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Chapter 63

DREARY WEATHER--THE COLD RAINS DISTRESS ALL AND KILL HUNDREDS--EXCHANGE
OF TEN THOUSAND SICK--CAPTAIN BOWES TURNS A PRETTY, BUT NOT VERY HONEST,
PENNY.

As November wore away long-continued, chill, searching rains desolated
our days and nights. The great, cold drops pelted down slowly,
dismally, and incessantly. Each seemed to beat through our emaciated
frames against the very marrow of our bones, and to be battering its way
remorselessly into the citadel of life, like the cruel drops that fell
from the basin of the inquisitors upon the firmly-fastened head of their
victim, until his reason fled, and the death-agony cramped his heart to
stillness.

The lagging, leaden hours were inexpressibly dreary. Compared with many
others, we were quite comfortable, as our hut protected us from the
actual beating of the rain upon our bodies; but we were much more
miserable than under the sweltering heat of Andersonville, as we lay
almost naked upon our bed of pine leaves, shivering in the raw, rasping
air, and looked out over acres of wretches lying dumbly on the sodden
sand, receiving the benumbing drench of the sullen skies without a groan
or a motion.

It was enough to kill healthy, vigorous men, active and resolute, with
bodies well-nourished and well clothed, and with minds vivacious and
hopeful, to stand these day-and-night-long solid drenchings. No one can
imagine how fatal it was to boys whose vitality was sapped by long months
in Andersonville, by coarse, meager, changeless food, by groveling on the
bare earth, and by hopelessness as to any improvement of condition.

Fever, rheumatism, throat and lung diseases and despair now came to
complete the work begun by scurvy, dysentery and gangrene, in
Andersonville.

Hundreds, weary of the long struggle, and of hoping against hope, laid
themselves down and yielded to their fate. In the six weeks that we were
at Millen, one man in every ten died. The ghostly pines there sigh over
the unnoted graves of seven hundred boys, for whom life's morning closed
in the gloomiest shadows. As many as would form a splendid regiment--as
many as constitute the first born of a populous City--more than three
times as many as were slain outright on our side in the bloody battle of
Franklin, succumbed to this new hardship. The country for which they
died does not even have a record of their names. They were simply
blotted out of existence; they became as though they had never been.

About the middle of the month the Rebels yielded to the importunities of
our Government so far as to agree to exchange ten thousand sick. The
Rebel Surgeons took praiseworthy care that our Government should profit
as little as possible by this, by sending every hopeless case, every man
whose lease of life was not likely to extend much beyond his reaching the
parole boat. If he once reached our receiving officers it was all that
was necessary; he counted to them as much as if he had been a Goliath.
A very large portion of those sent through died on the way to our lines,
or within a few hours after their transports at being once more under the
old Stars and Stripes had moderated.

The sending of the sick through gave our commandant--Captain Bowes--a
fine opportunity to fill his pockets, by conniving at the passage of well
men. There was still considerable money in the hands of a few prisoners.
All this, and more, too, were they willing to give for their lives.
In the first batch that went away were two of the leading sutlers at
Andersonville, who had accumulated perhaps one thousand dollars each by
their shrewd and successful bartering. It was generally believed that
they gave every cent to Bowes for the privilege of leaving. I know
nothing of the truth of this, but I am reasonably certain that they paid
him very handsomely.

Soon we heard that one hundred and fifty dollars each had been sufficient
to buy some men out; then one hundred, seventy-five, fifty, thirty,
twenty, ten, and at last five dollars. Whether the upright Bowes drew
the line at the latter figure, and refused to sell his honor for less
than the ruling rates of a street-walker's virtue, I know not. It was
the lowest quotation that came to my knowledge, but he may have gone
cheaper. I have always observed that when men or women begin to traffic
in themselves, their price falls as rapidly as that of a piece of tainted
meat in hot weather. If one could buy them at the rate they wind up
with, and sell them at their first price, there would be room for an
enormous profit.

The cheapest I ever knew a Rebel officer to be bought was some weeks
after this at Florence. The sick exchange was still going on. I have
before spoken of the Rebel passion for bright gilt buttons. It used to
be a proverbial comment upon the small treasons that were of daily
occurrence on both sides, that you could buy the soul of a mean man in
our crowd for a pint of corn meal, and the soul of a Rebel guard for a
half dozen brass buttons. A boy of the Fifth-fourth Ohio, whose home was
at or near Lima, O., wore a blue vest, with the gilt, bright-trimmed
buttons of a staff officer. The Rebel Surgeon who was examining the sick
for exchange saw the buttons and admired them very much. The boy stepped
back, borrowed a knife from a comrade, cut the buttons off, and handed
them to the Doctor.

"All right, sir," said he as his itching palm closed over the coveted
ornaments; "you can pass," and pass he did to home and friends.

Captain Bowes's merchandizing in the matter of exchange was as open as
the issuing of rations. His agent in conducting the bargaining was a
Raider--a New York gambler and stool-pigeon--whom we called "Mattie."
He dealt quite fairly, for several times when the exchange was
interrupted, Bowes sent the money back to those who had paid him,
and received it again when the exchange was renewed.

Had it been possible to buy our way out for five cents each Andrews and I
would have had to stay back, since we had not had that much money for
months, and all our friends were in an equally bad plight. Like almost
everybody else we had spent the few dollars we happened to have on
entering prison, in a week or so, and since then we had been entirely
penniless.

There was no hope left for us but to try to pass the Surgeons as
desperately sick, and we expended our energies in simulating this
condition. Rheumatism was our forte, and I flatter myself we got up two
cases that were apparently bad enough to serve as illustrations for a
patent medicine advertisement. But it would not do. Bad as we made our
condition appear, there were so many more who were infinitely worse,
that we stood no show in the competitive examination. I doubt if we
would have been given an average of "50" in a report. We had to stand
back, and see about one quarter of our number march out and away home.
We could not complain at this--much as we wanted to go ourselves,
since there could be no question that these poor fellows deserved the
precedence. We did grumble savagely, however, at Captain Bowes's
venality, in selling out chances to moneyed men, since these were
invariably those who were best prepared to withstand the hardships of
imprisonment, as they were mostly new men, and all had good clothes and
blankets. We did not blame the men, however, since it was not in human
nature to resist an opportunity to get away--at any cost-from that
accursed place. "All that a man hath he will give for his life," and I
think that if I had owned the City of New York in fee simple, I would
have given it away willingly, rather than stand in prison another month.

The sutlers, to whom I have alluded above, had accumulated sufficient to
supply themselves with all the necessaries and some of the comforts of
life, during any probable term of imprisonment, and still have a snug
amount left, but they, would rather give it all up and return to service
with their regiments in the field, than take the chances of any longer
continuance in prison.

I can only surmise how much Bowes realized out of the prisoners by his
venality, but I feel sure that it could not have been less than three
thousand dollars, and I would not be astonished to learn that it was ten
thousand dollars in green.

John McElroy