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Chapter 39


All during July the prisoners came streaming in by hundreds and thousands
from every portion of the long line of battle, stretching from the
Eastern bank of the Mississippi to the shores of the Atlantic. Over one
thousand squandered by Sturgis at Guntown came in; two thousand of those
captured in the desperate blow dealt by Hood against the Army of the
Tennessee on the 22d of the month before Atlanta; hundreds from Hunter's
luckless column in the Shenandoah Valley, thousands from Grant's lines in
front of Petersburg. In all, seven thousand one hundred and twenty-eight
were, during the month, turned into that seething mass of corrupting
humanity to be polluted and tainted by it, and to assist in turn to make
it fouler and deadlier. Over seventy hecatombs of chosen victims
--of fair youths in the first flush of hopeful manhood, at the threshold
of a life of honor to themselves and of usefulness to the community;
beardless boys, rich in the priceless affections of homes, fathers,
mothers, sisters and sweethearts, with minds thrilling with high
aspirations for the bright future, were sent in as the monthly sacrifice
to this Minotaur of the Rebellion, who, couched in his foul lair, slew
them, not with the merciful delivery of speedy death, as his Cretan
prototype did the annual tribute of Athenian youths and maidens, but,
gloating over his prey, doomed them to lingering destruction. He rotted
their flesh with the scurvy, racked their minds with intolerable
suspense, burned their bodies with the slow fire of famine, and delighted
in each separate pang, until they sank beneath the fearful accumulation.
Theseus [Sherman. D.W.]--the deliverer--was coming. His terrible sword
could be seen gleaming as it rose and fell on the banks of the James, and
in the mountains beyond Atlanta, where he was hewing his way towards them
and the heart of the Southern Confederacy. But he came too late to save
them. Strike as swiftly and as heavily as he would, he could not strike
so hard nor so sure at his foes with saber blow and musket shot, as they
could at the hapless youths with the dreadful armament of starvation and

Though the deaths were one thousand eight hundred and seventeen more than
were killed at the battle of Shiloh--this left the number in the prison
at the end of the month thirty-one thousand six hundred and
seventy-eight. Let me assist the reader's comprehension of the
magnitude of this number by giving the population of a few important
Cities, according to the census of 1870:

Cambridge, Mass 89,639
Charleston, S. C. 48,958
Columbus, O. 31,274
Dayton, O. 30,473
Fall River, Mass 26,766
Kansas City, Mo 32,260

The number of prisoners exceeded the whole number of men between the ages
of eighteen and forty-five in several of the States and Territories in
the Union. Here, for instance, are the returns for 1870, of men of
military age in some portions of the country:

Arizona 5,157
Colorado 15,166
Dakota 5,301
Idaho 9,431
Montana 12,418
Nebraska 35,677
Nevada 24,762
New Hampshire 60,684
Oregon 23,959
Rhode Island 44,377
Vermont 62,450
West Virginia 6,832

It was more soldiers than could be raised to-day, under strong pressure,
in either Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut,
Dakota, Delaware, District of Columbia, Florida, Idaho, Louisiana, Maine,
Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Medico, Oregon,
Rhode Island, South Carolina, Utah, Vermont or West Virginia.

These thirty-one thousand six hundred and seventy-eight active young men,
who were likely to find the confines of a State too narrow for them, were
cooped up on thirteen acres of ground--less than a farmer gives for
play-ground for a half dozen colts or a small flock of sheep. There was
hardly room for all to lie down at night, and to walk a few hundred feet
in any direction would require an hour's patient threading of the mass of
men and tents.

The weather became hotter and hotter; at midday the sand would burn the
hand. The thin skins of fair and auburn-haired men blistered under the
sun's rays, and swelled up in great watery puffs, which soon became the
breeding grounds of the hideous maggots, or the still more deadly
gangrene. The loathsome swamp grew in rank offensiveness with every
burning hour. The pestilence literally stalked at noon-day, and struck
his victims down on every hand. One could not look a rod in any
direction without seeing at least a dozen men in the last frightful
stages of rotting Death.

Let me describe the scene immediately around my own tent during the last
two weeks of July, as a sample of the condition of the whole prison:
I will take a space not larger than a good sized parlor or sitting room.
On this were at least fifty of us. Directly in front of me lay two
brothers--named Sherwood--belonging to Company I, of my battalion, who
came originally from Missouri. They were now in the last stages of
scurvy and diarrhea. Every particle of muscle and fat about their limbs
and bodies had apparently wasted away, leaving the skin clinging close to
the bone of the face, arms, hands, ribs and thighs--everywhere except the
feet and legs, where it was swollen tense and transparent, distended with
gallons of purulent matter. Their livid gums, from which most of their
teeth had already fallen, protruded far beyond their lips. To their left
lay a Sergeant and two others of their company, all three slowly dying
from diarrhea, and beyond was a fair-haired German, young and intelligent
looking, whose life was ebbing tediously away. To my right was a
handsome young Sergeant of an Illinois Infantry Regiment, captured at
Kenesaw. His left arm had been amputated between the shoulder and elbow,
and he was turned into the Stockade with the stump all undressed, save
the ligating of the arteries. Of course, he had not been inside an hour
until the maggot flies had laid eggs in the open wound, and before the
day was gone the worms were hatched out, and rioting amid the inflamed
and super-sensitive nerves, where their every motion was agony.
Accustomed as we were to misery, we found a still lower depth in his
misfortune, and I would be happier could I forget his pale, drawn face,
as he wandered uncomplainingly to and fro, holding his maimed limb with
his right hand, occasionally stopping to squeeze it, as one does a boil,
and press from it a stream of maggots and pus. I do not think he ate or
slept for a week before he died. Next to him staid an Irish Sergeant of
a New York Regiment, a fine soldierly man, who, with pardonable pride,
wore, conspicuously on his left breast, a medal gained by gallantry while
a British soldier in the Crimea. He was wasting away with diarrhea, and
died before the month was out.

This was what one could see on every square rod of the prison. Where I
was was not only no worse than the rest of the prison, but was probably
much better and healthier, as it was the highest ground inside, farthest
from the Swamp, and having the dead line on two sides, had a ventilation
that those nearer the center could not possibly have. Yet, with all
these conditions in our favor, the mortality was as I have described.

Near us an exasperating idiot, who played the flute, had established
himself. Like all poor players, he affected the low, mournful notes,
as plaintive as the distant cooing of the dove in lowering, weather.
He played or rather tooted away in his "blues"-inducing strain hour after
hour, despite our energetic protests, and occasionally flinging a club at
him. There was no more stop to him than to a man with a hand-organ, and
to this day the low, sad notes of a flute are the swiftest reminder to me
of those sorrowful, death-laden days.

I had an illustration one morning of how far decomposition would progress
in a man's body before he died. My chum and I found a treasure-trove in
the streets, in the shape of the body of a man who died during the night.
The value of this "find" was that if we took it to the gate, we would be
allowed to carry it outside to the deadhouse, and on our way back have an
opportunity to pick up a chunk of wood, to use in cooking. While
discussing our good luck another party came up and claimed the body.
A verbal dispute led to one of blows, in which we came off victorious,
and I hastily caught hold of the arm near the elbow to help bear the body
away. The skin gave way under my hand, and slipped with it down to the
wrist, like a torn sleeve. It was sickening, but I clung to my prize,
and secured a very good chunk of wood while outside with it. The wood
was very much needed by my mess, as our squad had then had none for more
than a week.

John McElroy