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Chapter 17


The stockade was not quite finished at the time of our arrival--a gap of
several hundred feet appearing at the southwest corner. A gang of about
two hundred negros were at work felling trees, hewing legs, and placing
them upright in the trenches. We had an opportunity--soon to disappear
forever--of studying the workings of the "peculiar institution" in its
very home. The negros were of the lowest field-hand class, strong, dull,
ox-like, but each having in our eyes an admixture of cunning and
secretiveness that their masters pretended was not in them. Their
demeanor toward us illustrated this. We were the objects of the most
supreme interest to them, but when near us and in the presence of a white
Rebel, this interest took the shape of stupid, open-eyed, open-mouthed
wonder, something akin to the look on the face of the rustic lout, gazing
for the first time upon a locomotive or a steam threshing machine.
But if chance threw one of them near us when he thought himself
unobserved by the Rebels, the blank, vacant face lighted up with an
entirely different expression. He was no longer the credulous yokel who
believed the Yankees were only slightly modified devils, ready at any
instant to return to their original horn-and-tail condition and snatch
him away to the bluest kind of perdition; he knew, apparently quite as
well as his master, that they were in some way his friends and allies,
and he lost no opportunity in communicating his appreciation of that
fact, and of offering his services in any possible way. And these offers
were sincere. It is the testimony of every Union prisoner in the South
that he was never betrayed by or disappointed in a field-negro, but could
always approach any one of them with perfect confidence in his extending
all the aid in his power, whether as a guide to escape, as sentinel to
signal danger, or a purveyor of food. These services were frequently
attended with the greatest personal risk, but they were none the less
readily undertaken. This applies only to the field-hands; the house
servants were treacherous and wholly unreliable. Very many of our men
who managed to get away from the prisons were recaptured through their
betrayal by house servants, but none were retaken where a field hand
could prevent it.

We were much interested in watching the negro work. They wove in a great
deal of their peculiar, wild, mournful music, whenever the character of
the labor permitted. They seemed to sing the music for the music's sake
alone, and were as heedless of the fitness of the accompanying words,
as the composer of a modern opera is of his libretto. One middle aged
man, with a powerful, mellow baritone, like the round, full notes of a
French horn, played by a virtuoso, was the musical leader of the party.
He never seemed to bother himself about air, notes or words, but
improvised all as he went along, and he sang as the spirit moved him.
He would suddenly break out with--

"Oh, he's gone up dah, nevah to come back agin,"

At this every darkey within hearing would roll out, in admirable
consonance with the pitch, air and time started by the leader--


Then would ring out from the leader as from the throbbing lips of a
silver trumpet,

"Lord bress him soul; I done hope he is happy now!"

And the antiphonal two hundred would chant back


And so on for hours. They never seemed to weary of singing, and we
certainly did not of listening to them. The absolute independence of the
conventionalities of tune and sentiment, gave them freedom to wander
through a kaleideoscopic variety of harmonic effects, as spontaneous and
changeful as the song of a bird.

I sat one evening, long after the shadows of night had fallen upon the
hillside, with one of my chums--a Frank Berkstresser, of the Ninth
Maryland Infantry, who before enlisting was a mathematical tutor in
college at Hancock, Maryland. As we listened to the unwearying flow of
melody from the camp of the laborers, I thought of and repeated to him
Longfellow's fine lines:


And the voice of his devotion
Filled my soul with strong emotion;
For its tones by turns were glad
Sweetly solemn, wildly sad.

Paul and Silas, in their prison,
Sang of Christ, the Lord arisen,
And an earthquake's arm of might
Broke their dungeon gates at night.

But, alas, what holy angel
Brings the slave this glad evangel
And what earthquake's arm of might.
Breaks his prison gags at night.

Said I: "Now, isn't that fine, Berkstresser?"

He was a Democrat, of fearfully pro-slavery ideas, and he replied,

"O, the poetry's tolerable, but the sentiment's damnable."

John McElroy