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Chapter 29

SOME DISTINCTION BETWEEN SOLDIERLY DUTY AND MURDER--A PLOT TO ESCAPE
--IT IS REVEALED AND FRUSTRATED.

Let the reader understand that in any strictures I make I do not complain
of the necessary hardships of war. I understood fully and accepted the
conditions of a soldier's career. My going into the field uniformed and
armed implied an intention, at least, of killing, wounding, or capturing,
some of the enemy. There was consequently no ground of complaint if I
was, myself killed, wounded, or captured. If I did not want to take
these chances I ought to stay at home. In the same way, I recognized the
right of our captors or guards to take proper precautions to prevent our
escape. I never questioned for an instant the right of a guard to fire
upon those attempting to escape, and to kill them. Had I been posted
over prisoners I should have had no compunction about shooting at those
trying to get away, and consequently I could not blame the Rebels for
doing the same thing. It was a matter of soldierly duty.

But not one of the men assassinated by the guards at Andersonville were
trying to escape, nor could they have got away if not arrested by a
bullet. In a majority of instances there was not even a transgression of
a prison rule, and when there was such a transgression it was a mere
harmless inadvertence. The slaying of every man there was a foul crime.

The most of this was done by very young boys; some of it by old men.
The Twenty-Sixth Alabama and Fifty-Fifth Georgia, had guarded us since
the opening of the prison, but now they were ordered to the field, and
their places filled by the Georgia "Reserves," an organization of boys
under, and men over the military age. As General Grant aptly-phrased it,
"They had robbed the cradle and the grave," in forming these regiments.
The boys, who had grown up from children since the war began, could not
comprehend that a Yankee was a human being, or that it was any more
wrongful to shoot one than to kill a mad dog. Their young imaginations
had been inflamed with stories of the total depravity of the Unionists
until they believed it was a meritorious thing to seize every opportunity
to exterminate them.

Early one morning I overheard a conversation between two of these
youthful guards:

"Say, Bill, I heerd that you shot a Yank last night?"

"Now, you just bet I did. God! you jest ought to've heerd him holler."

Evidently the juvenile murderer had no more conception that he had
committed crime than if he had killed a rattlesnake.

Among those who came in about the last of the month were two thousand men
from Butler's command, lost in the disastrous action of May 15, by which
Butler was "bottled up" at Bermuda Hundreds. At that time the Rebel
hatred for Butler verged on insanity, and they vented this upon these men
who were so luckless--in every sense--as to be in his command. Every
pains was taken to mistreat them. Stripped of every article of clothing,
equipment, and cooking utensils--everything, except a shirt and a pair of
pantaloons, they were turned bareheaded and barefooted into the prison,
and the worst possible place in the pen hunted out to locate them upon.
This was under the bank, at the edge of the Swamp and at the eastern side
of the prison, where the sinks were, and all filth from the upper part of
the camp flowed down to them. The sand upon which they lay was dry and
burning as that of a tropical desert; they were without the slightest
shelter of any kind, the maggot flies swarmed over them, and the stench
was frightful. If one of them survived the germ theory of disease is a
hallucination.

The increasing number of prisoners made it necessary for the Rebels to
improve their means of guarding and holding us in check. They threw up a
line of rifle pits around the Stockade for the infantry guards.
At intervals along this were piles of hand grenades, which could be used
with fearful effect in case of an outbreak. A strong star fort was
thrown up at a little distance from the southwest corner. Eleven field
pieces were mounted in this in such a way as to rake the Stockade
diagonally. A smaller fort, mounting five guns, was built at the
northwest corner, and at the northeast and southeast corners were small
lunettes, with a couple of howitzers each. Packed as we were we had
reason to dread a single round from any of these works, which could not
fail to produce fearful havoc.

Still a plot was concocted for a break, and it seemed to the sanguine
portions of us that it must prove successful. First a secret society was
organized, bound by the most stringent oaths that could be devised.
The members of this were divided into companies of fifty men each; under
officers regularly elected. The secrecy was assumed in order to shut out
Rebel spies and the traitors from a knowledge of the contemplated
outbreak. A man named Baker--belonging, I think, to some New York
regiment--was the grand organizer of the scheme. We were careful in each
of our companies to admit none to membership except such as long
acquaintance gave us entire confidence in.

The plan was to dig large tunnels to the Stockade at various places, and
then hollow out the ground at the foot of the timbers, so that a half
dozen or so could be pushed over with a little effort, and make a gap ten
or twelve feet wide. All these were to be thrown down at a preconcerted
signal, the companies were to rush out and seize the eleven guns of the
headquarters fort. The Plymouth Brigade was then to man these and turn
them on the camp of the Reserves who, it was imagined, would drop their
arms and take to their heels after receiving a round or so of shell.
We would gather what arms we could, and place them in the hands of the
most active and determined. This would give us frown eight to ten
thousand fairly armed, resolute men, with which we thought we could march
to Appalachicola Bay, or to Sherman.

We worked energetically at our tunnels, which soon began to assume such
shape as to give assurance that they would answer our expectations in
opening the prison walls.

Then came the usual blight to all such enterprises: a spy or a traitor
revealed everything to Wirz. One day a guard came in, seized Baker and
took him out. What was done with him I know not; we never heard of him
after he passed the inner gate.

Immediately afterward all the Sergeants of detachments were summoned
outside. There they met Wirz, who made a speech informing them that he
knew all the details of the plot, and had made sufficient preparations to
defeat it. The guard had been strongly reinforced, and disposed in such
a manner as to protect the guns from capture. The Stockade had been
secured to prevent its falling, even if undermined. He said, in
addition, that Sherman had been badly defeated by Johnston, and driven
back across the river, so that any hopes of co-operation by him would be
ill-founded.

When the Sergeants returned, he caused the following notice to be posted
on the gates:

NOTICE.

Not wishing to shed the blood of hundreds, not connected with those
who concocted a mad plan to force the Stockade, and make in this way
their escape, I hereby warn the leaders and those who formed
themselves into a band to carry out this, that I am in possession of
all the facts, and have made my dispositions accordingly, so as to
frustrate it. No choice would be left me but to open with grape and
canister on the Stockade, and what effect this would have, in this
densely crowded place, need not be told.

May 25,1864.
H. Wirz.

The next day a line of tall poles, bearing white flags, were put up at
some little distance from the Dead Line, and a notice was read to us at
roll call that if, except at roll call, any gathering exceeding one
hundred was observed, closer the Stockade than these poles, the guns
would open with grape and canister without warning.

The number of deaths in the Stockade in May was seven hundred and eight,
about as many as had been killed in Sherman's army during the same time.

John McElroy