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Chapter 65

BLACKSHEAR AND PIERCE COUNTRY--WE TAKE UP NEW QUARTERS, BUT ARE CALLED
OUT FOR EXCHANGE--EXCITEMENT OVER SIGNING THE PAROLE--A HAPPY JOURNEY TO
SAVANNAH--GRIEVOUS DISAPPOINTMENT

We were informed that the place we were at was Blackshear, and that it
was the Court House, i. e., the County seat of Pierce County. Where they
kept the Court House, or County seat, is beyond conjecture to me, since I
could not see a half dozen houses in the whole clearing, and not one of
them was a respectable dwelling, taking even so low a standard for
respectable dwellings as that afforded by the majority of Georgia houses.

Pierce County, as I have since learned by the census report, is one of
the poorest Counties of a poor section of a very poor State.
A population of less than two thousand is thinly scattered over its five
hundred square miles of territory, and gain a meager subsistence by a
weak simulation of cultivating patches of its sandy dunes and plains in
"nubbin" corn and dropsical sweet potatos. A few "razor-back" hogs
--a species so gaunt and thin that I heard a man once declare that he had
stopped a lot belonging to a neighbor from crawling through the cracks of
a tight board fence by simply tying a knot in their tails--roam the
woods, and supply all the meat used.

Andrews used to insist that some of the hogs which we saw were so thin
that the connection between their fore and hindquarters was only a single
thickness of skin, with hair on both sides--but then Andrews sometimes
seemed to me to have a tendency to exaggerate.

The swine certainly did have proportions that strongly resembled those of
the animals which children cut out of cardboard. They were like the
geometrical definition of a superfice--all length and breadth, and no
thickness. A ham from them would look like a palm-leaf fan.

I never ceased to marvel at the delicate adjustment of the development of
animal life to the soil in these lean sections of Georgia. The poor land
would not maintain anything but lank, lazy men, with few wants, and none
but lank, lazy men, with few wants, sought a maintenance from it. I may
have tangled up cause and effect, in this proposition, but if so, the
reader can disentangle them at his leisure.

I was not astonished to learn that it took five hundred square miles of
Pierce County land to maintain two thousand "crackers," even as poorly as
they lived. I should want fully that much of it to support one
fair-sized Northern family as it should be.

After leaving the cars we were marched off into the pine woods, by the
side of a considerable stream, and told that this was to be our camp.
A heavy guard was placed around us, and a number of pieces of artillery
mounted where they would command the camp.

We started in to make ourselves comfortable, as at Millen, by building
shanties. The prisoners we left behind followed us, and we soon had our
old crowd of five or six thousand, who had been our companions at
Savannah and Millers, again with us. The place looked very favorable for
escape. We knew we were still near the sea coast--really not more than
forty miles away--and we felt that if we could once get there we should
be safe. Andrews and I meditated plans of escape, and toiled away at our
cabin.

About a week after our arrival we were startled by an order for the one
thousand of us who had first arrived to get ready to move out. In a few
minutes we were taken outside the guard line, massed close together, and
informed in a few words by a Rebel officer that we were about to be taken
back to Savannah for exchange.

The announcement took away our breath. For an instant the rush of
emotion made us speechless, and when utterance returned, the first use we
made of it was to join in one simultaneous outburst of acclamation.
Those inside the guard line, understanding what our cheer meant, answered
us with a loud shout of congratulation--the first real, genuine, hearty
cheering that had been done since receiving the announcement of the
exchange at Andersonville, three months before.

As soon as the excitement had subsided somewhat, the Rebel proceeded to
explain that we would all be required to sign a parole. This set us to
thinking. After our scornful rejection of the proposition to enlist in
the Rebel army, the Rebels had felt around among us considerably as to
how we were disposed toward taking what was called the "Non-Combatant's
Oath;" that is, the swearing not to take up arms against the Southern
Confederacy again during the war. To the most of us this seemed only a
little less dishonorable than joining the Rebel army. We held that our
oaths to our own Government placed us at its disposal until it chose to
discharge us, and we could not make any engagements with its enemies that
might come in contravention of that duty. In short, it looked very much
like desertion, and this we did not feel at liberty to consider.

