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Chapter 8

INTRODUCTION TO PRISON LIFE--THE PEMBERTON BUILDING AND ITS OCCUPANTS
--NEAT SAILORS--ROLL CALL--RATIONS AND CLOTHING--CHIVALRIC "CONFISCATION."

I began acquainting myself with my new situation and surroundings.
The building into which I had been conducted was an old tobacco factory,
called the "Pemberton building," possibly from an owner of that name,
and standing on the corner of what I was told were Fifteenth and Carey
streets. In front it was four stories high; behind but three, owing to
the rapid rise of the hill, against which it was built.

It fronted towards the James River and Kanawha Canal, and the James
River--both lying side by side, and only one hundred yards distant,
with no intervening buildings. The front windows afforded a fine view.
To the right front was Libby, with its guards pacing around it on the
sidewalk, watching the fifteen hundred officers confined within its
walls. At intervals during each day squads of fresh prisoners could be
seen entering its dark mouth, to be registered, and searched, and then
marched off to the prison assigned them. We could see up the James River
for a mile or so, to where the long bridges crossing it bounded the view.
Directly in front, across the river, was a flat, sandy plain, said to be
General Winfield Scott's farm, and now used as a proving ground for the
guns cast at the Tredegar Iron Works.

The view down the river was very fine. It extended about twelve miles,
to where a gap in the woods seemed to indicate a fort, which we imagined
to be Fort Darling, at that time the principal fortification defending
the passage of the James.

Between that point and where we were lay the river, in a long, broad
mirror-like expanse, like a pretty little inland lake. Occasionally a
busy little tug would bustle up or down, a gunboat move along with
noiseless dignity, suggestive of a reserved power, or a schooner beat
lazily from one side to the other. But these were so few as to make even
more pronounced the customary idleness that hung over the scene. The
tug's activity seemed spasmodic and forced--a sort of protest against the
gradually increasing lethargy that reigned upon the bosom of the waters
--the gunboat floated along as if performing a perfunctory duty, and the
schooners sailed about as if tired of remaining in one place. That
little stretch of water was all that was left for a cruising ground.
Beyond Fort Darling the Union gunboats lay, and the only vessel that
passed the barrier was the occasional flag-of-truce steamer.

The basement of the building was occupied as a store-house for the
taxes-in-kind which the Confederate Government collected. On the first
floor were about five hundred men. On the second floor--where I was
--were about four hundred men. These were principally from the First
Division, First Corps distinguished by a round red patch on their caps;
First Division, Second Corps, marked by a red clover leaf; and the First
Division, Third Corps, who wore a red diamond. They were mainly
captured at Gettysburg and Mine Run. Besides these there was a
considerable number from the Eighth Corps, captured at Winchester, and a
large infusion of Cavalry-First, Second and Third West Virginia--taken
in Averill's desperate raid up the Virginia Valley, with the Wytheville
Salt Works as an objective.

On the third floor were about two hundred sailors and marines, taken in
the gallant but luckless assault upon the ruins of Fort Sumter, in the
September previous. They retained the discipline of the ship in their
quarters, kept themselves trim and clean, and their floor as white as a
ship's deck. They did not court the society of the "sojers" below, whose
camp ideas of neatness differed from theirs. A few old barnacle-backs
always sat on guard around the head of the steps leading from the lower
rooms. They chewed tobacco enormously, and kept their mouths filled with
the extracted juice. Any luckless "sojer" who attempted to ascend the
stairs usually returned in haste, to avoid the deluge of the filthy
liquid.

For convenience in issuing rations we were divided into messes of twenty,
each mess electing a Sergeant as its head, and each floor electing a
Sergeant-of-the-Floor, who drew rations and enforced what little
discipline was observed.

Though we were not so neat as the sailors above us, we tried to keep our
quarters reasonably clean, and we washed the floor every morning; getting
down on our knees and rubbing it clean and dry with rags. Each mess
detailed a man each day to wash up the part of the floor it occupied,
and he had to do this properly or no ration would be given him. While
the washing up was going on each man stripped himself and made close
examination of his garments for the body-lice, which otherwise would have
increased beyond control. Blankets were also carefully hunted over for
these "small deer."

