09-16-1865: Lieutenant Carpenter to Gen. Townsend.
Source: Provost Marshal, Fort Jefferson, Florida. Records Relating to Prisoners 1865-1870. Record Group 393, Entry 56, Volume 5. U.S. National Archives. Washington, D.C.
Captain W. R. Prentice’s September 1, 1865 Letter to General E. D. Townsend responded to the concerns of the authorities in Washington about the ability of the military at Fort Jefferson to prevent any attempt to free Dr. Mudd and his companions. Lieutenant G.S. Carpenter, who carried the response back to Washington, was alarmed by the loose discipline he saw at Fort Jefferson, and gave his superiors the following unsolicited report of what he had seen.
Washington, September 16th 1865
Brvt. Brig. Gen. E.D. Townsend
Assistant Adjutant General
I have the honor to submit the following report of matters at Fort Jefferson which came to my knowledge from personal observation or from conversations with the commanding officer at that Post during my late visit there as the bearer of despatches. I deem it my duty to submit this although not called for by your letter of instructions of the 16th inst.
Captain W.R. Prentiss, 161st N. Y. Vols. cmd'g his regiment relieved Colonel Hamilton, 110th New York of the command of the Post August 16th. Major Willis E. Craig of the same regiment at the same time relieved Colonel Hamilton of the command of the Sub Dist. of Key West and Tortugas, Headquarters at Key West. The Garrison at Key West numbers about 300 men while the prisoners number 495. The quarters of the prisoners are in the second tier of casemates commencing to the left of the Sally Port and occupying through the second face of the work from it while the quarters of the soldiery are next in this order, thus throwing the prisoners between the main guard at the Sally Port and the rest of the Garrison and in case of an emute giving the prisoners the chance to overpower the guard before the other troops could get under arms and come to their aid. In a small room built with rough boards on the floor of casemates occupied by the prisoners having two lightly laticed windows looking on a passage way for prisoners between it and the rear wall are placed in the racks about 40 muskets, with the locks removed, not under guard, which it would be but the work of a moment for the prisoners to seize unopposed. Drawn through a broken or uncompleted passage in the breakwater and near the Sally Port are moored in the moat three small barges nearly under the embrasures to casemates of prisoners. These I should judge by their situation would at least afford a temptation to prisoners giving access for an attack on the guard without the Sally Port. From 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. several squads of prisoners, each under charge of a single soldier may be and are continually employed outside the work on the wharfs or bar discharging vessels, shifting materials, ordinance stores and alike. The passing promiscuously of these parties, or individually without a guard, the employees of the Engineering Department (of whom there are about one hundred) and others through the Sally Port was so illy regulated that it was easy for a prisoner unauthorized to slip out to the shipping, lurk among the piles of material or buildings, seize one of the numerous sail or row boats about, and be off, under cover of night at least unobserved. There being no practiced artillerists in the Garrison, merely a squad of men drilled at odd hours by a non-commissioned officer in the manual of the piece; the fact that a vessel can by a skillful pilot be put clear around the fort very near the breakwater; and the absence of any steam vessel to give immediate notice in case of mutiny or rescue are considerations in favor of any concerted plan to release the prisoners by aid from without.
I could not learn that there were any regular hours for roll-call of prisoners, only that each soldier in charge of a squad of laborers was responsible for any absentee from his squad. The numbers that were in quarters lounging, card playing and the like at 10 a.m. and the appearance of a few rowing and fishing not under guard about the harbor gave evidence of an exceeding lax discipline over these convicts. Many prisoners were not in the dress I was told was prescribed for them. No surveillance whatever was exercised over their mail; the same facilities for communicating by letter was open to them as to any in the garrison.
Of the four state prisoners Mudd and Arnold have of late not been locked up at night. Mudd is on duty as nurse in the Hospital situate midway nearly of the parade. Arnold is on duty as clerk to the Provost Marshal where he must have every facility for learning all regulations touching the guards, and the two others are employed as laborers and are locked in cells at night.
The commanding officer informed me that about the 20th inst. eight prisoners were missing whom it was supposed escaped by concealing themselves on the steamer T. A. Scott which left Fort Jefferson the evening before for New York under charge of Lieutenant Flood, 2nd Infty., statement of the case had been made to Major Craig, Commanding Sub District of Key West.
There were no permanent books of record for the Post, not even a morning-report-book, save at the Provost Marshal’s office there was a descriptive book of prisoners. There however the papers pertaining to the case of each prisoner were separately filed with a numerical designation to which there was an index book for convenience of reference. The Post order book it was said had been taken away by the former commanding officer when he left the Post. No Post funds were turned over to Captain Prentice by his predecessor, nor were there any records pertaining to any such funds or of any Council of administration. About one hundred prisoners were under orders to be discharged but owing to the fact that there were no blanks on hand it was the commanding officer’s intention to send these men to New Orleans to be discharged there as soon as transportation could be obtained. Complaints were made of the difficulty of obtaining supplies - that the Commissary stores on hand were of bad quality - that there was then no fresh beef and several cases of scurvy in the Hospital.
On the 5th inst. Major W.E. Craig, 161st New York was relieved of the command of the Sub. District by Colonel B. Townsend, 2nd U.S. Colored Infantry and left Key West that day for Fort Jefferson to assume the command of that Post. He, in conversation with reference to matters of Fort Jefferson, assured me that he was aware of the loose discipline there and should endeavor to remedy this and should see to it that the four state prisoners there were under strict surveillance.
I have the honor to be,
Your Obt, Servant
(S) G.S. Carpenter
1st Lieut. 18th U.S. Infty.