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Chapter 68

FIRST DAYS AT FLORENCE--INTRODUCTION TO LIEUTENANT BARRETT, THE
RED-HEADED KEEPER--A BRIEF DESCRIPTION OF OUR NEW QUARTERS--WINDERS MALIGN
INFLUENCE MANIFEST.

It did not require a very acute comprehension to understand that the
Stockade at which we were gazing was likely to be our abiding place for
some indefinite period in the future.

As usual, this discovery was the death-warrant of many whose lives had
only been prolonged by the hoping against hope that the movement would
terminate inside our lines. When the portentous palisades showed to a
fatal certainty that the word of promise had been broken to their hearts,
they gave up the struggle wearily, lay back on the frozen ground, and
died.

Andrews and I were not in the humor for dying just then. The long
imprisonment, the privations of hunger, the scourging by the elements,
the death of four out of every five of our number had indeed dulled and
stupefied us--bred an indifference to our own suffering and a seeming
callosity to that of others, but there still burned in our hearts, and in
the hearts of every one about us, a dull, sullen, smoldering fire of hate
and defiance toward everything Rebel, and a lust for revenge upon those
who had showered woes upon our heads. There was little fear of death;
even the King of Terrors loses most of his awful character upon tolerably
close acquaintance, and we had been on very intimate terms with him for a
year now. He was a constant visitor, who dropped in upon us at all hours
of the day and night, and would not be denied to any one.

Since my entry into prison fully fifteen thousand boys had died around
me, and in no one of them had I seen the least, dread or reluctance to
go. I believe this is generally true of death by disease, everywhere.
Our ever kindly mother, Nature, only makes us dread death when she
desires us to preserve life. When she summons us hence she tenderly
provides that we shall willingly obey the call.

More than for anything else, we wanted to live now to triumph over the
Rebels. To simply die would be of little importance, but to die
unrevenged would be fearful. If we, the despised, the contemned, the
insulted, the starved and maltreated; could live to come back to our
oppressors as the armed ministers of retribution, terrible in the
remembrance of the wrongs of ourselves and comrade's, irresistible as the
agents of heavenly justice, and mete out to them that Biblical return of
seven-fold of what they had measured out to us, then we would be content
to go to death afterwards. Had the thrice-accursed Confederacy and our
malignant gaolers millions of lives, our great revenge would have stomach
for them all.

The December morning was gray and leaden; dull, somber, snow-laden clouds
swept across the sky before the soughing wind.

The ground, frozen hard and stiff, cut and hurt our bare feet at every
step; an icy breeze drove in through the holes in our rags, and smote our
bodies like blows from sticks. The trees and shrubbery around were as
naked and forlorn as in the North in the days of early Winter before the
snow comes.

Over and around us hung like a cold miasma the sickening odor peculiar to
Southern forests in Winter time.

Out of the naked, repelling, unlovely earth rose the Stockade, in hideous
ugliness. At the gate the two men continued at their monotonous labor of
tossing the dead of the previous day into the wagon-heaving into that
rude hearse the inanimate remains that had once tempted gallant, manly
hearts, glowing with patriotism and devotion to country--piling up
listlessly and wearily, in a mass of nameless, emaciated corpses,
fluttering with rags, and swarming with vermin, the pride, the joy of a
hundred fair Northern homes, whose light had now gone out forever.

Around the prison walls shambled the guards, blanketed like Indians,
and with faces and hearts of wolves. Other Rebels--also clad in dingy
butternut--slouched around lazily, crouched over diminutive fires,
and talked idle gossip in the broadest of "nigger" dialect. Officers
swelled and strutted hither and thither, and negro servants loitered
around, striving to spread the least amount of work over the greatest
amount of time.

While I stood gazing in gloomy silence at the depressing surroundings
Andrews, less speculative and more practical, saw a good-sized pine stump
near by, which had so much of the earth washed away from it that it
looked as if it could be readily pulled up. We had had bitter experience
in other prisons as to the value of wood, and Andrews reasoned that as we
would be likely to have a repetition of this in the Stockade we were
about to enter, we should make an effort to secure the stump. We both
attacked it, and after a great deal of hard work, succeeded in uprooting
it. It was very lucky that we did, since it was the greatest help in
preserving our lives through the three long months that we remained at
Florence.

