A Story of the Trials and Experiences of James Jennings

A Story of the Trials and Experiences of James Jennings

Late of Co. K 20th Illinois Infantry

At Andersonville Prison

During the Civil War

Written by James Jennings


1864 -‘65

I was captured in the battle of Atlanta, July 22nd, 1864.  I shall not try to describe the battle which lasted from sometime in the forenoon until sometime in the afternoon.

On being overwhelmed by numbers we were compelled to surrender. I will say right here, the Johnnies who captured us (that means the 20th Illinois regiment) used us very well. They did not abuse us in any way or attempt to rob us. They kept us there (on the battlefield) as near as I can remember, until night when we were marched to East Point, six miles east of Atlanta. They held us here one week. While here we were treated very well and given a fair ration for the day. We were taken to Andersonville, Georgia, arriving there on July 29th, just one week from the day we were captured. When the gates were opened for us and as we started to go through, a comrade, George Wilson, turned and waving his arm said, with a smile, 'Farewell, vain world!'

I had heard a little about Andersonville, but I can never describe the awful sights that met my gaze as we (that is, the members of Co. K, ten of us) started in to find a place to camp.  Remember at the time we entered the prison, July 29th, '64, there were over 30,000 prisoners confined, where there ought not to have been over 10,000 at the most. A description of the prison is necessary here.

A small creek ran from west to east through the prison. The land sloped from the north and south in about equal distances to the creek. We started on our hunt for a location, I being in the lead, up the north side. Here comes the horror of this picture which no language can adequately describe. Around us on every side lay the poor wretches who had been here six or eight months; men afflicted with all manner of disease; teeth dropping out from the effects of scurvy. Those that were able to walk were mere skeletons. You could almost hear their bones rattle as they walked around and were being eaten alive with graybacks. Some of the poor fellows were so covered with lice and nits that their hair would be matted tight to their heads; and their hands, faces and bodies almost as black as a negro from the dirt and the smoke of pitch pine fires as they huddled over to keep warm. Students and college graduates had become so discouraged by disease and the treatment they received, and the effects of their long confinement that they had lost all sense of pride and decency, and certainly it is not to be wondered at. I certainly did not feel like reproving them when in their delirium they cursed the country, the government and even cursed God. One of them said we were all damned fools and that there was no God. Well, I won't go so far as that, but I will say I thought at that time if there was such a good, merciful and all-powerful God, He surely was loafing on the job. We passed through such scenes as I have tried to describe until we reached the north side of the prison.

Now I had heard of the deadline in the prison, but had forgotten about it. The deadline consisted of stakes driven in the ground about 20 inches high and about twenty feet from the stockade. This space between the foot of the stockade and the deadline might be called 'No Man's Land,' but it proved to be the pearly gate to many a starved and louse-devoured prisoner, for just the minute one steps over the deadline, that instant he gets a through ticket to the celestial hunting grounds, for there was a Rebel always watching for the chance to introduce a Yankee soldier to St. Peter. They used to tell us that when one of them killed a Yankee, they would get a thirty-day furlough and $30.00 in Confederate money, so he could go home and brag about killing a Yankee.

When we Co. K boys came to the deadline I allow I came about as near making a fashionable call on St. Peter as I ever did. You see in those good old days it was quite the fashion to call on St. Peter with your boots on.  It happened this way: As we came up to the north side of the prison, I noticed a clear space of ground between the deadline and the foot of the blockade.  I put my foot on the deadline as in the act of stepping over and said, 'Come on, boys, there is lots of room over here,' when one of the other prisoners said: 'Hold on there, you damn fool, you will get shot.' I put my foot down and stepped back as quickly as I could and on looking up at the guard I saw him lowering his gun. I always believed that guard was a Union man, who had been forced into the Army and made to guard prisoners, which they would much rather do than go into the ranks and fight. There were many Union men in North Caroline and east Tennessee.

We pitched our camp about eight feet from the deadline. Captain Wirtz came into our camp every morning, kicked up our blankets and poked around with his cane to see if we were tunneling out. We all felt like we would like to kill him and bury him under our blankets, but we didn't. The government hanged him after the war. They wanted a victim; sot hey killed Wirtz and let the higher-ups go. That is always the case, but it is not right.

