The first, and almost superhuman difficulty was to get outside the
Stockade. It was simply impossible to scale it. The guards were too
close together to allow an instant’s hope to the most sanguine, that he
could even pass the Dead Line without being shot by some one of them.
This same closeness prevented any hope of bribing them. To be successful
half those on post would have to be bribed, as every part of the Stockade
was clearly visible from every other part, and there was no night so dark
as not to allow a plain view to a number of guards of the dark figure
outlined against the light colored logs of any Yankee who should essay to
clamber towards the top of the palisades.
The gates were so carefully guarded every time they were opened as to
preclude hope of slipping out through theme. They were only unclosed
twice or thrice a day–once to admit, the men to call the roll, once to
let them out again, once to let the wagons come in with rations, and
once, perhaps, to admit, new prisoners. At all these times every
precaution was taken to prevent any one getting out surreptitiously.
This narrowed down the possibilities of passing the limits of the pen
alive, to tunneling. This was also surrounded by almost insuperable
difficulties. First, it required not less than fifty feet of
subterranean excavation to get out, which was an enormous work with our
limited means. Then the logs forming the Stockade were set in the ground
to a depth of five feet, and the tunnel had to go down beneath them.
They had an unpleasant habit of dropping down into the burrow under them.
It added much to the discouragements of tunneling to think of one of
these massive timbers dropping upon a fellow as he worked his mole-like
way under it, and either crushing him to death outright, or pinning him
there to die of suffocation or hunger.
In one instance, in a tunnel near me, but in which I was not interested,
the log slipped down after the digger had got out beyond it.
He immediately began digging for the surface, for life, and was
fortunately able to break through before he suffocated. He got his head
above the ground, and then fainted. The guard outside saw him, pulled
him out of the hole, and when he recovered sensibility hurried him back
into the Stockade.
In another tunnel, also near us, a broad-shouldered German, of the Second
Minnesota, went in to take his turn at digging. He was so much larger
than any of his predecessors that he stuck fast in a narrow part, and
despite all the efforts of himself and comrades, it was found impossible
to move him one way or the other. The comrades were at last reduced to
the humiliation of informing the Officer of the Guard of their tunnel and
the condition of their friend, and of asking assistance to release him,
which was given.
The great tunneling tool was the indispensable half-canteen. The
inventive genius of our people, stimulated by the war, produced nothing
for the comfort and effectiveness of the soldier equal in usefulness to
this humble and unrecognized utensil. It will be remembered that a
canteen was composed of two pieces of tin struck up into the shape of
saucers, and soldered together at the edges. After a soldier had been in
the field a little while, and thrown away or lost the curious and
complicated kitchen furniture he started out with, he found that by
melting the halves of his canteen apart, he had a vessel much handier in
every way than any he had parted with. It could be used for anything–
to make soup or coffee in, bake bread, brown coffee, stew vegetables,
etc., etc. A sufficient handle was made with a split stick. When the
cooking was done, the handle was thrown away, and the half canteen
slipped out of the road into the haversack. There seemed to be no end of
the uses to which this ever-ready disk of blackened sheet iron could be
turned. Several instances are on record where infantry regiments, with
no other tools than this, covered themselves on the field with quite
respectable rifle pits.
The starting point of a tunnel was always some tent close to the Dead
Line, and sufficiently well closed to screen the operations from the
sight of the guards near by. The party engaged in the work organized by
giving every man a number to secure the proper apportionment of the
labor. Number One began digging with his half canteen. After he had
worked until tired, he came out, and Number Two took his place, and so
on. The tunnel was simply a round, rat-like burrow, a little larger than
a man’s body. The digger lay on his stomach, dug ahead of him, threw the
dirt under him, and worked it back with his feet till the man behind him,
also lying on his stomach, could catch it and work it back to the next.
As the tunnel lengthened the number of men behind each other in this way
had to be increased, so that in a tunnel seventy-five feet long there
would be from eight to ten men lying one behind the other. When the dirt
was pushed back to the mouth of the tunnel it was taken up in improvised
bags, made by tying up the bottoms of pantaloon legs, carried to the
Swamp, and emptied. The work in the tunnel was very exhausting, and the
digger had to be relieved every half-hour.
