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Chapter 32


The gradually lengthening Summer days were insufferably long and
wearisome. Each was hotter, longer and more tedious than its
predecessors. In my company was a none-too-bright fellow, named Dawson.
During the chilly rains or the nipping, winds of our first days in
prison, Dawson would, as he rose in, the morning, survey the forbidding
skies with lack-luster eyes and remark, oracularly:

"Well, Ole Boo gits us agin, to-day."

He was so unvarying in this salutation to the morn that his designation
of disagreeable weather as "Ole Boo" became generally adopted by us.
When the hot weather came on, Dawson's remark, upon rising and seeing
excellent prospects for a scorcher, changed to: "Well, Ole Sol, the
Haymaker, is going to git in his work on us agin to-day."

As long as he lived and was able to talk, this was Dawson's invariable
observation at the break of day.

He was quite right. The Ole Haymaker would do some famous work before he
descended in the West, sending his level rays through the wide
interstices between the somber pines.

By nine o'clock in the morning his beams would begin to fairly singe
everything in the crowded pen. The hot sand would glow as one sees it in
the center of the unshaded highway some scorching noon in August. The
high walls of the prison prevented the circulation inside of any breeze
that might be in motion, while the foul stench rising from the putrid
Swamp and the rotting ground seemed to reach the skies.

One can readily comprehend the horrors of death on the burning sands of
a desert. But the desert sand is at least clean; there is nothing worse
about it than heat and intense dryness. It is not, as that was at
Andersonville, poisoned with the excretions of thousands of sick and
dying men, filled with disgusting vermin, and loading the air with the
germs of death. The difference is as that between a brick-kiln and a
sewer. Should the fates ever decide that I shall be flung out upon sands
to perish, I beg that the hottest place in the Sahara may be selected,
rather than such a spot as the interior of the Andersonville Stockade.

It may be said that we had an abundance of water, which made a decided
improvement on a desert. Doubtless--had that water been pure. But every
mouthful of it was a blood poison, and helped promote disease and death.
Even before reaching the Stockade it was so polluted by the drainage of
the Rebel camps as to be utterly unfit for human use. In our part of the
prison we sank several wells--some as deep as forty feet--to procure
water. We had no other tools for this than our ever-faithful half
canteens, and nothing wherewith to wall the wells. But a firm clay was
reached a few feet below the surface, which afforded tolerable strong
sides for the lower part, ana furnished material to make adobe bricks for
curbs to keep out the sand of the upper part. The sides were continually
giving away, however, and fellows were perpetually falling down the
holes, to the great damage of their legs and arms. The water, which was
drawn up in little cans, or boot leg buckets, by strings made of strips
of cloth, was much better than that of the creek, but was still far from
pure, as it contained the seepage from the filthy ground.

The intense heat led men to drink great quantities of water, and this
superinduced malignant dropsical complaints, which, next to diarrhea,
scurvy and gangrene, were the ailments most active in carrying men off.
Those affected in this way swelled up frightfully from day to day. Their
clothes speedily became too small for them, and were ripped off, leaving
them entirely naked, and they suffered intensely until death at last came
to their relief. Among those of my squad who died in this way, was a
young man named Baxter, of the Fifth Indiana Cavalry, taken at
Chicamauga. He was very fine looking--tall, slender, with regular
features and intensely black hair and eyes; he sang nicely, and was
generally liked. A more pitiable object than he, when last I saw him,
just before his death, can not be imagined. His body had swollen until
it seemed marvelous that the human skin could bear so much distention
without disruption, All the old look of bright intelligence had been.
driven from his face by the distortion of his features. His swarthy hair
and beard, grown long and ragged, had that peculiar repulsive look which
the black hair of the sick is prone to assume.

I attributed much of my freedom from the diseases to which others
succumbed to abstention from water drinking. Long before I entered the
army, I had constructed a theory--on premises that were doubtless as
insufficient as those that boyish theories are usually based upon--that
drinking water was a habit, and a pernicious one, which sapped away the
energy. I took some trouble to curb my appetite for water, and soon
found that I got along very comfortably without drinking anything beyond
that which was contained in my food. I followed this up after entering
the army, drinking nothing at any time but a little coffee, and finding
no need, even on the dustiest marches, for anything more. I do not
presume that in a year I drank a quart of cold water. Experience seemed
to confirm my views, for I noticed that the first to sink under a
fatigue, or to yield to sickness, were those who were always on the
lookout for drinking water, springing from their horses and struggling
around every well or spring on the line of march for an opportunity to
fill their canteens.