We had to get our water from this creek that ran through the prison. The Rebel general, Winder, had a brigade of troops camped on the creek, one-half mile above the camp.  Can you imagine us boys (most of us raised as pets) drinking and using such water? Well, we did, but on or about the 15th of August we were visited by a tremendous rainstorm. Then happened a wonderful thing – a spring of pure cold water broke out inside the stockade. The water was piped to the deadline so we all had an abundance of good, pure, cold spring water. I have no doubt but that spring saved thousands of lives that summer and fall. The prison was located in a timbered country, but the Rebels gave us no wood to cook what little stuff they gave us to eat. Our daily ration, one day cooked and one day raw, consisted of a piece of corn bread about four inches square and one-half inch thing, usually ground cob and all; the next day about two-thirds of a pint of corn meal ground cob and all. While there was not much nourishment in the ground cob, one must admit that it is kind of filling. The next day it would be two-thirds of a pint of stock peas, cooked bugs and all, and the next day the same amount of peas uncooked. When I got my ration of peas I would put them in a cup of water, stir it up, skim off the bugs, and eat what was left.  I always divided my ration, whatever it might be, and made two meals of it. After a time I concluded maybe I was throwing they best part of my ration away. I figured this way: I said maybe these little bugs are all young locusts, so I ate my peas, bugs and all. Of course they would not be considered a delicacy today, but I think they did me good. I remember I was quite thankful to get them. They seemed to have stabilizing effects on my appetite – maybe I should have said an equalizing effect, for after eating I remember I always felt equal to the task of eating a pound or two of beefsteak, if I could get it, but what about the poor fellows that had no means of cooking their rations, which was the condition of a large majority of the prisoners? Most of the prisoners were stripped of everything they had, even to their clothing. A Reb soldier would walk up to a Yankee and after inspecting his clothes, if he was satisfied with the inspection, he would say: 'Well, Yank, don't you want to trade?' The Yank knew that was an order to strip, so he immediately began and the trade was finished right there. I never could figure out just why the Rebs did not rob us 20th Illinois boys, unless it was because we had been fighting them for two or three days and they thought we were pretty good fellows. I give this as the reason why every one of us Co. K boys lived to get back to the Union lines. When we walked into the prison every one of us had a blanket, haversack, knife, cup and spoon and canteen, so you see we were very well equipped. This is the way prisoners were served with wood. When a prisoner died, two of his comrades were allowed to carry him outside the stockade. These two prisoners were allowed to take back into the prison just as big a log of hard or pitch pine wood as they could carry. They would work this up into bundles a foot or sixteen inches long and as large around as a man's wrist and peddle it out to the prisoners. If one was fortunate enough to have a little money or something to trade, one could get a little wood to cook with, or if one had a comrade accommodating enough to die, occasionally one could make enough off of his wood to help out on his living, but what about the poor devil that had been robbed and had nothing to cook in even if he had the wood?  We Co. K boys all had a little money or an old watch.  I have an old silver watch which I sold to a Reb in the prison at East Point for forty dollars Confederate money. After I arrived in Andersonville I traded the forty dollars for four dollars in Greenbacks. I could get more for one brass coat button than I could for a dollar of Confederate money. One of our Co. K boys had his Kendall County order for $100.00 with him. He sold it to a man in the prison who said he was a Yankee sailor. I don't know whether he was or not, but he had the dough. He paid Clifford $60.00 in Greenbacks for the $100.00 order. Clifford loaned me $5.00 with the understanding that if we both lived to get back to our lines I was to pay him $10.00. We both lived to get back and the first time we were paid off I gave him $10.00. You ask what we did with the money and how that would help me in the prison. Well, the Rebs had permitted some of the prisoners to build an oven and run a bakery and sort of restaurant. If one hand plenty of money one could get a square meal for $5.00; also you could get a fair sized biscuit for twenty-five cents and smaller stuff accordingly, so you see the old saying, 'Every little helps,' proved to be true in my case.

About one hundred prisoners died and were carried out every day. The Rebs had wagons with great boxes that would hold a hundred bushels or more of ear corn. The dead were carried out and the way they were loaded was like this: One man would take the corpse by the hands, another would take it by the feet, then they would swing the body back and forth and count one, two, three, and at the word three, they would let go and the body would go into the wagon.  They would fill the box full and running over, filled so high that the legs, arms and heads would be hanging over the side of the box.  I heard many a poor fellow say, as they started off, that he wished he was in that wagon. Well, I never felt that way. Some way I always figured that by hook or crook, I would in some way, some time, get back to God's country, and I did. I had a curiosity to know what kind of medicine the doctors were giving the sick, so one morning I attended the sick call. I looked so well by the side of those that were sick that I had to pretend I was suffering with the colic and a bad cough. The doctor gave me the once-over and said, 'Hold out your hand,' which I did and he gave me about a dozen sumac buds. When the doctor gave me the buds he said, 'If you are not feeling any better in the morning, come back again.' Needless to say, the next morning I had entirely recovered. It was said that whenever a prisoner commenced to attend the sick call he was headed for the dead wagon. They kept going as long as they could walk, then presto – the finish was a ride to the cemetery.

