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Chapter 52


Andrews and I did not let the fate of the boy who was killed, nor my own
narrow escape from losing the top of my head, deter us from farther
efforts to secure possession of those coveted boards. My readers
remember the story of the boy who, digging vigorously at a hole, replied
to the remark of a passing traveler that there was probably no ground-hog
there, and, even if there was, "ground-hog was mighty poor eatin', any
way," with:

"Mister, there's got to be a ground-hog there; our family's out o' meat!"

That was what actuated us: we were out of material for a tent. Our
solitary blanket had rotted and worn full of holes by its long double
duty, as bed-clothes and tent at Andersonville, and there was an
imperative call for a substitute.

Andrews and I flattered ourselves that when we matched our collective or
individual wits against those of a Johnny his defeat was pretty certain,
and with this cheerful estimate of our own powers to animate us, we set
to work to steal the boards from under the guard's nose. The Johnny had
malice in his heart and buck-and-ball in his musket, but his eyes were
not sufficiently numerous to adequately discharge all the duties laid
upon him. He had too many different things to watch at the same time.
I would approach a gap in the fence not yet closed as if I intended
making a dash through it for liberty, and when the Johnny had
concentrated all his attention on letting me have the contents of his gun
just as soon as he could have a reasonable excuse for doing so, Andrews
would pick u a couple of boards and slip away with them. Then I would
fall back in pretended (and some real) alarm, and--Andrew would come up
and draw his attention by a similar feint, while I made off with a couple
more pieces. After a few hours c this strategy, we found ourselves the
possessors of some dozen planks, with which we made a lean-to, that
formed a tolerable shelter for our heads and the upper portion of our
bodies. As the boards were not over five feet long, and the slope reduce
the sheltered space to about four-and-one-half feet, it left the lower
part of our naked feet and legs to project out-of-doors. Andrews used to
lament very touchingly the sunburning his toe-nails were receiving.
He knew that his complexion was being ruined for life, and all the Balm
of a Thousand Flowers in the world would not restore his comely ankles to
that condition of pristine loveliness which would admit of their
introduction into good society again. Another defect was that, like the
fun in a practical joke, it was all on one side; there was not enough of
it to go clear round. It was very unpleasant, when a storm came up in a
direction different from that we had calculated upon, to be compelled to
get out in the midst of it, and build our house over to face the other

Still we had a tent, and were that much better off than three-fourths of
our comrades who had no shelter at all. We were owners of a brown stone
front on Fifth Avenue compared to the other fellows.

Our tent erected, we began a general survey of our new abiding place.
The ground was a sandy common in the outskirts of Savannah. The sand was
covered with a light sod. The Rebels, who knew nothing of our burrowing
propensities, had neglected to make the plank forming the walls of the
Prison project any distance below the surface of the ground, and had put
up no Dead Line around the inside; so that it looked as if everything was
arranged expressly to invite us to tunnel out. We were not the boys to
neglect such an invitation. By night about three thousand had been
received from Andersonville, and placed inside. When morning came it
looked as if a colony of gigantic rats had been at work. There was a
tunnel every ten or fifteen feet, and at least twelve hundred of us had
gone out through them during the night. I never understood why all in
the pen did not follow our example, and leave the guards watching a
forsaken Prison. There was nothing to prevent it. An hour's industrious
work with a half-canteen would take any one outside, or if a boy was too
lazy to dig his own tunnel, he could have the use of one of the hundred
others that had been dug.

But escaping was only begun when the Stockade was passed. The site of
Savannah is virtually an island. On the north is the Savannah River; to
the east, southeast and south, are the two Ogeechee rivers, and a chain
of sounds and lagoons connecting with the Atlantic Ocean. To the west is
a canal connecting the Savannah and Big Ogeechee Rivers. We found
ourselves headed off by water whichever way we went. All the bridges
were guarded, and all the boats destroyed. Early in the morning the
Rebels discovered our absence, and the whole garrison of Savannah was
sent out on patrol after us. They picked up the boys in squads of from
ten to thirty, lurking around the shores of the streams waiting for night
to come, to get across, or engaged in building rafts for transportation.
By evening the whole mob of us were back in the pen again. As nobody was
punished for running away, we treated the whole affair as a lark, and
those brought back first stood around the gate and yelled derisively as
the others came in.

