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 26


To our minds the world now contained but two grand divisions, as widely
different from each other as happiness and misery. The first--that
portion over which our flag floated was usually spoken of as "God's
Country;" the other--that under the baneful shadow of the banner of
rebellion--was designated by the most opprobrious epithets at the
speaker's command.

To get from the latter to the former was to attain, at one bound, the
highest good. Better to be a doorkeeper in the House of the Lord, under
the Stars and Stripes, than to dwell in the tents of wickedness, under
the hateful Southern Cross.

To take even the humblest and hardest of service in the field now would
be a delightsome change. We did not ask to go home--we would be content
with anything, so long as it was in that blest place "within our lines."
Only let us get back once, and there would be no more grumbling at
rations or guard duty--we would willingly endure all the hardships and
privations that soldier flesh is heir to.

There were two ways of getting back--escape and exchange. Exchange was
like the ever receding mirage of the desert, that lures the thirsty
traveler on over the parched sands, with illusions of refreshing springs,
only to leave his bones at last to whiten by the side of those of his
unremembered predecessors. Every day there came something to build up
the hopes that exchange was near at hand--every day brought something to
extinguish the hopes of the preceding one. We took these varying phases
according to our several temperaments. The sanguine built themselves up
on the encouraging reports; the desponding sank down and died under the
discouraging ones.

Escape was a perpetual allurement. To the actively inclined among us it
seemed always possible, and daring, busy brains were indefatigable in
concocting schemes for it. The only bit of Rebel brain work that I ever
saw for which I did not feel contempt was the perfect precautions taken
to prevent our escape. This is shown by the fact that, although, from
first to last, there were nearly fifty thousand prisoners in
Andersonville, and three out of every five of these were ever on the
alert to take French leave of their captors, only three hundred and
twenty-eight succeeded in getting so far away from Andersonville as to
leave it to be presumed that they had reached our lines.

The first, and almost superhuman difficulty was to get outside the
Stockade. It was simply impossible to scale it. The guards were too
close together to allow an instant's hope to the most sanguine, that he
could even pass the Dead Line without being shot by some one of them.
This same closeness prevented any hope of bribing them. To be successful
half those on post would have to be bribed, as every part of the Stockade
was clearly visible from every other part, and there was no night so dark
as not to allow a plain view to a number of guards of the dark figure
outlined against the light colored logs of any Yankee who should essay to
clamber towards the top of the palisades.

The gates were so carefully guarded every time they were opened as to
preclude hope of slipping out through theme. They were only unclosed
twice or thrice a day--once to admit, the men to call the roll, once to
let them out again, once to let the wagons come in with rations, and
once, perhaps, to admit, new prisoners. At all these times every
precaution was taken to prevent any one getting out surreptitiously.

This narrowed down the possibilities of passing the limits of the pen
alive, to tunneling. This was also surrounded by almost insuperable
difficulties. First, it required not less than fifty feet of
subterranean excavation to get out, which was an enormous work with our
limited means. Then the logs forming the Stockade were set in the ground
to a depth of five feet, and the tunnel had to go down beneath them.
They had an unpleasant habit of dropping down into the burrow under them.
It added much to the discouragements of tunneling to think of one of
these massive timbers dropping upon a fellow as he worked his mole-like
way under it, and either crushing him to death outright, or pinning him
there to die of suffocation or hunger.

In one instance, in a tunnel near me, but in which I was not interested,
the log slipped down after the digger had got out beyond it.
He immediately began digging for the surface, for life, and was
fortunately able to break through before he suffocated. He got his head
above the ground, and then fainted. The guard outside saw him, pulled
him out of the hole, and when he recovered sensibility hurried him back
into the Stockade.

In another tunnel, also near us, a broad-shouldered German, of the Second
Minnesota, went in to take his turn at digging. He was so much larger
than any of his predecessors that he stuck fast in a narrow part, and
despite all the efforts of himself and comrades, it was found impossible
to move him one way or the other. The comrades were at last reduced to
the humiliation of informing the Officer of the Guard of their tunnel and
the condition of their friend, and of asking assistance to release him,
which was given.

The great tunneling tool was the indispensable half-canteen. The
inventive genius of our people, stimulated by the war, produced nothing
for the comfort and effectiveness of the soldier equal in usefulness to
this humble and unrecognized utensil. It will be remembered that a
canteen was composed of two pieces of tin struck up into the shape of
saucers, and soldered together at the edges. After a soldier had been in
the field a little while, and thrown away or lost the curious and
complicated kitchen furniture he started out with, he found that by
melting the halves of his canteen apart, he had a vessel much handier in
every way than any he had parted with. It could be used for anything
--to make soup or coffee in, bake bread, brown coffee, stew vegetables,
etc., etc. A sufficient handle was made with a split stick. When the
cooking was done, the handle was thrown away, and the half canteen
slipped out of the road into the haversack. There seemed to be no end of
the uses to which this ever-ready disk of blackened sheet iron could be
turned. Several instances are on record where infantry regiments, with
no other tools than this, covered themselves on the field with quite
respectable rifle pits.

