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Chapter 62


Leroy L. Key, the heroic Sergeant of Company M, Sixteenth Illinois
Cavalry, who organized and led the Regulators at Andersonville in their
successful conflict with and defeat of the Raiders, and who presided at
the execution of the six condemned men on the 11th of July, furnishes,
at the request of the author, the following story of his prison career
subsequent to that event:

On the 12th day of July, 1864, the day after the hanging of the six
Raiders, by the urgent request of my many friends (of whom you were one),
I sought and obtained from Wirz a parole for myself and the six brave men
who assisted as executioners of those desperados. It seemed that you
were all fearful that we might, after what had been done, be assassinated
if we remained in the Stockade; and that we might be overpowered,
perhaps, by the friends of the Raiders we had hanged, at a time possibly,
when you would not be on hand to give us assistance, and thus lose our
lives for rendering the help we did in getting rid of the worst
pestilence we had to contend with.

On obtaining my parole I was very careful to have it so arranged and
mutually understood, between Wirz and myself, that at any time that my
squad (meaning the survivors of my comrades, with whom I was originally
captured) was sent away from Andersonville, either to be exchanged or to
go to another prison, that I should be allowed to go with them. This was
agreed to, and so written in my parole which I carried until it
absolutely wore out. I took a position in the cook-house, and the other
boys either went to work there, or at the hospital or grave-yard as
occasion required. I worked here, and did the best I could for the many
starving wretches inside, in the way of preparing their food, until the
eighth day of September, at which time, if you remember, quite a train
load of men were removed, as many of us thought, for the purpose of
exchange; but, as we afterwards discovered, to be taken to another
prison. Among the crowd so removed was my squad, or, at least, a portion
of them, being my intimate mess-mates while in the Stockade. As soon as
I found this to be the case I waited on Wirz at his office, and asked
permission to go with them, which he refused, stating that he was
compelled to have men at the cookhouse to cook for those in the Stockade
until they were all gone or exchanged. I reminded him of the condition
in my parole, but this only had the effect of making him mad, and he
threatened me with the stocks if I did not go back and resume work.
I then and there made up my mind to attempt my escape, considering that
the parole had first been broken by the man that granted it.

On inquiry after my return to the cook-house, I found four other boys who
were also planning an escape, and who were only too glad to get me to
join them and take charge of the affair. Our plans were well laid and
well executed, as the sequel will prove, and in this particular my own
experience in the endeavor to escape from Andersonville is not entirely
dissimilar from yours, though it had different results. I very much
regret that in the attempt I lost my penciled memorandum, in which it was
my habit to chronicle what went on around me daily, and where I had the
names of my brave comrades who made the effort to escape with me.
Unfortunately, I cannot now recall to memory the name of one of them or
remember to what commands they belonged.

I knew that our greatest risk was run in eluding the guards, and that in
the morning we should be compelled to cheat the blood-hounds. The first
we managed to do very well, not without many hairbreadth escapes,
however; but we did succeed in getting through both lines of guards,
and found ourselves in the densest pine forest I ever saw. We traveled,
as nearly as we could judge, due north all night until daylight. From
our fatigue and bruises, and the long hours that had elapsed since 8
o'clock, the time of our starting, we thought we had come not less than
twelve or fifteen miles. Imagine our surprise and mortification, then,
when we could plainly hear the reveille, and almost the Sergeant's voice
calling the roll, while the answers of "Here!" were perfectly distinct.
We could not possibly have been more than a mile, or a mile-and-a-half at
the farthest, from the Stockade.

