From the New York Times, 26 April, 1891
IN HOSPITAL NUMBER TEN
PITIFUL SCENES AMONG DEAD AND DYING PRISONERS.
MEN WHO HAD PASSED BEYOND DESPAIR AND WERE INSENSIBLE TO PAIN – BRAVE HEARTS THAT LIVED THROUGH IT – OFF FOR THE SOUTH.
Copyright, 1891, by the New-York Times.
The day following the departure of the prisoners from Libby a number of Confederate officers came to Hospital Number Ten and announced that the flag of truce boat was going down the river again. Capt. Gordon and myself, who had been doing all we could to help the poor fellows from Belle Isle, who were lying all around us on the floors, expected to go down with the others as we had done before. Strong in this hope, we made our way to the front of the hospital. As soon as we appeared, we were taken into a little office boarded off from the main room, and here, to our great surprise, Gordon and myself were examined by two doctors.
“Except that they are run down a little,” said one of the doctors to Adjt. Latouche, “there is nothing the matter with them.”
“’Ain’t sick, eh?” asked Latouche.
“If they go down the river,” replied the doctor, whose name was Kennedy, “the chances are a hundred to one that they will be at the front with their commands inside of a month.”
“You hear that, gentlemen,” said Latouche, addressing Gordon and myself. “We can send down only the invalids. Very sorry, but you’ll have to stay in here for the present.”
The doctors and Latouche went out, locking the door behind them, and we doubly unfortunate wretches sat down on a bench and indulged in oaths both loud and deep. We could hear our more fortunate companions forming outside; we could hear the farewells of the poor fellows overhead who had crawled to the windows; we could hear the order to move, the scuffling of feet, the rolling of carts along the pavement, and then the wild beating of our angered hearts.
The man who controls his temper may be greater than he who taketh a city, but my prison experience convinced me – I may have had doubts about it before – that there are times when an outburst of hot indignation satisfies and comforts the outraged feelings as nothing else in the world can. If Gordon and myself had “given up licked,” and then sat down and moped, we would have been carried within the week to the Potter’s Field for dead Yankees, known as “the prison boneyard.” But it was our disposition to get hot with anger, and to swear our hatred and defiance of the Confederacy, from Jefferson Davis down to the last man drafted into the home guard. I particularly recall one remark of Gordon on this occasion, and it entirely expressed my own feelings.
“That d-d doctor said that if we got out the chances are we’d be back at the front inside of a month. By the Eternal, if I’d a got through, I wouldn’t have asked for a leave of absence, though I haven’t seen my mother and father for nearly two years, but after getting rid of my rags I’d have made for my regiment at Chattanooga as quick as steam could carry me. And then, by the Eternal, I’d take no duty that kept me from the reach of the enemy!”
We entirely lost sight of the Union in the sense of our sufferings, and like young savages we actually planned as to the treatment we should bestow on prisoners when we got out again, for the confidence that we would some day get back never left us, and it was this feeling that sustained ourselves and others when hope was alive in our hearts, with only wild misgivings to keep it in existence.
After being confined in the little compartment for about two hours, Latouche came back and let us out.
“Well,” he said gleefully, “the party will get through to-day all right. Your flag of truce boat has been waiting down the river for us ever since yesterday noon.”
“And how are you going to dispose of us?” I asked.
“I can’t say. Gen. Winder must decide that. But you’ll have to stay here for a few days, and you’ll be sent South with the prisoners that’ll soon be here from the Wilderness.”
“From the Wilderness!” I repeated in surprise.
“Yes; haven’t you heard the news?”
“How could we hear any news in this place?”
“Well,” continued Latouche, “yesterday and the day before they have been fighting like h-l in the Wilderness. Our wounded are coming in by thousands –“
“And we licked you!” I broke in impatiently.
“Not by a d-d sight you didn’t. Uncle Bob ain’t the man to be licked –“
“Well, you’ll see. Grant has ten to one, and he’s rushing them into the slaughter pen at a fearful rate.”
“But he’s not retreating?”
“No, he’s playing a flanking game, but he’ll find old Mauss Bob awaiting him, no matter where he shows up.” Said Latouche confidently.
“Have any Yankee wounded appeared yet?” I asked.
“Thank God!” I exclaimed.
“I’m glad to hear you use God’s name without swearing,” said Latouche sarcastically. “But why does this fact rejoice you?”
“Why, it proves conclusively that we hold the battlefield,” I replied, and the result showed my surmise was correct.
The Adjutant was not a bad fellow for a prison officer. He gave us “the liberty of the hospital,” and won my lasting gratitude that day by furnishing me with a pocket-size blank book and two lead pencils – worth a good many dollars in Confederate money. After Latouche left us Gordon and myself shook hands and swore to “stick it through” and stand by each other. Looking back at it now, it all seems very boy-like, and yet the assurance of mutual support, like the feeling of a common wrong, gave us strength, and we needed it.
