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Chapter 80

VISIT TO FORT FISHER, AND INSPECTION OF THAT STRONGHOLD--THE WAY IT WAS
CAPTURED--OUT ON THE OCEAN SAILING--TERRIBLY SEASICK--RAPID RECOVERY
--ARRIVAL AT ANNAPOLIS--WASHED, CLOTHED AND FED--UNBOUNDED LUXURY, AND
DAYS OF UNADULTERATED HAPPINESS.

When we reached the mouth of Cape Fear River the wind was blowing so hard
that our Captain did not think it best to venture out, so he cast anchor.
The cabin of the vessel was filled with officers who had been released
from prison about the same time we were. I was also given a berth in the
cabin, in consideration of my being the non-commissioned officer in
charge of the men, and I found the associations quite pleasant. A party
was made up, which included me, to visit Fort Fisher, and we spent the
larger part of a day very agreeably in wandering over that great
stronghold. We found it wonderful in its strength, and were prepared to
accept the statement of those who had seen foreign defensive works, that
it was much more powerful than the famous Malakoff, which so long defied
the besiegers of Sebastopol.

The situation of the fort was on a narrow and low spit of ground between
Cape Fear River and the ocean. On this the Rebels had erected, with
prodigious labor, an embankment over a mile in length, twenty-five feet
thick and twenty feet high. About two-thirds of this bank faced the sea;
the other third ran across the spit of land to protect the fort against
an attack from the land side. Still stronger than the bank forming the
front of the fort were the traverses, which prevented an enfilading fire
These were regular hills, twenty-five to forty feet high, and broad and
long in proportion. There were fifteen or twenty of them along the face
of the fort. Inside of them were capacious bomb proofs, sufficiently
large to shelter the whole garrison. It seemed as if a whole Township
had been dug up, carted down there and set on edge. In front of the
works was a strong palisade. Between each pair of traverses were one or
two enormous guns, none less than one-hundred-and-fifty pounders. Among
these we saw a great Armstrong gun, which had been presented to the
Southern Confederacy by its manufacturer, Sir William Armstrong, who,
like the majority of the English nobility, was a warm admirer of the
Jeff. Davis crowd. It was the finest piece of ordnance ever seen in this
country. The carriage was rosewood, and the mountings gilt brass. The
breech of the gun had five reinforcements.

To attack this place our Government assembled the most powerful fleet
ever sent on such an expedition. Over seventy-five men-of-war, including
six monitors, and carrying six hundred guns, assailed it with a storm of
shot and shell that averaged four projectiles per second for several
hours; the parapet was battered, and the large guns crushed as one
smashes a bottle with a stone. The garrison fled into the bomb-proofs
for protection. The troops, who had landed above the fort, moved up to
assail the land face, while a brigade of sailors and marines attacked the
sea face.

As the fleet had to cease firing to allow the charge, the Rebels ran out
of their casemates and, manning the parapet, opened such a fire of
musketry that the brigade from the fleet was driven back, but the
soldiers made a lodgment on the land face. Then began some beautiful
cooperative tactics between the Army and Navy, communication being kept
up with signal flags. Our men were on one side of the parapets and the
Rebels on the other, with the fighting almost hand-to-hand. The vessels
ranged out to where their guns would rake the Rebel line, and as their
shot tore down its length, the Rebels gave way, and falling back to the
next traverse, renewed the conflict there. Guided by the signals our
vessels changed their positions, so as to rake this line also, and so the
fight went on until twelve traverses had been carried, one after the
other, when the rebels surrendered.

The next day the Rebels abandoned Fort Caswell and other fortifications
in the immediate neighborhood, surrendered two gunboats, and fell back to
the lines at Fort Anderson. After Fort Fisher fell, several
blockade-runners were lured inside and captured.

Never before had there been such a demonstration of the power of heavy
artillery. Huge cannon were pounded into fragments, hills of sand ripped
open, deep crevasses blown in the ground by exploding shells, wooden
buildings reduced to kindling-wood, etc. The ground was literally paved
with fragments of shot and shell, which, now red with rust from the
corroding salt air, made the interior of the fort resemble what one of
our party likened it to "an old brickyard."

