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Chapter 43

DIFFICULTY OF EXERCISING--EMBARRASSMENTS OF A MORNING WALK--THE RIALTO
OF THE PRISON--CURSING THE SOUTHERN CONFEDERACY--THE STORY OF THE BATTLE
OF SPOTTSYLVANIA COURTHOUSE.

Certainly, in no other great community, that ever existed upon the face
of the globe was there so little daily ebb and flow as in this. Dull as
an ordinary Town or City may be; however monotonous, eventless, even
stupid the lives of its citizens, there is yet, nevertheless, a flow
every day of its life-blood--its population towards its heart, and an ebb
of the same, every evening towards its extremities. These recurring
tides mingle all classes together and promote the general healthfulness,
as the constant motion hither and yon of the ocean's waters purify and
sweeten them.

The lack of these helped vastly to make the living mass inside the
Stockade a human Dead Sea--or rather a Dying Sea--a putrefying, stinking
lake, resolving itself into phosphorescent corruption, like those rotting
southern seas, whose seething filth burns in hideous reds, and ghastly
greens and yellows.

Being little call for motion of any kind, and no room to exercise
whatever wish there might be in that direction, very many succumbed
unresistingly to the apathy which was so strongly favored by despondency
and the weakness induced by continual hunger, and lying supinely on the
hot sand, day in and day out, speedily brought themselves into such a
condition as invited the attacks of disease.

It required both determination and effort to take a little walking
exercise. The ground was so densely crowded with holes and other devices
for shelter that it took one at least ten minutes to pick his way through
the narrow and tortuous labyrinth which served as paths for communication
between different parts of the Camp. Still further, there was nothing to
see anywhere or to form sufficient inducement for any one to make so
laborious a journey. One simply encountered at every new step the same
unwelcome sights that he had just left; there was a monotony in the
misery as in everything else, and consequently the temptation to sit or
lie still in one's own quarters became very great.

I used to make it a point to go to some of the remoter parts of the
Stockade once every day, simply for exercise. One can gain some idea of
the crowd, and the difficulty of making one's way through it, when I say
that no point in the prison could be more than fifteen hundred feet from
where I staid, and, had the way been clear, I could have walked thither
and back in at most a half an hour, yet it usually took me from two to
three hours to make one of these journeys.

This daily trip, a few visits to the Creek to wash all over, a few games
of chess, attendance upon roll call, drawing rations, cooking and eating
the same, "lousing" my fragments of clothes, and doing some little duties
for my sick and helpless comrades, constituted the daily routine for
myself, as for most of the active youths in the prison.

The Creek was the great meeting point for all inside the Stockade.
All able to walk were certain to be there at least once during the day,
and we made it a rendezvous, a place to exchange gossip, discuss the
latest news, canvass the prospects of exchange, and, most of all,
to curse the Rebels. Indeed no conversation ever progressed very far
without both speaker and listener taking frequent rests to say bitter
things as to the Rebels generally, and Wirz, Winder and Davis in
particular.

A conversation between two boys--strangers to each other who came to the
Creek to wash themselves or their clothes, or for some other purpose,
would progress thus:

First Boy--"I belong to the Second Corps,--Hancock's, [the Army of the
Potomac boys always mentioned what Corps they belonged to, where the
Western boys stated their Regiment.] They got me at Spottsylvania, when
they were butting their heads against our breast-works, trying to get
even with us for gobbling up Johnson in the morning,"--He stops suddenly
and changes tone to say: "I hope to God, that when our folks get
Richmond, they will put old Ben Butler in command of it, with orders to
limb, skin and jayhawk it worse than he did New Orleans."

Second Boy, (fervently :) "I wish to God he would, and that he'd catch
old Jeff., and that grayheaded devil, Winder, and the old Dutch Captain,
strip 'em just as we were, put 'em in this pen, with just the rations
they are givin' us, and set a guard of plantation niggers over 'em, with
orders to blow their whole infernal heads off, if they dared so much as
to look at the dead line."

First Boy--(returning to the story of his capture.) "Old Hancock caught
the Johnnies that morning the neatest you ever saw anything in your life.
After the two armies had murdered each other for four or five days in the
Wilderness, by fighting so close together that much of the time you could
almost shake hands with the Graybacks, both hauled off a little, and lay
and glowered at each other. Each side had lost about twenty thousand men
in learning that if it attacked the other it would get mashed fine.
So each built a line of works and lay behind them, and tried to nag the
other into coming out and attacking. At Spottsylvania our lines and
those of the Johnnies weren't twelve hundred yards apart. The ground was
clear and clean between them, and any force that attempted to cross it to
attack would be cut to pieces, as sure as anything. We laid there three
or four days watching each other--just like boys at school, who shake
fists and dare each other. At one place the Rebel line ran out towards
us like the top of a great letter 'A.' The night of the 11th of May it
rained very hard, and then came a fog so thick that you couldn't see the
length of a company. Hancock thought he'd take advantage of this.
We were all turned out very quietly about four o'clock in the morning.
Not a bit of noise was allowed. We even had to take off our canteens and
tin cups, that they might not rattle against our bayonets. The ground
was so wet that our footsteps couldn't be heard. It was one of those
deathly, still movements, when you think your heart is making as much
noise as a bass drum.

