The wither and poles that grew in the swamp were bent into the shape of
the semi-circular bows that support the canvas covers of army wagons, and
both ends thrust in the ground. These formed the timbers of our
dwellings. They were held in place by weaving in, basket-wise, a network
of briers and vines. Tufts of the long leaves which are the
distinguishing characteristic of the Georgia pine (popularly known as the
“long-leaved pine”) were wrought into this network until a thatch was
formed, that was a fair protection against the rain–it was like the
Irishman’s unglazed window-sash, which “kep’ out the coarsest uv the
The results accomplished were as astonishing to us as to the Rebels,
who would have lain unsheltered upon the sand until bleached out like
field-rotted flax, before thinking to protect themselves in this way.
As our village was approaching completion, the Rebel Sergeant who called
the roll entered. He was very odd-looking. The cervical muscles were
distorted in such a way as to suggest to us the name of “Wry-necked
Smith,” by which we always designated him. Pete Bates, of the Third
Michigan, who was the wag of our squad, accounted for Smith’s condition
by saying that while on dress parade once the Colonel of Smith’s regiment
had commanded “eyes right,” and then forgot to give the order “front.”
Smith, being a good soldier, had kept his eyes in the position of gazing
at the buttons of the third man to the right, waiting for the order to
restore them to their natural direction, until they had become
permanently fixed in their obliquity and he was compelled to go through
life taking a biased view of all things.
Smith walked in, made a diagonal survey of the encampment, which, if he
had ever seen “Mitchell’s Geography,” probably reminded him of the
picture of a Kaffir village, in that instructive but awfully dull book,
and then expressed the opinion that usually welled up to every Rebel’s
“Well, I’ll be durned, if you Yanks don’t just beat the devil.”
Of course, we replied with the well-worn prison joke, that we supposed we
did, as we beat the Rebels, who were worse than the devil.
There rode in among us, a few days after our arrival, an old man whose
collar bore the wreathed stars of a Major General. Heavy white locks
fell from beneath his slouched hat, nearly to his shoulders. Sunken gray
eyes, too dull and cold to light up, marked a hard, stony face, the
salient feature of which was a thin-upped, compressed mouth, with corners
drawn down deeply–the mouth which seems the world over to be the index
of selfish, cruel, sulky malignance. It is such a mouth as has the
school-boy–the coward of the play ground, who delights in pulling off
the wings of flies. It is such a mouth as we can imagine some
remorseless inquisitor to have had–that is, not an inquisitor filled
with holy zeal for what he mistakenly thought the cause of Christ
demanded, but a spleeny, envious, rancorous shaveling, who tortured men
from hatred of their superiority to him, and sheer love of inflicting
The rider was John H. Winder, Commissary General of Prisoners,
Baltimorean renegade and the malign genius to whose account should be
charged the deaths of more gallant men than all the inquisitors of the
world ever slew by the less dreadful rack and wheel. It was he who in
August could point to the three thousand and eighty-one new made graves
for that month, and exultingly tell his hearer that he was “doing more
for the Confederacy than twenty regiments.”
His lineage was in accordance with his character. His father was that
General William H. Winder, whose poltroonery at Bladensburg, in 1814,
nullified the resistance of the gallant Commodore Barney, and gave
Washington to the British.
The father was a coward and an incompetent; the son, always cautiously
distant from the scene of hostilities, was the tormentor of those whom
the fortunes of war, and the arms of brave men threw into his hands.
Winder gazed at us stonily for a few minutes without speaking, and,
turning, rode out again.
Our troubles, from that hour, rapidly increased.
THE PLANTATION NEGROS–NOT STUPID TO BE LOYAL–THEIR DITHYRAMBIC MUSIC–
COPPERHEAD OPINION OF LONGFELLOW.
The stockade was not quite finished at the time of our arrival–a gap of
several hundred feet appearing at the southwest corner. A gang of about
two hundred negros were at work felling trees, hewing legs, and placing
them upright in the trenches. We had an opportunity–soon to disappear
forever–of studying the workings of the “peculiar institution” in its
very home. The negros were of the lowest field-hand class, strong, dull,
ox-like, but each having in our eyes an admixture of cunning and
secretiveness that their masters pretended was not in them. Their
demeanor toward us illustrated this. We were the objects of the most
supreme interest to them, but when near us and in the presence of a white
Rebel, this interest took the shape of stupid, open-eyed, open-mouthed
wonder, something akin to the look on the face of the rustic lout, gazing
for the first time upon a locomotive or a steam threshing machine.