Whichever way we looked along the shores we saw abundant evidence of the
greatness of the business which gave the place its importance. In all
directions, as far as the eye could reach, the beach was dotted with the
bleaching skeletons of blockade-runners--some run ashore by their
mistaking the channel, more beached to escape the hot pursuit of our
blockaders.

Directly in front of the sea face of the fort, and not four hundred yards
from the savage mouths of the huge guns, the blackened timbers of a
burned blockade-runner showed above the water at low tide. Coming in
from Nassau with a cargo of priceless value to the gasping Confederacy,
she was observed and chased by one of our vessels, a swifter sailer,
even, than herself. The war ship closed rapidly upon her. She sought
the protection of the guns of Fort Fisher, which opened venomously on the
chaser. They did not stop her, though they were less than half a mile
away. In another minute she would have sent the Rebel vessel to the
bottom of the sea, by a broadside from her heavy guns, but the Captain of
the latter turned her suddenly, and ran her high up on the beach,
wrecking his vessel, but saving the much more valuable cargo. Our vessel
then hauled off, and as night fell, quiet was restored. At midnight two
boat-loads of determined men, rowing with muffled oars moved silently out
from the blockader towards the beached vessel. In their boats they had
some cans of turpentine, and several large shells. When they reached the
blockade-runner they found all her crew gone ashore, save one watchman,
whom they overpowered before he could give the alarm. They cautiously
felt their way around, with the aid of a dark lantern, secured the ship's
chronometer, her papers and some other desired objects. They then
saturated with the turpentine piles of combustible material, placed about
the vessel to the best advantage, and finished by depositing the shells
where their explosion would ruin the machinery. All this was done so
near to the fort that the sentinels on the parapets could be heard with
the greatest distinctness as they repeated their half-hourly cry of
"All's well." Their preparations completed, the daring fellows touched
matches to the doomed vessel in a dozen places at once, and sprang into
their boats. The flames instantly enveloped the ship, and showed the
gunners the incendiaries rowing rapidly away. A hail of shot beat the
water into a foam around the boats, but their good fortune still attended
them, and they got back without losing a man.

The wind at length calmed sufficiently to encourage our Captain to
venture out, and we were soon battling with the rolling waves, far out of
sight of land. For awhile the novelty of the scene fascinated me. I was
at last on the ocean, of which I had heard, read and imagined so much.
The creaking cordage, the straining engine, the plunging ship, the wild
waste of tumbling billows, everyone apparently racing to where our
tossing bark was struggling to maintain herself, all had an entrancing
interest for me, and I tried to recall Byron's sublime apostrophe to the
ocean:

Thou glorious mirror, where the Almighty's form
Classes itself in tempest: in all time,
Calm or convulsed-in breeze, or gale, or storm,
Icing the pole, or in the torrid clime
Dark-heaving--boundless, endless, and sublime--
The image of eternity--the throne
Of the invisible; even from out thy slime
The monsters of the deep are made; each zone
Obey thee: thou goest forth, dread, fathomless, alone,

Just then, my reverie was broken by the strong hand of the gruff Captain
of, the vessel descending upon my shoulder, and he said:

"See, here, youngster! Ain't you the fellow that was put in command of
these men?"

I acknowledged such to be the case.

"Well," said the Captain; "I want you to 'tend to your business and
straighten them around, so that we can clean off the decks."

I turned from the bulwark over which I had been contemplating the vasty
deep, and saw the sorriest, most woe-begone lot that the imagination can
conceive. Every mother's son was wretchedly sea-sick. They were paying
the penalty of their overfeeding in Wilmington; and every face looked as
if its owner was discovering for the first time what the real lower
depths of human misery was. They all seemed afraid they would not die;
as if they were praying for death, but feeling certain that he was going
back on them in a most shameful way.

