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Chapter 41

CLOTHING: ITS RAPID DETERIORATION, AND DEVICES TO REPLENISH IT--DESPERATE
EFFORTS TO COVER NAKEDNESS--"LITTLE RED CAP" AND HIS LETTER.

Clothing had now become an object of real solicitude to us older
prisoners. The veterans of our crowd--the surviving remnant of those
captured at Gettysburg--had been prisoners over a year. The next in
seniority--the Chickamauga boys--had been in ten months. The Mine Run
fellows were eight months old, and my battalion had had seven months'
incarceration. None of us were models of well-dressed gentlemen when
captured. Our garments told the whole story of the hard campaigning we
had undergone. Now, with months of the wear and tear of prison life,
sleeping on the sand, working in tunnels, digging wells, etc., we were
tattered and torn to an extent that a second-class tramp would have
considered disgraceful.

This is no reflection upon the quality of the clothes furnished by the
Government. We simply reached the limit of the wear of textile fabrics.
I am particular to say this, because I want to contribute my little mite
towards doing justice to a badly abused part of our Army organization
--the Quartermaster's Department. It is fashionable to speak of "shoddy,"
and utter some stereotyped sneers about "brown paper shoes," and
"musketo-netting overcoats," when any discussion of the Quartermaster
service is the subject of conversation, but I have no hesitation in
asking the indorsement of my comrades to the statement that we have never
found anywhere else as durable garments as those furnished us by the
Government during our service in the Army. The clothes were not as fine
in texture, nor so stylish in cut as those we wore before or since, but
when it came to wear they could be relied on to the last thread. It was
always marvelous to me that they lasted so well, with the rough usage a
soldier in the field must necessarily give them.

But to return to my subject. I can best illustrate the way our clothes
dropped off us, piece by piece, like the petals from the last rose of
Summer, by taking my own case as an example: When I entered prison I was
clad in the ordinary garb of an enlisted man of the cavalry--stout,
comfortable boots, woolen pocks, drawers, pantaloons, with a
"reenforcement," or "ready-made patches," as the infantry called them;
vest, warm, snug-fitting jacket, under and over shirts, heavy overcoat,
and a forage-cap. First my boots fell into cureless ruin, but this was
no special hardship, as the weather had become quite warm, and it was
more pleasant than otherwise to go barefooted. Then part of the
underclothing retired from service. The jacket and vest followed, their
end being hastened by having their best portions taken to patch up the
pantaloons, which kept giving out at the most embarrassing places. Then
the cape of the overcoat was called upon to assist in repairing these
continually-recurring breaches in the nether garments. The same
insatiate demand finally consumed the whole coat, in a vain attempt to
prevent an exposure of person greater than consistent with the usages of
society. The pantaloons--or what, by courtesy, I called such, were a
monument of careful and ingenious, but hopeless, patching, that should
have called forth the admiration of a Florentine artist in mosaic.
I have been shown--in later years--many table tops, ornamented in
marquetry, inlaid with thousands of little bits of wood, cunningly
arranged, and patiently joined together. I always look at them with
interest, for I know the work spent upon them: I remember my
Andersonville pantaloons.

The clothing upon the upper part of my body had been reduced to the
remains of a knit undershirt. It had fallen into so many holes that it
looked like the coarse "riddles" through which ashes and gravel are
sifted. Wherever these holes were the sun had burned my back, breast and
shoulders deeply black. The parts covered by the threads and fragments
forming the boundaries of the holes, were still white. When I pulled my
alleged shirt off, to wash or to free it from some of its teeming
population, my skin showed a fine lace pattern in black and white, that
was very interesting to my comrades, and the subject of countless jokes
by them.

They used to descant loudly on the chaste elegance of the design, the
richness of the tracing, etc., and beg me to furnish them with a copy of
it when I got home, for their sisters to work window curtains or tidies
by. They were sure that so striking a novelty in patterns would be very
acceptable. I would reply to their witticisms in the language of
Portia's Prince of Morocco:

Mislike me not for my complexion--
The shadowed livery of the burning sun.

One of the stories told me in my childhood by an old negro nurse, was of
a poverty stricken little girl "who slept on the floor and was covered
with the door," and she once asked--

"Mamma how do poor folks get along who haven't any door?"