But if chance threw one of them near us when he thought himself
unobserved by the Rebels, the blank, vacant face lighted up with an
entirely different expression. He was no longer the credulous yokel who
believed the Yankees were only slightly modified devils, ready at any
instant to return to their original horn-and-tail condition and snatch
him away to the bluest kind of perdition; he knew, apparently quite as
well as his master, that they were in some way his friends and allies,
and he lost no opportunity in communicating his appreciation of that
fact, and of offering his services in any possible way. And these offers
were sincere. It is the testimony of every Union prisoner in the South
that he was never betrayed by or disappointed in a field-negro, but could
always approach any one of them with perfect confidence in his extending
all the aid in his power, whether as a guide to escape, as sentinel to
signal danger, or a purveyor of food. These services were frequently
attended with the greatest personal risk, but they were none the less
readily undertaken. This applies only to the field-hands; the house
servants were treacherous and wholly unreliable. Very many of our men
who managed to get away from the prisons were recaptured through their
betrayal by house servants, but none were retaken where a field hand
could prevent it.
We were much interested in watching the negro work. They wove in a great
deal of their peculiar, wild, mournful music, whenever the character of
the labor permitted. They seemed to sing the music for the music’s sake
alone, and were as heedless of the fitness of the accompanying words,
as the composer of a modern opera is of his libretto. One middle aged
man, with a powerful, mellow baritone, like the round, full notes of a
French horn, played by a virtuoso, was the musical leader of the party.
He never seemed to bother himself about air, notes or words, but
improvised all as he went along, and he sang as the spirit moved him.
He would suddenly break out with–
“Oh, he’s gone up dah, nevah to come back agin,”
At this every darkey within hearing would roll out, in admirable
consonance with the pitch, air and time started by the leader–
Then would ring out from the leader as from the throbbing lips of a
“Lord bress him soul; I done hope he is happy now!”
And the antiphonal two hundred would chant back
And so on for hours. They never seemed to weary of singing, and we
certainly did not of listening to them. The absolute independence of the
conventionalities of tune and sentiment, gave them freedom to wander
through a kaleideoscopic variety of harmonic effects, as spontaneous and
changeful as the song of a bird.
I sat one evening, long after the shadows of night had fallen upon the
hillside, with one of my chums–a Frank Berkstresser, of the Ninth
Maryland Infantry, who before enlisting was a mathematical tutor in
college at Hancock, Maryland. As we listened to the unwearying flow of
melody from the camp of the laborers, I thought of and repeated to him
Longfellow’s fine lines:
THE SLAVE SINGING AT MIDNIGHT.
And the voice of his devotion
Filled my soul with strong emotion;
For its tones by turns were glad
Sweetly solemn, wildly sad.
Paul and Silas, in their prison,
Sang of Christ, the Lord arisen,
And an earthquake’s arm of might
Broke their dungeon gates at night.
But, alas, what holy angel
Brings the slave this glad evangel
And what earthquake’s arm of might.
Breaks his prison gags at night.
Said I: “Now, isn’t that fine, Berkstresser?”
He was a Democrat, of fearfully pro-slavery ideas, and he replied,
“O, the poetry’s tolerable, but the sentiment’s damnable.”
SCHEMES AND PLANS TO ESCAPE–SCALING THE STOCKADE–ESTABLISHING THE DEAD
LINE–THE FIRST MAN KILLED.
The official designation of our prison was “Camp Sumpter,” but this was
scarcely known outside of the Rebel documents, reports and orders.
It was the same way with the prison five miles from Millen, to which we
were afterward transferred. The Rebels styled it officially “Camp
Lawton,” but we called it always “Millen.”
Having our huts finished, the next solicitude was about escape, and this
was the burden of our thoughts, day and night. We held conferences, at
which every man was required to contribute all the geographical knowledge
of that section of Georgia that he might have left over from his
schoolboy days, and also that gained by persistent questioning of such
guards and other Rebels as he had come in contact with. When first
landed in the prison we were as ignorant of our whereabouts as if we had
been dropped into the center of Africa. But one of the prisoners was
found to have a fragment of a school atlas, in which was an outline map
of Georgia, that had Macon, Atlanta, Milledgeville, and Savannah laid
down upon it. As we knew we had come southward from Macon, we felt
pretty certain we were in the southwestern corner of the State.