Our anxiety and mortification were doubled when at the usual hour--as we
supposed--we heard the well-known and long-familiar sound of the hunter's
horn, calling his hounds to their accustomed task of making the circuit
of the Stockade, for the purpose of ascertaining whether or not any
"Yankee" had had the audacity to attempt an escape. The hounds,
anticipating, no doubt, this usual daily work, gave forth glad barks of
joy at being thus called forth to duty. We heard them start, as was
usual, from about the railroad depot (as we imagined), but the sounds
growing fainter and fainter gave us a little hope that our trail had been
missed. Only a short time, however, were we allowed this pleasant
reflection, for ere long--it could not have been more than an hour--we
could plainly see that they were drawing nearer and nearer. They finally
appeared so close that I advised the boys to climb a tree or sapling in
order to keep the dogs from biting them, and to be ready to surrender
when the hunters came up, hoping thus to experience as little misery as
possible, and not dreaming but that we were caught. On, on came the
hounds, nearer and nearer still, till we imagined that we could see the
undergrowth in the forest shaking by coming in contact with their bodies.
Plainer and plainer came the sound of the hunter's voice urging them
forward. Our hearts were in our throats, and in the terrible excitement
we wondered if it could be possible for Providence to so arrange it that
the dogs would pass us. This last thought, by some strange fancy, had
taken possession of me, and I here frankly acknowledge that I believed it
would happen. Why I believed it, God only knows. My excitement was so
great, indeed, that I almost lost sight of our danger, and felt like
shouting to the dogs myself, while I came near losing my hold on the tree
in which I was hidden. By chance I happened to look around at my nearest
neighbor in distress. His expression was sufficient to quell any
enthusiasm I might have had, and I, too, became despondent. In a very
few minutes our suspense was over. The dogs came within not less than
three hundred yards of us, and we could even see one of them, God in
Heaven can only imagine what great joy was then, brought to our aching
hearts, for almost instantly upon coming into sight, the hounds struck
off on a different trail, and passed us. Their voices became fainter and
fainter, until finally we could hear them no longer. About noon,
however, they were called back and taken to camp, but until that time not
one of us left our position in the trees.

When we were satisfied that we were safe for the present, we descended to
the ground to get what rest we could, in order to be prepared for the
night's march, having previously agreed to travel at night and sleep in
the day time. "Our Father, who art in Heaven," etc., were the first
words that escaped my lips, and the first thoughts that came to my mind
as I landed on terra firma. Never before, or since, had I experienced
such a profound reverence for Almighty God, for I firmly believe that
only through some mighty invisible power were we at that time delivered
from untold tortures. Had we been found, we might have been torn and
mutilated by the dogs, or, taken back to Andersonville, have suffered for
days or perhaps weeks in the stocks or chain gang, as the humor of Wirz
might have dictated at the time--either of which would have been almost
certain death.

It was very fortunate for us that before our escape from Andersonville we
were detailed at the cook-house, for by this means we were enabled to
bring away enough food to live for several days without the necessity of
theft. Each one of us had our haversacks full of such small delicacies
as it was possible for us to get when we started, these consisting of
corn bread and fat bacon--nothing less, nothing more. Yet we managed to
subsist comfortably until our fourth day out, when we happened to come
upon a sweet potato patch, the potatos in which had not been dug. In a
very short space of time we were all well supplied with this article, and
lived on them raw during that day and the next night.

Just at evening, in going through a field, we suddenly came across three
negro men, who at first sight of us showed signs of running, thinking, as
they told us afterward, that we were the "patrols." After explaining to
them who we were and our condition, they took us to a very quiet retreat
in the woods, and two of them went off, stating that they would soon be
back. In a very short time they returned laden with well cooked
provisions, which not only gave us a good supper, but supplied us for the
next day with all that we wanted. They then guided us on our way for
several miles, and left us, after having refused compensation for what
they had done.

We continued to travel in this way for nine long weary nights, and on the
morning of the tenth day, as we were going into the woods to hide as
usual, a little before daylight, we came to a small pond at which there
was a negro boy watering two mules before hitching them to a cane mill,
it then being cane grinding time in Georgia. He saw us at the same time
we did him, and being frightened put whip to the animals and ran off.
We tried every way to stop him, but it was no use. He had the start of
us. We were very fearful of the consequences of this mishap, but had no
remedy, and being very tired, could do nothing else but go into the
woods, go to sleep and trust to luck.

The next thing I remembered was being punched in the ribs by my comrade
nearest to me, and aroused with the remark, "We are gone up." On opening
my eyes, I saw four men, in citizens' dress, each of whom had a shot gun
ready for use. We were ordered to get up. The first question asked us

"Who are you."

