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Chapter 79

GETTING USED TO FREEDOM--DELIGHTS OF A LAND WHERE THERE IS ENOUGH OF
EVERYTHING--FIRST GLIMPSE OF THE OLD FLAG--WILMINGTON AND ITS HISTORY
--LIEUTENANT CUSHING--FIRST ACQUAINTANCE WITH THE COLORED TROOPS--LEAVING
FOR HOME--DESTRUCTION OF THE "THORN" BY A TORPEDO--THE MOCK MONITOR'S
ACHIEVEMENT.

After a sound sleep, Andrews and I awoke to the enjoyment of our first
day of freedom and existence in God's country. The sun had already
risen, bright and warm, consonant with the happiness of the new life now
opening up for us.

But to nearly a score of our party his beams brought no awakening
gladness. They fell upon stony, staring eyes, from out of which the
light of life had now faded, as the light of hope had done long ago.
The dead lay there upon the rude beds of fallen leaves, scraped together
by thoughtful comrades the night before, their clenched teeth showing
through parted lips, faces fleshless and pinched, long, unkempt and
ragged hair and whiskers just stirred by the lazy breeze, the rotting
feet and limbs drawn up, and skinny hands clenched in the last agonies.

Their fate seemed harder than that of any who had died before them.
It was doubtful if many of them knew that they were at last inside of our
own lines.

Again the kind-hearted boys of the brigade crowded around us with
proffers of service. Of an Ohio boy who directed his kind tenders to
Andrews and me, we procured a chunk of coarse rosin soap about as big as
a pack of cards, and a towel. Never was there as great a quantity of
solid comfort got out of that much soap as we obtained. It was the first
that we had since that which I stole in Wirz's headquarters, in June
--nine months before. We felt that the dirt which had accumulated upon
us since then would subject us to assessment as real estate if we were
in the North.

Hurrying off to a little creek we began our ablutions, and it was not
long until Andrews declared that there was a perceptible sand-bar forming
in the stream, from what we washed off. Dirt deposits of the Pliocene
era rolled off feet and legs. Eocene incrustations let loose reluctantly
from neck and ears; the hair was a mass of tangled locks matted with nine
months' accumulation of pitch pine tar, rosin soot, and South Carolina
sand, that we did not think we had better start in upon it until we
either had the shock cut off, or had a whole ocean and a vat of soap to
wash it out with.

After scrubbing until we were exhausted we got off the first few outer
layers--the post tertiary formation, a geologist would term it--and the
smell of many breakfasts cooking, coming down over the hill, set our
stomachs in a mutiny against any longer fasting.

We went back, rosy, panting, glowing, but happy, to get our selves some
breakfast.

Should Providence, for some inscrutable reason, vouchsafe me the years of
Methuselah, one of the pleasantest recollections that will abide with me
to the close of the nine hundredth and sixty-ninth year, will be of that
delightful odor of cooking food which regaled our senses as we came back.
From the boiling coffee and the meat frying in the pan rose an incense
sweeter to the senses a thousand times than all the perfumes of far
Arabia. It differed from the loathsome odor of cooking corn meal as much
as it did from the effluvia of a sewer.

Our noses were the first of our senses to bear testimony that we had
passed from the land of starvation to that of plenty. Andrews and I
hastened off to get our own breakfast, and soon had a half-gallon of
strong coffee, and a frying-pan full, of meat cooking over the fire--not
one of the beggarly skimped little fires we had crouched over during our
months of imprisonment, but a royal, generous fire, fed with logs instead
of shavings and splinters, and giving out heat enough to warm a regiment.

Having eaten positively all that we could swallow, those of us who could
walk were ordered to fall in and march over to Wilmington. We crossed
the branch of the river on a pontoon bridge, and took the road that led
across the narrow sandy island between the two branches, Wilmington being
situated on the opposite bank of the farther one.

When about half way a shout from some one in advance caused us to look
up, and then we saw, flying from a tall steeple in Wilmington, the
glorious old Stars and Stripes, resplendent in the morning sun, and more
beautiful than the most gorgeous web from Tyrian looms. We stopped with
one accord, and shouted and cheered and cried until every throat was sore
and every eye red and blood-shot. It seemed as if our cup of happiness
would certainly run over if any more additions were made to it.

