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Chapter 9


But, to return to the rations--a topic which, with escape or exchange,
were to be the absorbing ones for us for the next fifteen months. There
was now issued to every two men a loaf of coarse bread--made of a mixture
of flour and meal--and about the size and shape of an ordinary brick.
This half loaf was accompanied, while our Government was allowed to
furnish rations, with a small piece of corned beef. Occasionally we got
a sweet potato, or a half-pint or such a matter of soup made from a
coarse, but nutritious, bean or pea, called variously "nigger-pea,"
"stock-pea," or "cow-pea."

This, by the way, became a fruitful bone of contention during our stay
in the South. One strong party among us maintained that it was a bean,
because it was shaped like one, and brown, which they claimed no pea ever
was. The other party held that it was a pea because its various names
all agreed in describing it as a pea, and because it was so full of
bugs--none being entirely free from insects, and some having as many as
twelve by actual count--within its shell. This, they declared, was a
distinctive characteristic of the pea family. The contention began with
our first instalment of the leguminous ration, and was still raging
between the survivors who passed into our lines in 1865. It waxed hot
occasionally, and each side continually sought evidence to support its
view of the case. Once an old darky, sent into the prison on some
errand, was summoned to decide a hot dispute that was raging in the
crowd to which I belonged. The champion of the pea side said, producing
one of the objects of dispute:

"Now, boys, keep still, till I put the question fairly. Now, uncle, what
do they call that there?"

The colored gentleman scrutinized the vegetable closely, and replied,

"Well, dey mos' generally calls 'em stock-peas, round hyar aways."

"There," said the pea-champion triumphantly.

"But," broke in the leader of the bean party, "Uncle, don't they also
call them beans?"

"Well, yes, chile, I spec dat lots of 'em does."

And this was about the way the matter usually ended.

I will not attempt to bias the reader's judgment by saying which side I
believed to be right. As the historic British showman said, in reply to
the question as to whether an animal in his collection was a rhinoceros
or an elephant, "You pays your money and you takes your choice."

The rations issued to us, as will be seen above, though they appear
scanty, were still sufficient to support life and health, and months
afterward, in Andersonville, we used to look back to them as sumptuous.
We usually had them divided and eaten by noon, and, with the gnawings of
hunger appeased, we spent the afternoon and evening comfortably. We told
stories, paced up and down, the floor for exercise, played cards, sung,
read what few books were available, stood at the windows and studied the
landscape, and watched the Rebels trying their guns and shells, and so on
as long as it was daylight. Occasionally it was dangerous to be about
the windows. This depended wholly on the temper of the guards. One day
a member of a Virginia regiment, on guard on the pavement in front,
deliberately left his beat, walked out into the center of the street,
aimed his gun at a member of the Ninth West Virginia, who was standing at
a window near, and firing, shot him through the heart, the bullet passing
through his body, and through the floor above. The act was purely
malicious, and was done, doubtless, in revenge for some injury which our
men had done the assassin or his family.

We were not altogether blameless, by any means. There were few
opportunities to say bitterly offensive things to the guards, let pass

The prisoners in the third floor of the Smith building, adjoining us,
had their own way of teasing them. Late at night, when everybody would
be lying down, and out of the way of shots, a window in the third story
would open, a broomstick, with a piece nailed across to represent arms,
and clothed with a cap and blouse, would be protruded, and a voice coming
from a man carefully protected by the wall, would inquire:

"S-a-y, g-uarr-d, what time is it?"

If the guard was of the long suffering kind he would answer:

"Take yo' head back in, up dah; you kno hits agin all odahs to do dat?"

Then the voice would say, aggravatingly, "Oh, well, go to ----
you ---- Rebel ----, if you can't answer a civil question."

Before the speech was ended the guard's rifle would be at his shoulder
and he would fire. Back would come the blouse and hat in haste, only to
go out again the next instant, with a derisive laugh, and,

"Thought you were going to hurt somebody, didn't you, you ---- ---- ----
---- ----. But, Lord, you can't shoot for sour apples; if I couldn't
shoot no better than you, Mr. Johnny Reb, I would ----"

By this time the guard, having his gun loaded again, would cut short the
remarks with another shot, which, followed up with similar remarks, would
provoke still another, when an alarm sounding, the guards at Libby and
all the other buildings around us would turn out. An officer of the
guard would go up with a squad into the third floor, only to find
everybody up there snoring away as if they were the Seven Sleepers.
After relieving his mind of a quantity of vigorous profanity, and threats
to "buck and gag" and cut off the rations of the whole room, the officer
would return to his quarters in the guard house, but before he was fairly
ensconced there the cap and blouse would go out again, and the maddened
guard be regaled with a spirited and vividly profane lecture on the
depravity of Rebels in general, and his own unworthiness in particular.

One night in January things took a more serious turn. The boys on the
lower floor of our building had long considered a plan of escape. There
were then about fifteen thousand prisoners in Richmond--ten thousand on
Belle Isle and five thousand in the buildings. Of these one thousand
five hundred were officers in Libby. Besides there were the prisoners in
Castles Thunder and Lightning. The essential features of the plan were
that at a preconcerted signal we at the second and third floors should
appear at the windows with bricks and irons from the tobacco presses,
which a should shower down on the guards and drive them away, while the
men of the first floor would pour out, chase the guards into the board
house in the basement, seize their arms, drive those away from around
Libby and the other prisons, release the officers, organize into
regiments and brigades, seize the armory, set fire to the public
buildings and retreat from the City, by the south side of the James,
where there was but a scanty force of Rebels, and more could be prevented
from coming over by burning the bridges behind us.

It was a magnificent scheme, and might have been carried out, but there
was no one in the building who was generally believed to have the
qualities of a leader.

But while it was being debated a few of the hot heads on the lower floor
undertook to precipitate the crisis. They seized what they thought was a
favorable opportunity, overpowered the guard who stood at the foot of the
stairs, and poured into the street. The other guards fell back and
opened fire on them; other troops hastened up, and soon drove them back
into the building, after killing ten or fifteen. We of the second and
third floors did not anticipate the break at that time, and were taken as
much by surprise as were the Rebels. Nearly all were lying down and
many were asleep. Some hastened to the windows, and dropped missiles
out, but before any concerted action could be taken it was seen that the
case was hopeless, and we remained quiet.

Among those who led in the assault was a drummer-boy of some New York
Regiment, a recklessly brave little rascal. He had somehow smuggled a
small four-shooter in with him, and when they rushed out he fired it off
at the guards.

After the prisoners were driven back, the Rebel officers came in and
vapored around considerably, but confined themselves to big words. They
were particularly anxious to find the revolver, and ordered a general and
rigorous search for it. The prisoners were all ranged on one side of the
room and carefully examined by one party, while another hunted through
the blankets and bundles. It was all in vain; no pistol could be found.
The boy had a loaf of wheat bread, bought from a baker during the day.
It was a round loaf, set together in two pieces like a biscuit. He
pulled these apart, laid the fourshooter between them, pressed the two
halves together, and went on calmly nibbling away at the loaf while the
search was progressing.

Two gunboats were brought up the next morning, and anchored in the canal
near us, with their heavy guns trained upon the building. It was thought
that this would intimidate as from a repetition of the attack, but our
sailors conceived that, as they laid against the shore next to us, they
could be easily captured, and their artillery made to assist us.
A scheme to accomplish this was being wrought out, when we received
notice to move, and it came to naught.

John McElroy