The greatest trouble was to carry the tunnel forward in a straight line.
As nearly everybody dug most of the time with the right hand, there was
an almost irresistible tendency to make the course veer to the left. The
first tunnel I was connected with was a ludicrous illustration of this.
About twenty of us had devoted our nights for over a week to the
prolongation of a burrow. We had not yet reached the Stockade, which
astonished us, as measurement with a string showed that we had gone
nearly twice the distance necessary for the purpose. The thing was
inexplicable, and we ceased operations to consider the matter. The next
day a man walking by a tent some little distance from the one in which
the hole began, was badly startled by the ground giving way under his
feet, and his sinking nearly to his waist in a hole. It was very
singular, but after wondering over the matter for some hours, there came
a glimmer of suspicion that it might be, in some way, connected with the
missing end of our tunnel. One of us started through on an exploring
expedition, and confirmed the suspicions by coming out where the man had
broken through. Our tunnel was shaped like a horse shoe, and the
beginning and end were not fifteen feet apart. After that we practised
digging with our left hand, and made certain compensations for the
tendency to the sinister side.
Another trouble connected with tunneling was the number of traitors and
spies among us. There were many–principally among the N’Yaarker crowd
who were always zealous to betray a tunnel, in order to curry favor with
the Rebel officers. Then, again, the Rebels had numbers of their own men
in the pen at night, as spies. It was hardly even necessary to dress
these in our uniform, because a great many of our own men came into the
prison in Rebel clothes, having been compelled to trade garments with
One day in May, quite an excitement was raised by the detection of one of
these “tunnel traitors” in such a way as left no doubt of his guilt.
At first everybody vas in favor of killing him, and they actually started
to beat him to death. This was arrested by a proposition to “have
Captain Jack tattoo him,” and the suggestion was immediately acted upon.
“Captain Jack” was a sailor who had been with us in the Pemberton
building at Richmond. He was a very skilful tattoo artist, but, I am
sure, could make the process nastier than any other that I ever saw
attempt it. He chewed tobacco enormously. After pricking away for a few
minutes at the design on the arm or some portion of the body, he would
deluge it with a flood of tobacco spit, which, he claimed, acted as a
kind of mordant. Piping this off with a filthy rag, he would study the
effect for an instant, and then go ahead with another series of prickings
and tobacco juice drenchings.
The tunnel-traitor was taken to Captain Jack. That worthy decided to
brand him with a great “T,” the top part to extend across his forehead
and the stem to run down his nose. Captain Jack got his tattooing kit
ready, and the fellow was thrown upon the ground and held there. The
Captain took his head between his legs, and began operations. After an
instant’s work with the needles, he opened his mouth, and filled the
wretch’s face and eyes full of the disgusting saliva. The crowd round
about yelled with delight at this new process. For an hour, that was
doubtless an eternity to the rascal undergoing branding, Captain Jack
continued his alternate pickings and drenchings. At the end of that time
the traitor’s face was disfigured with a hideous mark that he would bear
to his grave. We learned afterwards that he was not one of our men, but
a Rebel spy. This added much to our satisfaction with the manner of his
treatment. He disappeared shortly after the operation was finished,
being, I suppose, taken outside. I hardly think Captain Jack would be
pleased to meet him again.
THE HOUNDS, AND THE DIFFICULTIES THEY PUT IN THE WAY OF ESCAPE–
THE WHOLE SOUTH PATROLLED BY THEM.
Those who succeeded, one way or another, in passing the Stockade limits,
found still more difficulties lying between them and freedom than would
discourage ordinarily resolute men. The first was to get away from the
immediate vicinity of the prison. All around were Rebel patrols, pickets
and guards, watching every avenue of egress. Several packs of hounds
formed efficient coadjutors of these, and were more dreaded by possible
“escapes,” than any other means at the command of our jailors. Guards
and patrols could be evaded, or circumvented, but the hounds could not.