When we arrived at the bank of the river opposite Wilmington, a whole
world of new and interesting sights opened up before us. Wilmington,
during the last year-and-a-half of the war, was, next to Richmond, the
most important place in the Southern Confederacy. It was the only port
to which blockade running was at all safe enough to be lucrative. The
Rebels held the strong forts of Caswell and Fisher, at the mouth of Cape
Fear River, and outside, the Frying Pan Shoals, which extended along the
coast forty or fifty miles, kept our blockading fleet so far off, and
made the line so weak and scattered, that there was comparatively little
risk to the small, swift-sailing vessels employed by the blockade runners
in running through it. The only way that blockade running could be
stopped was by the reduction of Forts Caswell and Fisher, and it was not
stopped until this was done.

Before the war Wilmington was a dull, sleepy North Carolina Town, with as
little animation of any kind as a Breton Pillage. The only business was
the handling of the tar, turpentine, rosin, and peanuts produced in the
surrounding country, a business never lively enough to excite more than a
lazy ripple in the sluggish lagoons of trade. But very new wine was put
into this old bottle when blockade running began to develop in
importance. Then this Sleepy hollow of a place took on the appearance of
San Francisco in the hight of the gold fever. The English houses engaged
in blockade running established branches there conducted by young men who
lived like princes. All the best houses in the City were leased by them
and fitted up in the most gorgeous style. They literally clothed
themselves in purple and fine linen and fared sumptuously every day, with
their fine wines and imported delicacies and retinue of servants to wait
upon them. Fast young Rebel officers, eager for a season of dissipation,
could imagine nothing better than a leave of absence to go to Wilmington.
Money flowed like water. The common sailors--the scum of all foreign
ports--who manned the blockade runners, received as high as one hundred
dollars in gold per month, and a bounty of fifty dollars for every
successful trip, which from Nassau could be easily made in seven days.
Other people were paid in proportion, and as the old proverb says, "What
comes over the Devil's back is spent under his breast," the money so
obtained was squandered recklessly, and all sorts of debauchery ran riot.

On the ground where we were standing had been erected several large steam
cotton presses, built to compress cotton for the blockade runners.
Around them were stored immense quantities of cotton, and near by were
nearly as great stores of turpentine, rosin and tar. A little farther
down the river was navy yard with docks, etc., for the accommodation,
building and repair of blockade runners. At the time our folks took Fort
Fisher and advanced on Wilmington the docks were filled with vessels.
The retreating Rebels set fire to everything--cotton, cotton presses,
turpentine, rosin, tar, navy yard, naval stores, timber, docks, and
vessels, and the fire made clean work. Our people arrived too late to
save anything, and when we came in the smoke from the burned cotton,
turpentine, etc., still filled the woods. It was a signal illustration
of the ravages of war. Here had been destroyed, in a few hours, more
property than a half-million industrious men would accumulate in their
lives.

Almost as gratifying as the sight of the old flag flying in triumph, was
the exhibition of our naval power in the river before us. The larger
part of the great North Atlantic squadron, which had done such excellent
service in the reduction of the defenses of Wilmington, was lying at
anchor, with their hundreds of huge guns yawning as if ardent for more
great forts to beat down, more vessels to sink, more heavy artillery to
crush, more Rebels to conquer. It seemed as if there were cannon enough
there to blow the whole Confederacy into kingdom-come. All was life and
animation around the fleet. On the decks the officers were pacing up and
down. One on each vessel carried a long telescope, with which he almost
constantly swept the horizon. Numberless small boats, each rowed by
neatly-uniformed men, and carrying a flag in the stern, darted hither and
thither, carrying officers on errands of duty or pleasure. It was such a
scene as enabled me to realize in a measure, the descriptions I had read
of the pomp and circumstance of naval warfare.

While we were standing, contemplating all the interesting sights within
view, a small steamer, about the size of a canal-boat, and carrying
several bright brass guns, ran swiftly and noiselessly up to the dock
near by, and a young, pale-faced officer, slender in build and nervous in
manner, stepped ashore. Some of the blue jackets who were talking to us
looked at him and the vessel with the greatest expression of interest,
and said:

"Hello! there's the 'Monticello' and Lieutenant Cushing."

