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Chapter 73

CHRISTMAS--AND THE WAY THE WAS PASSED--THE DAILY ROUTINE OF RATION
DRAWING--SOME PECULIARITIES OF LIVING AND DYING.

Christmas, with its swelling flood of happy memories,--memories now
bitter because they marked the high tide whence our fortunes had receded
to this despicable state--came, but brought no change to mark its coming.
It is true that we had expected no change; we had not looked forward to
the day, and hardly knew when it arrived, so indifferent were we to the
lapse of time.

When reminded that the day was one that in all Christendom was sacred to
good cheer and joyful meetings; that wherever the upraised cross
proclaimed followers of Him who preached "Peace on Earth and good will to
men," parents and children, brothers and sisters, long-time friends, and
all congenial spirits were gathering around hospitable boards to delight
in each other's society, and strengthen the bonds of unity between them,
we listened as to a tale told of some foreign land from which we had
parted forever more.

It seemed years since we had known anything of the kind. The experience
we had had of it belonged to the dim and irrevocable past. It could not
come to us again, nor we go to it. Squalor, hunger, cold and wasting
disease had become the ordinary conditions of existence, from which there
was little hope that we would ever be exempt.

Perhaps it was well, to a certain degree, that we felt so. It softened
the poignancy of our reflections over the difference in the condition of
ourselves and our happier comrades who were elsewhere.

The weather was in harmony with our feelings. The dull, gray, leaden sky
was as sharp a contrast with the crisp, bracing sharpness of a Northern
Christmas morning, as our beggarly little ration of saltless corn meal
was to the sumptuous cheer that loaded the dinner-tables of our Northern
homes.

We turned out languidly in the morning to roll-call, endured silently the
raving abuse of the cowardly brute Barrett, hung stupidly over the
flickering little fires, until the gates opened to admit the rations.
For an hour there was bustle and animation. All stood around and counted
each sack of meal, to get an idea of the rations we were likely to
receive.

This was a daily custom. The number intended for the day's issue were
all brought in and piled up in the street. Then there was a division of
the sacks to the thousands, the Sergeant of each being called up in turn,
and allowed to pick out and carry away one, until all were taken. When
we entered the prison each thousand received, on an average, ten or
eleven sacks a day. Every week saw a reduction in the number, until by
midwinter the daily issue to a thousand averaged four sacks. Let us say
that one of these sacks held two bushels, or the four, eight bushels.
As there are thirty-two quarts in a bushel, one thousand men received two
hundred and fifty-six quarts, or less than a half pint each.

We thought we had sounded the depths of misery at Andersonville, but
Florence showed us a much lower depth. Bad as was parching under the
burning sun whose fiery rays bred miasma and putrefaction, it was still
not so bad as having one's life chilled out by exposure in nakedness upon
the frozen ground to biting winds and freezing sleet. Wretched as the
rusty bacon and coarse, maggot-filled bread of Andersonville was, it
would still go much farther towards supporting life than the handful of
saltless meal at Florence.

While I believe it possible for any young man, with the forces of life
strong within him, and healthy in every way, to survive, by taking due
precautions, such treatment as we received in Andersonville, I cannot
understand how anybody could live through a month of Florence. That many
did live is only an astonishing illustration of the tenacity of life in
some individuals.

Let the reader imagine--anywhere he likes--a fifteen-acre field, with a
stream running through the center. Let him imagine this inclosed by a
Stockade eighteen feet high, made by standing logs on end. Let him
conceive of ten thousand feeble men, debilitated by months of
imprisonment, turned inside this inclosure, without a yard of covering
given them, and told to make their homes there. One quarter of them--two
thousand five hundred--pick up brush, pieces of rail, splits from logs,
etc., sufficient to make huts that will turn the rain tolerably. The
huts are in no case as good shelter as an ordinarily careful farmer
provides for his swine. Half of the prisoners--five thousand--who cannot
do so well, work the mud up into rude bricks, with which they build
shelters that wash down at every hard rain. The remaining two thousand
five hundred do not do even this, but lie around on the ground, on old
blankets and overcoats, and in day-time prop these up on sticks, as
shelter from the rain and wind. Let them be given not to exceed a pint
of corn meal a day, and a piece of wood about the size of an ordinary
stick for a cooking stove to cook it with. Then let such weather prevail
as we ordinarily have in the North in November--freezing cold rains, with
frequent days and nights when the ice forms as thick as a pane of glass.
How long does he think men could live through that? He will probably say
that a week, or at most a fortnight, would see the last and strongest of
these ten thousand lying dead in the frozen mire where he wallowed. He
will be astonished to learn that probably not more than four or five
thousand of those who underwent this in Florence died there. How many
died after release--in Washington, on the vessels coming to Annapolis, in
hospital and camp at Annapolis, or after they reached home, none but the
Recording Angel can tell. All that I know is we left a trail of dead
behind us, wherever we moved, so long as I was with the doleful caravan.

Looking back, after these lapse of years, the most salient characteristic
seems to be the ease with which men died. There, was little of the
violence of dissolution so common at Andersonville. The machinery of
life in all of us, was running slowly and feebly; it would simply grow
still slower and feebler in some, and then stop without a jar, without a
sensation to manifest it. Nightly one of two or three comrades sleeping
together would die. The survivors would not know it until they tried to
get him to "spoon" over, when they would find him rigid and motionless.
As they could not spare even so little heat as was still contained in his
body, they would not remove this, but lie up the closer to it until
morning. Such a thing as a boy making an outcry when he discovered his
comrade dead, or manifesting any, desire to get away from the corpse, was
unknown.

I remember one who, as Charles II. said of himself, was
--"an unconscionable long time in dying." His name was Bickford; he
belonged to the Twenty-First Ohio Volunteer Infantry, lived, I think,
near Findlay, O., and was in my hundred. His partner and he were both in
a very bad condition, and I was not surprised, on making my rounds, one
morning, to find them apparently quite dead. I called help, and took his
partner away to the gate. When we picked up Bickford we found he still
lived, and had strength enough to gasp out:

"You fellers had better let me alone." We laid him back to die, as we
supposed, in an hour or so.

When the Rebel Surgeon came in on his rounds, I showed him Bickford,
lying there with his eyes closed, and limbs motionless. The Surgeon
said:

"O, that man's dead; why don't you have him taken out?"

I replied: "No, he isn't. Just see." Stooping, I shook the boy
sharply, and said:

"Bickford! Bickford!! How do you feel?"

The eyes did not unclose, but the lips opened slowly, and said with a
painful effort:

"F-i-r-s-t R-a-t-e!"

This scene was repeated every morning for over a week. Every day the
Rebel Surgeon would insist that the man should betaken out, and every
morning Bickford would gasp out with troublesome exertion that he felt:

"F-i-r-s-t R-a-t-e!"

It ended one morning by his inability, to make his usual answer, and then
he was carried out to join the two score others being loaded into the
wagon.

John McElroy