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Chapter 35


To fully appreciate the condition of affairs let it be remembered that we
were a community of twenty-five thousand boys and young men--none too
regardful of control at best--and now wholly destitute of government.
The Rebels never made the slightest attempt to maintain order in the
prison. Their whole energies were concentrated in preventing our escape.
So long as we staid inside the Stockade, they cared as little what we did
there as for the performances of savages in the interior of Africa.
I doubt if they would have interfered had one-half of us killed and eaten
the other half. They rather took a delight in such atrocities as came to
their notice. It was an ocular demonstration of the total depravity of
the Yankees.

Among ourselves there was no one in position to lay down law and enforce
it. Being all enlisted men we were on a dead level as far as rank was
concerned--the highest being only Sergeants, whose stripes carried no
weight of authority. The time of our stay was--it was hoped--too
transient to make it worth while bothering about organizing any form of
government. The great bulk of the boys were recent comers, who hoped
that in another week or so they would be out again. There were no fat
salaries to tempt any one to take upon himself the duty of ruling the
masses, and all were left to their own devices, to do good or evil,
according to their several bents, and as fear of consequences swayed
them. Each little squad of men was a law unto themselves, and made and
enforced their own regulations on their own territory. The administration
of justice was reduced to its simplest terms. If a fellow did wrong he
was pounded--if there was anybody capable of doing it. If not he went

The almost unvarying success of the Raiders in--their forays gave the
general impression that they were invincible--that is, that not enough
men could be concentrated against them to whip them. Our ill-success in
the attack we made on them in April helped us to the same belief. If we
could not beat them then, we could not now, after we had been enfeebled
by months of starvation and disease. It seemed to us that the Plymouth
Pilgrims, whose organization was yet very strong, should undertake the
task; but, as is usually the case in this world, where we think somebody
else ought to undertake the performance of a disagreeable public duty,
they did not see it in the light that we wished them to. They
established guards around their squads, and helped beat off the Raiders
when their own territory was invaded, but this was all they would do.
The rest of us formed similar guards. In the southwest corner of the
Stockade--where I was--we formed ourselves into a company of fifty active
boys--mostly belonging to my own battalion and to other Illinois
regiments--of which I was elected Captain. My First Lieutenant was a
tall, taciturn, long-armed member of the One Hundred and Eleventh
Illinois, whom we called "Egypt," as he came from that section of the
State. He was wonderfully handy with his fists. I think he could knock
a fellow down so that he would fall-harder, and lie longer than any
person I ever saw. We made a tacit division of duties: I did the
talking, and "Egypt" went through the manual labor of knocking our
opponents down. In the numerous little encounters in which our company
was engaged, "Egypt" would stand by my side, silent, grim and patient,
while I pursued the dialogue with the leader of the other crowd. As soon
as he thought the conversation had reached the proper point, his long
left arm stretched out like a flash, and the other fellow dropped as if
he had suddenly come in range of a mule that was feeling well. That
unexpected left-hander never failed. It would have made Charles Reade's
heart leap for joy to see it.

In spite of our company and our watchfulness, the Raiders beat us badly
on one occasion. Marion Friend, of Company I of our battalion, was one
of the small traders, and had accumulated forty dollars by his bartering.
One evening at dusk Delaney's Raiders, about twenty-five strong, took
advantage of the absence of most of us drawing rations, to make a rush
for Marion. They knocked him down, cut him across the wrist and neck
with a razor, and robbed him of his forty dollars. By the time we could
rally Delaney and his attendant scoundrels were safe from pursuit in the
midst of their friends.