We straightened them around a little, washed them and the decks off with
a hose, and then I started down in the hold to see how matters were with
the six hundred down there. The boys there were much sicker than those
on deck. As I lifted the hatch there rose an odor which appeared strong
enough to raise the plank itself. Every onion that had been issued to us
in Wilmington seemed to lie down there in the last stages of
decomposition. All of the seventy distinct smells which Coleridge
counted at Cologne might have been counted in any given cubic foot of
atmosphere, while the next foot would have an entirely different and
equally demonstrative "bouquet."

I recoiled, and leaned against the bulwark, but soon summoned up courage
enough to go half-way down the ladder, and shout out in as stern a tone
as I could command:

"Here, now! I want you fellows to straighten around there, right off,
and help clean up!"

They were as angry and cross as they were sick. They wanted nothing in
the world so much as the opportunity I had given them to swear at and
abuse somebody. Every one of them raised on his elbow, and shaking his
fist at me yelled out:

"O, you go to ----, you ---- ---- ----. Just come down another step,
and I'll knock the whole head off 'en you."

I did not go down any farther.

Coming back on the deck my stomach began to feel qualmish. Some wretched
idiot, whose grandfather's grave I hope the jackasses have defiled, as
the Turks would say, told me that the best preventive of sea-sickness was
to drink as much of the milk punch as I could swallow.

Like another idiot, I did so.

I went again to the side of the vessel, but now the fascination of the
scene had all faded out. The restless billows were dreary, savage,
hungry and dizzying; they seemed to claw at, and tear, and wrench the
struggling ship as a group of huge lions would tease and worry a captive
dog. They distressed her and all on board by dealing a blow which would
send her reeling in one direction, but before she had swung the full
length that impulse would have sent her, catching her on the opposite
side with a stunning shock that sent her another way, only to meet
another rude buffet from still another side.

I thought we could all have stood it if the motion had been like that of
a swing-backward and forward--or even if the to and fro motion had been
complicated with a side-wise swing, but to be put through every possible
bewildering motion in the briefest space of time was more than heads of
iron and stomachs of brass could stand.

Mine were not made of such perdurable stuff.

They commenced mutinous demonstrations in regard to the milk punch.

I began wondering whether the milk was not the horrible beer swill,
stump-tail kind of which I had heard so much.

And the whisky in it; to use a vigorous Westernism, descriptive of mean
whisky, it seemed to me that I could smell the boy's feet who plowed the
corn from which it was distilled.

Then the onions I had eaten in Wilmington began to rebel, and incite the
bread, meat and coffee to gastric insurrection, and I became so utterly
wretched that life had no farther attractions.

While I was leaning over the bulwark, musing on the complete hollowness
of all earthly things, the Captain of the vessel caught hold of me
roughly, and said:

"Look here, you're just playin' the very devil a-commandin' these here
men. Why in ---- don't you stiffen up, and hump yourself around, and
make these men mind, or else belt them over the head with a capstan bar!
Now I want you to 'tend to your business. D'you understand me?"

I turned a pair of weary and hopeless eyes upon him, and started to say
that a man who would talk to one in my forlorn condition of "stiffening
up," and "belting other fellows over the head with a capstan bar," would
insult a woman dying with consumption, but I suddenly became too full for
utterance.

The milk punch, the onions, the bread, and meat and coffee tired of
fighting it out in the narrow quarters where I had stowed them, had
started upwards tumultuously.

I turned my head again to the sea, and looking down into its smaragdine
depths, let go of the victualistic store which I had been industriously
accumulating ever since I had come through the lines.

I vomited until I felt as empty and hollow as a stove pipe. There was a
vacuum that extended clear to my toe-nails. I feared that every retching
struggle would dent me in, all over, as one sees tin preserving cans
crushed in by outside pressure, and I apprehended that if I kept on much
longer my shoe-soles would come up after the rest.

I will mention, parenthetically, that, to this day I abhor milk punch,
and also onions.

Unutterably miserable as I was I could not refrain from a ghost of a
smile, when a poor country boy near me sang out in an interval between
vomiting spells:

"O, Captain, for God's sake, stop the boat and lem'me go ashore, and I
swear I'll walk every step of the way home."

He was like old Gonzalo in the 'Tempest:'

Now world I give a thousand furlongs of sea for an acre of barren
ground; long heath; brown furze; anything. The wills above be done!
but I would fain die a dry death.