I think it was some time in October that some of the Rebel officers came into the prison and took out about 4,000 prisoners for exchange. The 20th Illinois was among the lucky number.  We were taken to Charleston, S. C., about one hundred miles up the country where a new prison was established in an open field. The change was very welcome, and a very good one for us for a few days. We received a much better ration, consisting of a half loaf of graham bread. We were in a large open field surrounded by guards. We had plenty of good air and water every day. Some citizens would come into the camp with pies and other stuff to sell or trade for most anything the Yanks had. Here I cut the last brass button from my coat. I could get more for a brass button than I could for one dollar in Confederate money. I noticed when these men came in and when they went out the guards said nothing to them. One day I told some of the boys I thought if we would trade our blue uniforms with some of the prisoners that were wearing the Rebel gray uniforms, we could walk out and make a run for freedom. At first none of them would listen to me, they thought the risk too great. Then I told them I could go alone. Finally Jerome Dann of my Co., K and John Cox of Co. I said they would go, but that I must go ahead. I said, 'Sure, I'll go ahead.'  Well, we each of us picked out a man about our size, and asked them how they would like to trade clothes. The fellow I asked said the only way he could trade would be to trade even. I said, 'Then you don't want anything extra for the graybacks?' He said, 'No, you are welcome to them,' so we traded even. He wished me success, shook hands with me and faded away. I think he was afraid I would want to trade back. You see the clothes we got were alive with graybacks, or otherwise, cooties. When we were all fixed up and ready to start, Jerome Dann said to me, 'Well, Jim, you started this, now go ahead.' Our plan was like this: If I succeeded in passing the guard, Dann and Cox were to go out together by the other guard, and then we would meet in the timber and make our plans. I stuck a beeline for the guard (the guard's beat was about sixty feet long). They had to walk back and forth, so when I passed within six or eight feet of the guard I looked straight at him, and he at me. Neither of us spoke, I struck for the timber about a half mile distant and waited for Dann and Cox. Soon I saw them coming. They had passed out a little farther from the guard, but he paid no attention to them. Well, here we were in the timber. Dann was inclined to make fun of our adventure at first, but he soon got over that. We were sitting down talking when Dann said, 'Well, Jim, what are we going to do now?' I said, 'I am going to look for water. I want to wash my clothes.' We started and soon came to a little creek running through a clearing in the timber. Here we stripped and the slaughter commenced. We first found a flat rock, and then spread a garment on the rock and with a rock in the hand, we commenced pounding. With three of us at work pounding, every time a blow was struck a half dozen or more graybacks passed to the great beyond and the cracking of the nits (the grayback eggs) made it sound like a bunch of firecrackers on the Fourth of July. After pounding our clothes about an hour we went into the creek and washed them as well as we could without soap. We colored the water so the people half a mile below thought there had been a big battle fought somewhere up the creek. Well, so there had. We had slaughtered millions of our southern friends and sent their blood downstream to feed the fishes. Even now when I hear a bunch of firecrackers cracking away, it reminds me of the good old days when I was traveling in the Sunny South (for my health). We dried our clothes as well as we could for a couple of hours, then put them on and started. We kept in the woods in the daytime, at nights on the road and in the fields to get something to eat. We went to some colored man's cabin. They always gave us some corn bread and bacon or pork, but the third night out we ran into a Rebel picket and were captured. They took us to a little town nearby, put us in a 2x4 cell just about large enough for one person and kept us there for about a week trying to starve us to death, but finally gave up the task and took us back to Florence. We got back to the prison at Florence about 4 a.m. The boys pretended to be very glad to see us. They thought they were having fun when they asked us how the folks were up home.  We didn't mind their badgering. We answered their questions as well as we could, otherwise we didn't have much to say, but we were like the Irishmen, 'we kept up a devil of a thinkin'.' On the way from Charleston to Florence we learned we were in charge of a Captain Cole of Co. B.  This knowledge came in good play afterwards. The same day we got back to the prison in the afternoon, towards evening the Rebel quartermaster was issuing wood to the prisoners. You know they say a new broom sweeps clean, and this being a new prison they were starting in to treat us a little better. While they were giving the boys their wood, Dann and I walked out among the Rebs. Dann started off towards the Rebel camp, which was on the edge of the timber. Just as I was about the start the quartermaster turned to me and said, 'Well, Yank, you better go back now. We are going to close up and go to our quarters.' I said, 'I don't belong in there.' He said, 'Where do you belong?' I old him I belonged to Co. B, Captain Cole's company. I did not wait for him to answer, but immediately started off in the direction of the Rebel camp. When I was about half way to the Reb camp I saw Dann peeking up over the hill to see if I was coming. We soon got together and the first things we did was to cut each of us a good heavy cane, not to help us walk, but as a defensive weapon, and then we made another start for freedom. We were now in a heavily timbered country. We had not gone over a half mile when we met five of those young Rebs of Captain Cole's company. They had been out after fox grapes. One of them asked where we were going. Dann said, 'None of your damn business.' The Reb said, 'I guess you all better come back with us, to which Dann replied, 'You go to hell. We will come back when we get ready.' I saw they were eating grapes, so I said, 'We are going after fox grapes. Now you boys run along to camp. We will come back when we get what we are after.' They took a good look at my big cane and being unarmed themselves concluded that discretion was the better part of valor and passed on and left Dann and myself masters of the field, which may be considered as good evidence in favor of the theory of preparedness. I am, now, and always was a firm believer in preparedness. For instance, if Dann and I had not been prepared for such an emergency, there being five of those Rebs, they might have been able to take us back to camp, but of course that is doubtful, as Dann himself was a pretty good scrapper. We were very thankful for such a bloodless victory and immediately started on our second drive for freedom and home.

