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Chapter 45

AUGUST--NEEDLES STUCK IN PUMPKIN SEEDS--SOME PHENOMENA OF STARVATION
--RIOTING IN REMEMBERED LUXURIES.

"Illinoy," said tall, gaunt Jack North, of the One Hundred and Fourteenth
Illinois, to me, one day, as we sat contemplating our naked, and sadly
attenuated underpinning; "what do our legs and feet most look most like?"

"Give it up, Jack," said I.

"Why--darning needles stuck in pumpkin seeds, of course." I never heard
a better comparison for our wasted limbs.

The effects of the great bodily emaciation were sometimes very startling.
Boys of a fleshy habit would change so in a few weeks as to lose all
resemblance to their former selves, and comrades who came into prison
later would utterly fail to recognize them. Most fat men, as most large
men, died in a little while after entering, though there were exceptions.
One of these was a boy of my own company, named George Hillicks. George
had shot up within a few years to over six feet in hight, and then, as
such boys occasionally do, had, after enlisting with us, taken on such a
development of flesh that we nicknamed him the "Giant," and he became a
pretty good load for even the strongest horse. George held his flesh
through Belle Isle, and the earlier weeks in Andersonville, but June,
July, and August "fetched him," as the boys said. He seemed to melt away
like an icicle on a Spring day, and he grew so thin that his hight seemed
preternatural. We called him "Flagstaff," and cracked all sorts of jokes
about putting an insulator on his head, and setting him up for a
telegraph pole, braiding his legs and using him for a whip lash, letting
his hair grow a little longer, and trading him off to the Rebels for a
sponge and staff for the artillery, etc. We all expected him to die,
and looked continually for the development of the fatal scurvy symptoms,
which were to seal his doom. But he worried through, and came out at
last in good shape, a happy result due as much as to anything else to his
having in Chester Hayward, of Prairie City, Ill.,--one of the most
devoted chums I ever knew. Chester nursed and looked out for George with
wife-like fidelity, and had his reward in bringing him safe through our
lines. There were thousands of instances of this generous devotion to
each other by chums in Andersonville, and I know of nothing that reflects
any more credit upon our boy soldiers.

There was little chance for any one to accumulate flesh on the rations we
were receiving. I say it in all soberness that I do not believe that a
healthy hen could have grown fat upon them. I am sure that any
good-sized "shanghai" eats more every day than the meager half loaf that we
had to maintain life upon. Scanty as this was, and hungry as all were,
very many could not eat it. Their stomachs revolted against the trash;
it became so nauseous to them that they could not force it down, even
when famishing, and they died of starvation with the chunks of the
so-called bread under their head. I found myself rapidly approaching this
condition. I had been blessed with a good digestion and a talent for
sleeping under the most discouraging circumstances. These, I have no
doubt, were of the greatest assistance to me in my struggle for
existence. But now the rations became fearfully obnoxious to me, and it
was only with the greatest effort--pulling the bread into little pieces
and swallowing each, of these as one would a pill--that I succeeded in
worrying the stuff down. I had not as yet fallen away very much, but as
I had never, up, to that time, weighed so much as one hundred and
twenty-five pounds, there was no great amount of adipose to lose. It was
evident that unless some change occurred my time was near at hand.

There was not only hunger for more food, but longing with an intensity
beyond expression for alteration of some kind in the rations.
The changeless monotony of the miserable saltless bread, or worse mush,
for days, weeks and months, became unbearable. If those wretched mule
teams had only once a month hauled in something different--if they had
come in loaded with sweet potatos, green corn or wheat flour, there would
be thousands of men still living who now slumber beneath those melancholy
pines. It would have given something to look forward to, and remember
when past. But to know each day that the gates would open to admit the
same distasteful apologies for food took away the appetite and raised
one's gorge, even while famishing for something to eat.

We could for a while forget the stench, the lice, the heat, the maggots,
the dead and dying around us, the insulting malignance of our jailors;
but it was, very hard work to banish thoughts and longings for food from
our minds. Hundreds became actually insane from brooding over it. Crazy
men could be found in all parts of the camp. Numbers of them wandered
around entirely naked. Their babblings and maunderings about something
to eat were painful to hear. I have before mentioned the case of the
Plymouth Pilgrim near me, whose insanity took the form of imagining that
he was sitting at the table with his family, and who would go through the
show of helping them to imaginary viands and delicacies. The cravings
for green food of those afflicted with the scurvy were, agonizing. Large
numbers of watermelons were brought to the prison, and sold to those who
had the money to pay for them at from one to five dollars, greenbacks,
apiece. A boy who had means to buy a piece of these would be followed
about while eating it by a crowd of perhaps twenty-five or thirty
livid-gummed scorbutics, each imploring him for the rind when he was
through with it.

We thought of food all day, and were visited with torturing dreams of it
at night. One of the pleasant recollections of my pre-military life was
a banquet at the "Planter's House," St. Louis, at which I was a boyish
guest. It was, doubtless, an ordinary affair, as banquets go, but to me
then, with all the keen appreciation of youth and first experience, it
was a feast worthy of Lucullus. But now this delightful reminiscence
became a torment. Hundreds of times I dreamed I was again at the
"Planter's." I saw the wide corridors, with their mosaic pavement;
I entered the grand dining-room, keeping timidly near the friend to whose
kindness I owed this wonderful favor; I saw again the mirror-lined walls,
the evergreen decked ceilings, the festoons and mottos, the tables
gleaming with cutglass and silver, the buffets with wines and fruits,
the brigade of sleek, black, white-aproned waiters, headed by one who had
presence enough for a major General. Again I reveled in all the dainties
and dishes on the bill-of-fare; calling for everything that I dared to,
just to see what each was like, and to be able to say afterwards that I
had partaken of it; all these bewildering delights of the first
realization of what a boy has read and wondered much over, and longed
for, would dance their rout and reel through my somnolent brain. Then I
would awake to find myself a half-naked, half-starved, vermin-eaten
wretch, crouching in a hole in the ground, waiting for my keepers to
fling me a chunk of corn bread.

