The truth was–as we afterwards learned–the Rebels were terribly puzzled
what to do with us. We were brought to Savannah, but that did not solve
the problem; and we were sent down the Atlantic & Gulf road as a
The railroad was the worst of the many bad ones which it was my fortune
to ride upon in my excursions while a guest of the Southern Confederacy.
It had run down until it had nearly reached the worn-out condition of
that Western road, of which an employee of a rival route once said, “that
all there was left of it now was two streaks of rust and the right of
way.” As it was one of the non-essential roads to the Southern
Confederacy, it was stripped of the best of its rolling-stock and
machinery to supply the other more important lines.
I have before mentioned the scarcity of grease in the South, and the
difficulty of supplying the railroads with lubricants. Apparently there
had been no oil on the Atlantic & Gulf since the beginning of the war,
and the screeches of the dry axles revolving in the worn-out boxes were
agonizing. Some thing would break on the cars or blow out on the engine
every few miles, necessitating a long stop for repairs. Then there was
no supply of fuel along the line. When the engine ran out of wood it
would halt, and a couple of negros riding on the tender would assail a
panel of fence or a fallen tree with their axes, and after an hour or
such matter of hard chopping, would pile sufficient wood upon the tender
to enable us to renew our journey.
Frequently the engine stopped as if from sheer fatigue or inanition.
The Rebel officers tried to get us to assist it up the grade by
dismounting and pushing behind. We respectfully, but firmly, declined.
We were gentlemen of leisure, we said, and decidedly averse to manual
labor; we had been invited on this excursion by Mr. Jeff. Davis and his
friends, who set themselves up as our entertainers, and it would be a
gross breach of hospitality to reflect upon our hosts by working our
passage. If this was insisted upon, we should certainly not visit them
again. Besides, it made no difference to us whether the train got along
or not. We were not losing anything by the delay; we were not anxious to
go anywhere. One part of the Southern Confederacy was just as good as
another to us. So not a finger could they persuade any of us to raise to
help along the journey.
The country we were traversing was sterile and poor–worse even than that
in the neighborhood of Andersonville. Farms and farmhouses were scarce,
and of towns there were none. Not even a collection of houses big enough
to justify a blacksmith shop or a store appeared along the whole route.
But few fields of any kind were seen, and nowhere was there a farm which
gave evidence of a determined effort on the part of its occupants to till
the soil and to improve their condition.
When the train stopped for wood, or for repairs, or from exhaustion,
we were allowed to descend from the cars and stretch our numbed limbs.
It did us good in other ways, too. It seemed almost happiness to be
outside of those cursed Stockades, to rest our eyes by looking away
through the woods, and seeing birds and animals that were free. They
must be happy, because to us to be free once more was the summit of
There was a chance, too, to pick up something green to eat, and we were
famishing for this. The scurvy still lingered in our systems, and we
were hungry for an antidote. A plant grew rather plentifully along the
track that looked very much as I imagine a palm leaf fan does in its
green state. The leaf was not so large as an ordinary palm leaf fan,
and came directly out of the ground. The natives called it “bull-grass,”
but anything more unlike grass I never saw, so we rejected that
nomenclature, and dubbed them “green fans.” They were very hard to pull
up, it being usually as much as the strongest of us could do to draw them
out of the ground. When pulled up there was found the smallest bit of a
stock–not as much as a joint of one’s little finger–that was eatable.
It had no particular taste, and probably little nutriment, still it was
fresh and green, and we strained our weak muscles and enfeebled sinews at
every opportunity, endeavoring to pull up a “green fan.”
At one place where we stopped there was a makeshift of a garden, one of
those sorry “truck patches,” which do poor duty about Southern cabins for
the kitchen gardens of the Northern, farmers, and produce a few coarse
cow peas, a scanty lot of collards (a coarse kind of cabbage, with a
stalk about a yard long) and some onions to vary the usual side-meat and
corn pone, diet of the Georgia “cracker.” Scanning the patch’s ruins of
vine arid stalk, Andrews espied a handful of onions, which had; remained
ungathered. They tempted him as the apple did Eve. Without stopping to
communicate his intention to me, he sprang from the car, snatched the
onions from their bed, pulled up, half a dozen collard stalks and was on
his way back before the guard could make up his mind to fire upon him.
