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Chapter 51

SOLICITUDE AS TO THE FATE OF ATLANTA AND SHERMAN'S ARMY--PAUCITY OF NEWS
--HOW WE HEARD THAT ATLANTA HAD FALLEN--ANNOUNCEMENT OF A GENERAL
EXCHANGE--WE LEAVE ANDERSONVILLE.

We again began to be exceedingly solicitous over the fate of Atlanta and
Sherman's Army: we had heard but little directly from that front for
several weeks. Few prisoners had come in since those captured in the
bloody engagements of the 20th, 22d, and 28th of July. In spite of their
confident tones, and our own sanguine hopes, the outlook admitted of very
grave doubts. The battles of the last week of July had been looked at it
in the best light possible--indecisive. Our men had held their own,
it is true, but an invading army can not afford to simply hold its own.
Anything short of an absolute success is to it disguised defeat. Then we
knew that the cavalry column sent out under Stoneman had been so badly
handled by that inefficient commander that it had failed ridiculously in
its object, being beaten in detail, and suffering the loss of its
commander and a considerable portion of its numbers. This had been
followed by a defeat of our infantry at Etowah Creek, and then came a
long interval in which we received no news save what the Rebel papers
contained, and they pretended no doubt that Sherman's failure was already
demonstrated. Next came well-authenticated news that Sherman had raised
the siege and fallen back to the Chattahoochee, and we felt something of
the bitterness of despair. For days thereafter we heard nothing, though
the hot, close Summer air seemed surcharged with the premonitions of a
war storm about to burst, even as nature heralds in the same way a
concentration of the mighty force of the elements for the grand crash of
the thunderstorm. We waited in tense expectancy for the decision of the
fates whether final victory or defeat should end the long and arduous
campaign.

At night the guards in the perches around the Stockade called out every
half hour, so as to show the officers that they were awake and attending
to their duty. The formula for this ran thus:

"Post numbah 1; half-past eight o'clock, and a-l-l 's w-e-l-l!"

Post No. 2 repeated this cry, and so it went around.

One evening when our anxiety as to Atlanta was wrought to the highest
pitch, one of the guards sang out:

"Post numbah foah--half past eight o'clock--and Atlanta's--gone--t-o
--hell."

The heart of every man within hearing leaped to his mouth. We looked
toward each other, almost speechless with glad surprise, and then gasped
out:

"Did 'you hear THAT?"

The next instant such a ringing cheer burst out as wells spontaneously
from the throats and hearts of men, in the first ecstatic moments of
victory--a cheer to which our saddened hearts and enfeebled lungs had
long been strangers. It was the genuine, honest, manly Northern cheer,
as different from the shrill Rebel yell as the honest mastiff's
deep-voiced welcome is from the howl of the prowling wolf.

The shout was taken up all over the prison. Even those who had not heard
the guard understood that it meant that "Atlanta was ours and fairly
won," and they took up the acclamation with as much enthusiasm as we had
begun it. All thoughts of sleep were put to flight: we would have a
season of rejoicing. Little knots gathered together, debated the news,
and indulged in the most sanguine hopes as to the effect upon the Rebels.
In some parts of the Stockade stump speeches were made. I believe that
Boston Corbett and his party organized a prayer and praise meeting.
In our corner we stirred up our tuneful friend "Nosey," who sang again
the grand old patriotic hymns that set our thin blood to bounding,
and made us remember that we were still Union soldiers, with higher hopes
than that of starving and dying in Andersonville. He sang the
ever-glorious Star Spangled Banner, as he used to sing it around the
camp fire in happier days, when we were in the field. He sang the
rousing "Rally Round the Flag," with its wealth of patriotic fire and
martial vigor, and we, with throats hoarse from shouting; joined in the
chorus until the welkin rang again.

The Rebels became excited, lest our exaltation of spirits would lead to
an assault upon the Stockade. They got under arms, and remained so until
the enthusiasm became less demonstrative.

A few days later--on the evening of the 6th of September--the Rebel
Sergeants who called the roll entered the Stockade, and each assembling
his squads, addressed them as follows:

"PRISONERS: I am instructed by General Winder to inform you that a
general exchange has been agreed upon. Twenty thousand men will be
exchanged immediately at Savannah, where your vessels are now waiting for
you. Detachments from One to Ten will prepare to leave early to-morrow
morning."

The excitement that this news produced was simply indescribable. I have
seen men in every possible exigency that can confront men, and a large
proportion viewed that which impended over them with at least outward
composure. The boys around me had endured all that we suffered with
stoical firmness. Groans from pain-racked bodies could not be repressed,
and bitter curses and maledictions against the Rebels leaped unbidden to
the lips at the slightest occasion, but there was no murmuring or
whining. There was not a day--hardly an hour--in which one did not see
such exhibitions of manly fortitude as made him proud of belonging to a
race of which every individual was a hero.