"The Johnnies didn't seem to have the faintest suspicion of what was
coming, though they ought, because we would have expected such an attack
from them if we hadn't made it ourselves. Their pickets were out just a
little ways from their works, and we were almost on to them before they
discovered us. They fired and ran back. At this we raised a yell and
dashed forward at a charge. As we poured over the works, the Rebels came
double-quicking up to defend them. We flanked Johnson's Division
quicker'n you could say 'Jack Robinson,' and had four thousand of 'em in
our grip just as nice as you please. We sent them to the rear under
guard, and started for the next line of Rebel works about a half a mile
away. But we had now waked up the whole of Lee's army, and they all came
straight for us, like packs of mad wolves. Ewell struck us in the
center; Longstreet let drive at our left flank, and Hill tackled our
right. We fell back to the works we had taken, Warren and Wright came up
to help us, and we had it hot and heavy for the rest of the day and part
of the night. The Johnnies seemed so mad over what we'd done that they
were half crazy. They charged us five times, coming up every time just
as if they were going to lift us right out of the works with the bayonet.
About midnight, after they'd lost over ten thousand men, they seemed to
understand that we had pre-empted that piece of real estate, and didn't
propose to allow anybody to jump our claim, so they fell back sullen like
to their main works. When they came on the last charge, our Brigadier
walked behind each of our regiments and said:

"Boys, we'll send 'em back this time for keeps. Give it to 'em by the
acre, and when they begin to waver, we'll all jump over the works and go
for them with the bayonet.'

"We did it just that way. We poured such a fire on them that the bullets
knocked up the ground in front just like you have seen the deep dust in a
road in the middle of Summer fly up when the first great big drops of a
rain storm strike it. But they came on, yelling and swearing, officers
in front waving swords, and shouting--all that business, you know. When
they got to about one hundred yards from us, they did not seem to be
coming so fast, and there was a good deal of confusion among them. The
brigade bugle sounded:

"Stop firing."

"We all ceased instantly. The rebels looked up in astonishment. Our
General sang out:

"Fix bayonets!' but we knew what was coming, and were already executing
the order. You can imagine the crash that ran down the line, as every
fellow snatched his bayonet out and slapped it on the muzzle of his gun.
Then the General's voice rang out like a bugle:

"Ready!--FORWARD! CHARGE!'

"We cheered till everything seemed to split, and jumped over the works,
almost every man at the same minute. The Johnnies seemed to have been
puzzled at the stoppage of our fire. When we all came sailing over the
works, with guns brought right, down where they meant business, they were
so astonished for a minute that they stood stock still, not knowing
whether to come for us, or run. We did not allow them long to debate,
but went right towards them on the double quick, with the bayonets
looking awful savage and hungry. It was too much for Mr. Johnny Reb's
nerves. They all seemed to about face' at once, and they lit out of
there as if they had been sent for in a hurry. We chased after 'em as
fast as we could, and picked up just lots of 'em. Finally it began to be
real funny. A Johnny's wind would begin to give out he'd fall behind his
comrades; he'd hear us yell and think that we were right behind him,
ready to sink a bayonet through him'; he'd turn around, throw up his
hands, and sing out:

"I surrender, mister! I surrender!' and find that we were a hundred feet
off, and would have to have a bayonet as long as one of McClellan's
general orders to touch him.

"Well, my company was the left of our regiment, and our regiment was the
left of the brigade, and we swung out ahead of all the rest of the boys.
In our excitement of chasing the Johnnies, we didn't see that we had
passed an angle of their works. About thirty of us had become separated
from the company and were chasing a squad of about seventy-five or one
hundred. We had got up so close to them that we hollered:

"'Halt there, now, or we'll blow your heads off.'

"They turned round with, 'halt yourselves; you ---- Yankee ---- ----'

"We looked around at this, and saw that we were not one hundred feet away
from the angle of the works, which were filled with Rebels waiting for
our fellows to get to where they could have a good flank fire upon them.
There was nothing to do but to throw down our guns and surrender, and we
had hardly gone inside of the works, until the Johnnies opened on our
brigade and drove it back. This ended the battle at Spottsylvania Court
House."

Second Boy (irrelevantly.) "Some day the underpinning will fly out from
under the South, and let it sink right into the middle kittle o' hell."

First Boy (savagely.) "I only wish the whole Southern Confederacy was
hanging over hell by a single string, and I had a knife."

John McElroy