This was spoken in so mild a tone as to lead me to believe that we might
possibly be in the hands of gentlemen, if not indeed in those of friends.
It was some time before any one answered. The boys, by their looks and
the expression of their countenances, seemed to appeal to me for a reply
to get them out of their present dilemma, if possible. Before I had time
to collect my thoughts, we were startled by these words, coming from the
same man that had asked the original question:

"You had better not hesitate, for we have an idea who you are, and should
it prove that we are correct, it will be the worse for you."

"'Who do you think we are?' I inquired."

"'Horse thieves and moss-backs,' was the reply."

I jumped at the conclusion instantly that in order to save our lives, we
had better at once own the truth. In a very few words I told them who we
were, where we were from, how long we had been on the road, etc. At this
they withdrew a short distance from us for consultation, leaving us for
the time in terrible suspense as to what our fate might be. Soon, how
ever, they returned and informed us that they would be compelled to take
us to the County Jail, to await further orders from the Military
Commander of the District. While they were talking together, I took a
hasty inventory of what valuables we had on hand. I found in the crowd
four silver watches, about three hundred dollars in Confederate money,
and possibly, about one hundred dollars in greenbacks. Before their
return, I told the boys to be sure not to refuse any request I should
make. Said I:

"'Gentlemen, we have here four silver watches and several hundred dollars
in Confederate money and greenbacks, all of which we now offer you, if
you will but allow us to proceed on our journey, we taking our own
chances in the future.'"

This proposition, to my great surprise, was refused. I thought then that
possibly I had been a little indiscreet in exposing our valuables, but in
this I was mistaken, for we had, indeed, fallen into the hands of
gentlemen, whose zeal for the Lost Cause was greater than that for
obtaining worldly wealth, and who not only refused the bribe, but took us
to a well-furnished and well-supplied farm house close by, gave us an
excellent breakfast, allowing us to sit at the table in a beautiful
dining-room, with a lady at the head, filled our haversacks with good,
wholesome food, and allowed us to keep our property, with an admonition
to be careful how we showed it again. We were then put into a wagon and
taken to Hamilton, a small town, the county seat of Hamilton County,
Georgia, and placed in jail, where we remained for two days and nights
--fearing, always, that the jail would be burned over our heads, as we
heard frequent threats of that nature, by the mob on the streets.
But the same kind Providence that had heretofore watched over us, seemed
not to have deserted us in this trouble.

One of the days we were confined at this place was Sunday, and some
kind-hearted lady or ladies (I only wish I knew their names, as well as
those of the gentlemen who had us first in charge, so that I could
chronicle them with honor here) taking compassion upon our forlorn
condition, sent us a splendid dinner on a very large china platter.
Whether it was done intentionally or not, we never learned, but it was a
fact, however, that there was not a knife, fork or spoon upon the dish,
and no table to set it upon. It was placed on the floor, around which
we soon gathered, and, with grateful hearts, we "got away" with it all,
in an incredibly short space of time, while many men and boys looked on,
enjoying our ludicrous attitudes and manners.

From here we were taken to Columbus, Ga., and again placed in jail, and
in the charge of Confederate soldiers. We could easily see that we were
gradually getting into hot water again, and that, ere many days, we would
have to resume our old habits in prison. Our only hope now was that we
would not be returned to Andersonville, knowing well that if we got back
into the clutches of Wirz our chances for life would be slim indeed.
From Columbus we were sent by rail to Macon, where we were placed in a
prison somewhat similar to Andersonville, but of nothing like its
pretensions to security. I soon learned that it was only used as a kind
of reception place for the prisoners who were captured in small squads,
and when they numbered two or three hundred, they would be shipped to
Andersonville, or some other place of greater dimensions and strength.
What became of the other boys who were with me, after we got to Macon,
I do not know, for I lost sight of them there. The very next day after
our arrival, there were shipped to Andersonville from this prison between
two and three hundred men. I was called on to go with the crowd, but
having had a sufficient experience of the hospitality of that hotel,
I concluded to play "old soldier," so I became too sick to travel.
In this way I escaped being sent off four different times.