After this misery had lasted about two days we got past Cape Hatteras,
and out of reach of its malign influence, and recovered as rapidly as we
had been prostrated.

We regained spirits and appetites with amazing swiftness; the sun came
out warm and cheerful, we cleaned up our quarters and ourselves as best
we could, and during the remainder of the voyage were as blithe and
cheerful as so many crickets.

The fun in the cabin was rollicking. The officers had been as sick as
the men, but were wonderfully vivacious when the 'mal du mer' passed off.
In the party was a fine glee club, which had been organized at "Camp
Sorgum," the officers' prison at Columbia. Its leader was a Major of the
Fifth Iowa Cavalry, who possessed a marvelously sweet tenor voice, and
well developed musical powers. While we were at Wilmington he sang "When
Sherman Marched Down to the Sea," to an audience of soldiers that packed
the Opera House densely.

The enthusiasm he aroused was simply indescribable; men shouted, and the
tears ran down their faces. He was recalled time and again, each time
with an increase in the furore. The audience would have staid there all
night to listen to him sing that one song. Poor fellow, he only went
home to die. An attack of pneumonia carried him off within a fortnight
after we separated at Annapolis.

The Glee Club had several songs which they rendered in regular negro
minstrel style, and in a way that was irresistibly ludicrous. One of
their favorites was "Billy Patterson." All standing up in a ring, the
tenors would lead off:

"I saw an old man go riding by,"

and the baritones, flinging themselves around with the looseness of
Christy's Minstrels, in a "break down," would reply:

"Don't tell me! Don't tell me!"

Then the tenors would resume:

"Says I, Ole man, your horse'll die."

Then the baritones, with an air of exaggerated interest;

"A-ha-a-a, Billy Patterson!"

Tenors:

"For. It he dies, I'll tan his skin;
An' if he lives I'll ride him agin,"

All-together, with a furious "break down" at the close:

"Then I'll lay five dollars down,
And count them one by one;
Then I'll lay five dollars down,
If anybody will show me the man
That struck Billy Patterson."


And so on. It used to upset my gravity entirely to see a crowd of grave
and dignified Captains, Majors and Colonels going through this
nonsensical drollery with all the abandon of professional burnt-cork
artists.

As we were nearing the entrance to Chesapeake Bay we passed a great
monitor, who was exercising her crew at the guns. She fired directly
across our course, the huge four hundred pound balls shipping along the
water, about a mile ahead of us, as we boys used to make the flat stones
skip in the play of "Ducks and Drakes." One or two of the shots came so.
close that I feared she might be mistaking us for a Rebel ship intent on
some raid up the Bay, and I looked up anxiously to see that the flag
should float out so conspicuously that she could not help seeing it.

The next day our vessel ran alongside of the dock at the Naval Academy at
Annapolis, that institution now being used as a hospital for paroled
prisoners. The musicians of the Post band came down with stretchers to
carry the sick to the Hospital, while those of us who were able to walk
were ordered to fall in and march up. The distance was but a few hundred
yards. On reaching the building we marched up on a little balcony, and
as we did so each one of us was seized by a hospital attendant, who, with
the quick dexterity attained by long practice, snatched every one of our
filthy, lousy rags off in the twinkling of an eye, and flung them over
the railing to the ground, where a man loaded them into a wagon with a
pitchfork.

With them went our faithful little black can, our hoop-iron spoon, and
our chessboard and men.

Thus entirely denuded, each boy was given a shove which sent him into a
little room, where a barber pressed him down upon a stool, and almost
before he understood what was being done, had his hair and beard cut off
as close as shears would do it. Another tap on the back sent the shorn
lamb into a room furnished with great tubs of water and with about six
inches of soap suds on the zinc-covered floor.