While we were arranging our stump so as to carry it to the best
advantage, a vulgar-faced man, with fiery red hair, and wearing on his
collar the yellow bars of a Lieutenant, approached. This was Lieutenant
Barrett, commandant of the interior of the prison, and a more inhuman
wretch even than Captain Wirz, because he had a little more brains than
the commandant at Andersonville, and this extra intellect was wholly
devoted to cruelty. As he came near he commanded, in loud, brutal tones:

"Attention, Prisoners!"

We all stood up and fell in in two ranks. Said he:

"By companies, right wheel, march!"

This was simply preposterous. As every soldier knows, wheeling by
companies is one of the most difficult of manuvers, and requires some
preparation of a battalion before attempting to execute it. Our thousand
was made up of infantry, cavalry and artillery, representing, perhaps,
one hundred different regiments. We had not been divided off into
companies, and were encumbered with blankets, tents, cooking utensils,
wood, etc., which prevented our moving with such freedom as to make a
company wheel, even had we been divided up into companies and drilled for
the maneuver. The attempt to obey the command was, of course, a
ludicrous failure. The Rebel officers standing near Barrett laughed
openly at his stupidity in giving such an order, but he was furious. He
hurled at us a torrent of the vilest abuse the corrupt imagination of man
can conceive, and swore until he was fairly black in the face. He fired
his revolver off over our heads, and shrieked and shouted until he had to
stop from sheer exhaustion. Another officer took command then, and
marched us into prison.

We found this a small copy of Andersonville. There was a stream running
north and south, on either side of which was a swamp. A Stockade of
rough logs, with the bark still on, inclosed several acres. The front of
the prison was toward the West. A piece of artillery stood before the
gate, and a platform at each corner bore a gun, elevated high enough to
rake the whole inside of the prison. A man stood behind each of these
guns continually, so as to open with them at any moment. The earth was
thrown up against the outside of the palisades in a high embankment,
along the top of which the guards on duty walked, it being high enough to
elevate their head, shoulders and breasts above the tops of the logs.
Inside the inevitable dead-line was traced by running a furrow around the
prison-twenty feet from the Stockade--with a plow. In one respect it was
an improvement on Andersonville: regular streets were laid off, so that
motion about the camp was possible, and cleanliness was promoted. Also,
the crowd inside was not so dense as at Camp Sumter.

The prisoners were divided into hundreds and thousands, with Sergeants at
the heads of the divisions. A very good police force-organized and
officered by the prisoners--maintained order and prevented crime. Thefts
and other offenses were punished, as at Andersonville, by the Chief of
Police sentencing the offenders to be spanked or tied up.

We found very many of our Andersonville acquaintances inside, and for
several days comparisons of experience were in order. They had left
Andersonville a few days after us, but were taken to Charleston instead
of Savannah. The same story of exchange was dinned into their ears until
they arrived at Charleston, when the truth was told them, that no
exchange was contemplated, and that they had been deceived for the
purpose of getting them safely out of reach of Sherman.

Still they were treated well in Charleston--better than they had been
anywhere else. Intelligent physicians had visited the sick, prescribed
for them, furnished them with proper medicines, and admitted the worst
cases to the hospital, where they were given something of the care that
one would expect in such an institution. Wheat bread, molasses and rice
were issued to them, and also a few spoonfuls of vinegar, daily, which
were very grateful to them in their scorbutic condition. The citizens
sent in clothing, food and vegetables. The Sisters of Charity were
indefatigable in ministering to the sick and dying. Altogether, their
recollections of the place were quite pleasant.

Despite the disagreeable prominence which the City had in the Secession
movement, there was a very strong Union element there, and many men found
opportunity to do favors to the prisoners and reveal to them how much
they abhorred Secession.

After they had been in Charleston a fortnight or more, the yellow fever
broke out in the City, and soon extended its ravages to the prisoners,
quite a number dying from it.