In the same spirit I used to wonder how poor fellows got along who hadn't
any shirt.

One common way of keeping up one's clothing was by stealing mealsacks.
The meal furnished as rations was brought in in white cotton sacks.
Sergeants of detachments were required to return these when the rations
were issued the next day. I have before alluded to the general
incapacity of the Rebels to deal accurately with even simple numbers.
It was never very difficult for a shrewd Sergeant to make nine sacks
count as ten. After awhile the Rebels began to see through this sleight
of hand manipulation, and to check it. Then the Sergeants resorted to
the device of tearing the sacks in two, and turning each half in as a
whole one. The cotton cloth gained in this way was used for patching,
or, if a boy could succeed in beating the Rebels out of enough of it,
he would fabricate himself a shirt or a pair of pantaloons. We obtained
all our thread in the same way. A half of a sack, carefully raveled out,
would furnish a couple of handfuls of thread. Had it not been for this
resource all our sewing and mending would have come to a standstill.

Most of our needles were manufactured by ourselves from bones. A piece
of bone, split as near as possible to the required size, was carefully
rubbed down upon a brick, and then had an eye laboriously worked through
it with a bit of wire or something else available for the purpose.
The needles were about the size of ordinary darning needles, and answered
the purpose very well.

These devices gave one some conception of the way savages provide for the
wants of their lives. Time was with them, as with us, of little
importance. It was no loss of time to them, nor to us, to spend a large
portion of the waking hours of a week in fabricating a needle out of a
bone, where a civilized man could purchase a much better one with the
product of three minutes' labor. I do not think any red Indian of the
plains exceeded us in the patience with which we worked away at these
minutia of life's needs.

Of course the most common source of clothing was the dead, and no body
was carried out with any clothing on it that could be of service to the
survivors. The Plymouth Pilgrims, who were so well clothed on coming in,
and were now dying off very rapidly, furnished many good suits to cover
the nakedness of older, prisoners. Most of the prisoners from the Army
of the Potomac were well dressed, and as very many died within a month or
six weeks after their entrance, they left their clothes in pretty good
condition for those who constituted themselves their heirs,
administrators and assigns.

For my own part, I had the greatest aversion to wearing dead men's
clothes, and could only bring myself to it after I had been a year in
prison, and it became a question between doing that and freezing to
death.

Every new batch of prisoners was besieged with anxious inquiries on the
subject which lay closest to all our hearts:

"What are they doing about exchange!"

Nothing in human experience--save the anxious expectancy of a sail by
castaways on a desert island--could equal the intense eagerness with
which this question was asked, and the answer awaited. To thousands now
hanging on the verge of eternity it meant life or death. Between the
first day of July and the first of November over twelve thousand men
died, who would doubtless have lived had they been able to reach our
lines--"get to God's country," as we expressed it.

The new comers brought little reliable news of contemplated exchange.
There was none to bring in the first place, and in the next, soldiers in
active service in the field had other things to busy themselves with than
reading up the details of the negotiations between the Commissioners of
Exchange. They had all heard rumors, however, and by the time they
reached Andersonville, they had crystallized these into actual statements
of fact. A half hour after they entered the Stockade, a report like this
would spread like wildfire:

"An Army of the Potomac man has just come in, who was captured in front
of Petersburg. He says that he read in the New York Herald, the day
before he was taken, that an exchange had been agreed upon, and that our
ships had already started for Savannah to take us home."

Then our hopes would soar up like balloons. We fed ourselves on such
stuff from day to day, and doubtless many lives were greatly prolonged by
the continual encouragement. There was hardly a day when I did not say
to myself that I would much rather die than endure imprisonment another
month, and had I believed that another month would see me still there,
I am pretty certain that I should have ended the matter by crossing the
Dead Line. I was firmly resolved not to die the disgusting, agonizing
death that so many around me were dying.

