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Chapter 67

OFF TO CHARLESTON--PASSING THROUGH THE RICE SWAMPS--TWO EXTREMES OF
SOCIETY--ENTRY INTO CHARLESTON--LEISURELY WARFARE--SHELLING THE CITY AT
REGULAR INTERVALS--WE CAMP IN A MASS OF RUINS--DEPARTURE FOR FLORENCE.

The train started in a few minutes after the close of the conversation
with the old Georgian, and we soon came to and crossed the Savannah River
into South Carolina. The river was wide and apparently deep; the tide
was setting back in a swift, muddy current; the crazy old bridge creaked
and shook, and the grinding axles shrieked in the dry journals, as we
pulled across. It looked very much at times as if we were to all crash
down into the turbid flood--and we did not care very much if we did, if
we were not going to be exchanged.

The road lay through the tide swamp region of South Carolina, a peculiar
and interesting country. Though swamps and fens stretched in all
directions as far as the eye could reach, the landscape was more grateful
to the eye than the famine-stricken, pine-barrens of Georgia, which had
become wearisome to the sight. The soil where it appeared, was rich,
vegetation was luxuriant; great clumps of laurel showed glossy richness
in the greenness of its verdure, that reminded us of the fresh color of
the vegetation of our Northern homes, so different from the parched and
impoverished look of Georgian foliage. Immense flocks of wild fowl
fluttered around us; the Georgian woods were almost destitute of living
creatures; the evergreen live-oak, with its queer festoons of Spanish
moss, and the ugly and useless palmettos gave novelty and interest to the
view.

The rice swamps through which we were passing were the princely
possessions of the few nabobs who before the war stood at the head of
South Carolina aristocracy--they were South Carolina, in fact, as
absolutely as Louis XIV. was France. In their hands--but a few score in
number--was concentrated about all there was of South Carolina education,
wealth, culture, and breeding. They represented a pinchbeck imitation of
that regime in France which was happily swept out of existence by the
Revolution, and the destruction of which more than compensated for every
drop of blood shed in those terrible days. Like the provincial 'grandes
seigneurs' of Louis XVI's reign, they were gay, dissipated and turbulent;
"accomplished" in the superficial acquirements that made the "gentleman"
one hundred years ago, but are grotesquely out of place in this sensible,
solid age, which demands that a man shall be of use, and not merely for
show. They ran horses and fought cocks, dawdled through society when
young, and intrigued in politics the rest of their lives, with frequent
spice-work of duels. Esteeming personal courage as a supreme human
virtue, and never wearying of prating their devotion to the highest
standard of intrepidity, they never produced a General who was even
mediocre; nor did any one ever hear of a South Carolina regiment gaining
distinction. Regarding politics and the art of government as, equally
with arms, their natural vocations, they have never given the Nation a
statesman, and their greatest politicians achieved eminence by advocating
ideas which only attracted attention by their balefulness.

Still further resembling the French 'grandes seigneurs' of the eighteenth
century, they rolled in wealth wrung from the laborer by reducing the
rewards of his toil to the last fraction that would support his life and
strength. The rice culture was immensely profitable, because they had
found the secret for raising it more cheaply than even the pauper laborer
of the of world could. Their lands had cost them nothing originally, the
improvements of dikes and ditches were comparatively, inexpensive, the
taxes were nominal, and their slaves were not so expensive to keep as
good horses in the North.

Thousands of the acres along the road belonged to the Rhetts, thousands
to the Heywards, thousands to the Manigault the Lowndes, the Middletons,
the Hugers, the Barnwells, and the Elliots--all names too well known in
the history of our country's sorrows. Occasionally one of their stately
mansions could be seen on some distant elevation, surrounded by noble old
trees, and superb grounds. Here they lived during the healthy part of
the year, but fled thence to summer resort in the highlands as the
miasmatic season approached.

The people we saw at the stations along our route were melancholy
illustrations of the evils of the rule of such an oligarchy. There was
no middle class visible anywhere--nothing but the two extremes. A man
was either a "gentleman," and wore white shirt and city-made clothes,
or he was a loutish hind, clad in mere apologies for garments. We
thought we had found in the Georgia "cracker" the lowest substratum of
human society, but he was bright intelligence compared to the South
Carolina "clay-eater" and "sand-hiller." The "cracker" always gave hopes
to one that if he had the advantage of common schools, and could be made
to understand that laziness was dishonorable, he might develop into
something. There was little foundation for such hope in the average low
South Carolinian. His mind was a shaking quagmire, which did not admit
of the erection of any superstructure of education upon it. The South
Carolina guards about us did not know the name of the next town, though
they had been raised in that section. They did not know how far it was
there, or to any place else, and they did not care to learn. They had no
conception of what the war was being waged for, and did not want to find
out; they did not know where their regiment was going, and did not
remember where it had been; they could not tell how long they had been in
service, nor the time they had enlisted for. They only remembered that
sometimes they had had "sorter good times," and sometimes "they had been
powerful bad," and they hoped there would be plenty to eat wherever they
went, and not too much hard marching. Then they wondered "whar a
feller'd be likely to make a raise of a canteen of good whisky?"

