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Chapter 11


The Winter days passed on, one by one, after the manner described in a
former chapter,--the mornings in ill-nature hunger; the afternoons and
evenings in tolerable comfort. The rations kept growing lighter and
lighter; the quantity of bread remained the same, but the meat
diminished, and occasional days would pass without any being issued.
Then we receive a pint or less of soup made from the beans or peas before
mentioned, but this, too, suffered continued change, in the gradually
increasing proportion of James River water, and decreasing of that of the

The water of the James River is doubtless excellent: it looks well--at a
distance--and is said to serve the purposes of ablution and navigation
admirably. There seems to be a limit however, to the extent of its
advantageous combination with the bean (or pea) for nutritive purposes.
This, though, was or view of the case, merely, and not shared in to any
appreciably extent by the gentlemen who were managing our boarding house.
We seemed to view the matter through allopathic spectacles, they through
homoeopathic lenses. We thought that the atomic weight of peas (or
beans) and the James River fluid were about equal, which would indicate
that the proper combining proportions would be, say a bucket of beans (or
peas) to a bucket of water. They held that the nutritive potency was
increased by the dilution, and the best results were obtainable when the
symptoms of hunger were combated by the trituration of a bucketful of the
peas-beans with a barrel of 'aqua jamesiana.'

My first experience with this "flat" soup was very instructive, if not
agreeable. I had come into prison, as did most other prisoners,
absolutely destitute of dishes, or cooking utensils. The well-used,
half-canteen frying-pan, the blackened quart cup, and the spoon, which
formed the usual kitchen outfit of the cavalryman in the field, were in
the haversack on my saddle, and were lost to me when I separated from my
horse. Now, when we were told that we were to draw soup, I was in great
danger of losing my ration from having no vessel in which to receive it.
There were but few tin cups in the prison, and these were, of course,
wanted by their owners. By great good fortune I found an empty fruit can,
holding about a quart. I was also lucky enough to find a piece from
which to make a bail. I next manufactured a spoon and knife combined
from a bit of hoop-iron.

These two humble utensils at once placed myself and my immediate chums on
another plane, as far as worldly goods were concerned. We were better
off than the mass, and as well off as the most fortunate. It was a
curious illustration of that law of political economy which teaches that
so-called intrinsic value is largely adventitious. Their possession gave
us infinitely more consideration among our fellows than would the
possession of a brown-stone front in an eligible location, furnished with
hot and cold water throughout, and all the modern improvements. It was a
place where cooking utensils were in demand, and title-deeds to
brown-stone fronts were not. We were in possession of something which
every one needed every day, and, therefore, were persons of consequence
and consideration to those around us who were present or prospective

On our side we obeyed another law of political economy: We clung to our
property with unrelaxing tenacity, made the best use of it in our
intercourse with our fellows, and only gave it up after our release and
entry into a land where the plenitude of cooking utensils of superior
construction made ours valueless. Then we flung them into the sea, with
little gratitude for the great benefit they had been to us. We were more
anxious to get rid of the many hateful recollections clustering around

But, to return to the alleged soup: As I started to drink my first ration
it seemed to me that there was a superfluity of bugs upon its surface.
Much as I wanted animal food, I did not care for fresh meat in that form.
I skimmed them off carefully, so as to lose as little soup as possible.
But the top layer seemed to be underlaid with another equally dense.
This was also skimmed off as deftly as possible. But beneath this
appeared another layer, which, when removed, showed still another; and so
on, until I had scraped to the bottom of the can, and the last of the
bugs went with the last of my soup. I have before spoken of the
remarkable bug fecundity of the beans (or peas). This was a
demonstration of it. Every scouped out pea (or bean) which found its
way into the soup bore inside of its shell from ten to twenty of these
hard-crusted little weevil. Afterward I drank my soup without skimming.
It was not that I hated the weevil less, but that I loved the soup more.
It was only another step toward a closer conformity to that grand rule
which I have made the guiding maxim of my life:

'When I must, I had better.'

I recommend this to other young men starting on their career.

The room in which we were was barely large enough for all of us to lie
down at once. Even then it required pretty close "spooning" together
--so close in fact that all sleeping along one side would have to turn at
once. It was funny to watch this operation. All, for instance, would be
lying on their right sides. They would begin to get tired, and one of
the wearied ones would sing out to the Sergeant who was in command of the

"Sergeant: let's spoon the other way."

That individual would reply:

"All right. Attention! LEFT SPOON!!" and the whole line would at once
flop over on their left sides.

The feet of the row that slept along the east wall on the floor below us
were in a line with the edge of the outer door, and a chalk line drawn
from the crack between the door and the frame to the opposite wall would
touch, say 150 pairs of feet. They were a noisy crowd down there, and
one night their noise so provoked the guard in front of the door that he
called out to them to keep quiet or he would fire in upon them. They
greeted this threat with a chorus profanely uncomplimentary to the purity
of the guard's ancestry; they did not imply his descent a la Darwin, from
the remote monkey, but more immediate generation by a common domestic
animal. The incensed Rebel opened the door wide enough to thrust his gun
in, and he fired directly down the line of toes. His piece was
apparently loaded with buckshot, and the little balls must have struck
the legs, nipped off the toes, pierced the feet, and otherwise slightly
wounded the lower extremities of fifty men. The simultaneous shriek that
went up was deafening. It was soon found out that nobody had been hurt
seriously, and there was not a little fun over the occurrence.

