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Chapter 21


The rations diminished perceptibly day by day. When we first entered we
each received something over a quart of tolerably good meal, a sweet
potato, a piece of meat about the size of one's two fingers, and
occasionally a spoonful of salt. First the salt disappeared. Then the
sweet potato took unto itself wings and flew away, never to return.
An attempt was ostensibly made to issue us cow-peas instead, and the
first issue was only a quart to a detachment of two hundred and seventy
men. This has two-thirds of a pint to each squad of ninety, and made but
a few spoonfuls for each of the four messes in the squad. When it came
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

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

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

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.

John McElroy