The starting point of a tunnel was always some tent close to the Dead
Line, and sufficiently well closed to screen the operations from the
sight of the guards near by. The party engaged in the work organized by
giving every man a number to secure the proper apportionment of the
labor. Number One began digging with his half canteen. After he had
worked until tired, he came out, and Number Two took his place, and so
on. The tunnel was simply a round, rat-like burrow, a little larger than
a man's body. The digger lay on his stomach, dug ahead of him, threw the
dirt under him, and worked it back with his feet till the man behind him,
also lying on his stomach, could catch it and work it back to the next.
As the tunnel lengthened the number of men behind each other in this way
had to be increased, so that in a tunnel seventy-five feet long there
would be from eight to ten men lying one behind the other. When the dirt
was pushed back to the mouth of the tunnel it was taken up in improvised
bags, made by tying up the bottoms of pantaloon legs, carried to the
Swamp, and emptied. The work in the tunnel was very exhausting, and the
digger had to be relieved every half-hour.

The greatest trouble was to carry the tunnel forward in a straight line.
As nearly everybody dug most of the time with the right hand, there was
an almost irresistible tendency to make the course veer to the left. The
first tunnel I was connected with was a ludicrous illustration of this.
About twenty of us had devoted our nights for over a week to the
prolongation of a burrow. We had not yet reached the Stockade, which
astonished us, as measurement with a string showed that we had gone
nearly twice the distance necessary for the purpose. The thing was
inexplicable, and we ceased operations to consider the matter. The next
day a man walking by a tent some little distance from the one in which
the hole began, was badly startled by the ground giving way under his
feet, and his sinking nearly to his waist in a hole. It was very
singular, but after wondering over the matter for some hours, there came
a glimmer of suspicion that it might be, in some way, connected with the
missing end of our tunnel. One of us started through on an exploring
expedition, and confirmed the suspicions by coming out where the man had
broken through. Our tunnel was shaped like a horse shoe, and the
beginning and end were not fifteen feet apart. After that we practised
digging with our left hand, and made certain compensations for the
tendency to the sinister side.

Another trouble connected with tunneling was the number of traitors and
spies among us. There were many--principally among the N'Yaarker crowd
who were always zealous to betray a tunnel, in order to curry favor with
the Rebel officers. Then, again, the Rebels had numbers of their own men
in the pen at night, as spies. It was hardly even necessary to dress
these in our uniform, because a great many of our own men came into the
prison in Rebel clothes, having been compelled to trade garments with
their captors.

One day in May, quite an excitement was raised by the detection of one of
these "tunnel traitors" in such a way as left no doubt of his guilt.
At first everybody was in favor of killing him, and they actually started
to beat him to death. This was arrested by a proposition to "have
Captain Jack tattoo him," and the suggestion was immediately acted upon.

"Captain Jack" was a sailor who had been with us in the Pemberton
building at Richmond. He was a very skilful tattoo artist, but, I am
sure, could make the process nastier than any other that I ever saw
attempt it. He chewed tobacco enormously. After pricking away for a few
minutes at the design on the arm or some portion of the body, he would
deluge it with a flood of tobacco spit, which, he claimed, acted as a
kind of mordant. Piping this off with a filthy rag, he would study the
effect for an instant, and then go ahead with another series of prickings
and tobacco juice drenchings.

The tunnel-traitor was taken to Captain Jack. That worthy decided to
brand him with a great "T," the top part to extend across his forehead
and the stem to run down his nose. Captain Jack got his tattooing kit
ready, and the fellow was thrown upon the ground and held there. The
Captain took his head between his legs, and began operations. After an
instant's work with the needles, he opened his mouth, and filled the
wretch's face and eyes full of the disgusting saliva. The crowd round
about yelled with delight at this new process. For an hour, that was
doubtless an eternity to the rascal undergoing branding, Captain Jack
continued his alternate pickings and drenchings. At the end of that time
the traitor's face was disfigured with a hideous mark that he would bear
to his grave. We learned afterwards that he was not one of our men, but
a Rebel spy. This added much to our satisfaction with the manner of his
treatment. He disappeared shortly after the operation was finished,
being, I suppose, taken outside. I hardly think Captain Jack would be
pleased to meet him again.

John McElroy