This state of things had become unendurable. Sergeant Leroy L. Key,
of Company M, our battalion, resolved to make an effort to crush the
Raiders. He was a printer, from Bloomington, Illinois, tall, dark,
intelligent and strong-willed, and one of the bravest men I ever knew.
He was ably seconded by "Limber Jim," of the Sixty-Seventh Illinois,
whose lithe, sinewy form, and striking features reminded one of a young
Sioux brave. He had all of Key's desperate courage, but not his brains
or his talent for leadership. Though fearfully reduced in numbers, our
battalion had still about one hundred well men in it, and these formed
the nucleus for Key's band of "Regulators," as they were styled. Among
them were several who had no equals in physical strength and courage in
any of the Raider chiefs. Our best man was Ned Carrigan, Corporal of
Company I, from Chicago--who was so confessedly the best man in the whole
prison that he was never called upon to demonstrate it. He was a
big-hearted, genial Irish boy, who was never known to get into trouble
on his own account, but only used his fists when some of his comrades
were imposed upon. He had fought in the ring, and on one occasion had
killed a man with a single blow of his fist, in a prize fight near St.
Louis. We were all very proud of him, and it was as good as an
entertainment to us to see the noisiest roughs subside into deferential
silence as Ned would come among them, like some grand mastiff in the
midst of a pack of yelping curs. Ned entered into the regulating scheme
heartily. Other stalwart specimens of physical manhood in our battalion
were Sergeant Goody, Ned Johnson, Tom Larkin, and others, who, while not
approaching Carrigan's perfect manhood, were still more than a match for
the best of the Raiders.

Key proceeded with the greatest secrecy in the organization of his
forces. He accepted none but Western men, and preferred Illinoisans,
Iowans, Kansans, Indianians and Ohioans. The boys from those States
seemed to naturally go together, and be moved by the same motives.
He informed Wirz what he proposed doing, so that any unusual commotion
within the prison might not be mistaken for an attempt upon the Stockade,
and made the excuse for opening with the artillery. Wirz, who happened
to be in a complaisant humor, approved of the design, and allowed him the
use of the enclosure of the North Gate to confine his prisoners in.

In spite of Key's efforts at secrecy, information as to his scheme
reached the Raiders. It was debated at their headquarters, and decided
there that Key must be killed. Three men were selected to do this work.
They called on Key, a dusk, on the evening of the 2d of July. In
response to their inquiries, he came out of the blanket-covered hole on
the hillside that he called his tent. They told him what they had heard,
and asked if it was true. He said it was. One of them then drew a
knife, and the other two, "billies" to attack him. But, anticipating
trouble, Key had procured a revolver which one of the Pilgrims had
brought in in his knapsack and drawing this he drove them off, but
without firing a shot.

The occurrence caused the greatest excitement. To us of the Regulators
it showed that the Raiders had penetrated our designs, and were prepared
for them. To the great majority of the prisoners it was the first
intimation that such a thing was contemplated; the news spread from squad
to squad with the greatest rapidity, and soon everybody was discussing
the chances of the movement. For awhile men ceased their interminable
discussion of escape and exchange--let those over worked words and themes
have a rare spell of repose--and debated whether the Raiders would whip
the regulators, or the Regulators conquer the Raiders. The reasons which
I have previously enumerated, induced a general disbelief in the
probability of our success. The Raiders were in good health well fed,
used to operating together, and had the confidence begotten by a long
series of successes. The Regulators lacked in all these respects.

Whether Key had originally fixed on the next day for making the attack,
or whether this affair precipitated the crisis, I know not, but later in
the evening he sent us all order: to be on our guard all night, and ready
for action the next morning.

There was very little sleep anywhere that night. The Rebels learned
through their spies that something unusual was going on inside, and as
their only interpretation of anything unusual there was a design upon the
Stockade, they strengthened the guards, took additional precautions in
every way, and spent the hours in anxious anticipation.

We, fearing that the Raiders might attempt to frustrate the scheme by an
attack in overpowering force on Key's squad, which would be accompanied
by the assassination of him and Limber Jim, held ourselves in readiness
to offer any assistance that might be needed.

The Raiders, though confident of success, were no less exercised. They
threw out pickets to all the approaches to their headquarters, and
provided otherwise against surprise. They had smuggled in some canteens
of a cheap, vile whisky made from sorghum--and they grew quite hilarious
in their Big Tent over their potations. Two songs had long ago been
accepted by us as peculiarly the Raiders' own--as some one in their crowd
sang them nearly every evening, and we never heard them anywhere else.
The first began:

In Athol lived a man named Jerry Lanagan;
He battered away till he hadn't a pound.
His father he died, and he made him a man agin;
Left him a farm of ten acres of ground.

The other related the exploits of an Irish highwayman named Brennan,
whose chief virtue was that

What he rob-bed from the rich he gave unto the poor.