This, then, was the naval boy hero, with whose exploits the whole country
was ringing. Our sailor friends proceeded to tell us of his
achievements, of which they were justly proud. They told us of his
perilous scouts and his hairbreadth escapes, of his wonderful audacity
and still more wonderful success--of his capture of Towns with a handful
of sailors, and the destruction of valuable stores, etc. I felt very
sorry that the man was not a cavalry commander. There he would have had
full scope for his peculiar genius. He had come prominently into notice
in the preceding Autumn, when he had, by one of the most daring
performances narrated in naval history, destroyed the formidable ram
"Albermarle." This vessel had been constructed by the Rebels on the
Roanoke River, and had done them very good service, first by assisting to
reduce the forts and capture the garrison at Plymouth, N. C., and
afterward in some minor engagements. In October, 1864, she was lying at
Plymouth. Around her was a boom of logs to prevent sudden approaches of
boats or vessels from our fleet. Cushing, who was then barely
twenty-one, resolved to attempt her destruction. He fitted up a steam
launch with a long spar to which he attached a torpedo. On the night of
October 27th, with thirteen companions, he ran quietly up the Sound and
was not discovered until his boat struck the boom, when a terrific fire
was opened upon him. Backing a short distance, he ran at the boom with
such velocity that his boat leaped across it into the water beyond. In
an instant more his torpedo struck the side of the "Albemarle" and
exploded, tearing a great hole in her hull, which sank her in a few
minutes. At the moment the torpedo went off the "Albermarle" fired one
of her great guns directly into the launch, tearing it completely to
pieces. Lieutenant Cushing and one comrade rose to the surface of the
seething water and, swimming ashore, escaped. What became of the rest
is not known, but their fate can hardly be a matter of doubt.

We were ferried across the river into Wilmington, and marched up the
streets to some vacant ground near the railroad depot, where we found
most of our old Florence comrades already assembled. When they left us
in the middle of February they were taken to Wilmington, and thence to
Goldsboro, N. C., where they were kept until the rapid closing in of our
Armies made it impracticable to hold them any longer, when they were sent
back to Wilmington and given up to our forces as we had been.

It was now nearly noon, and we were ordered to fall in and draw rations,
a bewildering order to us, who had been so long in the habit of drawing
food but once a day. We fell in in single rank, and marched up, one at a
time, past where a group of employees of the Commissary Department dealt
out the food. One handed each prisoner as he passed a large slice of
meat; another gave him a handful of ground coffee; a third a handful of
sugar; a fourth gave him a pickle, while a fifth and sixth handed him an
onion and a loaf of fresh bread. This filled the horn of our plenty
full. To have all these in one day--meat, coffee, sugar, onions and soft
bread--was simply to riot in undreamed-of luxury. Many of the boys--poor
fellows--could not yet realize that there was enough for all, or they
could not give up their old "flanking" tricks, and they stole around,
and falling into the rear, came up again for' another share. We laughed
at them, as did the Commissary men, who, nevertheless, duplicated the
rations already received, and sent them away happy and content.

What a glorious dinner Andrews and I had, with our half gallon of strong
coffee, our soft bread, and a pan full of fried pork and onions! Such an
enjoyable feast will never be, eaten again by us.

Here we saw negro troops under arms for the first time--the most of the
organization of colored soldiers having been, done since our capture.
It was startling at first to see a stalwart, coal-black negro stalking
along with a Sergeant's chevrons on his arm, or to gaze on a regimental
line of dusky faces on dress parade, but we soon got used to it. The
first strong peculiarity of the negro soldier that impressed itself, upon
us was his literal obedience of orders. A white soldier usually allows
himself considerable discretion in obeying orders--he aims more at the
spirit, while the negro adheres to the strict letter of the command.

For instance, the second day after our arrival a line of guards were
placed around us, with orders not to allow any of us to go up town
without a pass. The reason of this was that many weak--even dying-men
would persist in wandering about, and would be found exhausted,
frequently dead, in various parts of the City. Andrews and I concluded
to go up town. Approaching a negro sentinel he warned us back with,

"Stand back, dah; don't come any furder; it's agin de awdahs; you can't
pass."

