Full Text Archive logoFull Text Archive — Books, poems, drama…

Andersonville, Volume 1 by John McElroy

Part 3 out of 3

Adobe PDF icon
Download this document as a .pdf
File size: 0.3 MB
What's this? light bulb idea Many people prefer to read off-line or to print out text and read from the real printed page. Others want to carry documents around with them on their mobile phones and read while they are on the move. We have created .pdf files of all out documents to accommodate all these groups of people. We recommend that you download .pdfs onto your mobile phone when it is connected to a WiFi connection for reading off-line.

to dividing among the men, the beans had to be counted. Nobody received
enough to pay for cooking, and we were at a loss what to do until
somebody suggested that we play poker for them. This met general
acceptance, and after that, as long as beans were drawn, a large portion
of the day was spent in absorbing games of "bluff" and "draw," at a bean
"ante," and no "limit."

After a number of hours' diligent playing, some lucky or skillful player
would be in possession of all the beans in a mess, a squad, and sometimes
a detachment, and have enough for a good meal.

Next the meal began to diminish in quantity and deteriorate in quality.
It became so exceedingly coarse that the common remark was that the next
step would be to bring us the corn in the shock, and feed it to us like
stock. Then meat followed suit with the rest. The rations decreased in
size, and the number of days that we did not get any, kept constantly
increasing in proportion to the days that we did, until eventually the
meat bade us a final adieu, and joined the sweet potato in that
undiscovered country from whose bourne no ration ever returned.

The fuel and building material in the stockade were speedily exhausted.
The later comers had nothing whatever to build shelter with.

But, after the Spring rains had fairly set in, it seemed that we had not
tasted misery until then. About the middle of March the windows of
heaven opened, and it began a rain like that of the time of Noah. It was
tropical in quantity and persistency, and arctic in temperature. For
dreary hours that lengthened into weary days and nights, and these again
into never-ending weeks, the driving, drenching flood poured down upon
the sodden earth, searching the very marrow of the five thousand hapless
men against whose chilled frames it beat with pitiless monotony, and
soaked the sand bank upon which we lay until it was like a sponge filled
with ice-water. It seems to me now that it must have been two or three
weeks that the sun was wholly hidden behind the dripping clouds, not
shining out once in all that time. The intervals when it did not rain
were rare and short. An hour's respite would be followed by a day of
steady, regular pelting of the great rain drops.

I find that the report of the Smithsonian Institute gives the average
annual rainfall in the section around Andersonville, at fifty-six inches
--nearly five feet--while that of foggy England is only thirty-two. Our
experience would lead me to think that we got the five feet all at once.

We first comers, who had huts, were measurably better off than the later
arrivals. It was much drier in our leaf-thatched tents, and we were
spared much of the annoyance that comes from the steady dash of rain
against the body for hours.

The condition of those who had no tents was truly pitiable.

They sat or lay on the hill-side the live-long day and night, and took
the washing flow with such gloomy composure as they could muster.

All soldiers will agree with me that there is no campaigning hardship
comparable to a cold rain. One can brace up against the extremes of heat
and cold, and mitigate their inclemency in various ways. But there is no
escaping a long-continued, chilling rain. It seems to penetrate to the
heart, and leach away the very vital force.

The only relief attainable was found in huddling over little fires kept
alive by small groups with their slender stocks of wood. As this wood
was all pitch-pine, that burned with a very sooty flame, the effect upon
the appearance of the hoverers was, startling. Face, neck and hands
became covered with mixture of lampblack and turpentine, forming a
coating as thick as heavy brown paper, and absolutely irremovable by
water alone. The hair also became of midnight blackness, and gummed up
into elflocks of fantastic shape and effect. Any one of us could have
gone on the negro minstrel stage, without changing a hair, and put to
blush the most elaborate make-up of the grotesque burnt-cork artists.

No wood was issued to us. The only way of getting it was to stand around
the gate for hours until a guard off duty could be coaxed or hired to
accompany a small party to the woods, to bring back a load of such knots
and limbs as could be picked up. Our chief persuaders to the guards to
do us this favor were rings, pencils, knives, combs, and such trifles as
we might have in our pockets, and, more especially, the brass buttons on
our uniforms. Rebel soldiers, like Indians, negros and other imperfectly
civilized people, were passionately fond of bright and gaudy things.
A handful of brass buttons would catch every one of them as swiftly and
as surely as a piece of red flannel will a gudgeon. Our regular fee for
an escort for three of us to the woods was six over-coat or dress-coat
buttons, or ten or twelve jacket buttons. All in the mess contributed to
this fund, and the fuel obtained was carefully guarded and husbanded.