The swiftness of his motions saved his life, for had he been more
deliberate the guard would have concluded he was trying to, escape, and
shot him down. As it was he was returning back before the guard could
get his gun up. The onions he had, secured were to us more delicious
than wine upon the lees. They seemed to find their way into every fiber
of our bodies, and invigorate every organ. The collard stalks he had
snatched up, in the expectation of finding in them something resembling
the nutritious “heart” that we remembered as children, seeking and,
finding in the stalks of cabbage. But we were disappointed. The stalks
were as dry and rotten as the bones of Southern, society. Even hunger
could find no meat in them.
After some days of this leisurely journeying toward the South, we halted
permanently about eighty-six miles from Savannah. There was no reason
why we should stop there more than any place else where we had been or
were likely to go. It seemed as if the Rebels had simply tired of
hauling us, and dumped us, off. We had another lot of dead, accumulated
since we left Savannah, and the scenes at that place were repeated.
The train returned for another load of prisoners.
BLACKSHEAR AND PIERCE COUNTRY–WE TAKE UP NEW QUARTERS, BUT ARE CALLED
OUT FOR EXCHANGE–EXCITEMENT OVER SIGNING THE PAROLE–A HAPPY JOURNEY TO
We were informed that the place we were at was Blackshear, and that it
was the Court House, i. e., the County seat of Pierce County. Where they
kept the Court House, or County seat, is beyond conjecture to me, since I
could not see a half dozen houses in the whole clearing, and not one of
them was a respectable dwelling, taking even so low a standard for
respectable dwellings as that afforded by the majority of Georgia houses.
Pierce County, as I have since learned by the census report, is one of
the poorest Counties of a poor section of a very poor State.
A population of less than two thousand is thinly scattered over its five
hundred square miles of territory, and gain a meager subsistence by a
weak simulation of cultivating patches of its sandy dunes and plains in
“nubbin” corn and dropsical sweet potatos. A few “razor-back” hogs–
a species so gaunt and thin that I heard a man once declare that he had
stopped a lot belonging to a neighbor from crawling through the cracks of
a tight board fence by simply tying a knot in their tails–roam the
woods, and supply all the meat used.
Andrews used to insist that some of the hogs which we saw were so thin
that the connection between their fore and hindquarters was only a single
thickness of skin, with hair on both sides–but then Andrews sometimes
seemed to me to have a tendency to exaggerate.
The swine certainly did have proportions that strongly resembled those of
the animals which children cut out of cardboard. They were like the
geometrical definition of a superfice–all length and breadth, and no
thickness. A ham from them would look like a palm-leaf fan.
I never ceased to marvel at the delicate adjustment of the development of
animal life to the soil in these lean sections of Georgia. The poor land
would not maintain anything but lank, lazy men, with few wants, and none
but lank, lazy men, with few wants, sought a maintenance from it. I may
have tangled up cause and effect, in this proposition, but if so, the
reader can disentangle them at his leisure.
I was not astonished to learn that it took five hundred square miles of
Pierce County land to maintain two thousand “crackers,” even as poorly as
they lived. I should want fully that much of it to support one fair-
sized Northern family as it should be.
After leaving the cars we were marched off into the pine woods, by the
side of a considerable stream, and told that this was to be our camp.
A heavy guard was placed around us, and a number of pieces of artillery
mounted where they would command the camp.
We started in to make ourselves comfortable, as at Millen, by building
shanties. The prisoners we left behind followed us, and we soon had our
old crowd of five or six thousand, who had been our companions at
Savannah and Millers, again with us. The place looked very favorable for
escape. We knew we were still near the sea coast–really not more than
forty miles away–and we felt that if we could once get there we should
be safe. Andrews and I meditated plans of escape, and toiled away at our
About a week after our arrival we were startled by an order for the one
thousand of us who had first arrived to get ready to move out. In a few
minutes we were taken outside the guard line, massed close together, and
informed in a few words by a Rebel officer that we were about to be taken
back to Savannah for exchange.