Naturally the boys--and especially the country boys and new prisoners
--talked much of victuals--what they had had, and what they would have
again, when they got out. Take this as a sample of the conversation
which might be heard in any group of boys, sitting together on the sand,
killin lice and talking of exchange:

Tom--"Well, Bill, when we get back to God's country, you and Jim and John
must all come to my house and take dinner with me. I want to give you a
square meal. I want to show you just what good livin' is. You know my
mother is just the best cook in all that section. When she lays herself
out to get up a meal all the other women in the neighborhood just stand
back and admire!"

Bill--"O, that's all right; but I'll bet she can't hold a candle to my
mother, when it comes to good cooking."

Jim--"No, nor to mine."

John--(with patronizing contempt.) "O, shucks! None of you fellers were
ever at our house, even when we had one of our common weekday dinners."

Tom--(unheedful of the counter claims.) I hev teen studyin' up the dinner
I'd like, and the bill-of-fare I'd set out for you fellers when you come
over to see me. First, of course, we'll lay the foundation like with a
nice, juicy loin roast, and some mashed potatos.

Bill--(interrupting.) "Now, do you like mashed potatos with beef? The
way may mother does is to pare the potatos, and lay them in the pan along
with the beef. Then, you know, they come out just as nice and crisp, and
brown; they have soaked up all the beef gravy, and they crinkle between
your teeth--"

Jim--"Now, I tell you, mashed Neshannocks with butter on 'em is plenty
good enough for me."

John--"If you'd et some of the new kind of peachblows that we raised in
the old pasture lot the year before I enlisted, you'd never say another
word about your Neshannocks."

Tom--(taking breath and starting in fresh.) "Then we'll hev some fried
Spring chickens, of our dominick breed. Them dominicks of ours have the
nicest, tenderest meat, better'n quail, a darned sight, and the way my
mother can fry Spring chickens----"

Bill--(aside to Jim.) "Every durned woman in the country thinks she can
'spry ching frickens;' but my mother---"

John--"You fellers all know that there's nobody knows half as much about
chicken doin's as these 'tinerant Methodis' preachers. They give 'em
chicken wherever they go, and folks do say that out in the new
settlements they can't get no preachin', no gospel, nor nothin', until
the chickens become so plenty that a preacher is reasonably sure of
havin' one for his dinner wherever he may go. Now, there's old Peter
Cartwright, who has traveled over Illinoy and Indianny since the Year
One, and preached more good sermons than any other man who ever set on
saddle-bags, and has et more chickens than there are birds in a big
pigeon roost. Well, he took dinner at our house when he came up to
dedicate the big, white church at Simpkin's Corners, and when he passed
up his plate the third time for more chicken, he sez, sez he:--I've et
at a great many hundred tables in the fifty years I have labored in the
vineyard of the Redeemer, but I must say, Mrs. Kiggins, that your way of
frying chickens is a leetle the nicest that I ever knew. I only wish
that the sisters generally would get your reseet.' Yes, that's what he
said,--'a leetle the nicest.'"

Tom--"An' then, we'll hev biscuits an' butter. I'll just bet five
hundred dollars to a cent, and give back the cent if I win, that we have
the best butter at our house that there is in Central Illinoy. You can't
never hev good butter onless you have a spring house; there's no use of
talkin'--all the patent churns that lazy men ever invented--all the fancy
milk pans an' coolers, can't make up for a spring house. Locations for a
spring house are scarcer than hen's teeth in Illinoy, but we hev one, and
there ain't a better one in Orange County, New York. Then you'll see
dome of the biscuits my mother makes."

Bill--"Well, now, my mother's a boss biscuit-maker, too."

Jim--"You kin just gamble that mine is."

John--"O, that's the way you fellers ought to think an' talk, but my
mother----"

Tom--(coming in again with fresh vigor) "They're jest as light an' fluffy
as a dandelion puff, and they melt in your month like a ripe Bartlett
pear. You just pull 'em open--Now you know that I think there's nothin'
that shows a person's raisin' so well as to see him eat biscuits an'
butter. If he's been raised mostly on corn bread, an' common doins,'
an' don't know much about good things to eat, he'll most likely cut his
biscuit open with a case knife, an' make it fall as flat as one o'
yesterday's pancakes. But if he is used to biscuits, has had 'em often
at his house, he'll--just pull 'em open, slow an' easy like, then he'll
lay a little slice of butter inside, and drop a few drops of clear honey
on this, an' stick the two halves back, together again, an--"

"Oh, for God Almighty's sake, stop talking that infernal nonsense," roar
out a half dozen of the surrounding crowd, whose mouths have been
watering over this unctuous recital of the good things of the table.
"You blamed fools, do you want to drive yourselves and everybody else
crazy with such stuff as that. Dry up and try to think of something
else."

John McElroy