Meanwhile, quite a large number of commissioned officers had been sent up
from Charleston to be exchanged at Rough and Ready. With them were about
forty more than the cartel called for, and they were left at Macon for
ten days or two weeks. Among these officers were several of my
acquaintance, one being Lieut. Huntly of our regiment (I am not quite
sure that I am right in the name of this officer, but I think I am),
through whose influence I was allowed to go outside with them on parole.
It was while enjoying this parole that I got more familiarly acquainted
with Captain Hurtell, or Hurtrell, who was in command of the prison at
Macon, and to his honor, I here assert, that he was the only gentleman
and the only officer that had the least humane feeling in his breast,
who ever had charge of me while a prisoner of war after we were taken out
of the hands of our original captors at Jonesville, Va.

It now became very evident that the Rebels were moving the prisoners from
Andersonville and elsewhere, so as to place them beyond the reach of
Sherman and Stoneman. At my present place of confinement the fear of our
recapture had also taken possession of the Rebel authorities, so the
prisoners were sent off in much smaller squads than formerly, frequently
not more than ten or fifteen in a gang, whereas, before, they never
thought of dispatching less than two or three hundred together.
I acknowledge that I began to get very uneasy, fearful that the "old
soldier" dodge would not be much longer successful, and I would be forced
back to my old haunts. It so happened, however, that I managed to make
it serve me, by getting detailed in the prison hospital as nurse, so that
I was enabled to play another "dodge" upon the Rebel officers. At first,
when the Sergeant would come around to find out who were able to walk,
with assistance, to the depot, I was shaking with a chill, which,
according to my representation, had not abated in the least for several
hours. My teeth were actually chattering at the time, for I had learned
how to make them do so. I was passed. The next day the orders for
removal were more stringent than had yet been issued, stating that all
who could stand it to be removed on stretchers must go. I concluded at
once that I was gone, so as soon as I learned how matters were, I got out
from under my dirty blanket, stood up and found I was able to walk, to my
great astonishment, of course. An officer came early in the morning to
muster us into ranks preparatory for removal. I fell in with the rest.
We were marched out and around to the gate of the prison.

Now, it so happened that just as we neared the gate of the prison, the
prisoners were being marched from the Stockade. The officer in charge of
us--we numbering possibly about ten--undertook to place us at the head of
the column coming out, but the guard in charge of that squad refused to
let him do so. We were then ordered to stand at one side with no guard
over us but the officer who had brought us from the Hospital.

Taking this in at a glance, I concluded that now was my chance to make my
second attempt to escape. I stepped behind the gate office (a small
frame building with only one room), which was not more than six feet from
me, and as luck (or Providence) would have it, the negro man whose duty
it was, as I knew, to wait on and take care of this office, and who had
taken quite a liking for me, was standing at the back door. I winked at
him and threw him my blanket and the cup, at the same time telling him in
a whisper to hide them away for me until he heard from me again. With a
grin and a nod, he accepted the trust, and I started down along the walls
of the Stockade alone. In order to make this more plain, and to show
what a risk I was running at the time, I will state that between the
Stockade and a brick wall, fully as high as the Stockade fence that was
parallel with it, throughout its entire length on that side, there was a
space of not more than thirty feet. On the outside of this Stockade was
a platform, built for the guards to walk on, sufficiently clear the top
to allow them to look inside with ease, and on this side, on the
platform, were three guards. I had traveled about fifty feet only, from
the gate office, when I heard the command to "Halt!" I did so, of course.

"Where are you going, you d---d Yank?" said the guard.

"Going after my clothes, that are over there in the wash," pointing to a
small cabin just beyond the Stockade, where I happened to know that the
officers had their washing done.

"Oh, yes," said he; "you are one of the Yank's that's been on, parole,
are you?"


"Well, hurry up, or you will get left."