We did most of our traveling by night guided by the North Star, but when we came to a heavily timbered of country we would spend part of the day forging ahead. It was raining quite hard. We had stopped under a shed that had been used by wood choppers and had about concluded to wait there until the rain was over when I heard the baying of a hound. I asked Dann if he heard it. He laughed and said, 'No, Jim, you are dreaming. Pretty soon you will begin to see things.' Then I heard it again. It sounded a little nearer. I said, 'Well, I will not stay here to see how many hounds there are in that pack. Come on,' and I started out like I was shot out of a cannon. Pretty soon Dann heard them and came running after me. He caught up with me (he being fleeter of foot). As he caught up with me he said, 'Well, Jim, you were right.' I wanted to brag a little, so I said, 'Thank you, Dann.' I was always in the lead, so I said, 'Whenever I am wrong, you are welcome to take the lead,' but this he would not do. All the time we were out I was in the lead, but I really liked it. You see I was about three years older than Dann. After running a long distance we came to a large creek or small river. We started in to wade across, but found it too deep. As we could both swim we were soon across. We swam downstream nearly a half mile and before coming out found it had stopped raining, so we stripped and wrung the water out of our clothes, put them on and started. We heard no more of the hounds. I don't know if they were on our track or not, but to hear the devils bay would have put fear in the heart of a stone. To hasten this story – after being out about two weeks, maybe a little longer, traveling both by day and night, fighting our way through marshes and swamps of South Caroline into the piney hills of North Carolina, and being devoured by mosquitoes and on short rations all the time, we found a good many fox grapes and some persimmons and at times we could get a little cornbread and bacon from the colored people. As a rule they had little enough for themselves, but the never refused to divide with us. Only once was I betrayed by a colored man, but that will come later.

The hilly country of North Carolina was very poor, not much good for farming.  The soil was very sandy. Occasionally we would find a small field of very poor corn, but we found that very poor corn on the cob was very much better than nothing. We were both blessed with good teeth and could masticate most anything we could get between our jaws.