One of the prisoners in Libby was Brigadier General Neal Dow, of Maine,
who had then a National reputation as a Temperance advocate, and the
author of the famous Maine Liquor Law. We, whose places were near the
front window, used to see him frequently on the street, accompanied by a
guard. He was allowed, we understood, to visit our sick in the hospital.
His long, snowy beard and hair gave him a venerable and commanding

Newsboys seemed to be a thing unknown in Richmond. The papers were sold
on the streets by negro men. The one who frequented our section with the
morning journals had a mellow; rich baritone for which we would be glad
to exchange the shrill cries of our street Arabs. We long remembered him
as one of the peculiar features of Richmond. He had one unvarying
formula for proclaiming his wares. It ran in this wise:

"Great Nooze in de papahs!

"Great Nooze from Orange Coaht House, Virginny!

"Great Nooze from Alexandry, Virginny!

"Great Nooze from Washington City!

"Great Nooze from Chattanoogy, Tennessee!

"Great Nooze from Chahlston, Sou' Cahlina!

"Great Nooze in depapahs!"

It did not matter to him that the Rebels had not been at some of these
places for months. He would not change for such mere trifles as the
entire evaporation of all possible interest connected with Chattanooga
and Alexandria. He was a true Bourbon Southerner--he learned nothing and
forgot nothing.

There was a considerable trade driven between the prisoners and the guard
at the door. This was a very lucrative position for the latter, and men
of a commercial turn of mind generally managed to get stationed there.
The blockade had cut off the Confederacy's supplies from the outer world,
and the many trinkets about a man's person were in good demand at high
prices. The men of the Army of the Potomac, who were paid regularly,
and were always near their supplies, had their pockets filled with combs,
silk handkerchiefs, knives, neckties, gold pens, pencils, silver watches,
playing cards, dice, etc. Such of these as escaped appropriation by
their captors and Dick Turner, were eagerly bought by the guards, who
paid fair prices in Confederate money, or traded wheat bread, tobacco,
daily papers, etc., for them.

There was also considerable brokerage in money, and the manner of doing
this was an admirable exemplification of the folly of the "fiat" money
idea. The Rebels exhausted their ingenuity in framing laws to sustain
the purchasing power of their paper money. It was made legal tender for
all debts public and private; it was decreed that the man who refused to
take it was a public enemy; all the considerations of patriotism were
rallied to its support, and the law provided that any citizens found
trafficking in the money of the enemy--i.e., greenbacks, should suffer
imprisonment in the Penitentiary, and any soldier so offending should
suffer death.

Notwithstanding all this, in Richmond, the head and heart of the
Confederacy, in January, 1864--long before the Rebel cause began to look
at all desperate--it took a dollar to buy such a loaf of bread as now
sells for ten cents; a newspaper was a half dollar, and everything else
in proportion. And still worse: There was not a day during our stay in
Richmond but what one could go to the hole in the door before which the
guard was pacing and call out in a loud whisper:

"Say, Guard: do you want to buy some greenbacks?"

And be sure that the reply would be, after a furtive glance around to see
that no officer was watching:

"Yes; how much do you want for them?"

The reply was then: "Ten for one."

"All right; how much have you got?"

The Yankee would reply; the Rebel would walk to the farther end of his
beat, count out the necessary amount, and, returning, put up one hand
with it, while with the other he caught hold of one end of the Yankee's
greenback. At the word, both would release their holds simultaneously,
the exchange was complete, and the Rebel would pace industriously up and
down his beat with the air of the school boy who "ain't been a-doin'

There was never any risk in approaching any guard with a proposition of
this kind. I never heard of one refusing to trade for greenbacks, and if
the men on guard could not be restrained by these stringent laws, what
hope could there be of restraining anybody else?

One day we were favored with a visit from the redoubtable General John H.
Morgan, next to J. E. B. Stuart the greatest of Rebel cavalry leaders.
He had lately escaped from the Ohio Penitentiary. He was invited to
Richmond to be made a Major General, and was given a grand ovation by the
citizens and civic Government. He came into our building to visit a
number of the First Kentucky Cavalry (loyal)--captured at New
Philadelphia, East Tennessee--whom he was anxious to have exchanged for
men of his own regiment--the First Kentucky Cavalry (Rebel)--who were
captured at the same time he was. I happened to get very close to him
while he was standing there talking to his old acquaintances, and I made
a mental photograph of him, which still retains all its original
distinctness. He was a tall, heavy man, with a full, coarse, and
somewhat dull face, and lazy, sluggish gray eyes. His long black hair
was carefully oiled, and turned under at the ends, as was the custom with
the rural beaux some years ago. His face was clean shaved, except a
large, sandy goatee. He wore a high silk hat, a black broadcloth coat,
Kentucky jeans pantaloons, neatly fitting boots, and no vest. There was
nothing remotely suggestive of unusual ability or force of character, and
I thought as I studied him that the sting of George D. Prentice's bon mot
about him was in its acrid truth. Said Mr. Prentice:

"Why don't somebody put a pistol to Basil Duke's head, and blow John
Morgan's brains out!" [Basil Duke was John Morgan's right hand man.]

John McElroy