I made liberal use of the Creek for bathing purposes, however, visiting
it four or five times a day during the hot days, to wash myself all
over. This did not cool one off much, for the shallow stream was nearly
as hot as the sand, but it seemed to do some good, and it helped pass
away the tedious hours. The stream was nearly all the time filled as
full of bathers as they could stand, and the water could do little
towards cleansing so many. The occasional rain storms that swept across
the prison were welcomed, not only because they cooled the air
temporarily, but because they gave us a shower-bath. As they came up,
nearly every one stripped naked and got out where he could enjoy the full
benefit of the falling water. Fancy, if possible, the spectacle of
twenty-five thousand or thirty thousand men without a stitch of clothing
upon them. The like has not been seen, I imagine, since the naked
followers of Boadicea gathered in force to do battle to the Roman

It was impossible to get really clean. Our bodies seemed covered with a
varnish-like, gummy matter that defied removal by water alone.
I imagined that it came from the rosin or turpentine, arising from the
little pitch pine fires over which we hovered when cooking our rations.
It would yield to nothing except strong soap-and soap, as I have before
stated--was nearly as scarce in the Southern Confederacy as salt. We in
prison saw even less of it, or rather, none at all. The scarcity of it,
and our desire for it, recalls a bit of personal experience.

I had steadfastly refused all offers of positions outside the prison on
parole, as, like the great majority of the prisoners, my hatred of the
Rebels grew more bitter, day by day; I felt as if I would rather die than
accept the smallest favor at their hands, and I shared the common
contempt for those who did. But, when the movement for a grand attack on
the Stockade--mentioned in a previous chapter--was apparently rapidly
coming to a head, I was offered a temporary detail outside to, assist in
making up some rolls. I resolved to accept; first because I thought I
might get some information that would be of use in our enterprise; and,
next, because I foresaw that the rush through the gaps in the Stockade
would be bloody business, and by going out in advance I would avoid that
much of the danger, and still be able to give effective assistance.

I was taken up to Wirz's office. He was writing at a desk at one end of
a large room when the Sergeant brought me in. He turned around, told the
Sergeant to leave me, and ordered me to sit down upon a box at the other

end of the room.

Turning his back and resuming his writing, in a few minutes he had
forgotten me. I sat quietly, taking in the details for a half-hour, and
then, having exhausted everything else in the room, I began wondering
what was in the box I was sitting upon. The lid was loose; I hitched it
forward a little without attracting Wirz's attention, and slipped my left
hand down of a voyage of discovery. It seemed very likely that there was
something there that a loyal Yankee deserved better than a Rebel.
I found that it was a fine article of soft soap. A handful was scooped
up and speedily shoved into my left pantaloon pocket. Expecting every
instant that Wirz would turn around and order me to come to the desk to
show my handwriting, hastily and furtively wiped my hand on the back of
my shirt and watched Wirz with as innocent an expression as a school boy
assumes when he has just flipped a chewed paper wad across the room.
Wirz was still engrossed in his writing, and did not look around. I was
emboldened to reach down for another handful. This was also successfully
transferred, the hand wiped off on the back of the shirt, and the face
wore its expression of infantile ingenuousness. Still Wirz did not look
up. I kept dipping up handful after handful, until I had gotten about a
quart in the left hand pocket. After each handful I rubbed my hand off
on the back of my shirt and waited an instant for a summons to the desk.
Then the process was repeated with the other hand, and a quart of the
saponaceous mush was packed in the right hand pocket.

Shortly after Wirz rose and ordered a guard to take me away and keep me,
until he decided what to do with me. The day was intensely hot, and soon
the soap in my pockets and on the back of my shirt began burning like
double strength Spanish fly blisters. There was nothing to do but grin
and bear it. I set my teeth, squatted down under the shade of the
parapet of the fort, and stood it silently and sullenly. For the first
time in my life I thoroughly appreciated the story of the Spartan boy,
who stole the fox and suffered the animal to tear his bowels out rather
than give a sign which would lead to the exposure of his theft.

Between four and five o'clock-after I had endured the thing for five or
six hours, a guard came with orders from Wirz that I should be returned
to the Stockade. Upon hastily removing my clothes, after coming inside,
I found I had a blister on each thigh, and one down my back, that would
have delighted an old practitioner of the heroic school. But I also had
a half gallon of excellent soft soap. My chums and I took a magnificent
wash, and gave our clothes the same, and we still had soap enough left to
barter for some onions that we had long coveted, and which tasted as
sweet to us as manna to the Israelites.

John McElroy