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Chapter 47

"SICK CALL," AND THE SCENES THAT ACCOMPANIED IT--MUSTERING THE LAME, HALT
AND DISEASED AT THE SOUTH GATE--AN UNUSUALLY BAD CASE--GOING OUT TO THE
HOSPITAL--ACCOMMODATION AND TREATMENT OF THE PATIENTS THERE--THE HORRIBLE
SUFFERING IN THE GANGRENE WARD--BUNGLING AMPUTATIONS BY BLUNDERING
PRACTITIONERS--AFFECTION BETWEEN A SAILOR AND HIS WARD--DEATH OF MY
COMRADE.

Every morning after roll-call, thousands of sick gathered at the South
Gate, where the doctors made some pretense of affording medical relief.
The scene there reminded me of the illustrations in my Sunday-School
lessons of that time when "great multitudes came unto Him," by the shores
of the Sea of Galilee, "having with them those that were lame, blind,
dumb, maimed, and many others." Had the crowds worn the flouting robes
of the East, the picture would have lacked nothing but the presence of
the Son of Man to make it complete. Here were the burning sands and
parching sun; hither came scores of groups of three or four comrades,
laboriously staggering under the weight of a blanket in which they had
carried a disabled and dying friend from some distant part of the
Stockade. Beside them hobbled the scorbutics with swollen and distorted
limbs, each more loathsome and nearer death than the lepers whom Christ's
divine touch made whole. Dozens, unable to walk, and having no comrades
to carry them, crawled painfully along, with frequent stops, on their
hands and knees. Every form of intense physical suffering that it is
possible for disease to induce in the human frame was visible at these
daily parades of the sick of the prison. As over three thousand (three
thousand and seventy-six) died in August, there were probably twelve
thousand dangerously sick at any given time daring the month; and a large
part of these collected at the South Gate every morning.

Measurably-calloused as we had become by the daily sights of horror
around us, we encountered spectacles in these gatherings which no amount
of visible misery could accustom us to. I remember one especially that
burned itself deeply into my memory. It was of a young man not over
twenty-five, who a few weeks ago--his clothes looked comparatively new
--had evidently been the picture of manly beauty and youthful vigor.
He had had a well-knit, lithe form; dark curling hair fell over a
forehead which had once been fair, and his eyes still showed that they
had gleamed with a bold, adventurous spirit. The red clover leaf on his
cap showed that he belonged to the First Division of the Second Corps,
the three chevrons on his arm that he was a Sergeant, and the stripe at
his cuff that he was a veteran. Some kind-hearted boys had found him in
a miserable condition on the North Side, and carried him over in a
blanket to where the doctors could see him. He had but little clothing
on, save his blouse and cap. Ulcers of some kind had formed in his
abdomen, and these were now masses of squirming worms. It was so much
worse than the usual forms of suffering, that quite a little crowd of
compassionate spectators gathered around and expressed their pity.
The sufferer turned to one who lay beside him with:

"Comrade: If we were only under the old Stars and Stripes, we wouldn't
care a G-d d--n for a few worms, would we?"

This was not profane. It was an utterance from the depths of a brave
man's heart, couched in the strongest language at his command. It seemed
terrible that so gallant a soul should depart from earth in this
miserable fashion. Some of us, much moved by the sight, went to the
doctors and put the case as strongly as possible, begging them to do
something to alleviate his suffering. They declined to see the case,
but got rid of us by giving us a bottle of turpentine, with directions to
pour it upon the ulcers to kill the maggots. We did so. It must have
been cruel torture, and as absurd remedially as cruel, but our hero set
his teeth and endured, without a groan. He was then carried out to the
hospital to die.

I said the doctors made a pretense of affording medical relief. It was
hardly that, since about all the prescription for those inside the
Stockade consisted in giving a handful of sumach berries to each of those
complaining of scurvy. The berries might have done some good, had there
been enough of them, and had their action been assisted by proper food.
As it was, they were probably nearly, if not wholly, useless. Nothing
was given to arrest the ravages of dysentery.

A limited number of the worst cases were admitted to the Hospital each
day. As this only had capacity for about one-quarter of the sick in the
Stockade, new patients could only be admitted as others died. It seemed,
anyway, like signing a man's death warrant to send him to the Hospital,
as three out of every four who went out there died. The following from
the official report of the Hospital shows this:

Total number admitted .........................................12,900
Died ................................................. 8,663
Exchanged ............................................ 828
Took the oath of allegiance .......................... 25
Sent elsewhere ....................................... 2,889

Total ................................................12,400

Average deaths, 76 per cent.