But the emotion which pain and suffering and danger could not develop,
joy could, and boys sang, and shouted and cried, and danced as if in a
delirium. "God's country," fairer than the sweet promised land of Canaan
appeared to the rapt vision of the Hebrew poet prophet, spread out in
glad vista before the mind's eye of every one. It had come--at last it
had come that which we had so longed for, wished for, prayed for, dreamed
of; schemed, planned, toiled for, and for which went up the last earnest,
dying wish of the thousands of our comrades who would now know no
exchange save into that eternal "God's country" where

Sickness and sorrow, pain and death
Are felt and feared no more.

Our "preparations," for leaving were few and simple. When the morning
came, and shortly after the order to move, Andrews and I picked our
well-worn blanket, our tattered overcoat, our rude chessmen, and no less
rude board, our little black can, and the spoon made of hoop-iron, and
bade farewell to the hole-in-the-ground that had been our home for
nearly seven long months.

My feet were still in miserable condition from the lacerations received
in the attempt to escape, but I took one of our tent poles as a staff and
hobbled away. We re-passed the gates which we had entered on that
February night, ages since, it seemed, and crawled slowly over to the
depot.

I had come to regard the Rebels around us as such measureless liars that
my first impulse was to believe the reverse of anything they said to us;
and even now, while I hoped for the best, my old habit of mind was so
strongly upon me that I had some doubts of our going to be exchanged,
simply because it was a Rebel who had said so. But in the crowd of
Rebels who stood close to the road upon which we were walking was a young
Second Lieutenant, who said to a Colonel as I passed:

"Weil, those fellows can sing 'Homeward Bound,' can't they?"

This set my last misgiving at rest. Now I was certain that we were going
to be exchanged, and my spirits soared to the skies.

Entering the cars we thumped and pounded toilsomely along, after the
manner of Southern railroads, at the rate of six or eight miles an hour.
Savannah was two hundred and forty miles away, and to our impatient minds
it seemed as if we would never get there. The route lay the whole
distance through the cheerless pine barrens which cover the greater part
of Georgia. The only considerable town on the way was Macon, which had
then a population of five thousand or thereabouts. For scores of miles
there would not be a sign of a human habitation, and in the one hundred
and eighty miles between Macon and Savannah there were only three
insignificant villages. There was a station every ten miles, at which
the only building was an open shed, to shelter from sun and rain a casual
passenger, or a bit of goods.

The occasional specimens of the poor white "cracker" population that we
saw, seemed indigenous products of the starved soil. They suited their
poverty-stricken surroundings as well as the gnarled and scrubby
vegetation suited the sterile sand. Thin-chested, round-shouldered,
scraggy-bearded, dull-eyed and open-mouthed, they all looked alike--all
looked as ignorant, as stupid, and as lazy as they were poor and weak.
They were "low-downers" in every respect, and made our rough and simple.
minded East Tennesseans look like models of elegant and cultured
gentlemen in contrast.

We looked on the poverty-stricken land with good-natured contempt, for we
thought we were leaving it forever, and would soon be in one which,
compared to it, was as the fatness at Egypt to the leanness of the desert
of Sinai.

The second day after leaving Andersonville our train struggled across the
swamps into Savannah, and rolled slowly down the live oak shaded streets
into the center of the City. It seemed like another Deserted Village,
so vacant and noiseless the streets, and the buildings everywhere so
overgrown with luxuriant vegetation: The limbs of the shade trees crashed
along and broke, upon the tops of our cars, as if no train had passed
that way for years. Through the interstices between the trees and clumps
of foliage could be seen the gleaming white marble of the monuments
erected to Greene and Pulaski, looking like giant tombstones in a City of
the Dead. The unbroken stillness--so different from what we expected on
entering the metropolis of Georgia, and a City that was an important port
in Revolutionary days--became absolutely oppressive. We could not
understand it, but our thoughts were more intent upon the coming transfer
to our flag than upon any speculation as to the cause of the remarkable
somnolence of Savannah.

Finally some little boys straggled out to where our car was standing, and
we opened up a conversation with them:

"Say, boys, are our vessels down in the harbor yet?"

The reply came in that piercing treble shriek in which a boy of ten or
twelve makes even his most confidential communications:

"I don't know."

"Well," (with our confidence in exchange somewhat dashed,) "they intend
to exchange us here, don't they?"

Another falsetto scream, "I don't know."