One of our best purveyors of information was a bright, blue-eyed,
fair-haired little drummer boy, as handsome as a girl, well-bred as a
lady, and evidently the darling of some refined loving mother. He
belonged, I think, to some loyal Virginia regiment, was captured in one
of the actions in the Shenandoa Valley, and had been with us in
Richmond. We called him "Red Cap," from his wearing a jaunty,
gold-laced, crimson cap. Ordinarily, the smaller a drummer boy is the
harder he is, but no amount of attrition with rough men could coarse the
ingrained refinement of Red Cap's manners. He was between thirteen and
fourteen, and it seemed utterly shameful that men, calling themselves
soldier should make war on such a tender boy and drag him off to prison.

But no six-footer had a more soldierly heart than little Red Cap, and
none were more loyal to the cause. It was a pleasure to hear him tell
the story of the fights and movements his regiment had been engaged in.
He was a good observer and told his tale with boyish fervor. Shortly
after Wirz assumed command he took Red Cap into his office as an Orderly.
His bright face and winning manner; fascinated the women visitors at
headquarters, and numbers of them tried to adopt him, but with poor
success. Like the rest of us, he could see few charms in an existence
under the Rebel flag, and turned a deaf ear to their blandishments.
He kept his ears open to the conversation of the Rebel officers around
him, and frequently secured permission to visit the interior of the
Stockade, when he would communicate to us all that he has heard.
He received a flattering reception every time he cams in, and no orator
ever secured a more attentive audience than would gather around him to
listen to what he had to say. He was, beyond a doubt, the best known and
most popular person in the prison, and I know all the survivors of his
old admirer; share my great interest in him, and my curiosity as to
whether he yet lives, and whether his subsequent career has justified the
sanguine hopes we all had as to his future. I hope that if he sees this,
or any one who knows anything about him, he will communicate with me.
There are thousands who will be glad to hear from him.

A most remarkable coincidence occurred in regard to this comrade.
Several days after the above had been written, and "set up," but before
it had yet appeared in the paper, I received the following letter:

ECKHART MINES,
Alleghany County, Md., March 24.

To the Editor of the BLADE:

Last evening I saw a copy of your paper, in which was a chapter or two of
a prison life of a soldier during the late war. I was forcibly struck
with the correctness of what he wrote, and the names of several of my old
comrades which he quoted: Hill, Limber Jim, etc., etc. I was a drummer
boy of Company I, Tenth West Virginia Infantry, and was fifteen years of
age a day or two after arriving in Andersonville, which was in the last
of February, 1884. Nineteen of my comrades were there with me, and, poor
fellows, they are there yet. I have no doubt that I would have remained
there, too, had I not been more fortunate.

I do not know who your soldier correspondent is, but assume to say that
from the following description he will remember having seen me in
Andersonville: I was the little boy that for three or four months
officiated as orderly for Captain Wirz. I wore a red cap, and every day
could be seen riding Wirz's gray mare, either at headquarters, or about
the Stockade. I was acting in this capacity when the six raiders
--"Mosby," (proper name Collins) Delaney, Curtis, and--I forget the other
names--were executed. I believe that I was the first that conveyed the
intelligence to them that Confederate General Winder had approved their
sentence. As soon as Wirz received the dispatch to that effect, I ran
down to the stocks and told them.

I visited Hill, of Wauseon, Fulton County, O., since the war, and found
him hale and hearty. I have not heard from him for a number of years
until reading your correspondent's letter last evening. It is the only
letter of the series that I have seen, but after reading that one, I feel
called upon to certify that I have no doubts of the truthfulness of your
correspondent's story. The world will never know or believe the horrors
of Andersonville and other prisons in the South. No living, human being,
in my judgment, will ever be able to properly paint the horrors of those
infernal dens.

I formed the acquaintance of several Ohio soldiers whilst in prison.
Among these were O. D. Streeter, of Cleveland, who went to Andersonville
about the same time that I did, and escaped, and was the only man that I
ever knew that escaped and reached our lines. After an absence of
several months he was retaken in one of Sherman's battles before Atlanta,
and brought back. I also knew John L. Richards, of Fostoria, Seneca
County, O. or Eaglesville, Wood County. Also, a man by the name of
Beverly, who was a partner of Charley Aucklebv, of Tennessee. I would
like to hear from all of these parties. They all know me.

Mr. Editor, I will close by wishing all my comrades who shared in the
sufferings and dangers of Confederate prisons, a long and useful life.
Yours truly,
RANSOM T. POWELL

John McElroy