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Chapter 78

RETURN TO FLORENCE AND A SHORT SOJOURN THERE--OFF TOWARDS WILMINGTON
AGAIN--CRUISING A REBEL OFFICER'S LUNCH--SIGNS OF APPROACHING OUR LINES
--TERROR OF OUR RASCALLY GUARDS--ENTRANCE INTO GOD'S COUNTRY AT LAST.

But Kilpatrick, like Sherman, came not. Perhaps he knew that all the
prisoners had been removed from the Stockade; perhaps he had other
business of more importance on hand; probably his movement was only a
feint. At all events it was definitely known the next day that he had
withdrawn so far as to render it wholly unlikely that he intended
attacking Florence, so we were brought back and returned to our old
quarters. For a week or more we loitered about the now nearly-abandoned
prison; skulked and crawled around the dismal mud-tents like the ghostly
denizens of some Potter's Field, who, for some reason had been allowed to
return to earth, and for awhile creep painfully around the little
hillocks beneath which they had been entombed.

A few score, whose vital powers were strained to the last degree of
tension, gave up the ghost, and sank to dreamless rest. It mattered now
little to these when Sherman came, or when Kilpatrick's guidons should
flutter through the forest of sighing pines, heralds of life, happiness,
and home--

After life's fitful fever they slept well
Treason had done its worst. Nor steel nor poison:
Malice domestic, foreign levy, nothing
Could touch them farther.

One day another order came for us to be loaded on the cars, and over to
the railroad we went again in the same fashion as before. The
comparatively few of us who were still able to walk at all well, loaded
ourselves down with the bundles and blankets of our less fortunate
companions, who hobbled and limped--many even crawling on their hands and
knees--over the hard, frozen ground, by our sides.

Those not able to crawl even, were taken in wagons, for the orders were
imperative not to leave a living prisoner behind.

At the railroad we found two trains awaiting us. On the front of each
engine were two rude white flags, made by fastening the halves of meal
sacks to short sticks. The sight of these gave us some hope, but our
belief that Rebels were constitutional liars and deceivers was so firm
and fixed, that we persuaded ourselves that the flags meant nothing more
than some wilful delusion for us.

Again we started off in the direction of Wilmington, and traversed the
same country described in the previous chapter. Again Andrews and I
found ourselves in the next box car to the passenger coach containing the
Rebel officers. Again we cut a hole through the end, with our saw, and
again found a darky servant sitting on the rear platform. Andrews went
out and sat down alongside of him, and found that he was seated upon a
large gunny-bag sack containing the cooked rations of the Rebel officers.

The intelligence that there was something there worth taking Andrews
communicated to me by an expressive signal, of which soldiers campaigning
together as long as he and I had, always have an extensive and well
understood code.

I took a seat in the hole we had made in the end of the car, in reach of
Andrews. Andrews called the attention of the negro to some feature of
the country near by, and asked him a question in regard to it. As he
looked in the direction indicated, Andrews slipped his hand into the
mouth of the bag, and pulled out a small sack of wheat biscuits, which he
passed to me and I concealed. The darky turned and told Andrews all
about the matter in regard to which the interrogation had been made.
Andrews became so much interested in what was being told him, that he sat
up closer and closer to the darky, who in turn moved farther away from
the sack.

Next we ran through a turpentine plantation, and as the darky was
pointing out where the still, the master's place, the "quarters," etc.,
were, Andrews managed to fish out of that bag and pass to me three
roasted chickens. Then a great swamp called for description, and before
we were through with it, I had about a peck of boiled sweet potatos.

Andrews emptied the bag as the darky was showing him a great peanut
plantation, taking from it a small frying-pan, a canteen of molasses,
and a half-gallon tin bucket, which had been used to make coffee in.
We divided up our wealth of eatables with the rest of the boys in the
car, not forgetting to keep enough to give ourselves a magnificent meal.

As we ran along we searched carefully for the place where we had seen the
line-of-battle, expecting that it would now be marked with signs of a
terrible conflict, but we could see nothing. We could not even fix the
locality where the line stood.

As it became apparent that we were going directly toward Wilmington,
as fast as our engines could pull us, the excitement rose. We had many
misgivings as to whether our folks still retained possession of
Wilmington, and whether, if they did, the Rebels could not stop at a
point outside of our lines, and transfer us to some other road.

For hours we had seen nobody in the country through which we were
passing. What few houses were visible were apparently deserted, and
there were no Towns or stations anywhere. We were very anxious to see
some one, in hopes of getting a hint of what the state of affairs was in
the direction we were going. At length we saw a young man--apparently a
scout--on horseback, but his clothes were equally divided between the
blue and the butternut, as to give no clue to which side he belonged.

An hour later we saw two infantrymen, who were evidently out foraging.
They had sacks of something on their backs, and wore blue clothes. This
was a very hopeful sign of a near approach to our lines, but bitter
experience in the past warned us against being too sanguine.