"Well," (with something of a quaver in the questioner's voice,) "what are
they going to do, with us, any way?"

"O," (the treble shriek became almost demoniac) "they are fixing up a
place over by the old jail for you."

What a sinking of hearts was there then! Andrews and I would not give up
hope so speedily as some others did, and resolved to believe, for awhile
at least, that we were going to be exchanged.

Ordered out of the cars, we were marched along the street. A crowd of
small boys, full of the curiosity of the animal, gathered around us as we
marched. Suddenly a door in a rather nice house opened; an angry-faced
woman appeared on the steps and shouted out:

"Boys! BOYS! What are you doin' there! Come up on the steps immejitely!
Come away from them n-a-s-t-y things!"

I will admit that we were not prepossessing in appearance; nor were we as
cleanly as young gentlemen should habitually be; in fact, I may as well
confess that I would not now, if I could help it, allow a tramp, as
dilapidated in raiment, as unwashed, unshorn, uncombed, and populous with
insects as we were, to come within several rods of me. Nevertheless,
it was not pleasant to hear so accurate a description of our personal
appearance sent forth on the wings of the wind by a shrill-voiced Rebel
female.

A short march brought us to the place "they were fixing for us by the old
jail." It was another pen, with high walls of thick pine plank, which
told us only too plainly how vain were our expectations of exchange.

When we were turned inside, and I realized that the gates of another
prison had closed upon me, hope forsook me. I flung our odious little
possessions-our can, chess-board, overcoat, and blanket-upon the ground,
and, sitting down beside them, gave way to the bitterest despair.
I wanted to die, O, so badly. Never in all my life had I desired
anything in the world so much as I did now to get out of it. Had I had
pistol, knife, rope, or poison, I would have ended my prison life then
and there, and departed with the unceremoniousness of a French leave.
I remembered that I could get a quietus from a guard with very little
trouble, but I would not give one of the bitterly hated Rebels the
triumph of shooting me. I longed to be another Samson, with the whole
Southern Confederacy gathered in another Temple of Dagon, that I might
pull down the supporting pillars, and die happy in slaying thousands of
my enemies.

While I was thus sinking deeper and deeper in the Slough of Despond, the
firing of a musket, and the shriek of the man who was struck, attracted
my attention. Looking towards the opposite end of the pen I saw a guard
bringing his still smoking musket to a "recover arms," and, not fifteen
feet from him, a prisoner lying on the ground in the agonies of death.
The latter had a pipe in his mouth when he was shot, and his teeth still
clenched its stem. His legs and arms were drawn up convulsively, and he
was rocking backward and forward on his back. The charge had struck him
just above the hip-bone.

The Rebel officer in command of the guard was sitting on his horse inside
the pen at the time, and rode forward to see what the matter was.
Lieutenant Davis, who had come with us from Andersonville, was also
sitting on a horse inside the prison, and he called out in his usual
harsh, disagreeable voice:

"That's all right, Cunnel; the man's done just as I awdahed him to."

I found that lying around inside were a number of bits of plank--each
about five feet long, which had been sawed off by the carpenters engaged
in building the prison. The ground being a bare common, was destitute of
all shelter, and the pieces looked as if they would be quite useful in
building a tent. There may have been an order issued forbidding the
prisoners to touch them, but if so, I had not heard it, and I imagine the
first intimation to the prisoner just killed that the boards were not to
be taken was the bullet which penetrated his vitals. Twenty-five cents
would be a liberal appraisement of the value of the lumber for which the
boy lost his life.

Half an hour afterward we thought we saw all the guards march out of the
front gate. There was still another pile of these same kind of pieces of
board lying at the further side of the prison. The crowd around me
noticed it, and we all made a rush for it. In spite of my lame feet I
outstripped the rest, and was just in the act of stooping down to pick
the boards up when a loud yell from those behind startled me. Glancing
to my left I saw a guard cocking his gun and bringing it up to shoot me.
With one frightened spring, as quick as a flash, and before he could
cover me, I landed fully a rod back in the crowd, and mixed with it.
The fellow tried hard to draw a bead on me, but I was too quick for him,
and he finally lowered his gun with an oath expressive of disappointment
in not being able to kill a Yankee.

Walking back to my place the full ludicrousness of the thing dawned upon
me so forcibly that I forgot all about my excitement and scare, and
laughed aloud. Here, not an hour age I was murmuring because I could
find no way to die; I sighed for death as a bridegroom for the coming of
his bride, an yet, when a Rebel had pointed his gun at me, it had nearly
scared me out of a year's growth, and made me jump farther than I could
possibly do when my feet were well, and I was in good condition
otherwise.

John McElroy