The announcement took away our breath. For an instant the rush of
emotion made us speechless, and when utterance returned, the first use we
made of it was to join in one simultaneous outburst of acclamation.
Those inside the guard line, understanding what our cheer meant, answered
us with a loud shout of congratulation–the first real, genuine, hearty
cheering that had been done since receiving the announcement of the
exchange at Andersonville, three months before.
As soon as the excitement had subsided somewhat, the Rebel proceeded to
explain that we would all be required to sign a parole. This set us to
thinking. After our scornful rejection of the proposition to enlist in
the Rebel army, the Rebels had felt around among us considerably as to
how we were disposed toward taking what was called the “Non-Combatant’s
Oath;” that is, the swearing not to take up arms against the Southern
Confederacy again during the war. To the most of us this seemed only a
little less dishonorable than joining the Rebel army. We held that our
oaths to our own Government placed us at its disposal until it chose to
discharge us, and we could not make any engagements with its enemies that
might come in contravention of that duty. In short, it looked very much
like desertion, and this we did not feel at liberty to consider.
There were still many among us, who, feeling certain that they could not
survive imprisonment much longer, were disposed to look favorably upon
the Non-Combatant’s Oath, thinking that the circumstances of the case
would justify their apparent dereliction from duty. Whether it would or
not I must leave to more skilled casuists than myself to decide. It was
a matter I believed every man must settle with his own conscience. The
opinion that I then held and expressed was, that if a boy, felt that he
was hopelessly sick, and that he could not live if he remained in prison,
he was justified in taking the Oath. In the absence of our own Surgeons
he would have to decide for himself whether be was sick enough to be
warranted in resorting to this means of saving his life. If he was in as
good health as the majority of us were, with a reasonable prospect of
surviving some weeks longer, there was no excuse for taking the Oath,
for in that few weeks we might be exchanged, be recaptured, or make our
escape. I think this was the general opinion of the prisoners.
While the Rebel was talking about our signing the parole, there flashed
upon all of us at the same moment, a suspicion that this was a trap to
delude us into signing the Non-Combatant’s Oath. Instantly there went up
a general shout:
“Read the parole to us.”
The Rebel was handed a blank parole by a companion, and he read over the
printed condition at the top, which was that those signing agreed not to
bear arms against the Confederates in the field, or in garrison, not to
man any works, assist in any expedition, do any sort of guard duty, serve
in any military constabulary, or perform any kind of military service
until properly exchanged.
For a minute this was satisfactory; then their ingrained distrust of any
thing a Rebel said or did returned, and they shouted:
“No, no; let some of us read it; let Ilinoy’ read it–”
The Rebel looked around in a puzzled manner.
“Who the h–l is ‘Illinoy!’ Where is he?” said he.
I saluted and said:
“That’s a nickname they give me.”
“Very well,” said he, “get up on this stump and read this parole to these
d—d fools that won’t believe me.”
I mounted the stump, took the blank from his hand and read it over
slowly, giving as much emphasis as possible to the all-important clause
at the end–“until properly exchanged.” I then said:
“Boys, this seems all right to me,” and they answered, with almost one
“Yes, that’s all right. We’ll sign that.”
I was never so proud of the American soldier-boy as at that moment. They
all felt that signing that paper was to give them freedom and life. They
knew too well from sad experience what the alternative was. Many felt
that unless released another week would see them in their graves. All
knew that every day’s stay in Rebel hands greatly lessened their chances
of life. Yet in all that thousand there was not one voice in favor of
yielding a tittle of honor to save life. They would secure their freedom
honorably, or die faithfully. Remember that this was a miscellaneous
crowd of boys, gathered from all sections of the country, and from many
of whom no exalted conceptions of duty and honor were expected. I wish
some one would point out to me, on the brightest pages of knightly
record, some deed of fealty and truth that equals the simple fidelity of
these unknown heros. I do not think that one of them felt that he was
doing anything especially meritorious. He only obeyed the natural
promptings of his loyal heart.
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