We figured we had made about 150 miles since we left Florence, S. C.  Dann was subject to colic and he felt it coming on as we were near a cotton gin on a large plantation. We got into that and after dark I went to a colored man's house for something to eat. In certain places at that time and maybe now for all I know, they had their Voo-doo doctors. This one was bound to go with me to see Dann. He went through some kind of performance and we pretended that it helped Dann, but it didn't. Dann was a very sick man for two days, then he began to get better and his recovery was very rapid. On the third day, which was Thursday, we told the man who brought our grub that we should start the next night, which would be Friday night. He told us to wait until the next night (Saturday). He said he was going to see his girl and would go five miles with us. We waited until about nine o'clock Saturday night; with our colored friend in the lead, we left the old cotton gin pretty well rested, the colored man with us. I shall name him Joe. When we had gone the five miles, Joe directed us to keep straight ahead for about ten miles and we would come to a fork in the road, but to disregard it and keep straight ahead. He said we would know we were right, for about a mile farther on we would come to a big pond of water spread all over the road.  He said we should wade right through it as it was not deep. When we came to the fork in the road, I was in the lead as usual, and kept straight ahead. Dann being close behind me said, 'Hold on, Jim, I think this is the right road.' I came back and we had quite a heated argument, or at least Dann got very much excited. I finally told him to go ahead if he knew so much better than I did and I would tag along behind for a change. He refused to do this and the argument continued for sometime. Finally he started off on the wrong road. I didn't think he would be gone long and sure enough, in about fifteen minutes he was back smiling and said, 'Well, Jim, I guess you are right.'  In the meantime, as the Norwegians say, 'I was getting a little mouldy myself.' I said, 'Oh, you think so, do you? Well, then, go ahead and I will follow.' At this he threw himself down on the ground and lay quite still for some time. All at once he jumped up and said, 'I'll let you know I'm no damned coward,' and started on the right road. I lay still for ten or fifteen minutes when I started. I expected to find Dann at the pond. I knew he was wearing shoes and would have to stop and put them on after he got through the water. I was wearing a pair of cavalry boots that I had bought of a prisoner at Andersonville whose feet were so swollen he could not wear them. When I got to the pond I waded right through the water. It was not deep enough to go over the tops of my boots, so when I got through I started right on the road. I saw nothing of Dann. There was a large white house not far from the road and in the road twenty or thirty head of cattle. In the large house were two or three big dogs barking to beat the band. I was nearly scared out of my boots. I still had my trusty cane so I started through the herd of cattle. I passed through all right, the dogs stayed on their side of the fence. I walked to the twenty-mile post that night; that is, twenty miles from where we left our colored friend. It was beginning to get light in the east so I crawled into a thick clump of bushes and went to sleep. I slept until about ten o'clock as near as I could judge.  When I woke I heard someone chopping and knew of course it was a darkie. I came out of my nest and made for the wood chopper. His back was towards me. I walked to within six feet of him then had to make a little extra noise to attract his attention. When he saw me he nearly turned white, he was so frightened. I said to him, 'Don't be frightened. I am a Yankee prisoner trying to make my escape, and I want something to eat.' He said, 'Well, boss, I can't get you anything now, but you come up to this mile post tonight and I'll bring you all out some thing to eat.'  Some way I mistrusted that darkie right from the start, but I was mighty hungry. There were two big houses in sight from where I stood. I thought I ought to be able to collect from one of them if I waited long enough, so I went back and crawled into my nest again. You see I had gotten rid of my graybacks and nothing else disturbed me. I soon went to sleep and slept until dark. I lay still and waited for the colored gentleman to bring me out something to eat. I reckon it was about ten o'clock when I awoke very suddenly. I heard two men coming up the path towards me.  They were talking. Each one had a gun and a big dog with them. They passed within six or eight feet of me. They went right to that mile post and sat down. They sat there until about 3 a.m. I have heard of men whistling to keep up their courage, and I certainly thought those two Rebs were talking to keep up their courage. They were about one hundred feet from me. I could hear them plain enough to know they were watching for Rebel deserters and Yankee prisoners. They left for home about 4 a.m. As soon as they were out of sight I went to sleep again and did not wake up until nearly noon. I have gathered from the conversation of these men the night before that the country was pretty well guarded on ahead, so I concluded I would stay where I was until light, then go to a darkie's house and ask for something to eat, which I did. I went around and came in the rear of the house. The back door of the white folk's house was open. I went to a colored man's house, opened the door and walked in. There sat two gents and their wives. I told them I was an escaped Yankee prisoner and wanted something to eat. One of them said they had nothing, but he would get me something. He went out and I sat down on the edge of the bed and commenced to talk with the other gent. Soon the door opened and in walked the owner of the plantation and his son-in-law. The old man, Squiresburg Austin, said, 'Who are you and what are you doing here?' I told him I was an escaped Yankee prisoner from Florence, S. C. He said, 'Did you walk all the way from Florence here without getting captured?' I said, 'I sure did.' He then said, 'Come to my house, I'll give you something to eat.' He took me over to his house and they gave me a supper of corn pone, bacon, sweet potatoes, honey and corn meal coffee. After eating my supper I lay down on the floor and soon went to sleep. When I awoke in the morning there were six Rebs sitting around me, each with a gun in his hands. After breakfast, which was just like the supper, they hitched up a horse to an open buggy. I got in with the driver and two men came on behind us, each with a gun. I heard that was a way of politely disposing of a troublesome customer. I knew that if they did dispose of me in that way it would all be over so quick I would not know it, so I kept up a lively conversation with the driver, and as we drove along mile after mile I began to feel a little better. Soon we drove up to a blacksmith shop in a little town ten miles from where I was captured. The door opened and Dann walked out smiling and said, 'Well, Jim, they got you, didn't' they?' He told me he was sitting in a corner of the fence putting on his shoes when I came through the water. He expected me to stop and put mine on, then we could get together again; but he said, 'You came through and started off before I had a chance to speak to you.' I said, 'Well, Jerome, who was right, you or I?' He looked at me kind of funny, and said, 'Oh darn it, you were, of course.' The next morning they started us on the road to Charlotte with three Rebs to guard us. I think the distance to Charlotte was about thirty miles. The next day after we started Dann had another attack of colic. We had to lay by two days and a half for him, so were nearly a week in making the trip. When we got to Charlotte they put us on the cars and sent us to Raleigh to see the governor (Vance), a jolly good natured man. He questioned us as to who we were, where we escaped from and how we escaped. He asked Dann this question. Dann said, 'Jennings is older than I am. He can answer it better than I can.' I told the governor we captured two of the guards on post, traded uniforms with them and walked out. He looked at me sort of funny and said, 'That will do', then told a funny story and said to the guard, 'I guess you better take the boys down to Saulsbury,' so we were put on the train and sent to Saulsbury. We arrived there all right; found the change was a good one, as we were lucky enough to get into a Spoon tent. A Spoon tent is one of those tents that have so many occupants that they all have to lie on their sides spoon fashion, and when one gets tired and must turn over he just yells, 'Spoon,' and every one turns over and waits for someone else to holler. One fellow got funny and would holler, 'Spoon,' just to annoy the boys and hear them cuss. Well, he was unceremoniously kicked out and another man taken in his place. I was lucky enough to get an outside berth with Dann next to me. We got a very good ration here at first; the half of a small loaf of graham bread. Still, I was not satisfied, so one morning I got up early and went on the other side of the prison, joined another company, gave another name, received my half loaf of bread, went back to my own company and got another half loaf. Dann would hardly believe me when I told him how I got it. However, he went with me the next morning and was convinced. We kept this up for two or three weeks when Dann heard in some way that they had what they called a dungeon which was simply a big hole in the ground like a big cistern, and when they caught a prisoner drawing two rations, they just dropped him down in that hole and kept him there ten days, just on bread and water, but more water than bread. Neither of us felt like investigating that hole in the ground, so we folded our (tents) appetites and quietly stole away two days later. We heard they caught another fellow and dropped him down for ten days. I was all the time wandering around the camp trying to find a place to get out. One day a fellow I had gotten somewhat acquainted with told me there was a plan to break out. I started to find Dann. He was standing by the tent. Just as I was telling him, the shooting commenced. In the city there was an arsenal full of arms and ammunition. Inside the stockade there were about a dozen guards with guns in their hands. There were about 8,000 prisoners, most of them fit for duty. The leaders of the uprising had heard the regiment that was guarding the prison would be called away at three p.m. Their plan was, when they heard the train pull out that was to take the guard away they would rush the guards inside the prison, take their guns, break out, capture the arsenal, arm the prisoners and fight their way to our lines, but alas!  As Bobby Burns says, 'The best laid plans of mice and men oft gang a glee.' There was a traitor in the plot who had informed the Rebs of everything that was going on, so when the first gun was fired in the prison, the stockade was covered as if by magic with the regiment the prisoners supposed had been sent away. They commenced firing into the prison indiscriminately as everyone ran into the tents. The tents become the targets. They kept up the firing for fully a half hour. The tents were shot full of holes. It was said about fifty or sixty of the prisoners were killed or wounded. I never heard what, if anything was done to the leaders. The superintendent of the prison was a big, ugly, flannel-mouthed Irishman by the name of Barrett. He made it his duty to inspect the prison every day. He usually arrived in our part of the prison about or nearly sundown. He always had a big revolver on his hip and a fine big bulldog following him. When he would stop to inspect a ten the boys would get busy petting the dog. Barrett was always drunk when he wasn't sober, and I never saw him sober. One evening he came in later and drunker than usual. In fact, he was so drunk he hardly knew where he was or what he was doing. When he went out the dog did not go out with him, and he was so drunk he didn't miss the dog until late in the morning. Then he came into the prison with a revolver in each hand swearing if he found evidence (at that moment he was standing on all the evidence there was, but he did not know it) that his dog had been killed and eaten by the damned Yanks, he would kill a dozen of them in retaliation. Barrett never knew how near death he was at that moment and for a good many days thereafter. We had a man in the tent with a gun pointed straight at his heart, if he had one, with orders to shoot if he made a hostile move. Well, the damned Yankees did eat his dog and they all pronounced it by far the best meal they had while in Saulsbury prison. All of you good people who have had the good luck to be confined in any prison any length of time, for any cause whatever, will know how to appreciate our feelings. Sometime after the attempted break, Dann some way got acquainted with the man who had the job of policing the prison. Part of his duty consisted in keeping the prison clean and free of rubbish. Dann got the position of assistant. He got an extra ration for this, but he did not divide with me or try to get me on the force. It was running into November now and getting quite cold. At this time they were sending some of the prisoners back to Florence. I knew it would be much warmer there in the winter, so without saying anything to Dann I went back and found the boys I left there, Howes, Clifford, Leach, Cary and Todd. All were alive and doing as well as could be expected. We lived a very uneventful life for a few weeks, starving a little every day, a little weaker, some of them were. I was holding my own quite well. Our rations seemed to be shrinking a little all the time. Howes and Clifford seemed to be a little more discouraged and consequently a little worse physically.

