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Chapter 28


In May the long gathering storm of war burst with angry violence all
along the line held by the contending armies. The campaign began which
was to terminate eleven months later in the obliteration of the Southern
Confederacy. May 1, Sigel moved up the Shenandoah Valley with thirty
thousand men; May 3, Butler began his blundering movement against
Petersburg; May 3, the Army of the Potomac left Culpeper, and on the 5th
began its deadly grapple with Lee, in the Wilderness; May 6, Sherman
moved from Chattanooga, and engaged Joe Johnston at Rocky Face Ridge and
Tunnel Hill.

Each of these columns lost heavily in prisoners. It could not be
otherwise; it was a consequence of the aggressive movements. An army
acting offensively usually suffers more from capture than one on the
defensive. Our armies were penetrating the enemy's country in close
proximity to a determined and vigilant foe. Every scout, every skirmish
line, every picket, every foraging party ran the risk of falling into a
Rebel trap. This was in addition to the risk of capture in action.

The bulk of the prisoners were taken from the Army of the Potomac. For
this there were two reasons: First, that there were many more men in that
Army than in any other; and second, that the entanglement in the dense
thickets and shrubbery of the Wilderness enabled both sides to capture
great numbers of the other's men. Grant lost in prisoners from May 5 to
May 31, seven thousand four hundred and fifty; he probably captured
two-thirds of that number from the Johnnies.

Wirz's headquarters were established in a large log house which had been
built in the fort a little distant from the southeast corner of the
prison. Every day--and sometimes twice or thrice a day--we would see
great squads of prisoners marched up to these headquarters, where they
would be searched, their names entered upon the prison records, by clerks
(detailed prisoners; few Rebels had the requisite clerical skill) and
then be marched into the prison. As they entered, the Rebel guards would
stand to arms. The infantry would be in line of battle, the cavalry
mounted, and the artillerymen standing by their guns, ready to open at
the instant with grape and canister.

The disparity between the number coming in from the Army of the Potomac
and Western armies was so great, that we Westerners began to take some
advantage of it. If we saw a squad of one hundred and fifty or
thereabouts at the headquarters, we felt pretty certain they were from
Sherman, and gathered to meet them, and learn the news from our friends.
If there were from five hundred to two thousand we knew they were from
the Army of the Potomac, and there were none of our comrades among them.
There were three exceptions to this rule while we were in Andersonville.
The first was in June, when the drunken and incompetent Sturgis (now
Colonel of the Seventh United States Cavalry) shamefully sacrificed a
superb division at Guntown, Miss. The next was after Hood made his
desperate attack on Sherman, on the 22d of July, and the third was when
Stoneman was captured at Macon. At each of these times about two
thousand prisoners were brought in.

By the end of May there were eighteen thousand four hundred and
fifty-four prisoners in the Stockade. Before the reader dismisses this
statement from his mind let him reflect how great a number this is.
It is more active, able-bodied young men than there are in any of our
leading Cities, save New York and Philadelphia. It is more than the
average population of an Ohio County. It is four times as many troops as
Taylor won the victory of Buena Vista with, and about twice as many as
Scott went into battle with at any time in his march to the City of

These eighteen thousand four hundred and fifty-four men were cooped up on
less than thirteen acres of ground, making about fifteen hundred to the
acre. No room could be given up for streets, or for the usual
arrangements of a camp, and most kinds of exercise were wholly precluded.
The men crowded together like pigs nesting in the woods on cold nights.
The ground, despite all our efforts, became indescribably filthy, and
this condition grew rapidly worse as the season advanced and the sun's
rays gained fervency. As it is impossible to describe this adequately,
I must again ask the reader to assist with a few comparisons. He has an
idea of how much filth is produced, on an ordinary City lot, in a week,
by its occupation by a family say of six persons. Now let him imagine
what would be the result if that lot, instead of having upon it six
persons, with every appliance for keeping themselves clean, and for
removing and concealing filth, was the home of one hundred and eight men,
with none of these appliances.

That he may figure out these proportions for himself, I will repeat some
of the elements of the problem: We will say that an average City lot is
thirty feet front by one hundred deep. This is more front than most of
them have, but we will be liberal. This gives us a surface of three
thousand square feet. An acre contains forty-three thousand five hundred
and sixty square feet. Upon thirteen of these acres, we had eighteen
thousand four hundred and fifty-four men. After he has found the number
of square feet that each man had for sleeping apartment, dining room,
kitchen, exercise grounds and outhouses, and decided that nobody could
live for any length of time in such contracted space, I will tell him
that a few weeks later double that many men were crowded upon that space
that over thirty-five thousand were packed upon those twelve and a-half
or thirteen acres.

But I will not anticipate. With the warm weather the condition of the
swamp in the center of the prison became simply horrible. We hear so
much now-a-days of blood poisoning from the effluvia of sinks and sewers,
that reading it, I wonder how a man inside the Stockade, and into whose
nostrils came a breath of that noisomeness, escaped being carried off by
a malignant typhus. In the slimy ooze were billions of white maggots.
They would crawl out by thousands on the warm sand, and, lying there a
few minutes, sprout a wing or a pair of them. With these they would
essay a clumsy flight, ending by dropping down upon some exposed portion
of a man's body, and stinging him like a gad-fly. Still worse, they
would drop into what he was cooking, and the utmost care could not
prevent a mess of food from being contaminated with them.

All the water that we had to use was that in the creek which flowed
through this seething mass of corruption, and received its sewerage.
How pure the water was when it came into the Stockade was a question.
We always believed that it received the drainage from the camps of the
guards, a half-a-mile away.

A road was made across the swamp, along the Dead Line at the west side,
where the creek entered the pen. Those getting water would go to this
spot, and reach as far up the stream as possible, to get the water that
was least filthy. As they could reach nearly to the Dead Line this
furnished an excuse to such of the guards as were murderously inclined to
fire upon them. I think I hazard nothing in saying that for weeks at
least one man a day was killed at this place. The murders became
monotonous; there was a dreadful sameness to them. A gun would crack;
looking up we would see, still smoking, the muzzle of the musket of one
of the guards on either side of the creek. At the same instant would
rise a piercing shriek from the man struck, now floundering in the creek
in his death agony. Then thousands of throats would yell out curses and
denunciations, and--

"O, give the Rebel ---- ---- ---- ---- a furlough!"

It was our belief that every guard who killed a Yankee was rewarded with
a thirty-day furlough. Mr. Frederick Holliger, now of Toledo, formerly a
member of the Seventy-Second Ohio, and captured at Guntown, tells me, as
his introduction to Andersonville life, that a few hours after his entry
he went to the brook to get a drink, reached out too far, and was fired
upon by the guard, who missed him, but killed another man and wounded a
second. The other prisoners standing near then attacked him, and beat
him nearly to death, for having drawn the fire of the guard.

Nothing could be more inexcusable than these murders. Whatever defense
there might be for firing on men who touched the Dead Line in other parts
of the prison, there could be none here. The men had no intention of
escaping; they had no designs upon the Stockade; they were not leading
any party to assail it. They were in every instance killed in the act of
reaching out with their cups to dip up a little water.

John McElroy