This manner of conducting the wood business is a fair sample of the
management, or rather the lack of it, of every other detail of prison
administration. All the hardships we suffered from lack of fuel and
shelter could have been prevented without the slightest expense or
trouble to the Confederacy. Two hundred men allowed to go out on parole,
and supplied with ages, would have brought in from the adjacent woods,
in a week's time, enough material to make everybody comfortable tents,
and to supply all the fuel needed.

The mortality caused by the storm was, of course, very great. The
official report says the total number in the prison in March was four
thousand six hundred and three, of whom two hundred and eighty-three
died.

Among the first to die was the one whom we expected to live longest.
He was by much the largest man in prison, and was called, because of
this, "BIG JOE." He was a Sergeant in the Fifth Pennsylvania Cavalry,
and seemed the picture of health. One morning the news ran through the
prison that "Big Joe is dead," and a visit to his squad showed his stiff,
lifeless form, occupying as much ground as Goliath's, after his encounter
with David.

His early demise was an example of a general law, the workings of which
few in the army failed to notice. It was always the large and strong who
first succumbed to hardship. The stalwart, huge-limbed, toil-inured men
sank down earliest on the march, yielded soonest to malarial influences,
and fell first under the combined effects of home-sickness, exposure and
the privations of army life. The slender, withy boys, as supple and weak
as cats, had apparently the nine lives of those animals. There were few
exceptions to this rule in the army--there were none in Andersonville.
I can recall few or no instances where a large, strong, "hearty" man
lived through a few months of imprisonment. The survivors were
invariably youths, at the verge of manhood,--slender, quick, active,
medium-statured fellows, of a cheerful temperament, in whom one would
have expected comparatively little powers of endurance.

The theory which I constructed for my own private use in accounting for
this phenomenon I offer with proper diffidence to others who may be in
search of a hypothesis to explain facts that they have observed. It is
this:

a. The circulation of the blood maintains health, and consequently life
by carrying away from the various parts of the body the particles of
worn-out and poisonous tissue, and replacing them with fresh,
structure-building material.

b. The man is healthiest in whom this process goes on most freely and
continuously.

c. Men of considerable muscular power are disposed to be sluggish; the
exertion of great strength does not favor circulation. It rather retards
it, and disturbs its equilibrium by congesting the blood in quantities in
the sets of muscles called into action.

d. In light, active men, on the other hand, the circulation goes on
perfectly and evenly, because all the parts are put in motion, and kept
so in such a manner as to promote the movement of the blood to every
extremity. They do not strain one set of muscles by long continued
effort, as a strong man does, but call one into play after another.

There is no compulsion on the reader to accept this speculation at any
valuation whatever. There is not even any charge for it. I will lay
down this simple axiom:

No strong man, is a healthy man

from the athlete in the circus who lifts pieces of artillery and catches
cannon balls, to the exhibition swell in a country gymnasium. If my
theory is not a sufficient explanation of this, there is nothing to
prevent the reader from building up one to suit him better.

CHAPTER XXII.

DIFFERENCE BETWEEN ALABAMIANS AND GEORGIANS--DEATH OF "POLL PARROTT"
--A GOOD JOKE UPON THE GUARD--A BRUTAL RASCAL.

There were two regiments guarding us--the Twenty-Sixth Alabama and the
Fifty-Fifth Georgia. Never were two regiments of the same army more
different. The Alabamians were the superiors of the Georgians in every
way that one set of men could be superior to another. They were manly,
soldierly, and honorable, where the Georgians were treacherous and
brutal. We had nothing to complain of at the hands of the Alabamians;
we suffered from the Georgians everything that mean-spirited cruelty
could devise. The Georgians were always on the look-out for something
that they could torture into such apparent violation of orders, as would
justify them in shooting men down; the Alabamians never fired until they
were satisfied that a deliberate offense was intended. I can recall of
my own seeing at least a dozen instances where men of the Fifty-Fifth
Georgia Killed prisoners under the pretense that they were across the
Dead Line, when the victims were a yard or more from the Dead Line, and
had not the remotest idea of going any nearer.

The only man I ever knew to be killed by one of the Twenty-Sixth Alabama
was named Hubbard, from Chicago, Ills., and a member of the Thirty-Eighth
Illinois. He had lost one leg, and went hobbling about the camp on
crutches, chattering continually in a loud, discordant voice, saying all
manner of hateful and annoying things, wherever he saw an opportunity.
This and his beak-like nose gained for him the name of "Poll Parrot."
His misfortune caused him to be tolerated where another man would have
been suppressed. By-and-by he gave still greater cause for offense by
his obsequious attempts to curry favor with Captain Wirz, who took him
outside several times for purposes that were not well explained.
Finally, some hours after one of Poll Parrot's visits outside, a Rebel
officer came in with a guard, and, proceeding with suspicious directness
to a tent which was the mouth of a large tunnel that a hundred men or
more had been quietly pushing forward, broke the tunnel in, and took the
occupants of the tent outside for punishment. The question that demanded
immediate solution then was:

"Who is the traitor who has informed the Rebels?"

