Friday, May 22, 2015

A Soldier's Experience in Southern Prisons, Part III

Continued from Part II

Towards the last of August we were sent to Charleston, and later to Florence, South Carolina. There was no shelter. The weather, later, was cold, ice forming on the little stream nightly. The rations were uncooked and more scant. There was no meat issued, and we were very weak. The punishments, as at Andersonville, involved the hounds, the buck and gag, and the chain gang. I did not see any stocks at Florence, but the commandant used to hang up by the thumbs men who had escaped and been retaken. I heard their shrieks in the long nights. Things got shadowy, then; I was burning with fever and shaking to pieces. I could not eat the grits. Comrades brought me water from the swamp. I had lain so long that a depression was formed in the sand and it was difficult to turn. I heard shots, and they said men were killed. I saw dead men carried by. Men stopped to look at me as I had looked at others, and passed on. One said, "See how he shakes," another, "How white that fellow is, he won't last long."

Union soldiers arriving at the Florence Stockade; image courtesy of the
Library of Congress

Then there was talk of parole, and I was outside, a comrade under each shoulder. To the box cars again -- a Confederate steamer -- iron clads -- Fort Sumter -- a transport of the United States, from the masthead of which floated the Stars and Stripes. Sailors in natty uniforms leaned over the rail, and, looking down upon the deck of our rusty little cockle shell, they gave us a welcome cheer. This was the sixth time we had left prison or stockade for exchange and it now seemed that our guards had for once told us the truth. We had often said, during the weary months from Libby to Florence, that when we should once again see the old flag we would shout until we woke the echoes for miles around. But it was a feeble cheer that went up from the wrecks of men squatting on the open deck. Here and there some of the stronger ones formed knots of five or six and broke into such a wild dance or walk around yelling or singing awhile, that they might have been regarded as maniacs loosed from their cells. Some knelt in silent prayer, and tear drops cut faint furrows down grimy cheeks where they had long been strangers. Others swore and cursed. They cursed everybody related to the Confederacy, and the things that had contributed to the hardships of their prison experiences, and, as if that were not material enough, they crossed the lines and cursed Lincoln and Grant because of the broken cartel.

Exchange of prisoners at Charleston; image courtesy of the Virginia
Historical Society

I hugged to my side the little bag of grits I had accumulated. I could not eat the grits but dared not let them go until I knew that we were surely free. I had starved so long that those broken kernels of corn were very precious. I was constantly hoping to barter them for something that I could eat, or possibly for a dose of quinine or some peppers. But now a gang plank was run from an opening in the side of the transport. It was lined on each side by sailors who pushed us rapidly along and aboard the big vessel. In the hold before us was a great stack of blue uniforms and clean underclothing, complete from cap to shoes. Kind attendants, too, were there to assist us, and they said, "Strip now, quick, take everything off, and throw your rags overboard." And out they went through a porthole overhead. They were very filthy, for they were the remnants of what we had worn a year and a half before in the Chattanooga champaign, remnants of what we had gained in traffic, remnants of what we had taken from the bodies of our dead. They had been held together by threads raveled from the stronger parts and held together by needles made from splinters of Georgia pine. We thought Charleston harbor a fit buying place for them all.

As fast as dressed we were marched in two ranks to an upper deck, where we passed a small window from which was handed to each of us a pound loaf of wheat bread. At another window each of us received a great piece of raw fat pork -- a half a pound and the sweetest morsel I ever tasted. At still another window each got a pint cup full of steaming United States coffee. It was then, when our digestive organs had something to work on, when we were decently clothed, and were at last free from the torture of vermin, that lost manhood began to return. Each did not now look upon his fellow as something to be watched and feared. We did not watch that night lest our bread should be stolen. In fact, it was reported that we would receive rations again in the morning -- a fact heard [sic] to believe. Some, after being rationed fell into line a second and even third time and hoarded their bread and meat. When their actions were noted they were told to take all they wanted.

Rounding Cape Hattaras much of this bread and meat was brought to light again, and for forty-eight hours the ship presented anything but the neat and trim appearance we had noted on first coming aboard. The ship's surgeon, the officers and their wives, vied with the sailors in attentions to their passengers. Five only of our number died on that trip to Annapolis and here, after we had been again stripped and washed, and our hair clipped close, we were put to bed between white sheets.

Hospital at Annapolis; photograph by Matthew Brady and held by the
National Archives and Records Administration

Women came to my cot with oysters fresh from the bay, with bread and butter, jellies and pickles, with shining glass and snow-white napkins, and when I had eaten they said, "Now, you just rest and sleep, and dream of home." When I was able to read the card at the head of my cot, I found: 'Phthisis pulmonalis, fever, general debility; diet __________ treatment.' I cannot remember the diet treatment, but I remember well the ministrations of those women; how they hovered round my cot, touching up my pillow, and how their cool hands rested on my hot forehead. I do not know whether they were army nurses, residents of Annapolis, or members of the Christian and Sanitary commissions. I never knew. But the soldiers have not forgotten their ministrations, and give to woman's loyalty and patriotism a 'royal three times three.'


A Soldier's Experience in Southern Prisons, Part I 
A Soldier's Experience in Southern Prisons, Part II 

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