Santa Cruz County History - People



Old Soldiers: Santa Cruz County Civil War Veterans
by Robert L. Nelson

BATES, RALPH O (1847-1909)

Santa Cruz Sentinel (December 28, 1909)

Photograph of Ralph O. Bates
Ralph O. Bates

Ralph O. Bates is Dead

Civil War Veteran Who Visited President Lincoln Dies at His Home on Cliff Way: This City

Ralph O. Bates has passed away at his home on Cliff Way. It being located at the section of the street located beyond Escalona Heights. Mr. Bates was a veteran of the Civil War, and for many years delivered the lecture entitled "Bill and Dick from Andersonville Prison to the White House". Mr. Bates was the man who dug the fifty-nine foot tunnel out of Andersonville prison and was the last one to die of the eighty men who escaped. Among his papers is a letter to him from President Abraham Lincoln and another one from Ed. M. Stanton, Lincoln's Secretary of War.

Ralph O Bates died at Beechler sanitarium Monday morning of typhoid pneumonia induced by a stroke of paralysis.

Bates was attended by Dr. Beechler who was first lieutenant in the Ohio regiment in which both served. He leaves a wife but no children. His wife was the daughter of "Dick" who with Bates as Billy, thrilled the nation with their escape from Andersonville after 11 months in jail.

Bates was 62 and was born in Ohio. He had lived on the Cliff Way for the past three years.

Santa Cruz Sentinel (January 2, 1910)

Late Ralph Bates Of Our City

Santa Cruz Resident, Just Deceased, was a Captive in Seven Confederate Prisons in Civil War

The past week has marked the death in Santa Cruz of Ralph Orr Bates, who was born June 29, 1847. In Mansfield, Richland Co., Ohio. He was educated there and in the spring of 1862 was teaching a short term of school when the enlisting officer was recruiting for the cavalry. He left his school and enlisted in the 5th Ohio Cavalry on June 14, 1862, and was captured Nov. 14, 1862 near Cumberland Gap, Tenn. and taken to Libby, then transferred from prison to prison until he passed through seven, each time under the promise of exchange if he would do their writing from Libby to Danville, then Savannah, Blackshear, Milen, Macon and Andersonville, arriving at the latter place February 11, 1863, which was at that time called Camp Sumter, and afterwards called Andersonville.

Here the prisoners were put to work to build the wall or stockade of that notorious place, with a ball and chain to their feet. Their rations were a plate of corn meal in the morning at noon and at night.

After Mr. Bates had been there several months, and the first part of the stockade built, a trivial offense occurred for which Gen Winder had him hung by the thumbs for forty five minutes, for which he wore scars on his thumbs to his last day. After he had hung most the allotted time, Harry Wilson, a Union prisoner gave Mr. Bates a drink of water. Capt. Wirz, who afterwards became commander of Andersonville caught Wilson in the act of giving "Billy" a drink, as he was called in prison. Wirz said, "What have you been doing." He answered "I have just given Billy a drink." Wirz said, "You will never give another man a drink," as he drew his revolver and shot Wilson five times. Billy yelled at him "Shoot me and end my torture, and not shoot an innocent man. Wirz answered, "Shut up you Yankee rascal or I will. Billy said "Your are not a commander here yet, and have no authority to shoot any one, and I will never die until I see you hung." Wirz emptied his revolver, hitting him twice. The first ball passed through the fleshy part of the left thigh, the other taking out a piece of bone in the same limb, between the knee and ankle.

Billy was cut down by a rebel colonel, now living in Union Springs, Ala. carried back to his division where he lay on the ground, and cared for by his partner, Dick King.

On the third day after Wirz came into the camp staggering drunk, and when he saw Billy lying on the ground he said, "Why you little Yank, I thought I killed you." Billy answered, "I am still alive, and by the grace of God I will live to see you hung." Wirz stepped over him and shot him the third time, the ball passing just above the heart, coming out just under the shoulder blade.

By the care of Dick and his "mud plasters," Billy was soon on his feet.

Billy was always cheerful and trying to get his comrades to forget their homesickness. One day when he had reasoned with a comrade, and saw that the latter was going insane, and something must be done to arouse him, Billy hit him a lick to get him angry, when the man turned on him and knocked Billy so far on the ground he could scarcely get up, then he said, "Billy, what do you want to pitch on me for?" He answered, "Tom, just to make you forget about home." Tom said, "Billy, I will brace up." This man was Tom Campbell, who was a few years ago Mayor of Seattle Wash.

One time a comrade, who is now a Methodist minister by the name Needham, living Berkeley, Cal., was reaching through under the deadline to get a clean cup of water. The guards, seeing him, shot, taking off one ear. Billy persuaded Needham to take the oath of "parole," as he was a Mason, and the Masons in charge promised to exchange him, so was taken for duty outside.

Billy and Dick began to dig a tunnel of their own, and told no one, as other tunnels had been begun, but some one would give them away for an extra pint of corn meal, so they worked at night, carried the dirt in a piece of shirt levee and dumped it into the creek, where it sank out of sight. They worked for seven months and eight nights to complete the tunnel 59 feet long.