He would not allow us to argue the case, but brought his gun to such a
threatening position that we fell back. Going down the line a little
farther, we came to a white sentinel, to whom I said:

"Comrade, what are your orders:"

He replied:

"My orders are not to let any of you fellows pass, but my beat only
extends to that out-house there."

Acting on this plain hint, we walked around the house and went up-town.
The guard simply construed his orders in a liberal spirit. He reasoned
that they hardly applied to us, since we were evidently able to take care
of ourselves.

Later we had another illustration of this dog like fidelity of the
colored sentinel. A number of us were quartered in a large and empty
warehouse. On the same floor, and close to us, were a couple of very
fine horses belonging to some officer. We had not been in the warehouse
very long until we concluded that the straw with which the horses were
bedded would be better used in making couches for ourselves, and this
suggestion was instantly acted upon, and so thoroughly that there was not
a straw left between the animals and the bare boards. Presently the
owner of the horses came in, and he was greatly incensed at what had been
done. He relieved his mind of a few sulphurous oaths, and going out,
came back soon with a man with more straw, and a colored soldier whom he
stationed by the horses, saying:

"Now, look here. You musn't let anybody take anything sway from these
stalls; d'you understand me?--not a thing."

He then went out. Andrews and I had just finished cooking dinner, and
were sitting down to eat it. Wishing to lend our frying-pan to another
mess, I looked around for something to lay our meat upon. Near the
horses I saw a book cover, which would answer the purpose admirably.
Springing up, I skipped across to where it was, snatched it up, and ran
back to my place. As I reached it a yell from the boys made me look
around. The darky was coming at me "full tilt," with his gun at a
"charge bayonets." As I turned he said:

"Put dat right back dah!"

I said:

"Why, this don't amount to anything, this is only an old book cover.
It hasn't anything in the world to do with the horses."

He only replied:

"Put dat right back dah!"

I tried another appeal:

"Now, you woolly-headed son of thunder, haven't you got sense enough to
know that the officer who posted you didn't mean such a thing as this!
He only meant that we should not be allowed to take any of the horses'
bedding or equipments; don't you see?"

I might as well have reasoned with a cigar store Indian. He set his
teeth, his eyes showed a dangerous amount of white, and foreshortening
his musket for a lunge, he hissed out again "Put dat right back dah, I
tell you!"

I looked at the bayonet; it was very long, very bright, and very sharp.
It gleamed cold and chilly like, as if it had not run through a man for a
long time, and yearned for another opportunity. Nothing but the whites
of the darky's eyes could now be seen. I did not want to perish there in
the fresh bloom of my youth and loveliness; it seemed to me as if it was
my duty to reserve myself for fields of future usefulness, so I walked
back and laid the book cover precisely on the spot whence I had obtained
it, while the thousand boys in the house set up a yell of sarcastic
laughter.

We staid in Wilmington a few days, days of almost purely animal
enjoyment--the joy of having just as much to eat as we could possibly
swallow, and no one to molest or make us afraid in any way. How we did
eat and fill up. The wrinkles in our skin smoothed out under the
stretching, and we began to feel as if we were returning to our old
plumpness, though so far the plumpness was wholly abdominal.

One morning we were told that the transports would begin going back with
us that afternoon, the first that left taking the sick. Andrews and I,
true to our old prison practices, resolved to be among those on the first
boat. We slipped through the guards and going up town, went straight to
Major General Schofield's headquarters and solicited a pass to go on the
first boat--the steamer "Thorn." General Schofield treated us very
kindly; but declined to let anybody but the helplessly sick go on the
"Thorn." Defeated here we went down to where the vessel was lying at the
dock, and tried to smuggle ourselves aboard, but the guard was too strong
and too vigilant, and we were driven away. Going along the dock, angry
and discouraged by our failure, we saw a Surgeon, at a little distance,
who was examining and sending the sick who could walk aboard another
vessel--the "General Lyon." We took our cue, and a little shamming
secured from him tickets which permitted us to take our passage in her.
The larger portion of those on board were in the hold, and a few were on
deck. Andrews and I found a snug place under the forecastle, by the
anchor chains.

