avoiding the traveled streets, but being as free and as easy as possible.
  • CHAPTER XIX. — Good Luck and Bad — The country in our neighborhood was a farming district, but it was now barren. The houses and buildings were deserted, the fences down and everything dilapidated. We could find nothing to eat, and again took to the road.
  • CHAPTER XX. — In the Toils — The lieutenant now asked me if 1 had no papers at all. Quick as a flash I said “Yes,” and produced from my pocket a newspaper published in Washington the day before, which I had picked up on the road as we came in. He looked at it, laughed, and said that he did not mean that sort of paper, but a pass or something to prove our identity.
  • CHAPTER XXI. — Another Return Trip — The prisoners confined in this building were three spies and a large number of Confederates, the latter being held for crimes ranging all the way from chicken-stealing to murder, and in this agreeable society we spent ten days.
  • CHAPTER XXII. — Foraging, and a New Prison — Sweet potatoes at this time were $10 a bushel in Confederate money, and my supply of cash came in so handy that we were enabled to refuse all rations and to live on the fat of the land; but we did not risk the gout by so doing. The fat of the land in those days was so well streaked with lean that everyone had to take much lean in order to get any fat, and the rebels themselves did not live in luxury.
  • CHAPTER XXIII. — To Camp Ford and Joy — During the rest of the march I talked negro suffrage and equality, at times nearly driving our captors wild by picturing the pleasures to come to them when these liberties should prevail. They got mad at times, but seemed to like hearing me talk, and evidently saw that I said more than I meant in some ways; yet I told many truths –which made them mad –about the actual practice by Southern whites of equally with negroes, as evidenced by the thousands of mulattoes among them.
  • CHAPTER XXIV. — Liberty at Last — Abuse of authority is not a trait of man, but of men, and those who are indirectly responsible should not be too harshly censured for what they cannot altogether control. Incidents by the thousand of heroic, heart-touching actions performed for humanity’s sake during our war by those on one side for those on the other reflect as much credit upon rebels as upon Yankees, and I have always felt that, on the whole, our antagonists did the best they could for their prisoners.

It may be of interest to the reader to learn that all the men who were my companions in escape are still living, except Capt. J. B. Gedney and Adjt. Stephen K. Mahon.




  • Captain S. A. Swiggett
  • General F. M. Drake
  • Lieutenant Walter S. Jolmson
  • Adjutant S. K. Mahon
  • Captain J. B. Gedney
  • Captain Thomas M. Fee
  • Captain Charles Burnbauiu
  • Captain J. P. Rummel
  • Captain B. F. Miller
  • Sergeant E. B. Rocket

There were cases of personal ill-treatment which came under my notice, but they were the great exceptions, and, as a rule, the rebels of my acquaintance did for their prisoners all that was possible with the means in their power, and treated them as well as prisoners could expect to be treated.

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