Bad as the whites were, the rice plantation negros were even worse,
if that were possible. Brought to the country centuries ago, as brutal
savages from Africa, they had learned nothing of Christian civilization,
except that it meant endless toil, in malarious swamps, under the lash of
the taskmaster. They wore, possibly, a little more clothing than their
Senegambian ancestors did; they ate corn meal, yams and rice, instead of
bananas, yams and rice, as their forefathers did, and they had learned a
bastard, almost unintelligible, English. These were the sole blessings
acquired by a transfer from a life of freedom in the jungles of the Gold
Coast, to one of slavery in the swamps of the Combahee.

I could not then, nor can I now, regret the downfall of a system of
society which bore such fruits.

Towards night a distressingly cold breeze, laden with a penetrating mist,
set in from the sea, and put an end to future observations by making us
too uncomfortable to care for scenery or social conditions. We wanted
most to devise a way to keep warm. Andrews and I pulled our overcoat and
blanket closely about us, snuggled together so as to make each one's
meager body afford the other as much heat as possible--and endured.

We became fearfully hungry. It will be recollected that we ate the whole
of the two days' rations issued to us at Blackshear at once, and we had
received nothing since. We reached the sullen, fainting stage of great
hunger, and for hours nothing was said by any one, except an occasional
bitter execration on Rebels and Rebel practices.

It was late at night when we reached Charleston. The lights of the City,
and the apparent warmth and comfort there cheered us up somewhat with the
hopes that we might have some share in them. Leaving the train, we were
marched some distance through well-lighted streets, in which were plenty
of people walking to and fro. There were many stores, apparently stocked
with goods, and the citizens seemed to be going about their business very
much as was the custom up North.

At length our head of column made a "right turn," and we marched away
from the lighted portion of the City, to a part which I could see through
the shadows was filled with ruins. An almost insupportable odor of gas,
escaping I suppose from the ruptured pipes, mingled with the cold,
rasping air from the sea, to make every breath intensely disagreeable.

As I saw the ruins, it flashed upon me that this was the burnt district
of the city, and they were putting us under the fire of our own guns.
At first I felt much alarmed. Little relish as I had on general
principles, for being shot I had much less for being killed by our own
men. Then I reflected that if they put me there--and kept me--a guard
would have to be placed around us, who would necessarily be in as much
clanger as we were, and I knew I could stand any fire that a Rebel could.

We were halted in a vacant lot, and sat down, only to jump up the next
instant, as some one shouted:

"There comes one of 'em!"

It was a great shell from the Swamp Angel Battery. Starting from a point
miles away, where, seemingly, the sky came down to the sea, was a narrow
ribbon of fire, which slowly unrolled itself against the star-lit vault
over our heads. On, on it came, and was apparently following the sky
down to the horizon behind us. As it reached the zenith, there came to
our ears a prolonged, but not sharp,

"Whish--ish-ish-ish-ish!"

We watched it breathlessly, and it seemed to be long minutes in running
its course; then a thump upon the ground, and a vibration, told that it
had struck. For a moment there was a dead silence. Then came a loud
roar, and the crash of breaking timber and crushing walls. The shell had
bursted.

Ten minutes later another shell followed, with like results. For awhile
we forgot all about hunger in the excitement of watching the messengers
from "God's country." What happiness to be where those shells came from.
Soon a Rebel battery of heavy guns somewhere near and in front of us,
waked up, and began answering with dull, slow thumps that made the ground
shudder. This continued about an hour, when it quieted down again, but
our shells kept coming over at regular intervals with the same slow
deliberation, the same prolonged warning, and the same dreadful crash
when they struck. They had already gone on this way for over a year,
and were to keep it up months longer until the City was captured.

The routine was the same from day to day, month in, and month out, from
early in August, 1863, to the middle of April, 1865. Every few minutes
during the day our folks would hurl a great shell into the beleaguered
City, and twice a day, for perhaps an hour each time, the Rebel batteries
would talk back. It must have been a lesson to the Charlestonians of the
persistent, methodical spirit of the North. They prided themselves on
the length of the time they were holding out against the enemy, and the
papers each day had a column headed:

"390th DAY OF THE SIEGE,"

or 391st, 393d, etc., as the number might be since our people opened fire
upon the City. The part where we lay was a mass of ruins. Many large
buildings had been knocked down; very many more were riddled with shot
holes and tottering to their fall. One night a shell passed through a
large building about a quarter of a mile from us. It had already been
struck several times, and was shaky. The shell went through with a
deafening crash. All was still for an instant; then it exploded with a
dull roar, followed by more crashing of timber and walls. The sound died
away and was succeeded by a moment of silence. Finally the great
building fell, a shapeless heap of ruins, with a noise like that of a
dozen field pieces. We wanted to cheer but restrained ourselves. This
was the nearest to us that any shell came.