There were still many among us, who, feeling certain that they could not
survive imprisonment much longer, were disposed to look favorably upon
the Non-Combatant's Oath, thinking that the circumstances of the case
would justify their apparent dereliction from duty. Whether it would or
not I must leave to more skilled casuists than myself to decide. It was
a matter I believed every man must settle with his own conscience. The
opinion that I then held and expressed was, that if a boy, felt that he
was hopelessly sick, and that he could not live if he remained in prison,
he was justified in taking the Oath. In the absence of our own Surgeons
he would have to decide for himself whether he was sick enough to be
warranted in resorting to this means of saving his life. If he was in as
good health as the majority of us were, with a reasonable prospect of
surviving some weeks longer, there was no excuse for taking the Oath,
for in that few weeks we might be exchanged, be recaptured, or make our
escape. I think this was the general opinion of the prisoners.

While the Rebel was talking about our signing the parole, there flashed
upon all of us at the same moment, a suspicion that this was a trap to
delude us into signing the Non-Combatant's Oath. Instantly there went up
a general shout:

"Read the parole to us."

The Rebel was handed a blank parole by a companion, and he read over the
printed condition at the top, which was that those signing agreed not to
bear arms against the Confederates in the field, or in garrison, not to
man any works, assist in any expedition, do any sort of guard duty, serve
in any military constabulary, or perform any kind of military service
until properly exchanged.

For a minute this was satisfactory; then their ingrained distrust of any
thing a Rebel said or did returned, and they shouted:

"No, no; let some of us read it; let Ilinoy' read it--"

The Rebel looked around in a puzzled manner.

"Who the h--l is 'Illinoy!' Where is he?" said he.

I saluted and said:

"That's a nickname they give me."

"Very well," said he, "get up on this stump and read this parole to these
d---d fools that won't believe me."

I mounted the stump, took the blank from his hand and read it over
slowly, giving as much emphasis as possible to the all-important clause
at the end--"until properly exchanged." I then said:

"Boys, this seems all right to me," and they answered, with almost one
voice:

"Yes, that's all right. We'll sign that."

I was never so proud of the American soldier-boy as at that moment. They
all felt that signing that paper was to give them freedom and life. They
knew too well from sad experience what the alternative was. Many felt
that unless released another week would see them in their graves. All
knew that every day's stay in Rebel hands greatly lessened their chances
of life. Yet in all that thousand there was not one voice in favor of
yielding a tittle of honor to save life. They would secure their freedom
honorably, or die faithfully. Remember that this was a miscellaneous
crowd of boys, gathered from all sections of the country, and from many
of whom no exalted conceptions of duty and honor were expected. I wish
some one would point out to me, on the brightest pages of knightly
record, some deed of fealty and truth that equals the simple fidelity of
these unknown heros. I do not think that one of them felt that he was
doing anything especially meritorious. He only obeyed the natural
promptings of his loyal heart.

The business of signing the paroles was then begun in earnest. We were
separated into squads according to the first letters of our names, all
those whose name began with A being placed in one squad, those beginning
with B, in another, and so on. Blank paroles for each letter were spread
out on boxes and planks at different places, and the signing went on
under the superintendence of a Rebel Sergeant and one of the prisoners.
The squad of M's selected me to superintend the signing for us, and I
stood by to direct the boys, and sign for the very few who could not
write. After this was done we fell into ranks again, called the roll of
the signers, and carefully compared the number of men with the number of
signatures so that nobody should pass unparoled. The oath was then
administered to us, and two day's rations of corn meal and fresh beef
were issued.

This formality removed the last lingering doubt that we had of the
exchange being a reality, and we gave way to the happiest emotions.
We cheered ourselves hoarse, and the fellows still inside followed our
example, as they expected that they would share our good fortune in a day
or two.

Our next performance was to set to work, cook our two days' rations at
once and eat them. This was not very difficult, as the whole supply for
two days would hardly make one square meal. That done, many of the boys
went to the guard line and threw their blankets, clothing, cooking
utensils, etc., to their comrades who were still inside. No one thought
they would have any further use for such things.

"To-morrow, at this time, thank Heaven," said a boy near me, as he tossed
his blanket and overcoat back to some one inside, "we'll be in God's
country, and then I wouldn't touch them d---d lousy old rags with a
ten-foot pole."

