These times afforded an illustration of the thorough subjection of man to
the tyrant Stomach. A more irritable lot of individuals could scarcely
be found outside of a menagerie than these men during the hours waiting
for rations. "Crosser than, two sticks" utterly failed as a comparison.
They were crosser than the lines of a check apron. Many could have given
odds to the traditional bear with a sore head, and run out of the game
fifty points ahead of him. It was astonishingly easy to get up a fight
at these times. There was no need of going a step out of the way to
search for it, as one could have a full fledged article of overwhelming
size on his hands at any instant, by a trifling indiscretion of speech or
manner. All the old irritating flings between the cavalry, the artillery
and the infantry, the older "first-call" men, and the later or "Three-
Hundred-Dollar-men," as they were derisively dubbed, between the
different corps of the Army of the Potomac, between men of different
States, and lastly between the adherents and opponents of McClellan, came
to the lips and were answered by a blow with the fist, when a ring would
be formed around the combatants by a crowd, which would encourage them
with yells to do their best. In a few minutes one of the parties to the
fistic debate, who found the point raised by him not well taken, would
retire to the sink to wash the blood from his battered face, and the rest
would resume their seats and glower at space until some fresh excitement
roused them. For the last hour or so of these long waits hardly a word
would be spoken. We were too ill-natured to talk for amusement, and
there was nothing else to talk for.
This spell was broken about eleven o'clock by the appearance at the head
of the stairway of the Irishman with the gun-barrel cane, and his singing
"Sargint uv the flure: fourtane min and a bread-box!"
Instantly every man sprang to his feet, and pressed forward to be one of
the favored fourteen. One did not get any more gyrations or obtain them
any sooner by this, but it was a relief, and a change to walk the half
square outside the prison to the cookhouse, and help carry the rations
For a little while after our arrival in Richmond, the rations were
tolerably good. There had been so much said about the privations of the
prisoners that our Government had, after much quibbling and negotiation,
succeeded in getting the privilege of sending food and clothing through
the lines to us. Of course but a small part of that sent ever reached
its destination. There were too many greedy Rebels along its line of
passage to let much of it be received by those for whom it was intended.
We could see from our windows Rebels strutting about in overcoats, in
which the box wrinkles were still plainly visible, wearing new "U. S."
blankets as cloaks, and walking in Government shoes, worth fabulous
prices in Confederate money.
Fortunately for our Government the rebels decided to out themselves off
from this profitable source of supply. We read one day in the Richmond
papers that "President Davis and his Cabinet had come to the conclusion
that it was incompatible with the dignity of a sovereign power to permit
another power with which it was at war, to feed and clothe prisoners in
I will not stop to argue this point of honor, and show its absurdity by
pointing out that it is not an unusual practice with nations at war. It
is a sufficient commentary upon this assumption of punctiliousness that
the paper went on to say that some five tons of clothing and fifteen tons
of food, which had been sent under a flag of truce to City Point, would
neither be returned nor delivered to us, but "converted to the use of the
"And surely they are all honorable men!"
Heaven save the mark.
BRANS OR PEAS--INSUFFICIENCY OF DARKY TESTIMONY--A GUARD KILLS A
PRISONER--PRISONERS TEAZE THE GUARDS--DESPERATE OUTBREAK.
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.
THE EXCHANGE AND THE CAUSE OF ITS INTERRUPTION--BRIEF RESUME OF THE
DIFFERENT CARTELS, AND THE DIFFICULTIES THAT LED TO THEIR SUSPENSION.
Few questions intimately connected with the actual operations of the
Rebellion have been enveloped with such a mass of conflicting statement
as the responsibility for the interruption of the exchange. Southern
writers and politicians, naturally anxious to diminish as much as
possible the great odium resting upon their section for the treatment of
prisoners of war during the last year and a half of the Confederacy's
existence, have vehemently charged that the Government of the United
States deliberately and pitilessly resigned to their fate such of its
soldiers as fell into the hands of the enemy, and repelled all advances
from the Rebel Government looking toward a resumption of exchange. It is
alleged on our side, on the other hand, that our Government did all that
was possible, consistent with National dignity and military prudence,
to secure a release of its unfortunate men in the power of the Rebels.
Over this vexed question there has been waged an acrimonious war of
words, which has apparently led to no decision, nor any convictions--the
disputants, one and all, remaining on the sides of the controversy
occupied by them when the debate began.
I may not be in possession of all the facts bearing upon the case, and
may be warped in judgment by prejudices in favor of my own Government's
wisdom and humanity, but, however this may be, the following is my firm
belief as to the controlling facts in this lamentable affair:
1. For some time after the beginning of hostilities our Government
refused to exchange prisoners with the Rebels, on the ground that this
might be held by the European powers who were seeking a pretext for
acknowledging the Confederacy, to be admission by us that the war was no
longer an insurrection but a revolution, which had resulted in the 'de
facto' establishment of a new nation. This difficulty was finally gotten
over by recognizing the Rebels as belligerents, which, while it placed
them on a somewhat different plane from mere insurgents, did not elevate
them to the position of soldiers of a foreign power.
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