Davidson County Tennessee
Letters from Forgotten Ancestors
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“I Have Been Confined in This
Prison Now Just Three Months . . .”
~ 1863 ~
Transcribed by Joan Pruett of Hendersonville, Tennessee.

Letter’s author and recipient:
Jno. Tovell to Brig. Gen. R. B. Mitchell

Rec. at Hqrs W. S. Forces
Feb 2, 1863.

State Prison, Feby 2nd, 1863

To Brig. Gen. R. B. Mitchell Commanding

Honored Sir,

I have been confined in this prison now just three months and during that period have suffered intensely from the hardships to which I have been subjected. After every rain the walls and flooring of my room are saturated with water and exhale a cold unhealthy vapour for many days afterwards. Several panes of glass in the windows are broken "and the cold winter winds often whistle in there". The filth in every part of the building is not only excessive but absolutely revolting. Decaying vegetable and animal matter profusely scattered over every hall and passage constantly emit a noxious odor indicating an atmosphere heavily charged with poisonous gases greatly endangering the health of those who are compelled to inspire it. At night every inch of the floor - I speak now of my own room - is covered with men destitute of so much as a whisp of straw to shield them from contact with the hard cold boards, vainly striving under such conditions and is an atmosphere more resembling that of the Black Hole of Calcutta than of a dormitory sufficiently ventilated for the purposes of healthy respirations, to court "balmy sleep" and restore the exhausted energies of "tired nature". So execrable are the arrangements for enabling the prisoners to meet the calls of nature that despite the prohibitions of the guard in charge of the prison every morning in making my way to the ground floor I have to wend my path through heaps of human dung and feel myself fortunate when I succeed in avoiding contact with it. The quality of my rations corresponds with the other arrangements for my comfort. And as if the object of the authorities was simply to gratify an unworthy sentiment of revenge or spite my family are strictly, forbidden, on pain of I know not what penalties, to furnish me with provisions of a wholesome or agreeable character.

My objective however in addressing this communication to you is not so much to remonstrate against this harsh treatment as to ask you to furnish me with a statement of the charges which have subjected me to the endurance of these indignities. Should I in preferring this request be deemed to have violated any of the conventional proprieties which in this country regulate the intercourse between the governed classes and their rulers, permit me to plead in extenuation of my fault that I am an Englishman and a British subject; and accordingly from my earliest years have been familiarized with practices and indoctrinated with maxims so foreign to that spirit of passive obedience and unquestioning acquiescence in the acts of their superiors which constitute so marked a feature of the American character, that it would not be surprising should I discover a kind of constitutional inaptitude for perceiving the justness and equity of a proceeding which to Americans may appear as natural and matter-of-course as an auto-da-fe' to a Spaniard or a banquet of human flesh to the discriminating taste of a Fee Gee Islander.

In view therefore of the natural disadvantages under which I labour, I trust I may be permitted to cherish the hope that if you do not grant my request I shall at least not incur your displeasure by preferring(?) it.

I am Honored Sir
Your Obedient Servant
Signed: Jno. Tovell

From Joan Pruett: Transcript of a letter written by Jno. Tovell while he was incarcerated at the Tennessee State Penitentiary. The folded cover of the letter is inscribed “Requests a statement of charges against him.” The original letter is found alphabetically under the name Tovell on National Archives microfilm M345, Union Provost Marshals' Files of Papers Relating to Individual Civilians, 1861-1866.

From Charles A. Sherrill, TSLA. We were unable to find more information about this man. There is a reference in the Confederate Veteran which may pertain to him. It is from vol. XIX, No. 7, July 1911, page 33, in the reminiscences of Rev. C.M. Hutton. “Mrs. Tovell’s husband was a Baptist preacher; and owing to his preaching the funeral of a man that the Federals had put to death, he was sent at once to the South, not even being permitted to take leave of his family.”

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