That night big fires were built all around the Stockade, and a line of
guards placed on the ground inside of these. In spite of this
precaution, quite a number escaped. The next day a Dead Line was put up
inside of the Prison, twenty feet from the Stockade. This only increased
the labor of burrowing, by making us go farther. Instead of being able
to tunnel out in an hour, it now took three or four hours. That night
several hundred of us, rested from our previous performance, and hopeful
of better luck, brought our faithful half canteens--now scoured very
bright by constant use-into requisition again, and before the morning.
dawned we had gained the high reeds of the swamps, where we lay concealed
until night.

In this way we managed to evade the recapture that came to most of those
who went out, but it was a fearful experience. Having been raised in a
country where venomous snakes abounded, I had that fear and horror of
them that inhabitants of those districts feel, and of which people living
in sections free from such a scourge know little. I fancied that the
Southern swamps were filled with all forms of loathsome and poisonous
reptiles, and it required all my courage to venture into them barefooted.
Besides, the snags and roots hurt our feet fearfully. Our hope was to
find a boat somewhere, in which we could float out to sea, and trust to
being picked up by some of the blockading fleet. But no boat could we
find, with all our painful and diligent search. We learned afterward
that the Rebels made a practice of breaking up all the boats along the
shore to prevent negros and their own deserters from escaping to the
blockading fleet. We thought of making a raft of logs, but had we had
the strength to do this, we would doubtless have thought it too risky,
since we dreaded missing the vessels, and being carried out to sea to
perish of hunger. During the night we came to the railroad bridge
across the Ogeechee. We had some slender hope that, if we could reach
this we might perhaps get across the river, and find better opportunities
for escape. But these last expectations were blasted by the discovery
that it was guarded. There was a post and a fire on the shore next us,
and a single guard with a lantern was stationed on one of the middle
spans. Almost famished with hunger, and so weary and footsore that we
could scarcely move another step, we went back to a cleared place on the
high ground, and laid down to sleep, entirely reckless as to what became
of us. Late in the morning we were awakened by the Rebel patrol and
taken back to the prison. Lieutenant Davis, disgusted with the perpetual
attempts to escape, moved the Dead Line out forty feet from the Stockade;
but this restricted our room greatly, since the number of prisoners in
the pen had now risen to about six thousand, and, besides, it offered
little additional protection against tunneling.

It was not much more difficult to dig fifty feet than it had been to dig
thirty feet. Davis soon realized this, and put the Dead Line back to
twenty feet. His next device was a much more sensible one. A crowd of
one hundred and fifty negros dug a trench twenty feet wide and five feet
deep around the whole prison on the outside, and this ditch was filled
with water from the City Water Works. No one could cross this without
attracting the attention of the guards.

Still we were not discouraged, and Andrews and I joined a crowd that was
constructing a large tunnel from near our quarters on the east side of
the pen. We finished the burrow to within a few inches of the edge of
the ditch, and then ceased operations, to await some stormy night, when
we could hope to get across the ditch unnoticed.

Orders were issued to guards to fire without warning on men who were
observed to be digging or carrying out dirt after nightfall. They
occasionally did so, but the risk did not keep anyone from tunneling.
Our tunnel ran directly under a sentry box. When carrying dirt away the
bearer of the bucket had to turn his back on the guard and walk directly
down the street in front of him, two hundred or three hundred feet, to
the center of the camp, where he scattered the sand around--so as to give
no indication of where it came from. Though we always waited till the
moon went down, it seemed as if, unless the guard were a fool, both by
nature and training, he could not help taking notice of what was going on
under his eyes. I do not recall any more nervous promenades in my life,
than those when, taking my turn, I received my bucket of sand at the
mouth of the tunnel, and walked slowly away with it. The most
disagreeable part was in turning my back to the guard. Could I have
faced him, I had sufficient confidence in my quickness of perception,
and talents as a dodger, to imagine that I could make it difficult for
him to hit me. But in walling with my back to him I was wholly at his
mercy. Fortune, however, favored us, and we were allowed to go on with
our work--night after night--without a shot.

In the meanwhile another happy thought slowly gestated in Davis's alleged
intellect. How he came to give birth to two ideas with no more than a
week between them, puzzled all who knew him, and still more that he
survived this extraordinary strain upon the gray matter of the cerebrum.
His new idea was to have driven a heavily-laden mule cart around the
inside of the Dead Line at least once a day. The wheels or the mule's
feet broke through the thin sod covering the tunnels and exposed them.
Our tunnel went with the rest, and those of our crowd who wore shoes had
humiliation added to sorrow by being compelled to go in and spade the
hole full of dirt. This put an end to subterranean engineering.

One day one of the boys watched his opportunity, got under the ration
wagon, and clinging close to the coupling pole with hands and feet, was
carried outside. He was detected, however, as he came from under the
wagon, and brought back.

John McElroy