The other guards heard this conversation and thinking it all right I was
allowed to pass without further trouble. I went to the cabin in
question--for I saw the last guard on the line watching me, and boldly
entered. I made a clear statement to the woman in charge of it about how
I had made my escape, and asked her to secrete me in the house until
night. I was soon convinced, however, from what she told me, as well as
from my own knowledge of how things were managed in the Confederacy, that
it would not be right for me to stay there, for if the house was searched
and I found in it, it would be the worse for her. Therefore, not wishing
to entail misery upon another, I begged her to give me something to eat,
and going to the swamp near by, succeeded in getting well without

I lay there all day, and during the time had a very severe chill and
afterwards a burning fever, so that when night came, knowing I could not
travel, I resolved to return to the cabin and spend the night, and give
myself up the next morning. There was no trouble in returning. I
learned that my fears of the morning had not been groundless, for the
guards had actually searched the house for me. The woman told them that
I had got my clothes and left the house shortly after my entrance (which
was the truth except the part about the clothes), I thanked her very
kindly and begged to be allowed to stay in the cabin till morning, when
I would present myself at Captain H.'s office and suffer the
consequences. This she allowed me to do. I shall ever feel grateful to
this woman for her protection. She was white and her given name was
"Sallie," but the other I have forgotten.

About daylight I strolled over near the office and looked around there
until I saw the Captain take his seat at his desk. I stepped into the
door as soon as I saw that he was not occupied and saluted him "a la

"Who are you?" he asked; "you look like a Yank."

"Yes, sir," said I, "I am called by that name since I was captured in the
Federal Army."

"Well, what are you doing here, and what is your name?"

I told him.

"Why didn't you answer to your name when it was called at the gate
yesterday, sir?"

"I never heard anyone call my name. Where were you?"

"I ran away down into the swamp."

"Were you re-captured and brought back?"

"No, sir, I came back of my own accord."

"What do you mean by this evasion?"

"I am not trying to evade, sir, or I might not have been here now. The
truth is, Captain, I have been in many prisons since my capture, and have
been treated very badly in all of them, until I came here."

"I then explained to him freely my escape from Andersonville, and my
subsequent re-capture, how it was that I had played 'old soldier' etc."

"Now," said I, "Captain, as long as I am a prisoner of war, I wish to
stay with you, or under your command. This is my reason for running away
yesterday, when I felt confident that if I did not do so I would be
returned under Wirz's command, and, if I had been so returned, I would
have killed myself rather than submit to the untold tortures which he
would have put me to, for having the audacity to attempt an escape from

The Captain's attention was here called to some other matters in hand,
and I was sent back into the Stockade with a command very pleasantly
given, that I should stay there until ordered out, which I very
gratefully promised to do, and did. This was the last chance I ever had
to talk to Captain Hurtrell, to my great sorrow, for I had really formed
a liking for the man, notwithstanding the fact that he was a Rebel, and a
commander of prisoners.

The next day we all had to leave Macon. Whether we were able or not, the
order was imperative. Great was my joy when I learned that we were on
the way to Savannah and not to Andersonville. We traveled over the same
road, so well described in one of your articles on Andersonville, and
arrived in Savannah sometime in the afternoon of the 21st day of
November, 1864. Our squad was placed in some barracks and confined there
until the next day. I was sick at the time, so sick in fact, that I
could hardly hold my head up. Soon after, we were taken to the Florida
depot, as they told us, to be shipped to some prison in those dismal
swamps. I came near fainting when this was told to us, for I was
confident that I could not survive another siege of prison life, if it
was anything to compare to-what I had already suffered. When we arrived
at the depot, it was raining. The officer in charge of us wanted to know
what train to put us on, for there were two, if not three, trains waiting
orders to start. He was told to march us on to a certain flat car, near
by, but before giving the order he demanded a receipt for us, which the
train officer refused. We were accordingly taken back to our quarters,
which proved to be a most fortunate circumstance.

On the 23d day of November, to our great relief, we were called upon to
sign a parole preparatory to being sent down the river on the flat-boat
to our exchange ships, then lying in the harbor. When I say we, I mean
those of us that had recently come from Macon, and a few others, who had
also been fortunate in reaching Savannah in small squads. The other poor
fellows, who had already been loaded on the trains, were taken away to
Florida, and many of them never lived to return. On the 24th those of us
who had been paroled were taken on board our ships, and were once more
safely housed under that great, glorious and beautiful Star Spangled
Banner. Long may she wave.

John McElroy