Some time in the first part of January '65, the Rebs loaded all of us that could walk (we had to leave Clifford at Florence) into the cars and took us down to Wilmington to exchange. We were unloaded and kept there for about four or five days; the officers being unable to come to terms, we were put back on the train and sent up to Goldsborough. In a week or ten days the Reb officers came into camp again and said, 'We will sure make a go of it this time.' We were loaded on the cars again and taken back to Wilmington. After four days waiting we were again loaded on the cars and started back for Goldsborough. The car ahead of the one we were in was loaded with powder for the Rebel army. Our car got a hotbox twice. The conductor stopped the train and put out the fire. You see, gunpowder makes an elevating combination! As the conductor passed our car after putting out the fire the second time, he said, 'If the d—d thing gets afire again I'll be d—d if I'll stop to put it out and if it blows up we'll all go to H—l together.' I didn't like that; that is, if I had to go to Hell I should like to pick my company. I didn't want to go with a lot of Rebs, so I told the boys I was going to escape from the train that night and work my way back to Wilmington. Ed Howes and John Cary said they would go with me. Leach and Todd refused to go, said we were sure to get plunked. We had our plans made and about ten p.m. we pulled into the town of Magnolia, forty-nine miles from Wilmington. There were always some citizens getting off, so when the train stopped I stepped off. The guard said, 'Who goes there?' I made no answer but started uptown. Howes and Cary followed right after me. That night we walked eight miles. Howes was clear tuckered out. He was afflicted with camp diarrhea. We went to a colored man's house to get something to eat. They had all gone to bed, but when we told them who we were they got up and gave us a good supper of corn pone, bacon, corn meal coffee and honey.  Then one of the men went with us out in the woods to find a good place to camp. We went out through the barnyard. Here was a flock of geese in the yard. Howes asked the darkie to let him have one. The darkie said, 'No, the white folks would miss it and lay it to the colored folks.'  After the darkie had gone home, Howes wanted me to go back with him and get one. I told him, 'No, not for Joe.' I told him I wouldn't go back there for all the geese they had. Cary also refused to go. Howes stood around for awhile, finally he said, 'Boys, I've got to have a goose,' so he went back tot the place and got one and got back all night. We sat up that night and roasted the goose and ate most of it before we went to bed. Our bed always consisted of a pile of leaves of pine cones when we could get them. We saved a part of the goose for Howes the next day, but he didn't want it. He said he didn't think he ever wanted any more goose. We stayed in this place five days, and then when our man came out at night with our grub he said they could the see the smoke of our fire come up over the tops of the trees. He told us there was a camp of Rebel deserters five miles from there. He asked us if we would go and stay with them. I said, 'Sure, we will be glad to go.' He started right off and by two a.m. he was back and had five of the Reb deserters with him. We talked awhile and they told us what they had and said we were welcome to go and stay with them. We told them we would like to go with them. We got to their place about daylight. We followed them single file through a swamp with the water knee deep most of the way. We came out onto a piece of high ground two or three acres, cleared ground. Here we had plenty of corn bread, sweet potatoes, fresh pork, bacon, fresh beef, chickens, eggs, corn meal, coffee and honey. Cary and I picked right up. I felt as good as I ever did, but Howes kept getting weaker and weaker. We stayed her two weeks, then a Union man came into our camp one day and said Wilmington was taken and we could get there, if the gorillas didn't catch us. If they did, they would hang us, we knew that, but didn't propose to let them catch us. Well, we started, and eight of the Reb deserters went with us. Howes was unable to walk by this time. Cary and I carried him out. We put him on a blanket, tied the four corners to a rail, put the end of the rail on our shoulders and started. We carried him out of the swamp and put him in a cart. He was taken to the house of the widow Held. She had two sons in this camp. When we left Howes, I told him as soon as we got to Wilmington I would send an ambulance out after him, but the very next morning he was out hanging on the fence by the road. When our troops came marching by, they picked him up and carried him along and then sent him to a hospital in New Jersey. He got well, came back to Illinois and lived to be nearly eighty years of age. We went on to Wilmington without any trouble, arriving there about three p.m. on February 22.  The editor of the national Tribune says Wilmington was taken by the Union forces on the 22nd of February, which makes exactly seven months that I was a prisoner. It seems like a nightmare or some horrible dream when I look over all the hardships and think of the terrible scenes, all the misery and hardships and dangers of those seven months. I can hardly realize that I am the same boy that enlisted for three years in April, '61.

