Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344

Chapter 12


Before going any further in this narrative it may be well to state that
the nomenclature employed is not used in any odious or disparaging sense.
It is simply the adoption of the usual terms employed by the soldiers of
both sides in speaking to or of each other. We habitually spoke of them
and to them, as "Rebels," and "Johnnies ;" they of and to us, as "Yanks,"
and "Yankees." To have said "Confederates," "Southerners,"
"Secessionists," or "Federalists," "Unionists," "Northerners" or
"Nationalists," would have seemed useless euphemism. The plainer terms
suited better, and it was a day when things were more important than

For some inscrutable reason the Rebels decided to vaccinate us all.
Why they did this has been one of the unsolved problems of my life.
It is true that there was small pox in the City, and among the prisoners
at Danville; but that any consideration for our safety should have led
them to order general inoculation is not among the reasonable inferences.
But, be that as it may, vaccination was ordered, and performed. By great
good luck I was absent from the building with the squad drawing rations,
when our room was inoculated, so I escaped what was an infliction to all,
and fatal to many. The direst consequences followed the operation.
Foul ulcers appeared on various parts of the bodies of the vaccinated.
In many instances the arms literally rotted off; and death followed from
a corruption of the blood. Frequently the faces, and other parts of
those who recovered, were disfigured by the ghastly cicatrices of healed
ulcers. A special friend of mine, Sergeant Frank Beverstock--then a
member of the Third Virginia Cavalry, (loyal), and after the war a banker
in Bowling Green, O.,--bore upon his temple to his dying day, (which
occurred a year ago), a fearful scar, where the flesh had sloughed off
from the effects of the virus that had tainted his blood.

This I do not pretend to account for. We thought at the time that the
Rebels had deliberately poisoned the vaccine matter with syphilitic
virus, and it was so charged upon them. I do not now believe that this
was so; I can hardly think that members of the humane profession of
medicine would be guilty of such subtle diabolism--worse even than
poisoning the wells from which an enemy must drink. The explanation with
which I have satisfied myself is that some careless or stupid
practitioner took the vaccinating lymph from diseased human bodies,
and thus infected all with the blood venom, without any conception of
what he was doing. The low standard of medical education in the South
makes this theory quite plausible.

We now formed the acquaintance of a species of human vermin that united
with the Rebels, cold, hunger, lice and the oppression of distraint, to
leave nothing undone that could add to the miseries of our prison life.

These were the fledglings of the slums and dives of New York--graduates
of that metropolitan sink of iniquity where the rogues and criminals of
the whole world meet for mutual instruction in vice.

They were men who, as a rule, had never known, a day of honesty and
cleanliness in their misspent lives; whose fathers, brothers and constant
companions were roughs, malefactors and, felons; whose mothers, wives and
sisters were prostitutes, procuresses and thieves; men who had from
infancy lived in an atmosphere of sin, until it saturated every fiber of
their being as a dweller in a jungle imbibes malaria by every one of his,
millions of pores, until his very marrow is surcharged with it.

They included representatives from all nationalities, and their
descendants, but the English and Irish elements predominated. They had
an argot peculiar to themselves. It was partly made up of the "flash"
language of the London thieves, amplified and enriched by the cant
vocabulary and the jargon of crime of every European tongue. They spoke
it with a peculiar accent and intonation that made them instantly
recognizable from the roughs of all other Cities. They called themselves
"N'Yaarkers;" we came to know them as "Raiders."

If everything in the animal world has its counterpart among men, then
these were the wolves, jackals and hyenas of the race at once cowardly
and fierce--audaciously bold when the power of numbers was on their side,
and cowardly when confronted with resolution by anything like an equality
of strength.

Like all other roughs and rascals of whatever degree, they were utterly
worthless as soldiers. There may have been in the Army some habitual
corner loafer, some fistic champion of the bar-room and brothel, some
Terror of Plug Uglyville, who was worth the salt in the hard tack he
consumed, but if there were, I did not form his acquaintance, and I never
heard of any one else who did. It was the rule that the man who was the
readiest in the use of fist and slungshot at home had the greatest
diffidence about forming a close acquaintance with cold lead in the
neighborhood of the front. Thousands of the so-called "dangerous
classes" were recruited, from whom the Government did not receive so much
service as would pay for the buttons on their uniforms. People expected
that they would make themselves as troublesome to the Rebels as they were
to good citizens and the Police, but they were only pugnacious to the
provost guard, and terrible to the people in the rear of the Army who had
anything that could be stolen.

The highest type of soldier which the world has yet produced is the
intelligent, self-respecting American boy, with home, and father and
mother and friends behind him, and duty in front beckoning him on.
In the sixty centuries that war has been a profession no man has entered
its ranks so calmly resolute in confronting danger, so shrewd and
energetic in his aggressiveness, so tenacious of the defense and the
assault, so certain to rise swiftly to the level of every emergency, as
the boy who, in the good old phrase, had been "well-raised" in a
Godfearing home, and went to the field in obedience to a conviction of
duty. His unfailing courage and good sense won fights that the
incompetency or cankering jealousy of commanders had lost. High officers
were occasionally disloyal, or willing to sacrifice their country to
personal pique; still more frequently they were ignorant and inefficient;
but the enlisted man had more than enough innate soldiership to make
amends for these deficiencies, and his superb conduct often brought
honors and promotions to those only who deserved shame and disaster.

Our "N'Yaarkers," swift to see any opportunity for dishonest gain, had
taken to bounty-jumping, or, as they termed it, "leppin' the bounty,"
for a livelihood. Those who were thrust in upon us had followed this
until it had become dangerous, and then deserted to the Rebels. The
latter kept them at Castle Lightning for awhile, and then, rightly
estimating their character, and considering that it was best to trade
them off for a genuine Rebel soldier, sent them in among us, to be
exchanged regularly with us. There was not so much good faith as good
policy shown by this. It was a matter of indifference to the Rebels how
soon our Government shot these deserters after getting them in its hands
again. They were only anxious to use them to get their own men back.

The moment they came into contact with us our troubles began. They stole
whenever opportunities offered, and they were indefatigable in making
these offer; they robbed by actual force, whenever force would avail;
and more obsequious lick-spittles to power never existed--they were
perpetually on the look-out for a chance to curry favor by betraying
some plan or scheme to those who guarded us.

I saw one day a queer illustration of the audacious side of these
fellows' characters, and it shows at the same time how brazen effrontery
will sometimes get the better of courage. In a room in an adjacent
building were a number of these fellows, and a still greater number of
East Tennesseeans. These latter were simple, ignorant folks, but
reasonably courageous. About fifty of them were sitting in a group in
one corner of the room, and near them a couple or three "N'Yaarkers."
Suddenly one of the latter said with an oath:

"I was robbed last night; I lost two silver watches, a couple of rings,
and about fifty dollars in greenbacks. I believe some of you fellers
went through me."

This was all pure invention; he no more had the things mentioned than
he had purity of heart and a Christian spirit, but the unsophisticated
Tennesseeans did not dream of disputing his statement, and answered in

"Oh, no, mister; we didn't take your things; we ain't that kind."

This was like the reply of the lamb to the wolf, in the fable, and the
N'Yaarker retorted with a simulated storm of passion, and a torrent of

"---- ---- I know ye did; I know some uv yez has got them; stand up agin
the wall there till I search yez!"

And that whole fifty men, any one of whom was physically equal to the
N'Yaarker, and his superior in point of real courage, actually stood
against the wall, and submitted to being searched and having taken from
them the few Confederate bills they had, and such trinkets as the
searcher took a fancy to.

I was thoroughly disgusted.

John McElroy