Conversations with guards and others gave us the information that the
Chattahooche flowed some two score of miles to the westward, and that the
Flint lay a little nearer on the east. Our map showed that these two
united and flowed together into Appalachicola Bay, where, some of us
remembered, a newspaper item had said that we had gunboats stationed.
The creek that ran through the stockade flowed to the east, and we
reasoned that if we followed its course we would be led to the Flint,
down which we could float on a log or raft to the Appalachicola. This
was the favorite scheme of the party with which I sided. Another party
believed the most feasible plan was to go northward, and endeavor to gain
the mountains, and thence get into East Tennessee.
But the main thing was to get away from the stockade; this, as the French
say of all first steps, was what would cost.
Our first attempt was made about a week after our arrival. We found two
logs on the east side that were a couple of feet shorter than the rest,
and it seemed as if they could be successfully scaled. About fifty of us
resolved to make the attempt. We made a rope twenty-five or thirty feet
long, and strong enough to bear a man, out of strings and strips of
cloth. A stout stick was fastened to the end, so that it would catch on
the logs on either side of the gap. On a night dark enough to favor our
scheme, we gathered together, drew cuts to determine each boy’s place in
the line, fell in single rank, according to this arrangement, and marched
to the place. The line was thrown skillfully, the stick caught fairly in
the notch, and the boy who had drawn number one climbed up amid a
suspense so keen that I could hear my heart beating. It seemed ages
before he reached the top, and that the noise he made must certainly
attract the attention of the guard. It did not. We saw our comrade’s.
figure outlined against the sky as he slid, over the top, and then heard
the dull thump as he sprang to the ground on the other side. “Number
two,” was whispered by our leader, and he performed the feat as
successfully as his predecessor. “Number, three,” and he followed
noiselessly and quickly. Thus it went on, until, just as we heard number
fifteen drop, we also heard a Rebel voice say in a vicious undertone:
“Halt! halt, there, d–n you!”
This was enough. The game was up; we were discovered, and the remaining
thirty-five of us left that locality with all the speed in our heels,
getting away just in time to escape a volley which a squad of guards,
posted in the lookouts, poured upon the spot where we had been standing.
The next morning the fifteen who had got over the Stockade were brought
in, each chained to a sixty-four pound ball. Their story was that one of
the N’Yaarkers, who had become cognizant of our scheme, had sought to
obtain favor in the Rebel eyes by betraying us. The Rebels stationed a
squad at the crossing place, and as each man dropped down from the
Stockade he was caught by the shoulder, the muzzle of a revolver thrust
into his face, and an order to surrender whispered into his ear. It was
expected that the guards in the sentry-boxes would do such execution
among those of us still inside as would prove a warning to other would-be
escapes. They were defeated in this benevolent intention by the
readiness with which we divined the meaning of that incautiously loud
halt, and our alacrity in leaving the unhealthy locality.
The traitorous N’Yaarker was rewarded with a detail into the commissary
department, where he fed and fattened like a rat that had secured
undisturbed homestead rights in the center of a cheese. When the
miserable remnant of us were leaving Andersonville months afterward, I
saw him, sleek, rotund, and well-clothed, lounging leisurely in the door
of a tent. He regarded us a moment contemptuously, and then went on
conversing with a fellow N’Yaarker, in the foul slang that none but such
as he were low enough to use.
I have always imagined that the fellow returned home, at the close of the
war, and became a prominent member of Tweed’s gang.
We protested against the barbarity of compelling men to wear irons for
exercising their natural right of attempting to escape, but no attention
was paid to our protest.
Another result of this abortive effort was the establishment of the
notorious “Dead Line.” A few days later a gang of negros came in and
drove a line of stakes down at a distance of twenty feet from the
stockade. They nailed upon this a strip of stuff four inches wide, and
then an order was issued that if this was crossed, or even touched, the
guards would fire upon the offender without warning.
Our surveyor figured up this new contraction of our space, and came to
the conclusion that the Dead Line and the Swamp took up about three
acres, and we were left now only thirteen acres. This was not of much
consequence then, however, as we still had plenty of room.
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