Some two or three weeks after our arrival at Andersonville, on one very dark night, I stubbed my toe and fell heavily to the ground, striking the shin of my left leg on a projecting root and bruising it very badly. At first I was somewhat frightened at what the result might be, but by using discretion, I mean by not getting unduly excited, and by getting plenty of pure water from the Providence spring, I succeeded in healing the sore, but it left a bad looking scar, which I will always have with me.

I did not go to the Rebel doctor for fear I might eventually land in the dead wagon. At that time, the month of August, '65, it was said an average of one hundred a day of the prisoners died and were carried out loaded in the wagon and hauled off to the trenches to be buried; and as I expected to get back home sometime, some way, I had to be very careful and not run any unnecessary risk. I therefore kept away from the doctor, did my own nursing and I am alive today to tell the tale.

A number of persons had dug wells in different parts of the enclosure, ranging, I should think, all the way from fifteen to thirty feet deep; getting a very good quality of water.  The fellows who dug the wells always had water to sell, but none to give away; but one could not blame them. It was a hard and dangerous job to dig the wells. The only way they had of getting the water was by tying a string to a small can and pulling it up. It was nice clear water, but the Providence spring beat it, for all could get water there. It was free for all. I have visited the old prison three times in the last few years. The old wells are caving in and filling up. Trees are growing up and around most of them. The old prison is growing full of trees in some parts of it. 