One of the boys in the M squad was a Maine infantryman, who had been with
me in the Pemberton building, in Richmond, and had fashioned himself a
little square pan out of a tin plate of a tobacco press, such as I have
described in an earlier chapter. He had carried it with him ever since,
and it was his sole vessel for all purposes--for cooking, carrying water,
drawing rations, etc. He had cherished it as if it were a farm or a good
situation. But now, as he turned away from signing his name to the
parole, he looked at his faithful servant for a minute in undisguised
contempt; on the eve of restoration to happier, better things, it was a
reminder of all the petty, inglorious contemptible trials and sorrows he
had endured; he actually loathed it for its remembrances, and flinging it
upon the ground he crushed it out of all shape and usefulness with his
feet, trampling upon it as he would everything connected with his prison
life. Months afterward I had to lend this man my little can to cook his
rations in.

Andrews and I flung the bright new tin pans we had stolen at Millen
inside the line, to be scrambled for. It was hard to tell who were the
most surprised at their appearance--the Rebels or our own boys--for few
had any idea that there were such things in the whole Confederacy, and
certainly none looked for them in the possession of two such
poverty-stricken specimens as we were. We thought it best to retain
possession of our little can, spoon, chess-board, blanket, and overcoat.

As we marched down and boarded the train, the Rebels confirmed their
previous action by taking all the guards from around us. Only some eight
or ten were sent to the train, and these quartered themselves in the
caboose, and paid us no further attention.

The train rolled away amid cheering by ourselves and those we left
behind. One thousand happier boys than we never started on a journey.
We were going home. That was enough to wreathe the skies with glory, and
fill the world with sweetness and light. The wintry sun had something of
geniality and warmth, the landscape lost some of its repulsiveness, the
dreary palmettos had less of that hideousness which made us regard them
as very fitting emblems of treason. We even began to feel a little
good-humored contempt for our hateful little Brats of guards, and to
reflect how much vicious education and surroundings were to be held
responsible for their misdeeds.

We laughed and sang as we rolled along toward Savannah--going back much
faster than the came. We re-told old stories, and repeated old jokes,
that had become wearisome months and months ago, but were now freshened
up and given their olden pith by the joyousness of the occasion. We
revived and talked over old schemes gotten up in the earlier days of
prison life, of what "we would do when we got out," but almost forgotten
since, in the general uncertainty of ever getting out. We exchanged
addresses, and promised faithfully to write to each other and tell how we
found everything at home.

So the afternoon and night passed. We were too excited to sleep, and
passed the hours watching the scenery, recalling the objects we had
passed on the way to Blackshear, and guessing how near we were to
Savannah.

Though we were running along within fifteen or twenty miles of the coast,
with all our guards asleep in the caboose, no one thought of escape.
We could step off the cars and walk over to the seashore as easily as a
man steps out of his door and walks to a neighboring town, but why should
we? Were we not going directly to our vessels in the harbor of Savannah,
and was it not better to do this, than to take the chances of escaping,
and encounter the difficulties of reaching our blockaders! We thought
so, and we staid on the cars.

A cold, gray Winter morning was just breaking as we reached Savannah.
Our train ran down in the City, and then whistled sharply and ran back a
mile or so; it repeated this maneuver two or three times, the evident
design being to keep us on the cars until the people were ready to
receive us. Finally our engine ran with all the speed she was capable
of, and as the train dashed into the street we found ourselves between
two heavy lines of guards with bayonets fixed.

The whole sickening reality was made apparent by one glance at the guard
line. Our parole was a mockery, its only object being to get us to
Savannah as easily as possible, and to prevent benefit from our recapture
to any of Sherman's Raiders, who might make a dash for the railroad while
we were in transit. There had been no intention of exchanging us. There
was no exchange going on at Savannah.

After all, I do not think we felt the disappointment as keenly as the
first time we were brought to Savannah. Imprisonment had stupefied us;
we were duller and more hopeless.

Ordered down out of the cars, we were formed in line in the street.

Said a Rebel officer:

"Now, any of you fellahs that ah too sick to go to Chahlston, step
fohwahd one pace."

We looked at each other an instant, and then the whole line stepped
forward. We all felt too sick to go to Charleston, or to do anything
else in the world.

John McElroy