Confederate officer held prisoner told experience shortly before he died
By Johnny Vardeman
This column last February told about the "Immortal 600," captured Confederate troops who were used as human shields by Union forces in attacks near Charleston, S.C.
David Terrell Harris, a Confederate Army officer buried in Gainesville' s Alta Vista Cemetery, was among the Immortal 600.
Though the Confederates continued their shelling of Union forces, none of the 600 Rebel prisoners is said to have been killed. The Immortal 600 suffered nonetheless from disease and lack of adequate food.
The Gainesville Eagle interviewed Harris about his experience in 1911 just months before he died. He was described as a "sprightly old gentleman who is running the four big gins of the Gainesville Canning and Ginning Co. on Athens Street."
Harris, who was known as "Uncle Davy," was 71 years old at the time. He had joined the 21st Georgia Regiment of the Confederates from Forsyth County at age 21 at the beginning of the war. He advanced to the rank of second lieutenant. While on furlough in 1863, he married a neighbor, but returned to the war front just two days later.
In 1864 during the battle of Spotsylvania, Va., a Union soldier bashed his head in with the butt end of a musket as the Yankees charged Rebel lines. When he awoke, he and several other captured Confederates were being taken to Fort Delaware prison.
According to Harris' account, the Union Army rounded up 600 Confederates, including himself, to retaliate against them for the treatment Union prisoners suffered at Andersonville. He defended Andersonville by saying the Yankee blockade kept Confederates from getting food and medicine to the prisoners.
Despite an abundance of food at Fort Delaware, Harris told the Gainesville Eagle that Union guards fed him and fellow prisoners only a fifth of a loaf of bread and a quarter pound of meal twice a day. While none of the Immortal 600 died during the shelling near Charleston, Harris said many died in prison, and about 200 were on crutches with not enough strength to walk.
To keep his mind occupied in prison, Harris made jewelry from silver spoons that Union Gen. Sherman's troops pillaged from Georgia homes on his march to the sea. When he had arrived at the prison, Harris said his only money was a $5 bill he had taken from the body of a Union soldier. To keep his captors from finding it, he hid it inside his water canteen.
The remnants of the Immortal 600 were sent to Philadelphia at the end of the war to be released for home. Still under guard, they were marched to a hotel, whose proprietor was a native of the South.
The hotel owner invited the prisoners in, admonishing them not to get drunk. Then he served them lavish dinners in what Harris described as "the most magnificently furnished room he had ever beheld, with grand pictures hung everywhere finished and burnished with silver and gold ... "
Unknown to the Union guards, the sympathetic hotel owner treated the prisoners without charge.
Harris and the others returned to the South by train. He walked from Cartersville to his home without a bite to eat. His wife hadn't heard from him since his capture at Spotsylvania, and he didn't know if she were still alive or remarried.
Harris was dirty, footsore, lame and ragged, his heart beating faster as he neared his home, wondering if his wife would still know him. Uncle Davy told the Eagle, "She knew me when I first came 'round the bend in the road, and she had me 'round the neck before I got in a hundred yards of the house. I never did see a gal run so fast."
While Harris was obviously an important figure in local Civil War lore as well as in Hall and Forsyth counties, an obituary could not be found in local papers around the time of his death June 10, 1912. His wife, Talitha Ann, died in 1930 and is buried by his side at Alta Vista. A prominent monument near the entrance to the cemetery marks their graves.
Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times and can be reached at 2183 Pinetree Circle N.E., Gainesville 30501; phone (770) 532-2326; e-mail vardeman623@ charter.net. His column appears Sundays.
Originally published Sunday, January 14, 2007