Nearly every man brought back from a futile attempt at escape told the
same story: he had been able to escape the human Rebels, but not their
canine colleagues. Three of our detachment–members of the Twentieth
Indiana–had an experience of this kind that will serve to illustrate
hundreds of others. They had been taken outside to do some work upon the
cook-house that was being built. A guard was sent with the three a
little distance into the woods to get a piece of timber. The boys
sauntered, along carelessly with the guard, and managed to get pretty
near him. As soon as they were fairly out of sight of the rest, the
strongest of them–Tom Williams–snatched the Rebel’s gun away from him,
and the other two springing upon him as swift as wild cats, throttled
him, so that he could not give the alarm. Still keeping a hand on his
throat, they led him off some distance, and tied him to a sapling with
strings made by tearing up one of their blouses. He was also securely
gagged, and the boys, bidding him a hasty, but not specially tender,
farewell, struck out, as they fondly hoped, for freedom. It was not long
until they were missed, and the parties sent in search found and released
the guard, who gave all the information he possessed as to what had
become of his charges. All the packs of hounds, the squads of cavalry,
and the foot patrols were sent out to scour the adjacent country.
The Yankees kept in the swamps and creeks, and no trace of them was found
that afternoon or evening. By this time they were ten or fifteen miles
away, and thought that they could safely leave the creeks for better
walking on the solid ground. They had gone but a few miles, when the
pack of hounds Captain Wirz was with took their trail, and came after
them in full cry. The boys tried to ran, but, exhausted as they were,
they could make no headway. Two of them were soon caught, but Tom
Williams, who was so desperate that he preferred death to recapture,
jumped into a mill-pond near by. When he came up, it was in a lot of
saw logs and drift wood that hid him from being seen from the shore.
The dogs stopped at the shore, and bayed after the disappearing prey.
The Rebels with them, who had seen Tom spring in, came up and made a
pretty thorough search for him. As they did not think to probe around
the drift wood this was unsuccessful, and they came to the conclusion
that Tom had been drowned. Wirz marched the other two back and, for a
wonder, did not punish them, probably because he was so rejoiced at his
success in capturing them. He was beaming with delight when he returned
them to our squad, and said, with a chuckle:
“Brisoners, I pring you pack two of dem tam Yankees wat got away
yesterday, unt I run de oder raskal into a mill-pont and trowntet him.”
What was our astonishment, about three weeks later, to see Tom, fat and
healthy, and dressed in a full suit of butternut, come stalking into the
pen. He had nearly reached the mountains, when a pack of hounds,
patrolling for deserters or negros, took his trail, where he had crossed
the road from one field to another, and speedily ran him down. He had
been put in a little country jail, and well fed till an opportunity
occurred to send him back. This patrolling for negros and deserters was
another of the great obstacles to a successful passage through the
country. The rebels had put, every able-bodied white man in the ranks,
and were bending every energy to keep him there. The whole country was
carefully policed by Provost Marshals to bring out those who were
shirking military duty, or had deserted their colors, and to check any
movement by the negros. One could not go anywhere without a pass, as
every road was continually watched by men and hounds. It was the policy
of our men, when escaping, to avoid roads as much as possible by
traveling through the woods and fields.
From what I saw of the hounds, and what I could learn from others,
I believe that each pack was made up of two bloodhounds and from twenty-
five to fifty other dogs, The bloodhounds were debased descendants of the
strong and fierce hounds imported from Cuba–many of them by the United
States Government–for hunting Indians, during the Seminole war. The
other dogs were the mongrels that are found in such plentifulness about
every Southern house–increasing, as a rule, in numbers as the inhabitant
of the house is lower down and poorer. They are like wolves, sneaking
and cowardly when alone, fierce and bold when in packs. Each pack was
managed by a well-armed man, who rode a mule; and carried, slung over his
shoulders by a cord, a cow horn, scraped very thin, with which he
controlled the band by signals.
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