In another minute two men with sponges had removed every trace of prison
grime from his body, and passed him on to two more men, who wiped him
dry, and moved him on to where a man handed him a new shirt, a pair of
drawers, pair of socks, pair of pantaloons, pair of slippers, and a
hospital gown, and motioned him to go on into the large room, and array
himself in his new garments. Like everything else about the Hospital
this performance was reduced to a perfect system. Not a word was spoken
by anybody, not a moment's time lost, and it seemed to me that it was not
ten minutes after I marched up on the balcony, covered with dirt, rags,
vermin, and a matted shock of hair, until I marched out of the room,
clean and well clothed. Now I began to feel as if I was really a man
again.

The next thing done was to register our names, rank, regiment, when and
where captured, when and where released. After this we were shown to our
rooms. And such rooms as they were. All the old maids in the country
could not have improved their spick-span neatness. The floors were as
white as pine plank could be scoured; the sheets and bedding as clean as
cotton and linen and woolen could be washed. Nothing in any home in the
land was any more daintily, wholesomely, unqualifiedly clean than were
these little chambers, each containing two beds, one for each man
assigned to their occupancy.

Andrews doubted if we could stand all this radical change in our habits.
He feared that it was rushing things too fast. We might have had our
hair cut one week, and taken a bath all over a week later, and so
progress down to sleeping between white sheets in the course of six
months, but to do it all in one day seemed like tempting fate.

Every turn showed us some new feature of the marvelous order of this
wonderful institution. Shortly after we were sent to our rooms,
a Surgeon entered with a Clerk. After answering the usual questions as
to name, rank, company and regiment, the Surgeon examined our tongues,
eyes, limbs and general appearance, and communicated his conclusions to
the Clerk, who filled out a blank card. This card was stuck into a
little tin holder at the head of my bed. Andrews's card was the same,
except the name. The Surgeon was followed by a Sergeant, who was Chief
of the Dining-Room, and the Clerk, who made a minute of the diet ordered
for us, and moved off. Andrews and I immediately became very solicitous
to know what species of diet No. 1 was. After the seasickness left us
our appetites became as ravenous as a buzz-saw, and unless Diet No. 1 was
more than No. 1 in name, it would not fill the bill. We had not long to
remain in suspense, for soon another non-commissioned officer passed
through at the head of a train of attendants, bearing trays. Consulting
the list in his hand, he said to one of his followers, "Two No. 1's,"
and that satellite set down two large plates, upon each of which were a
cup of coffee, a shred of meat, two boiled eggs and a couple of rolls.

"Well," said Andrews, as the procession moved away, "I want to know where
this thing's going to stop. I am trying hard to get used to wearing a
shirt without any lice in it, and to sitting down on a chair, and to
sleeping in a clean bed, but when it comes to having my meals sent to my
room, I'm afraid I'll degenerate into a pampered child of luxury. They
are really piling it on too strong. Let us see, Mc.; how long's it been
since we were sitting on the sand there in Florence, boiling our pint of
meal in that old can?"

"It seems many years, Lale," I said; "but for heaven's sake let us try to
forget it as soon as possible. We will always remember too much of it."

And we did try hard to make the miserable recollections fade out of our
minds. When we were stripped on the balcony we threw away every visible
token that could remind us of the hateful experience we had passed
through. We did not retain a scrap of paper or a relic to recall the
unhappy past. We loathed everything connected with it.

The days that followed were very happy ones. The Paymaster came around
and paid us each two months' pay and twenty-five cents a day "ration
money" for every day we had been in prison. This gave Andrews and I
about one hundred and sixty-five dollars apiece--an abundance of spending
money. Uncle Sam was very kind and considerate to his soldier nephews,
and the Hospital authorities neglected nothing that would add to our
comfort. The superbly-kept grounds of the Naval Academy were renewing
the freshness of their loveliness under the tender wooing of the
advancing Spring, and every step one sauntered through them was a new
delight. A magnificent band gave us sweet music morning and evening.
Every dispatch from the South told of the victorious progress of our
arms, and the rapid approach of the close of the struggle. All we had to
do was to enjoy the goods the gods were showering upon us, and we did so
with appreciative, thankful hearts. After awhile all able to travel were
given furloughs of thirty days to visit their homes, with instructions to
report at the expiration of their leaves of absence to the camps of
rendezvous nearest their homes, and we separated, nearly every man going
in a different direction.

John McElroy