About 4 o'clock P. M., the trains stopped and whistled long and loud.
Looking out I could see--perhaps half-a-mile away--a line of rifle pits
running at right angles with the track. Guards, whose guns flashed as
they turned, were pacing up and down, but they were too far away for me
to distinguish their uniforms.

The suspense became fearful.

But I received much encouragement from the singular conduct of our
guards. First I noticed a Captain, who had been especially mean to us
while at Florence.

He was walking on the ground by the train. His face was pale, his teeth
set, and his eyes shone with excitement. He called out in a strange,
forced voice to his men and boys on the roof of the cars:

"Here, you fellers git down off'en thar and form a line."

The fellows did so, in a slow, constrained, frightened ways and huddled
together, in the most unsoldierly manner.

The whole thing reminded me of a scene I once saw in our line, where a
weak-kneed Captain was ordered to take a party of rather chicken-hearted
recruits out on the skirmish-line.

We immediately divined what was the matter. The lines in front of us
were really those of our people, and the idiots of guards, not knowing of
their entire safety when protected by a flag of truce, were scared half
out of their small wits at approaching so near to armed Yankees.

We showered taunts and jeers upon them. An Irishman in my car yelled
out:

"Och, ye dirty spalpeens; it's not shootin' prisoners ye are now; it's
cumin' where the Yankee b'ys hev the gun; and the minnit ye say thim yer
white livers show themselves in yer pale faces. Bad luck to the
blatherin' bastards that yez are, and to the mothers that bore ye."

At length our train moved up so near to the line that I could see it was
the grand, old loyal blue that clothed the forms of the men who were
pacing up and down.

And certainly the world does not hold as superb looking men as these
appeared to me. Finely formed, stalwart, full-fed and well clothed, they
formed the most delightful contrast with the scrawny, shambling,
villain-visaged little clay-eaters and white trash who had looked down
upon us from the sentry boxes for many long months.

I sprang out of the cars and began washing my face and hands in the ditch
at the side of the road. The Rebel Captain, noticing me, said, in the
old, hateful, brutal, imperious tone:

"Git back in dat cah, dah."

An hour before I would have scrambled back as quickly as possible,
knowing that an instant's hesitation would be followed by a bullet.
Now, I looked him in the face, and said as irritatingly as possible:

"O, you go to ----, you Rebel. I'm going into Uncle Sam's lines with as
little Rebel filth on me as possible."

He passed me without replying.

His day of shooting was past.

Descending from the cars, we passed through the guards into our lines,
a Rebel and a Union clerk checking us off as we passed. By the time it
was dark we were all under our flag again.

The place where we came through was several miles west of Wilmington,
where the railroad crossed a branch of the Cape Fear River. The point
was held by a brigade of Schofield's army--the Twenty-Third Army Corps.

The boys lavished unstinted kindness upon us. All of the brigade off
duty crowded around, offering us blankets, shirts shoes, pantaloons and
other articles of clothing and similar things that we were obviously in
the greatest need of. The sick were carried, by hundreds of willing
hands, to a sheltered spot, and laid upon good, comfortable beds
improvised with leaves and blankets. A great line of huge, generous
fires was built, that every one of us could have plenty of place around
them.

By and by a line of wagons came over from Wilmington laden with rations,
and they were dispensed to us with what seemed reckless prodigality.
The lid of a box of hard tack would be knocked off, and the contents
handed to us as we filed past, with absolute disregard as to quantity.
If a prisoner looked wistful after receiving one handful of crackers,
another was handed to him; if his long-famished eyes still lingered as
if enchained by the rare display of food, the men who were issuing said:

"Here, old fellow, there's plenty of it: take just as much as you can
carry in your arms."

So it was also with the pickled pork, the coffee, the sugar, etc. We had
been stinted and starved so long that we could not comprehend that there
was anywhere actually enough of anything.

The kind-hearted boys who were acting as our hosts began preparing food
for the sick, but the Surgeons, who had arrived in the meanwhile, were
compelled to repress them, as it was plain that while it was a dangerous
experiment to give any of us all we could or would eat, it would never do
to give the sick such a temptation to kill themselves, and only a limited
amount of food was allowed to be given those who were unable to walk.

Andrews and I hungered for coffee, the delightful fumes of which filled
the air and intoxicated our senses. We procured enough to make our
half-gallon bucket full and very strong.

We drank so much of this that Andrews became positively drunk, and fell
helplessly into some brush. I pulled him out and dragged him away to a
place where we had made our rude bed.

I was dazed. I could not comprehend that the long-looked for,
often-despaired-of event had actually happened. I feared that it was
one of those tantalizing dreams that had so often haunted my sleep, only
to be followed by a wretched awakening. Then I became seized with a
sudden fear lest the Rebel attempt to retake me. The line of guards
around us seemed very slight. It might be forced in the night, and all
of us recaptured. Shivering at this thought, absurd though it was, I
arose from our bed, and taking Andrews with me, crawled two or three
hundred yards into a dense undergrowth, where in the event of our lines
being forced, we would be overlooked.

John McElroy