Both vessels speedily received their complement, and leaving their docks,
started down the river. The "Thorn" steamed ahead of us, and
disappeared. Shortly after we got under way, the Colonel who was put in
command of the boat--himself a released prisoner--came around on a tour
of inspection. He found about one thousand of us aboard, and singling me
out made me the non-commissioned officer in command. I was put in
charge, of issuing the rations and of a barrel of milk punch which the
Sanitary Commission had sent down to be dealt out on the voyage to such
as needed it. I went to work and arranged the boys in the best way I
could, and returned to the deck to view the scenery.

Wilmington is thirty-four miles from the sea, and the river for that
distance is a calm, broad estuary. At this time the resources of Rebel
engineering were exhausted in defense against its passage by a hostile
fleet, and undoubtedly the best work of the kind in the Southern
Confederacy was done upon it. At its mouth were Forts Fisher and
Caswell, the strongest sea coast forts in the Confederacy. Fort Caswell
was an old United States fort, much enlarged and strengthened. Fort
Fisher was a new work, begun immediately after the beginning of the war,
and labored at incessantly until captured. Behind these every one of the
thirty-four miles to Wilmington was covered with the fire of the best
guns the English arsenals could produce, mounted on forts built at every
advantageous spot. Lines of piles running out into the water, forced
incoming vessels to wind back and forth across the stream under the
point-blank range of massive Armstrong rifles. As if this were not
sufficient, the channel was thickly studded with torpedoes that would
explode at the touch of the keel of a passing vessel. These abundant
precautions, and the telegram from General Lee, found in Fort Fisher,
stating that unless that stronghold and Fort Caswell were held he could
not hold Richmond, give some idea of the importance of the place to the
Rebels.

We passed groups of hundreds of sailors fishing for torpedos, and saw
many of these dangerous monsters, which they had hauled up out of the
water. We caught up with the "Thorn," when about half way to the sea,
passed her, to our great delight, and soon left a gap between us of
nearly half-a-mile. We ran through an opening in the piling, holding up
close to the left side, and she apparently followed our course exactly.
Suddenly there was a dull roar; a column of water, bearing with it
fragments of timbers, planking and human bodies, rose up through one side
of the vessel, and, as it fell, she lurched forward and sank. She had
struck a torpedo. I never learned the number lost, but it must have been
very great.

Some little time after this happened we approached Fort Anderson, the
most powerful of the works between Wilmington and the forts at the mouth
of the sea. It was built on the ruins of the little Town of Brunswick,
destroyed by Cornwallis during the Revolutionary War. We saw a monitor
lying near it, and sought good positions to view this specimen of the
redoubtable ironclads of which we had heard and read so much. It looked
precisely as it did in pictures, as black, as grim, and as uncompromising
as the impregnable floating fortress which had brought the "Merrimac" to
terms.

But as we approached closely we noticed a limpness about the smoke stack
that seemed very inconsistent with the customary rigidity of cylindrical
iron. Then the escape pipe seemed scarcely able to maintain itself
upright. A few minutes later we discovered that our terrible Cyclops of
the sea was a flimsy humbug, a theatrical imitation, made by stretching
blackened canvas over a wooden frame.

One of the officers on board told us its story. After the fall of Fort
Fisher the Rebels retired to Fort Anderson, and offered a desperate
resistance to our army and fleet. Owing to the shallowness of the water
the latter could not come into close enough range to do effective work.
Then the happy idea of this sham monitor suggested itself to some one.
It was prepared, and one morning before daybreak it was sent floating in
on the tide. The other monitors opened up a heavy fire from their
position. The Rebels manned their guns and replied vigorously, by
concentrating a terrible cannonade on the sham monitor, which sailed
grandly on, undisturbed by the heavy rifled bolts tearing through her
canvas turret. Almost frantic with apprehension of the result if she
could not be checked, every gun that would bear was turned upon her, and
torpedos were exploded in her pathway by electricity. All these she
treated with the silent contempt they merited from so invulnerable a
monster. At length, as she reached a good easy range of the fort, her
bow struck something, and she swung around as if to open fire. That was
enough for the Rebels. With Schofield's army reaching out to cut off
their retreat, and this dreadful thing about to tear the insides out of
their fort with four-hundred-pound shot at quarter-mile range, there was
nothing for them to do but consult their own safety, which they did with
such haste that they did not spike a gun, or destroy a pound of stores.

John McElroy