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Chapter 24

APRIL--LONGING TO GET OUT--THE DEATH RATE--THE PLAGUE OF LICE
--THE SO-CALLED HOSPITAL.

April brought sunny skies and balmy weather. Existence became much more
tolerable. With freedom it would have been enjoyable, even had we been
no better fed, clothed and sheltered. But imprisonment had never seemed
so hard to bear--even in the first few weeks--as now. It was easier to
submit to confinement to a limited area, when cold and rain were aiding
hunger to benumb the faculties and chill the energies than it was now,
when Nature was rousing her slumbering forces to activity, and earth,
and air and sky were filled with stimulus to man to imitate her example.
The yearning to be up and doing something-to turn these golden hours to
good account for self and country--pressed into heart and brain as the
vivifying sap pressed into tree-duct and plant cell, awaking all
vegetation to energetic life.

To be compelled, at such a time, to lie around in vacuous idleness
--to spend days that should be crowded full of action in a monotonous,
objectless routine of hunting lice, gathering at roll-call, and drawing
and cooking our scanty rations, was torturing.

But to many of our number the aspirations for freedom were not, as with
us, the desire for a wider, manlier field of action, so much as an
intense longing to get where care and comforts would arrest their swift
progress to the shadowy hereafter. The cruel rains had sapped away their
stamina, and they could not recover it with the meager and innutritious
diet of coarse meal, and an occasional scrap of salt meat. Quick
consumption, bronchitis, pneumonia, low fever and diarrhea seized upon
these ready victims for their ravages, and bore them off at the rate of
nearly a score a day.

It now became a part of, the day's regular routine to take a walk past
the gates in the morning, inspect and count the dead, and see if any
friends were among them. Clothes having by this time become a very
important consideration with the prisoners, it was the custom of the mess
in which a man died to remove from his person all garments that were of
any account, and so many bodies were carried out nearly naked. The hands
were crossed upon the breast, the big toes tied together with a bit of
string, and a slip of paper containing the man's name, rank, company and
regiment was pinned on the breast of his shirt.

The appearance of the dead was indescribably ghastly. The unclosed eyes
shone with a stony glitter--

An orphan's curse would drag to hell
A spirit from on high:
But, O, more terrible than that,
Is the curse in a dead man's eye.

The lips and nostrils were distorted with pain and hunger, the sallow,
dirt-grimed skin drawn tensely over the facial bones, and the whole
framed with the long, lank, matted hair and beard. Millions of lice
swarmed over the wasted limbs and ridged ribs. These verminous pests had
become so numerous--owing to our lack of changes of clothing, and of
facilities for boiling what we had--that the most a healthy man could
do was to keep the number feeding upon his person down to a reasonable
limit--say a few tablespoonfuls. When a man became so sick as to be
unable to help himself, the parasites speedily increased into millions,
or, to speak more comprehensively, into pints and quarts. It did not
even seem exaggeration when some one declared that he had seen a dead
man with more than a gallon of lice on him.

There is no doubt that the irritation from the biting of these myriads
materially the days of those who died.

Where a sick man had friends or comrades, of course part of their duty,
in taking care of him, was to "louse" his clothing. One of the most
effectual ways of doing this was to turn the garments wrong side out and
hold the seams as close to the fire as possible, without burning the
cloth. In a short time the lice would swell up and burst open, like
pop-corn. This method was a favorite one for another reason than its
efficacy: it gave one a keener sense of revenge upon his rascally little
tormentors than he could get in any other way.

As the weather grew warmer and the number in the prison increased, the
lice became more unendurable. They even filled the hot sand under our
feet, and voracious troops would climb up on one like streams of ants
swarming up a tree. We began to have a full comprehension of the third
plague with which the Lord visited the Egyptians:

And the Lord said unto Moses, Say unto Aaron, Stretch out thy rod,
and smite the dust of the land, that it may become lice through all
the land of Egypt.

And they did so; for Aaron stretched out his hand with his rod, and
smote the dust of the earth, and it became lice in man and in beast;
all the dust of the land became lice throughout all the land of
Egypt.

The total number of deaths in April, according to the official report,
was five hundred and seventy-six, or an average of over nineteen a day.
There was an average of five thousand prisoner's in the pen during all
but the last few days of the month, when the number was increased by the
arrival of the captured garrison of Plymouth. This would make the loss
over eleven per cent., and so worse than decimation. At that rate we
should all have died in about eight months. We could have gone through a
sharp campaign lasting those thirty days and not lost so great a
proportion of our forces. The British had about as many men as were in
the Stockade at the battle of New Orleans, yet their loss in killed fell
much short of the deaths in the pen in April.

A makeshift of a hospital was established in the northeastern corner of
the Stockade. A portion of the ground was divided from the rest of the
prison by a railing, a few tent flies were stretched, and in these the
long leaves of the pine were made into apologies for beds of about the
goodness of the straw on which a Northern farmer beds his stock. The
sick taken there were no better off than if they had staid with their
comrades.

What they needed to bring about their recovery was clean clothing,
nutritious food, shelter and freedom from the tortures of the lice.
They obtained none of these. Save a few decoctions of roots, there were
no medicines; the sick were fed the same coarse corn meal that brought
about the malignant dysentery from which they all suffered; they wore and
slept in the same vermin-infested clothes, and there could be but one
result: the official records show that seventy-six per cent. of those
taken to the hospitals died there.

The establishment of the hospital was specially unfortunate for my little
squad. The ground required for it compelled a general reduction of the
space we all occupied. We had to tear down our huts and move. By this
time the materials had become so dry that we could not rebuild with them,
as the pine tufts fell to pieces. This reduced the tent and bedding
material of our party--now numbering five--to a cavalry overcoat and a
blanket. We scooped a hole a foot deep in the sand and stuck our
tent-poles around it. By day we spread our blanket over the poles for a
tent. At night we lay down upon the overcoat and covered ourselves with
the blanket. It required considerable stretching to make it go over
five; the two out side fellows used to get very chilly, and squeeze the
three inside ones until they felt no thicker than a wafer. But it had
to do, and we took turns sleeping on the outside. In the course of a
few weeks three of my chums died and left myself and B. B. Andrews (now
Dr. Andrews, of Astoria, Ill.) sole heirs to and occupants of, the
overcoat and blanket.

John McElroy