Suspicion pointed very strongly to "Poll Parrot." By the next morning
the evidence collected seemed to amount to a certainty, and a crowd
caught the Parrot with the intention of lynching him. He succeeded in
breaking away from them and ran under the Dead Line, near where I was
sitting in, my tent. At first it looked as if he had done this to secure
the protection of the guard. The latter--a Twenty-Sixth Alabamian
--ordered him out. Poll Parrot rose up on his one leg, put his back
against the Dead Line, faced the guard, and said in his harsh, cackling
voice:

"No; I won't go out. If I've lost the confidence of my comrades I want
to die."

Part of the crowd were taken back by this move, and felt disposed to
accept it as a demonstration of the Parrot's innocence. The rest thought
it was a piece of bravado, because of his belief that the Rebels would
not injure, him after he had served them. They renewed their yells, the
guard again ordered the Parrot out, but the latter, tearing open his
blouse, cackled out:

"No, I won't go; fire at me, guard. There's my heart shoot me right
there."

There was no help for it. The Rebel leveled his gun and fired. The
charge struck the Parrot's lower jaw, and carried it completely away,
leaving his tongue and the roof of his mouth exposed. As he was carried
back to die, he wagged his tongue rigorously, in attempting to speak, but
it was of no use.

The guard set his gun down and buried his face in his hands. It was the
only time that I saw a sentinel show anything but exultation at killing a
Yankee.

A ludicrous contrast to this took place a few nights later. The rains
had ceased, the weather had become warmer, and our spirits rising with
this increase in the comfort of our surroundings, a number of us were
sitting around "Nosey"--a boy with a superb tenor voice--who was singing
patriotic songs. We were coming in strong on the chorus, in a way that
spoke vastly more for our enthusiasm for the Union than our musical
knowledge. "Nosey" sang the "Star Spangled Banner," "The Battle Cry of
Freedom," "Brave Boys are They," etc., capitally, and we threw our whole
lungs into the chorus. It was quite dark, and while our noise was going
on the guards changed, new men coming on duty. Suddenly, bang! went the
gun of the guard in the box about fifty feet away from us. We knew it
was a Fifty-Fifth Georgian, and supposed that, irritated at our singing,
he was trying to kill some of us for spite. At the sound of the gun we
jumped up and scattered. As no one gave the usual agonized yell of a
prisoner when shot, we supposed the ball had not taken effect. We could
hear the sentinel ramming down another cartridge, hear him "return
rammer," and cock his rifle. Again the gun cracked, and again there was
no sound of anybody being hit. Again we could hear the sentry churning
down another cartridge. The drums began beating the long roll in the
camps, and officers could be heard turning the men out. The thing was
becoming exciting, and one of us sang out to the guard:

"S-a-y! What the are you shooting at, any how?"

"I'm a shootin' at that ---- ---- Yank thar by the Dead Line, and by ---
if you'uns don't take him in I'll blow the whole head offn him."

"What Yank? Where's any Yank?"

"Why, thar--right thar--a-standin' agin the Ded Line."

"Why, you Rebel fool, that's a chunk of wood. You can't get any furlough
for shooting that!"

At this there was a general roar from the rest of the camp, which the
other guards took up, and as the Reserves came double-quicking up, and
learned the occasion of the alarm, they gave the rascal who had been so
anxious to kill somebody a torrent of abuse for having disturbed them.

A part of our crowd had been out after wood during the day, and secured a
piece of a log as large as two of them could carry, and bringing it in,
stood it up near the Dead Line. When the guard mounted to his post he
was sure he saw a temerarious Yankee in front of him, and hastened to
slay him.

It was an unusual good fortune that nobody was struck. It was very rare
that the guards fired into the prison without hitting at least one
person. The Georgia Reserves, who formed our guards later in the season,
were armed with an old gun called a Queen Anne musket, altered to
percussion. It carried a bullet as big as a large marble, and three or
four buckshot. When fired into a group of men it was sure to bring
several down.

I was standing one day in the line at the gate, waiting for a chance to
go out after wood. A Fifty-Fifth Georgian was the gate guard, and he
drew a line in the sand with his bayonet which we should not cross.
The crowd behind pushed one man till he put his foot a few inches over
the line, to save himself from falling; the guard sank a bayonet through
the foot as quick as a flash.

Book of the day: