Recently, while doing some of my seemingly never ending Civil War research (quite by choice), I was using the book, A Very Violent Rebel, The Civil War Diary of Ellen Renshaw House, and came across an interesting footnote. Footnote #8 on page 81 referred to a book which contained a description, spaced over fifteen pages, of “Castle Fox” and its inmates. Curious to read this description, I had to order the mentioned book, Ancestry of Williams Sperry Beinecke (1974) on an Inter Library Loan. After a reasonable wait, the book arrived. I was not disappointed.
The jail descriptions were extracted from the diary of Jacob Austin Sperry (1823 – 1896) as published in Appendix J of the above referenced book. Sperry was the editor and publisher of the pro-Confederate Knoxville Register from 1861 -1864. He was arrested in Bristol, East Tennessee in mid-December 1864 and jailed in Knoxville’s infamous Castle Fox beginning December 22, 1864. Castle Fox was named after Confederate jailer Robert F. Fox. This jail was also known as the Knoxville County jail and also as the Confederate prison. During the Union occupation of Knoxville the jail housed Confederate prisoners, of which Confederate editor Jacob Sperry was one. His description of the interior of Castle Fox and the Temperance Hall jail is the only such description that I have ever read. His vivid description of both buildings is copied below.
Castle Fox: “With the appearance of its exterior I was familiar, having lived for a year in the neat frame house down by the riverside only a few hundred yards distant. Of the repulsiveness of its interior, even as a place of temporary abode, I had heard much during Fox’s administration, but was not prepared for the horrible reality of its present management. The upper story, where I found myself this morning, consists of three apartments – a large one on the west side, extending the whole length of the building, containing three massive iron cages, about eight feet square, leaving passage ways around and between them of three or four feet. In front, bisected by the stairway, are two smaller apartments, each containing a similar cage. The filthiness of these rooms and their general forbidding aspect is indescribable” At this point, Sperry names several of the military and civilian prisoners on this floor.
Note: One room on each floor was set apart for county prisoners other than Confederates, and these were designated Federal rooms.
Next Sperry mentions the jail yard and that several visitors were admitted from the outside. “In the morning we had attended roll-call in the jail yard, in which occasion a number of visitors had been admitted from without (meaning outside the jail).”
“In the afternoon we were ordered to form messes of fifteen to draw rations. These consisted simply of a few ounces of blue beef and bread. The beef was raw, and the little fires in the small hearths of the jail were monopolized by a few of the more selfish of the prisoners, and as we had no utensils to cook in, even if we had access to the fires, we should have fared badly but for the fact that the prisoners in the federal rooms, up and down stairs, had for sale hot coffee, bread and meat, pies, cakes, etc., so that the few of us that were fortunate enough to be provided with currency were able to avoid suffering from hunger. I was invited to join the mess of paroled officers in the middle cage, where it was much more comfortable than in the Babel-like confusion of the crown outside. There were nine of us in the cage, and our united stock of blankets enabled us to sleep in comparative comfort at night.”
Temperance Hall Jail: There was also a military prison in East Knoxville (just east of First Creek) that had originally been Temperance Hall. It was used as a place of duress for Federal soldiers guilty of crimes of misdemeanors. It was now known as the Federal prison, in contradistinction to the county jail, which was called the Confederate prison.
“The (two-story brick) building, located at the intersection of Clinch and Temperance Streets (modern Hall of Fame Drive and Howard Baker Avenue), was surrounded by a high fence with scaffolding promenaded by sentries. Iron bars had been added to the windows. The room in which men were received was large and clean, with a cheerful fire blazing on the hearth, and seventy or eighty sleeping bunks commodiously arranged. The upper room had formerly been the lodge room of the Sons of Temperance, a small anteroom opening into a large hall.” The room also contained sleeping bunks and a large wood fireplace in one end of the room.
Conditions in both of these facilities were less than ideal, but seemingly far worse at Castle Fox. After two days at Castle Fox, Sperry was transferred to Temperance Hall. On December 27th Sperry was assigned to work on the fortifications on Temperance Hill, overlooking the railroad. A ball attached to a short eighteen inch chain was attached to his ankle. The short chain caused him much discomfort as he could do nothing to relieve the weight of the ball. The ball chain was too short to place the ball in his wheelbarrow or throw it over his shoulder as did other prisoners. “The painful progress to the scene of our labors defies description…I plied my allotted task for two hours with dogged resolution, determined that neither the black guards who were taskmasters, nor the white black guards who were spectators, should have the chance to gloat over my sufferings.” Sperry was to remain a prisoner in his own town until the end of the war.