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Chapter 70


We were put into the old squads to fill the places of those who had
recently died, being assigned to these vacancies according to the
initials of our surnames, the same rolls being used that we had signed as
paroles. This separated Andrews and me, for the "A's" were taken to fill
up the first hundreds of the First Thousand, while the "M's," to which I
belonged, went into the next Thousand.

I was put into the Second Hundred of the Second Thousand, and its
Sergeant dying shortly after, I was given his place, and commanded the
hundred, drew its rations, made out its rolls, and looked out for its
sick during the rest of our stay there.

Andrews and I got together again, and began fixing up what little we
could to protect ourselves against the weather. Cold as this was we
decided that it was safer to endure it and risk frost-biting every night
than to build one of the mud-walled and mud-covered holes that so many,
lived in. These were much warmer than lying out on the frozen ground,
but we believed that they were very unhealthy, and that no one lived long
who inhabited them.

So we set about repairing our faithful old blanket--now full of great
holes. We watched the dead men to get pieces of cloth from their
garments to make patches, which we sewed on with yarn raveled from other
fragments of woolen cloth. Some of our company, whom we found in the
prison, donated us the three sticks necessary to make tent-poles
--wonderful generosity when the preciousness of firewood is remembered.
We hoisted our blanket upon these; built a wall of mud bricks at one end,
and in it a little fireplace to economize our scanty fuel to the last
degree, and were once more at home, and much better off than most of our

One of these, the proprietor of a hole in the ground covered with an arch
of adobe bricks, had absolutely no bed-clothes except a couple of short
pieces of board--and very little other clothing. He dug a trench in the
bottom of what was by courtesy called his tent, sufficiently large to
contain his body below his neck. At nightfall he would crawl into this,
put his two bits of board so that they joined over his breast, and then
say: "Now, boys, cover me over;" whereupon his friends would cover him up
with dry sand from the sides of his domicile, in which he would slumber
quietly till morning, when he would rise, shake the sand from his
garments, and declare that he felt as well refreshed as if he had slept
on a spring mattress.

There has been much talk of earth baths of late years in scientific and
medical circles. I have been sorry that our Florence comrade if he still
lives--did not contribute the results of his experience.

The pinching cold cured me of my repugnance to wearing dead men's
clothes, or rather it made my nakedness so painful that I was glad to
cover it as best I could, and I began foraging among the corpses for
garments. For awhile my efforts to set myself up in the mortuary
second-hand clothing business were not all successful. I found that
dying men with good clothes were as carefully watched over by sets of
fellows who constituted themselves their residuary legatees as if they
were men of fortune dying in the midst of a circle of expectant nephews
and nieces. Before one was fairly cold his clothes would be appropriated
and divided, and I have seen many sharp fights between contesting

I soon perceived that my best chance was to get up very early in the
morning, and do my hunting. The nights were so cold that many could not
sleep, and they would walk up and down the streets, trying to keep warm
by exercise. Towards morning, becoming exhausted, they would lie down on
the ground almost anywhere, and die. I have frequently seen so many as
fifty of these. My first "find" of any importance was a young
Pennsylvania Zouave, who was lying dead near the bridge that crossed the
Creek. His clothes were all badly worn, except his baggy, dark trousers,
which were nearly new. I removed these, scraped out from each of the
dozens of great folds in the legs about a half pint of lice, and drew the
garments over my own half-frozen limbs, the first real covering those
members had had for four or five months. The pantaloons only came down
about half-way between my knees and feet, but still they were wonderfully
comfortable to what I had been--or rather not been--wearing. I had
picked up a pair of boot bottoms, which answered me for shoes, and now I
began a hunt for socks. This took several morning expeditions, but on
one of them I was rewarded with finding a corpse with a good brown one
--army make--and a few days later I got another, a good, thick genuine one,
knit at home, of blue yarn, by some patient, careful housewife. Almost
the next morning I had the good fortune to find a dead man with a warm,
whole, infantry dress-coat, a most serviceable garment. As I still had
for a shirt the blouse Andrews had given me at Millen, I now considered
my wardrobe complete, and left the rest of the clothes to those who were
more needy than I.

Those who used tobacco seemed to suffer more from a deprivation of the
weed than from lack of food. There were no sacrifices they would not
make to obtain it, and it was no uncommon thing for boys to trade off
half their rations for a chew of "navy plug." As long as one had
anything--especially buttons--to trade, tobacco could be procured from
the guards, who were plentifully supplied with it. When means of barter
were gone, chewers frequently became so desperate as to beg the guards to
throw them a bit of the precious nicotine. Shortly after our arrival at
Florence, a prisoner on the East Side approached one of the Reserves with
the request:

"Say, Guard, can't you give a fellow a chew of tobacco?"

To which the guard replied:

"Yes; come right across the line there and I'll drop you down a bit."

The unsuspecting prisoner stepped across the Dead Line, and the guard--a
boy of sixteen--raised his gun and killed him.

At the North Side of the prison, the path down to the Creek lay right
along side of the Dead Line, which was a mere furrow in the ground.

At night the guards, in their zeal to kill somebody, were very likely to
imagine that any one going along the path for water was across the Dead
Line, and fire upon him. It was as bad as going upon the skirmish line
to go for water after nightfall. Yet every night a group of boys would
be found standing at the head of the path crying out:

"Fill your buckets for a chew of tobacco."

That is, they were willing to take all the risk of running that gauntlet
for this moderate compensation.

John McElroy