About eight o'clock a spruce little lisping rebel named Ross would appear
with a book, and a body-guard, consisting of a big Irishman, who had the
air of a Policeman, and carried a musket barrel made into a cane. Behind
him were two or three armed guards. The Sergeant-of-the-Floor commanded:

"Fall in in four ranks for roll-call."

We formed along one side of the room; the guards halted at the head of
the stairs; Ross walked down in front and counted the files, closely
followed by his Irish aid, with his gun-barrel cane raised ready for use
upon any one who should arouse his ruffianly ire. Breaking ranks we
returned to our places, and sat around in moody silence for three hours.
We had eaten nothing since the previous noon. Rising hungry, our hunger
seemed to increase in arithmetical ratio with every quarter of an hour.

These times afforded an illustration of the thorough subjection of man to
the tyrant Stomach. A more irritable lot of individuals could scarcely
be found outside of a menagerie than these men during the hours waiting
for rations. "Crosser than, two sticks" utterly failed as a comparison.
They were crosser than the lines of a check apron. Many could have given
odds to the traditional bear with a sore head, and run out of the game
fifty points ahead of him. It was astonishingly easy to get up a fight
at these times. There was no need of going a step out of the way to
search for it, as one could have a full fledged article of overwhelming
size on his hands at any instant, by a trifling indiscretion of speech or
manner. All the old irritating flings between the cavalry, the artillery
and the infantry, the older "first-call" men, and the later or
"Three-Hundred-Dollar-men," as they were derisively dubbed, between the
different corps of the Army of the Potomac, between men of different
States, and lastly between the adherents and opponents of McClellan, came
to the lips and were answered by a blow with the fist, when a ring would
be formed around the combatants by a crowd, which would encourage them
with yells to do their best. In a few minutes one of the parties to the
fistic debate, who found the point raised by him not well taken, would
retire to the sink to wash the blood from his battered face, and the rest
would resume their seats and glower at space until some fresh excitement
roused them. For the last hour or so of these long waits hardly a word
would be spoken. We were too ill-natured to talk for amusement, and
there was nothing else to talk for.

This spell was broken about eleven o'clock by the appearance at the head
of the stairway of the Irishman with the gun-barrel cane, and his singing
out:

"Sargint uv the flure: fourtane min and a bread-box!"

Instantly every man sprang to his feet, and pressed forward to be one of
the favored fourteen. One did not get any more gyrations or obtain them
any sooner by this, but it was a relief, and a change to walk the half
square outside the prison to the cookhouse, and help carry the rations
back.

For a little while after our arrival in Richmond, the rations were
tolerably good. There had been so much said about the privations of the
prisoners that our Government had, after much quibbling and negotiation,
succeeded in getting the privilege of sending food and clothing through
the lines to us. Of course but a small part of that sent ever reached
its destination. There were too many greedy Rebels along its line of
passage to let much of it be received by those for whom it was intended.
We could see from our windows Rebels strutting about in overcoats, in
which the box wrinkles were still plainly visible, wearing new "U. S."
blankets as cloaks, and walking in Government shoes, worth fabulous
prices in Confederate money.

Fortunately for our Government the rebels decided to out themselves off
from this profitable source of supply. We read one day in the Richmond
papers that "President Davis and his Cabinet had come to the conclusion
that it was incompatible with the dignity of a sovereign power to permit
another power with which it was at war, to feed and clothe prisoners in
its hands."

I will not stop to argue this point of honor, and show its absurdity by
pointing out that it is not an unusual practice with nations at war. It
is a sufficient commentary upon this assumption of punctiliousness that
the paper went on to say that some five tons of clothing and fifteen tons
of food, which had been sent under a flag of truce to City Point, would
neither be returned nor delivered to us, but "converted to the use of the
Confederate Government."

"And surely they are all honorable men!"

Heaven save the mark.

John McElroy