Saturday, April 24th, 2021

Civil War tales

By William Kincaid

Aaron Sutton was the topic of a presentation by local researcher Harrison Frech.. . .

Aaron Sutton, a Union solider from Rockford, survived the Civil War, including stays in two Confederate prisons camps, by a mix of resourcefulness and down-home know-how.
Harrison Frech, a local researcher and retired teacher, revealed the amazing adventures of Sutton this week to members of the Western Ohio Civil War Roundtable. Frech's presentation drew upon Sutton's own narrative account in his book "Prisoner of the Rebels in Texas," and other texts and information provided by Sutton's descendants.
Sutton in 1862 enlisted in the U.S. Army. Instead of joining a Mercer County outfit, he opted for the 83rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry Regiment, which was based around Cincinnati, where he originally was from, Frech said.
Sutton served under the two of best was commanders, Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman, Frech said. Most of Sutton's battle experience happened during the extended campaign to take Vicksburg, Mississippi. During this time Sutton was promoted from private to corporal.
After the fall of Vicksburg, Sutton, unfortunately, served under one of the worts commanders - Nathanial Banks, an accomplished politician but a lousy general, Frech said.
Amid the Red River Campaign, a combined army/naval operation entailing 35,000 troops and navel vessels, Sutton, along with 1,300 men, was taken prisoner and forced to march to Camp Ford near Tyler, Texas, the largest Confederate prison camp west of the Mississippi River.
Along the way, Sutton picked up a handful of items that proved incredibly useful in the prison camp: a rubber blanket for shelter and a skillet for cooking food.
At the camp, prisoners put their respective skills to use, with goods, services and even a 24-7 makeshift casino available to those with money. Those with currency fared much better in the camp than those without.
Sutton had $40, of which he spent in part on a quart of sulfur to treat his "itch" caused by scabies, a plug of tobacco and a pair of shears. Sutton and another man built a shanty from which they offered haircuts and shaves, each for 10 cents. Fashioning soap out of animal bones, Sutton also gave shampoos for 25 cents.
At one point Sutton was making as much as $5 day, probably more than he would have earned back at home, Frech noted. He used his income to supplement his diet of coarse beef and cornmeal with fruits and vegetables.
The camp had a good source of water, but conditions were generally rough, Frech said. The conditions brought out the worst in the men.
"You've got people that are not getting enough food. You've got people wandering around who are just straight out insane," Frech said. "You have men that as they've gone along are just about naked now. They've lost their clothing."
Sutton, though better off than many, was hellbent on escaping. He and another man, Wilbur Pelton of Wisconsin, hatched a plot to break free via a wagon used to clean up the polluted camp.
Before they could make a break for it, the pair, along with about 800 men, were transferred from the overcrowded camp to a much smaller site at Hempstead, Texas.
The walls of Camp Groce were not near as high as those at Camp Ford. The two men escaped over the wall and headed west on a course toward the Mexican border crossing, where they planned to take a ship to New Orleans.
With Pelton's learnedness (celestial navigation) and Sutton's farm-based practicality (home cures), the two made an excellent team, Frech said.
Along their westward journey, a group of men with dogs gave chase to the fleeing soldiers along the banks of the Colorado River, culminating with one of the beasts attacking Sutton. He grabbed the dog, stabbed it and tried to drown it, Frech said.
"The pursuer comes up. He aims the gun. He's going to shoot Sutton," Frech said. "Pelton jumps him, stabs him, takes him under water, kills him."
But Pelton would soon perish. He had been suffering from diarrhea and his conditions continued to worsen until he eventually died.
Now alone, Sutton stole a horse from a farm. He is again pursued but is able to break free by ditching the horse and taking off on foot. A fever gets the best of him, forcing him to seek aide at a home occupied by a German family. The man of the house, a Confederate conscript, doesn't want to turn Sutton in to the authorities.
"Most of these people here are not sympathetic with the Confederates at all," Frech said.
Knowing that the family would be punished for taking him in, Sutton convinces them to hand him over. Sutton is eventually returned to Camp Groce.
"He just caught the biggest break of his entire life," Sutton said. "When he had been gone, there had been a yellow fever epidemic in the camp. There were 675 men in the camp. When it's all done, 200 of them will be dead. He was out on the road when that all hit,"'
Undeterred, Sutton joins forces with three other prisoners and takes another stab at escape. It too proved futile, but Sutton would go on to be released in a prisoner exchange and rejoin his regiment on Jan. 15, 1865, according to his narrative. He participated in a battle at the tail-end of the war at Fort Blakely, Alabama.
Sutton returned to a life of farming in Mercer County, and in 1866, married Harriett Baltzell. Together, the couple had three boys and four girls. Sutton died at 86 in July 6, 1927, per the narrative.
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