Early in August I made a successful effort to get out to the Hospital. I
had several reasons for this: First, one of my chums, W. W. Watts, of
my own company, had been sent out a little whale before very sick with
scurvy and pneumonia, and I wanted to see if I could do anything for him,
if he still lived: I have mentioned before that for awhile after our
entrance into Andersonville five of us slept on one overcoat and covered
ourselves with one blanket. Two of these had already died, leaving as
possessors of-the blanket and overcoat, W. W. Watts, B. B. Andrews, and
myself.

Next, I wanted to go out to see if there was any prospect of escape.
I had long since given up hopes of escaping from the Stockade. All our
attempts at tunneling had resulted in dead failures, and now, to make us
wholly despair of success in that direction, another Stockade was built
clear around the prison, at a distance of one hundred and twenty feet
from the first palisades. It was manifest that though we might succeed
in tunneling past one Stockade, we could not go beyond the second one.

I had the scurvy rather badly, and being naturally slight in frame,
I presented a very sick appearance to the physicians, and was passed out
to the Hospital.

While this was a wretched affair, it was still a vast improvement on the
Stockade. About five acres of ground, a little southeast of the
Stockade, and bordering on a creek, were enclosed by a board fence,
around which the guard walked, trees shaded the ground tolerably well.
There were tents and flies to shelter part of the sick, and in these were
beds made of pine leaves. There were regular streets and alleys running
through the grounds, and as the management was in the hands of our own
men, the place was kept reasonably clean and orderly for Andersonville.

There was also some improvement in the food. Rice in some degree
replaced the nauseous and innutritious corn bread, and if served in
sufficient quantities, would doubtless have promoted the recovery of many
men dying from dysenteric diseases. We also received small quantities of
"okra," a plant peculiar to the South, whose pods contained a
mucilaginous matter that made a soup very grateful to those suffering
from scurvy.

But all these ameliorations of condition were too slight to even arrest
the progress of the disease of the thousands of dying men brought out
from the Stockade. These still wore the same lice-infested garments as
in prison; no baths or even ordinary applications of soap and water
cleaned their dirt-grimed skins, to give their pores an opportunity to
assist in restoring them to health; even their long, lank and matted
hair, swarming with vermin, was not trimmed. The most ordinary and
obvious measures for their comfort and care were neglected. If a man
recovered he did it almost in spite of fate. The medicines given were
scanty and crude. The principal remedial agent--as far as my observation
extended--was a rank, fetid species of unrectified spirits, which, I was
told, was made from sorgum seed. It had a light-green tinge, and was
about as inviting to the taste as spirits of turpentine. It was given to
the sick in small quantities mixed with water. I had had some experience
with Kentucky "apple-jack," which, it was popularly believed among the
boys, would dissolve a piece of the fattest pork thrown into it, but that
seemed balmy and oily alongside of this. After tasting some, I ceased to
wonder at the atrocities of Wirz and his associates. Nothing would seem
too bad to a man who made that his habitual tipple.

[For a more particular description of the Hospital I must refer my reader
to the testimony of Professor Jones, in a previous chapter.]

Certainly this continent has never seen--and I fervently trust it will
never again see--such a gigantic concentration of misery as that Hospital
displayed daily. The official statistics tell the story of this with
terrible brevity: There were three thousand seven hundred and nine in the
Hospital in August; one thousand four hundred and eighty-nine--nearly
every other man died. The rate afterwards became much higher than this.

The most conspicuous suffering was in the gangrene wards. Horrible sores
spreading almost visibly from hour to hour, devoured men's limbs and
bodies. I remember one ward in which the alterations appeared to be
altogether in the back, where they ate out the tissue between the skin
and the ribs. The attendants seemed trying to arrest the progress of the
sloughing by drenching the sores with a solution of blue vitriol. This
was exquisitely painful, and in the morning, when the drenching was going
on, the whole hospital rang with the most agonizing screams.

But the gangrene mostly attacked the legs and arms, and the led more than
the arms. Sometimes it killed men inside of a week; sometimes they
lingered on indefinitely. I remember one man in the Stockade who cut his
hand with the sharp corner of a card of corn bread he was lifting from
the ration wagon; gangrene set in immediately, and he died four days
after.

One form that was quit prevalent was a cancer of the lower one corner of
the mouth, and it finally ate the whole side of the face out. Of course
the sufferer had the greatest trouble in eating and drinking. For the
latter it was customary to whittle out a little wooden tube, and fasten
it in a tin cup, through which he could suck up the water. As this mouth
cancer seemed contagious, none of us would allow any one afflicted with
it to use any of our cooking utensils. The Rebel doctors at the hospital
resorted to wholesale amputations to check the progress of the gangrene.

