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Chapter 59

OUR NEW QUARTERS AT CAMP LAWTON--BUILDING A HUT--AN EXCEPTIONAL
COMMANDANT--HE IS a GOOD MAN, BUT WILL TAKE BRIBES--RATIONS.

In the morning we took a survey of our new quarters, and found that we
were in a Stockade resembling very much in construction and dimensions
that at Andersonville. The principal difference was that the upright
logs were in their rough state, whereas they were hewed at Andersonville,
and the brook running through the camp was not bordered by a swamp, but
had clean, firm banks.

Our next move was to make the best of the situation. We were divided
into hundreds, each commanded by a Sergeant. Ten hundreds constituted a
division, the head of which was also a Sergeant. I was elected by my
comrades to the Sergeantcy of the Second Hundred of the First Division.
As soon as we were assigned to our ground, we began constructing shelter.
For the first and only time in my prison experience, we found a full
supply of material for this purpose, and the use we made of it showed how
infinitely better we would have fared if in each prison the Rebels had
done even so slight a thing as to bring in a few logs from the
surrounding woods and distribute them to us. A hundred or so of these
would probably have saved thousands of lives at Andersonville and
Florence.

A large tree lay on the ground assigned to our hundred. Andrews and I
took possession of one side of the ten feet nearest the butt. Other boys
occupied the rest in a similar manner. One of our boys had succeeded in
smuggling an ax in with him, and we kept it in constant use day and
night, each group borrowing it for an hour or so at a time. It was as
dull as a hoe, and we were very weak, so that it was slow work "niggering
off"--(as the boys termed it) a cut of the log. It seemed as if beavers
could have gnawed it off easier and more quickly. We only cut an inch or
so at a time, and then passed the ax to the next users. Making little
wedges with a dull knife, we drove them into the log with clubs, and
split off long, thin strips, like the weatherboards of a house, and by
the time we had split off our share of the log in this slow and laborious
way, we had a fine lot of these strips. We were lucky enough to find
four forked sticks, of which we made the corners of our dwelling, and
roofed it carefully with our strips, held in place by sods torn up from
the edge of the creek bank. The sides and ends were enclosed; we
gathered enough pine tops to cover the ground to a depth of several
inches; we banked up the outside, and ditched around it, and then had the
most comfortable abode we had during our prison career. It was truly a
house builded with our own hands, for we had no tools whatever save the
occasional use of the aforementioned dull axe and equally dull knife.

The rude little hut represented as much actual hard, manual labor as
would be required to build a comfortable little cottage in the North,
but we gladly performed it, as we would have done any other work to
better our condition.

For a while wood was quite plentiful, and we had the luxury daily of warm
fires, which the increasing coolness of the weather made important
accessories to our comfort.

Other prisoners kept coming in. Those we left behind at Savannah
followed us, and the prison there was broken up. Quite a number also
came in from--Andersonville, so that in a little while we had between six
and seven thousand in the Stockade. The last comers found all the
material for tents and all the fuel used up, and consequently did not
fare so well as the earlier arrivals.

The commandant of the prison--one Captain Bowes--was the best of his
class it was my fortune to meet. Compared with the senseless brutality
of Wirz, the reckless deviltry of Davis, or the stupid malignance of
Barrett, at Florence, his administration was mildness and wisdom itself.

He enforced discipline better than any of those named, but has what they
all lacked--executive ability--and he secured results that they could not
possibly attain, and without anything, like the friction that attended
their efforts. I do not remember that any one was shot during our six
weeks' stay at Millen--a circumstance simply remarkable, since I do not
recall a single week passed anywhere else without at least one murder by
the guards.

One instance will illustrate the difference of his administration from
that of other prison commandants. He came upon the grounds of
our division one morning, accompanied by a pleasant-faced,
intelligent-appearing lad of about fifteen or sixteen. He said to us:

"Gentlemen: (The only instance during our imprisonment when we received
so polite a designation.) This is my son, who will hereafter call your
roll. He will treat you as gentlemen, and I know you will do the same to
him."

This understanding was observed to the letter on both sides. Young Bowes
invariably spoke civilly to us, and we obeyed his orders with a prompt
cheerfulness that left him nothing to complain of.

The only charge I have to make against Bowes is made more in detail in
another chapter, and that is, that he took money from well prisoners for
giving them the first chance to go through on the Sick Exchange.
How culpable this was I must leave each reader to decide for himself.
I thought it very wrong at the time, but possibly my views might have
been colored highly by my not having any money wherewith to procure my
own inclusion in the happy lot of the exchanged.

Of one thing I am certain: that his acceptance of money to bias his
official action was not singular on his part. I am convinced that every
commandant we had over us--except Wirz--was habitually in the receipt of
bribes from prisoners. I never heard that any one succeeded in bribing
Wirz, and this is the sole good thing I can say of that fellow. Against
this it may be said, however, that he plundered the boys so effectually
on entering the prison as to leave them little of the wherewithal to
bribe anybody.

Davis was probably the most unscrupulous bribe-taker of the lot.
He actually received money for permitting prisoners to escape to our
lines, and got down to as low a figure as one hundred dollars for this
sort of service. I never heard that any of the other commandants went
this far.

The rations issued to us were somewhat better than those of
Andersonville, as the meal was finer and better, though it was absurdedly
insufficient in quantity, and we received no salt. On several occasions
fresh beef was dealt out to us, and each time the excitement created
among those who had not tasted fresh meat for weeks and months was
wonderful. On the first occasion the meat was simply the heads of the
cattle killed for the use of the guards. Several wagon loads of these
were brought in and distributed. We broke them up so that every man got
a piece of the bone, which was boiled and reboiled, as long as a single
bubble of grease would rise to the surface of the water; every vestige of
meat was gnawed and scraped from the surface and then the bone was
charred until it crumbled, when it was eaten. No one who has not
experienced it can imagine the inordinate hunger for animal food of those
who had eaten little else than corn bread for so long. Our exhausted
bodies were perishing for lack of proper sustenance. Nature indicated
fresh beef as the best medium to repair the great damage already done,
and our longing for it became beyond description.

John McElroy