And this was the villainous chorus in which they all joined, and sang in
such a way as suggested highway robbery, murder, mayhem and arson:

Brennan on the moor!
Brennan on the moor!
Proud and undaunted stood
John Brennan on the moor.

They howled these two nearly the live-long night. They became eventually
quite monotonous to us, who were waiting and watching. It would have
been quite a relief if they had thrown in a new one every hour or so,
by way of variety.

Morning at last came. Our companies mustered on their grounds, and then
marched to the space on the South Side where the rations were issued.
Each man was armed with a small club, secured to his wrist by a string.

The Rebels--with their chronic fear of an outbreak animating them--had
all the infantry in line of battle with loaded guns. The cannon in the
works were shotted, the fuses thrust into the touch-holes and the men
stood with lanyards in hand ready to mow down everybody, at any instant.

The sun rose rapidly through the clear sky, which soon glowed down on us
like a brazen oven. The whole camp gathered where it could best view the
encounter. This was upon the North Side. As I have before explained the
two sides sloped toward each other like those of a great trough. The
Raiders' headquarters stood upon the center of the southern slope, and
consequently those standing on the northern slope saw everything as if
upon the stage of a theater.

While standing in ranks waiting the orders to move, one of my comrades
touched me on the arm, and said:

"My God! just look over there!"

I turned from watching the Rebel artillerists, whose intentions gave me
more uneasiness than anything else, and looked in the direction indicated
by the speaker. The sight was the strangest one my eyes ever
encountered. There were at least fifteen thousand perhaps twenty
thousand--men packed together on the bank, and every eye was turned on
us. The slope was such that each man's face showed over the shoulders of
the one in front of him, making acres on acres of faces. It was as if
the whole broad hillside was paved or thatched with human countenances.

When all was ready we moved down upon the Big Tent, in as good order as
we could preserve while passing through the narrow tortuous paths between
the tents. Key, Limber Jim, Ned Carigan, Goody, Tom Larkin, and Ned
Johnson led the advance with their companies. The prison was as silent
as a graveyard. As we approached, the Raiders massed themselves in a
strong, heavy line, with the center, against which our advance was
moving, held by the most redoubtable of their leaders. How many there
were of them could not be told, as it was impossible to say where their
line ended and the mass of spectators began. They could not themselves
tell, as the attitude of a large portion of the spectators would be
determined by which way the battle went.

Not a blow was struck until the lines came close together. Then the
Raider center launched itself forward against ours, and grappled savagely
with the leading Regulators. For an instant--it seemed an hour--the
struggle was desperate.

Strong, fierce men clenched and strove to throttle each other; great
muscles strained almost to bursting, and blows with fist and club-dealt
with all the energy of mortal hate--fell like hail. One-perhaps
two-endless minutes the lines surged--throbbed--backward and forward a
step or two, and then, as if by a concentration of mighty effort, our
men flung the Raider line back from it--broken--shattered. The next
instant our leaders were striding through the mass like raging lions.
Carrigan, Limber Jim, Larkin, Johnson and Goody each smote down a swath
of men before them, as they moved resistlessly forward.

We light weights had been sent around on the flanks to separate the
spectators from the combatants, strike the Raiders 'en revers,' and,
as far as possible, keep the crowd from reinforcing them.

In five minutes after the first blow--was struck the overthrow of the
Raiders was complete. Resistance ceased, and they sought safety in

As the result became apparent to the--watchers on the opposite hillside,
they vented their pent-up excitement in a yell that made the very ground
tremble, and we answered them with a shout that expressed not only our
exultation over our victory, but our great relief from the intense strain
we had long borne.

We picked up a few prisoners on the battle field, and retired without
making any special effort to get any more then, as we knew, that they
could not escape us.

We were very tired, and very hungry. The time for drawing rations had
arrived. Wagons containing bread and mush had driven to the gates, but
Wirz would not allow these to be opened, lest in the excited condition of
the men an attempt might be made to carry them. Key ordered operations
to cease, that Wirz might be re-assured and let the rations enter.
It was in vain. Wirz was thoroughly scared. The wagons stood out in the
hot sun until the mush fermented and soured, and had to be thrown away,
while we event rationless to bed, and rose the next day with more than
usually empty stomachs to goad us on to our work.

John McElroy