They had a two hours session of limb-lopping every morning, each of which
resulted in quite a pile of severed members. I presume more bungling
operations are rarely seen outside of Russian or Turkish hospitals.
Their unskilfulness was apparent even to non-scientific observers like
myself. The standard of medical education in the South--as indeed of
every other form of education--was quite low. The Chief Surgeon of the
prison, Dr. Isaiah White, and perhaps two or three others, seemed to be
gentlemen of fair abilities and attainments. The remainder were of that
class of illiterate and unlearning quacks who physic and blister the poor
whites and negros in the country districts of the South; who believe they
can stop bleeding of the nose by repeating a verse from the Bible; who
think that if in gathering their favorite remedy of boneset they cut the
stem upwards it will purge their patients, and if downward it will vomit
them, and who hold that there is nothing so good for "fits" as a black
cat, killed in the dark of the moon, cut open, and bound while yet warm,
upon the naked chest of the victim of the convulsions.

They had a case of instruments captured from some of our field hospitals,
which were dull and fearfully out of order. With poor instruments and
unskilled hands the operations became mangling.

In the Hospital I saw an admirable illustration of the affection which a
sailor will lavish on a ship's boy, whom he takes a fancy to, and makes
his "chicken," as the phrase is. The United States sloop "Water Witch"
had recently been captured in Ossabaw Sound, and her crew brought into
prison. One of her boys--a bright, handsome little fellow of about
fifteen--had lost one of his arms in the fight. He was brought into the
Hospital, and the old fellow whose "chicken" he was, was allowed to
accompany and nurse him. This "old barnacle-back" was as surly a growler
as ever went aloft, but to his "chicken" he was as tender and thoughtful
as a woman. They found a shady nook in one corner, and any moment one
looked in that direction he could see the old tar hard at work at
something for the comfort and pleasure of his pet. Now he was dressing
the wound as deftly and gently as a mother caring for a new-born babe;
now he was trying to concoct some relish out of the slender materials he
could beg or steal from the Quartermaster; now trying to arrange the
shade of the bed of pine leaves in a more comfortable manner; now
repairing or washing his clothes, and so on.

All the sailors were particularly favored by being allowed to bring their
bags in untouched by the guards. This "chicken" had a wonderful supply
of clothes, the handiwork of his protector who, like most good sailors,
was very skillful with the needle. He had suits of fine white duck,
embroidered with blue in a way that would ravish the heart of a fine
lady, and blue suits similarly embroidered with white. No belle ever
kept her clothes in better order than these were. When the duck came up
from the old sailor's patient washing it was as spotless as new-fallen
snow.

I found my chum in a very bad condition. His appetite was entirely gone,
but he had an inordinate craving for tobacco--for strong, black plug
--which he smoked in a pipe. He had already traded off all his brass
buttons to the guards for this. I had accumulated a few buttons to bribe
the guard to take me out for wood, and I gave these also for tobacco for
him. When I awoke one morning the man who laid next to me on the right
was dead, having died sometime during the night. I searched his pockets
and took what was in them. These were a silk pocket handkerchief, a
gutta percha finger-ring, a comb, a pencil, and a leather pocket-book,
making in all quite a nice little "find." I hied over to the guard, and
succeeded in trading the personal estate which I had inherited from the
intestate deceased, for a handful of peaches, a handful of hardly ripe
figs, and a long plug of tobacco. I hastened back to Watts, expecting
that the figs and peaches would do him a world of good. At first I did
not show him the tobacco, as I was strongly opposed to his using it,
thinking that it was making him much worse. But he looked at the
tempting peaches and figs with lack-luster eyes; he was too far gone to
care for them. He pushed them back to me, saying faintly:

"No, you take 'em, Mc; I don't want 'em; I can't eat 'em!"

I then produced the tobacco, and his face lighted up. Concluding that
this was all the comfort that he could have, and that I might as well
gratify him, I cut up some of the weed, filled his pipe and lighted it.
He smoked calmly and almost happily all the afternoon, hardly speaking a
word to me. As it grew dark he asked me to bring him a drink. I did so,
and as I raised him up he said:

"Mc, this thing's ended. Tell my father that I stood it as long as I
could, and----"

The death rattle sounded in his throat, and when I laid him back it was
all over. Straightening out his limbs, folding his hands across his
breast, and composing his features as best I could, I lay, down beside
the body and slept till morning, when I did what little else I could
toward preparing for the grave all that was left of my long-suffering
little friend.

John McElroy