There was only one section of the City in reach of our guns and this was
nearly destroyed. Fires had come to complete the work begun by the
shells. Outside of the boundaries of this region, the people felt
themselves as safe as in one of our northern Cities to-day. They had an
abiding faith that they were clear out of reach of any artillery that we
could mount. I learned afterwards from some of the prisoners, who went
into Charleston ahead of us, and were camped on the race course outside
of the City, that one day our fellows threw a shell clear over the City
to this race course. There was an immediate and terrible panic among the
citizens. They thought we had mounted some new guns of increased range,
and now the whole city must go. But the next shell fell inside the
established limits, and those following were equally well behaved, so
that the panic abated. I have never heard any explanation of the matter.
It may have been some freak of the gun-squad, trying the effect of an
extra charge of powder. Had our people known of its signal effect, they
could have depopulated the place in a few hours.

The whole matter impressed me queerly. The only artillery I had ever
seen in action were field pieces. They made an earsplitting crash when
they were discharged, and there was likely to be oceans of trouble for
everybody in that neighborhood about that time. I reasoned from this
that bigger guns made a proportionally greater amount of noise, and bred
an infinitely larger quantity of trouble. Now I was hearing the giants
of the world's ordnance, and they were not so impressive as a lively
battery of three-inch rifles. Their reports did not threaten to shatter
everything, but had a dull resonance, something like that produced by
striking an empty barrel with a wooden maul. Their shells did not come
at one in that wildly, ferocious way, with which a missile from a
six-pounder convinces every fellow in a long line of battle that he is
the identical one it is meant for, but they meandered over in a lazy,
leisurely manner, as if time was no object and no person would feel put
out at having to wait for them. Then, the idea of firing every quarter
of an hour for a year--fixing up a job for a lifetime, as Andrews
expressed it,--and of being fired back at for an hour at 9 o'clock every
morning and evening; of fifty thousand people going on buying and
selling, eating, drinking and sleeping, having dances, drives and balls,
marrying and giving in marriage, all within a few hundred yards of where
the shells were falling-struck me as a most singular method of
conducting warfare.

We received no rations until the day after our arrival, and then they
were scanty, though fair in quality. We were by this time so hungry and
faint that we could hardly move. We did nothing for hours but lie around
on the ground and try to forget how famished we were. At the
announcement of rations, many acted as if crazy, and it was all that the
Sergeants could do to restrain the impatient mob from tearing the food
away and devouring it, when they were trying to divide it out. Very
many--perhaps thirty--died during the night and morning. No blame for
this is attached to the Charlestonians. They distinguished themselves
from the citizens of every other place in the Southern Confederacy where
we had been, by making efforts to relieve our condition. They sent quite
a quantity of food to us, and the Sisters of Charity came among us,
seeking and ministering to the sick. I believe our experience was the
usual one. The prisoners who passed through Charleston before us all
spoke very highly of the kindness shown them by the citizens there.

We remained in Charleston but a few days. One night we were marched down
to a rickety depot, and put aboard a still more rickety train. When
morning came we found ourselves running northward through a pine barren
country that resembled somewhat that in Georgia, except that the pine was
short-leaved, there was more oak and other hard woods, and the vegetation
generally assumed a more Northern look. We had been put into close box
cars, with guards at the doors and on top. During the night quite a
number of the boys, who had fabricated little saws out of case knives and
fragments of hoop iron, cut holes through the bottoms of the cars,
through which they dropped to the ground and escaped, but were mostly
recaptured after several days. There was no hole cut in our car, and so
Andrews and I staid in.

Just at dusk we came to the insignificant village of Florence, the
junction of the road leading from Charleston to Cheraw with that running
from Wilmington to Kingsville. It was about one hundred and twenty miles
from Charleston, and the same distance from Wilmington. As our train ran
through a cut near the junction a darky stood by the track gazing at us
curiously. When the train had nearly passed him he started to run up the
bank. In the imperfect light the guards mistook him for one of us who
had jumped from the train. They all fired, and the unlucky negro fell,
pierced by a score of bullets.

That night we camped in the open field. When morning came we saw, a few
hundred yards from us, a Stockade of rough logs, with guards stationed
around it. It was another prison pen. They were just bringing the dead
out, and two men were tossing the bodies up into the four-horse wagon
which hauled them away for burial. The men were going about their
business as coolly as if loading slaughtered hogs. 'One of them would
catch the body by the feet, and the other by the arms. They would give
it a swing--"One, two, three," and up it would go into the wagon. This
filled heaping full with corpses, a negro mounted the wheel horse,
grasped the lines, and shouted to his animals:

"Now, walk off on your tails, boys."

The horses strained, the wagon moved, and its load of what were once
gallant, devoted soldiers, was carted off to nameless graves. This was a
part of the daily morning routine.

As we stood looking at the sickeningly familiar architecture of the
prison pen, a Seventh Indianian near me said, in tones of wearisome
disgust:

"Well, this Southern Confederacy is the d---dest country to stand logs on
end on God Almighty's footstool."

John McElroy