The national cemetery, where some 13,000 or 14,000 of the prisoners are buried, is maintained by the government. Most, if not all, of the northern states, have erected monuments to their dead. The caretakers are doing their work well. Everything about the cemetery is kept in fine condition. If those prisoners had had the proper care and food, not over 500 of them would have died, possibly not that many. Someone sometime will have to answer for that terrible crime.

One day when I was looking toward the south side of the prison I saw a young fellow, a recruit belonging to a New York regiment, start down towards the creek with a cup in his hand to get a drink of water. He walked right down to the creek, stepped in between the men bathing in the creek and the deadline, stopped down and reached up under the deadline to get a cup of water.  The guard on the stockade reached down with his gun, probably within thirty feet of the boy's head, pulled the trigger and shot him through the head, killing him instantly. That guard got a thirty-day furlough and thirty dollars in Confederate money, so that he could go home and brag about killing a Yankee. Such things happened so often the prisoners did not pay much attention to them. They became hardened to such scenes. They just carried the boy out, laid him down and went back into the creek to finish bathing.

One night about ten o'clock we Co. K boys were awakened by a prisoner stamping by our place talking to himself. He walked up to the deadline and stepped over. The guard told him to go back, but he refused. We got up and asked the guard to let us take him out; this he refused to do. He shot at the fellow and missed him. I am sure he missed him on purpose. There were a good many Union men who had been forced into the army who were used to guard prisoners, but when he fired his gun—instantly the stockade was crowded with guards. An officer in command also refused to let us take the man out, but ordered the guard to shoot him, which he did, then he let us take him out. Such scenes were happening somewhere in the nearby every night.

Our Christian friends, the Rebels, had different ways of amusing themselves and entertaining their guests. At Andersonville (perhaps I should explain the meaning of the word guests as used in this connection) the prisoners' grub which by a long stretch of the imagination might be called their rations for each day, was brought in each morning in wagons; the drivers would often be accompanied by one or two of these delectable southern gentlemen. You know the real southern chivalry, who wanted to seem for themselves if the story which had been told them of the condition of the prisoners were true. Whenever the wagon would stop to deliver the dole of corn bread, ground cob and all, the Rebs acknowledged there was not much nourishment in the cob, but they said it was very filling, which is probably true. The driver would pick up a scoop shovel, brought along for the purpose, and then the fun for the southern Christian chivalry would begin. There was always a crowd of starved and louse-eaten wretches (who had once been men) gathered at the last stopping place of the wagon. The man with the shovel would scoop up the crumbs of the rations that were left in the box and shovel the stuff out among the poor wretches like a farmer would shovel corn to his hogs. Then to see the poor starved prisoners dive and scramble, aye, and fight for a crumb of hard corn bread that a dog would hardly look at. That gave the southern 'gentlemen' a thrill and when the poor fellows would get into a fight even when they were down on their knees scratching around in the dirt for a crumb, they would holler, clap their hands, and yell, 'Go it, Yankee, that's right, hit ‘em again, give it to him.' If one tried to interfere, or tried to stop the fight, which I did once, but only once, as I nearly lost my life in the attempt. I had the whole howling mob after me with the Rebs hollering and sicking them on, I did not try to interfere again. Many of the prisoners had become so brutalized by their long confinement and suffering incident to starvation and the continued insolence and brutal treatment of the guards that they were ready to fight or at least try to fight at the drop of the hat and of course the Rebs would encourage them and woe to the unlucky wight who undertook to stop them.

At Saulsbury, N. C., prison in the winter they gave us a ration of fresh beef occasionally; that is they gave us the bones after they had removed the meat. If we could have had plenty of the bones we could have gotten along very well. They also gave us the offal. They would carry the guts and paunch to the top of the stockade. The guard would holler, 'ayes, ayes, ayes' to attract a larger crowd, then they would push the paunch and guts down amongst the hungry and starving prisoners. Dear ready, maybe your father, or brother, or son was among those starving ones and as those poor fellows starved nigh unto death make a dive for those guts right down in the dirt grabbing for them, fighting, pushing, cursing their comrades for trying to get a piece of gut which they wanted, forgetting that the other fellow was as near starved as he was, intent on getting all he could, whether the other fellow got anything or not. As one would rise up with a piece of gut a few inches long in his hand, some other fellow would grab it, trying to take it from them, a fight was on; and these people were all Christians, members of the best families. The poor white trash was not allowed such privileges. Do you wonder that I did a little swearing myself? I used to wonder if there really was a God in heaven and if there was, and he was all powerful, why he allowed this thing. Why did he not crush them with one mighty blow? Then I remember that he allowed his own Son to be crucified, then I quit guessing and said, 'Well, I reckon it has to be, and what has to be, will be.' That means the survival of the fittest. I always was inclined to be a fatalist.

Let me say in conclusion that no tongue can tell or pen ever write a history of the horrors and misery of those southern prisons, and tell it as bad as it actually was.

The End


Last Modified on 2012-12-30 16:45:34-0600 CST by Elmer Dickson