They escaped March 2, 1864, taking out 80 other men and one of that number lived until a few years ago in Adrian Mich., by the name of Andrew Gibbons. Billy and Dick were out five nights hiding in the swamps in the daytime, when they heard blood hounds on their track. They were chased for three days and nights through swamps and brush. As the bloodhounds will not go into water, the boys gained, but on the fourth day they were forced out into the open country, running for life, with the sound of dogs in the distance. As the sun went down they saw a river in the distance. As they neared the water's edge the horsemen began to call to them to surrender, and to shoot at them. But they plunged into the water, finding it deep and miry, filled with logs and brush. Holding to a snag between two logs, they kept their bodies under the water with just their mouths out to get air. When the men came up they could see nothing of the fugitives. The dogs hot and tired, the boys went into camp as they believed the boys had been drowned. After dark when all was still and quiet the two swam the river, which they afterwards learned was the Chattahoochee River. Going a little way they came to a Negro hut with a bright light within. They rapped on the door in sheer desperation, then to their inexpressible joy the door was opened by an elderly Negro woman. When she saw them standing in their rags of blue she threw up her hands and said, "Lord bless your souls, honey come right in. I saved 50 of you." They fell dead faint. Next day they found she had hidden them in the cellar under her floor, keeping them there 8 days. In 12 night's travel, after leaving her cabin they reached the Union lines, near Bridgeport, Ala. They were taken to General Sherman's headquarters, which were then near Cleveland Junction Tenn.

General Sherman, after seeing them in their awful condition, sent them to Abraham Lincoln as an object lesson , saying to them, "One lesson such as you afford will be the means of an immediate exchange from prisons, and save thousands of lives". They were placed under guard with written orders to not be allowed to be washed or combed, or to have a change of clothing, but to be presented to President Lincoln as nearly in their present condition as possible.

The guard, Simeon Collins of Co. D., Ill Infantry, after battling with the people along the route to keep them from cleaning up the boys arrived at Washington, April 12, 1864. They were hastily driven to the White House, and taken into the reception room. A guard was given the orders from General Sherman. Soon the President came striding into the room where they lay upon the floor, saying "Come along, my boys," and he tried to lead them into the bedroom. But they had not borne their weight upon their feet since leaving Nashville, so they were carried. The President wheeled a couple of fine tapestried chairs in position for them, but they demurred, knowing they were filthy, lousy, covered with vermin, and in the rags they had worn for 19 months. The President placed one hand on Billy's head, the other on Dick's shoulder, saying, "Sit down, boys. There is nothing in the White House too good for my boys". The President gave them a patient hearing while they told their long and rambling story of nineteen months of life in seven prisons.

The President ordered the guard to take them to the hospital, and have them washed, cleaned up and returned, which was done. When they were reconveyed to the White House, put to bed, limp, white, and almost speechless, the President came to the room and asked many questions regarding the prisons.

The next morning the President brought in Secretary Stanton, and a number of other gentlemen, asking questions. The order was given then for as many exchanges from the different prisons to be made as soon as possible. The President then ordered the scales to be brought in. He was weight master, and ordered Dick put on the scales than called out , "This boy weighs 64 and a half pounds from one hundred and seventy-six". Billy was next put on the scales, when Lincoln said, "This one weighs, fifty nine and three fourth pounds from one hundred and sixty five."

The two boys were kept 12 days in the White House. On the 12th day, before their departure, the President had them carried into the dining room and propped up in the chairs at the table. Then seating himself between them, he fed first Billy then Dick, some beef tea with a spoon.

The boys were sent to their homes and by the careful nursing of his mother Bates, in three months went to Indianapolis, Indiana to visit a cousin who was running the Bates House. Then he reported to Governor Brough for duty, going as a recruit to Co. A. 129th Ind. Infantry, joined his new command under fire at the battle on the right of Atlanta and was later placed on General McQuistan's staff as an orderly. He was in 14 battles after that, once had his fine steed shot from under him and fell with the horse upon his legs. The Confederates charged past him but the company in front of his, seeing him fall with the orders for those down the line, charged upon the Confederates, drove them back over Billy and when the ambulance corps came along the surgeon who lived a few years ago in Elwood Indiana called, "Billy, are you hurt?" His saddle was thrown on a little black mule, which he rode to the close of the war, and when the cry passed down the line "Here comes Billy and the mule," they knew it meant they would soon be in action.

Mr. Bates served to the close of the war, was mustered out at Charlotte N. C. August 6 1865 and was only home 10 days when subpoenaed by the Government to the trial of Captain Wirz remaining in Washington till the day of execution when he walked out in the prison yard and saw Captain Wirz hung just as he said he would do when Wirz was filling his body with bullets.

In 1865 he went to Ann Arbor, Mich. to college and in the winter of 1865 was called by General Garfield from his school to give the first lecture in the old gray stone church on the south side of the square in Cleveland Ohio. At the close of the lecture, General Garfield stepped forward and pinned on Billy seven gold medals, of the seven prisons he had passed through, and asked Billy to promise to spend his life telling that story to the coming generations, which Billy has done.

In 1869 Mr. Bates was ordained as a Methodist minister, and still held relations of supernumerary in an Ohio conference.

At one time the Government sent Mr. Bates into the South to establish schools, and as there is no bitterness in his lecture toward the Southern people, he lectured in all the Southern states.

While traveling the Western States, in the winter of 1893, Mr. Bates met O.M. Whitney of Tacoma Wash. They became fast friends, and on April 3d of that year the latter joined Billy as his private secretary. They traveled the Northern and Central States, with the love of brother between them.

Mr. Bates came to Santa Cruz three years ago, and only last June found where his friend and past secretary was, wrote him that as long as he had a shingle over his head Mr. Whitney had a home with him," and in six weeks had Mr. Whitney with him here in Santa Cruz, which was a soothing influence to Mr. Bates, to have the care of one he loved as a brother in his hours of suffering. And Whitney rejoices that he had the opportunity to wait upon his comrade friend in those last hours.

While the two were traveling in the Central States they met Rozella E. Middleton, whom Mr. Bates married September 5, 1895, Middletown, Indiana, who mourns his loss. They had a little home on Cliff Way, Santa Cruz.


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