Early in October they had been sent away from the City to their present
location, which was then a piece of forest land. There was no stockade
or other enclosure about them, and one night they forced the guard-line,
about fifteen hundred escaping, under a pretty sharp fire from the
guards. After getting out they scattered, each group taking a different
route, some seeking Beaufort, and other places along the seaboard, and
the rest trying to gain the mountains. The whole State was thrown into
the greatest perturbation by the occurrence. The papers magnified the
proportion of the outbreak, and lauded fulsomely the gallantry of the
guards in endeavoring to withstand the desperate assaults of the frenzied
Yankees. The people were wrought up into the highest alarm as to
outrages and excesses that these flying desperados might be expected to
commit. One would think that another Grecian horse, introduced into the
heart of the Confederate Troy, had let out its fatal band of armed men.
All good citizens were enjoined to turn out and assist in arresting the
runaways. The vigilance of all patrolling was redoubled, and such was
the effectiveness of the measures taken that before a month nearly every
one of the fugitives had been retaken and sent back to Florence. Few of
these complained of any special ill-treatment by their captors, while
many reported frequent acts of kindness, especially when their captors
belonged to the middle and upper classes. The low-down class--the
clay-eaters--on the other hand, almost always abused their prisoners,
and sometimes, it is pretty certain, murdered them in cold blood.

About this time Winder came on from Andersonville, and then everything
changed immediately to the complexion of that place. He began the
erection of the Stockade, and made it very strong. The Dead Line was
established, but instead of being a strip of plank upon the top of low
posts, as at Andersonville, it was simply a shallow trench, which was
sometimes plainly visible, and sometimes not. The guards always resolved
matters of doubt against the prisoners, and fired on them when they
supposed them too near where the Dead Line ought to be. Fifteen acres of
ground were enclosed by the palisades, of which five were taken up by the
creek and swamp, and three or four more by the Dead Line; main streets,
etc., leaving about seven or eight for the actual use of the prisoners,
whose number swelled to fifteen thousand by the arrivals from
Andersonville. This made the crowding together nearly as bad as at the
latter place, and for awhile the same fatal results followed. The
mortality, and the sending away of several thousand on the sick exchange,
reduced the aggregate number at the time of our arrival to about eleven
thousand, which gave more room to all, but was still not one-twentieth of
the space which that number of men should have had.

No shelter, nor material for constructing any, was furnished. The ground
was rather thickly wooded, and covered with undergrowth, when the
Stockade was built, and certainly no bit of soil was ever so thoroughly
cleared as this was. The trees and brush were cut down and worked up
into hut building materials by the same slow and laborious process that I
have described as employed in building our huts at Millen.

Then the stumps were attacked for fuel, and with such persistent
thoroughness that after some weeks there was certainly not enough woody
material left in that whole fifteen acres of ground to kindle a small
kitchen fire. The men would begin work on the stump of a good sized
tree, and chip and split it off painfully and slowly until they had
followed it to the extremity of the tap root ten or fifteen feet below
the surface. The lateral roots would be followed with equal
determination, and trenches thirty feet long, and two or three feet deep
were dug with case-knives and half-canteens, to get a root as thick as
one's wrist. The roots of shrubs and vines were followed up and gathered
with similar industry. The cold weather and the scanty issues of wood
forced men to do this.

The huts constructed were as various as the materials and the tastes of
the builders. Those who were fortunate enough to get plenty of timber
built such cabins as I have described at Millen. Those who had less eked
out their materials in various ways. Most frequently all that a squad of
three or four could get would be a few slender poles and some brush.
They would dig a hole in the ground two feet deep and large enough for
them all to lie in. Then putting up a stick at each end and laying a
ridge pole across, they, would adjust the rest of their material so as
to form sloping sides capable of supporting earth enough to make a
water-tight roof. The great majority were not so well off as these, and
had absolutely, nothing of which to build. They had recourse to the
clay of the swamp, from which they fashioned rude sun-dried bricks, and
made adobe houses, shaped like a bee hive, which lasted very well until
a hard rain came, when they dissolved into red mire about the bodies of
their miserable inmates.

Remember that all these makeshifts were practiced within a half-a-mile of
an almost boundless forest, from which in a day's time the camp could
have been supplied with material enough to give every man a comfortable
hut.

John McElroy