We had already learned that the best way to get rid of the torture of our own mental and physical sufferings was to interest ourselves in the sufferings of others, and never was there a better field for the exercise of sympathy – it was all we had to give – than that same Hospital Number Ten. Into this charnel house had been gathered 300 or 400 men from Belle Isle. They were too weak to go South when their comrades were sent to Andersonville, and it is doubtful if the strongest could have stood the short transportation and the change had an effort been made to get them to Annapolis by way of the flag of truce boat; so they were brought here, the poor, bruised human debris of the Richmond military prisons, to die.
When strong men are stricken down on the battle field a cry often follows the blow, and the wounded find relief in groans and supplications for aid. As long as a man can shout for help or for water to quench the maddening thirst that always follows the loss of blood there is hope for him, and if possible he will put forth an effort to crawl into shelter or to possess himself of a canteen for which some silent comrade has no longer any use; but the men in Hospital Number Ten had long since left hope behind, they had even passed the stage of despair. They had reached a condition when the long-tortured nerves refused to convey sensation, and so the poor, blank faces, so utterly wan and wretched, remained fixed like death masks, and the lips, thin and drawn away from the teeth, and so pitifully bloodless and cracked, emitted no groan, no sigh of distress, no appealing word.
Death in its most awful and appalling form on the field was not to be compared with the slow dying of thee poor boys in that hospital. A hollow cough from here and there, a lean arm with its skeleton fingers plucking at the air, and now and then a low whisper for water – were it not for these signs we might have thought them already dead, so still and silent were the emaciated forms in those prostrate ranks.
As I write doubts arise in my mind as to the wisdom of attempting a completion of this picture, fearing that it may be thought that I am trying to revive memories that it would be far better to let die. If I imagined for an instant that the brave veterans of the Southern Army were in the slightest degree responsible for this terrible state of affairs, I should pass it over without comment, but they were not. The gallant men of Lee’s army would have been loud in their expressions of virile indignation could they have seen for themselves that hospital and realized that its occupants were the victims of a prison system for which no Southern man, familiar with all the facts, can find the shadow of an excuse.
A number of our enlisted men had been kept back to nurse the sick. There was not one of the thirty reserved for this trying and harrowing work who did not work as if he ought to be in hospital with a nurse to wait on him himself. I had a talk with one of these nurses, a young man named Williams of the Thirty-third Ohio, and from Portsmouth, in that State. He had been captured at Chickamauga with thirty-five men of his company. “Last Winter over on Belle Isle thinned our boys out pretty bad,” said Williams, speaking in the matter-of-fact way of a man who had come to look on his subject as monotonous. “Now, how many do you suppose of our boys – I mean my company – were left when they shipped them South the other day?”
“I can’t imagine,” was my response.
“Thirteen,” he said without any intonation of surprise, “fourteen including myself; twenty-one dead. It doesn’t require much arithmetic to cipher out that all will be gone before the year’s passed unless something is done. It used to cut me up at first, not because I feared for myself, for most of the boys over there got reckless, but to see old friends melting away day by day right under my eyes and not be able to give them the bread and meat that was the only medicine they wanted. And then to shiver in the awful nights and to see the glow in the foundry across the river and the lights that told of home comforts in the houses up in Richmond. Well, complaining won’t improve it, so perhaps it’s best to grin and bear it.”
“You are right, Williams, and let me advise you to take advantage of the first opening for escape that offers, and if you get away never let them take you back alive.”
This was my response to Williams, and he thought well of it. That he was a bright far-seeing fellow the following incident will show, and it will serve to illustrate how the impulse of self-preservation often asserts itself in ways that are uncanny: Seeing that one of my feet was bare and the other covered by the merest rag of a shoe, Williams said he thought he could fix me into better shape with boots and clothes. In response to my question as to how this was to be done, he led me to the back end of the room, and, pointing to a heap of blankets that appeared to have a man under it, he said:
“This is where I sleep. Of course all our boys that are carried out of here don’t have much to brag on in the way of boots and clothes, but now and then there is one that has something worth saving, and as we might as well have it as the rebs, we sneak it into hiding as soon as we’re sure the man’s good and dead.”
He then pulled from under the blanket a fair pair of cavalry boots and a jacket, on the sleeves of which were the yellow chevrons of a Sergeant. He explained his possession of the articles in this way:
“The man that owned these things was wounded and captured at the time Dahlgren was killed outside of Richmond. They brought him here and yesterday he died. The wonder is that he held out so long, for he was shot plum through the right lung. There is the hole. When I came over a month ago, I got off the boots and hid them; and when he had no more use for it, I got off the coat; but the rebs didn’t seem to see any difference when they came to pack him off. Now, if the boots and coat will fit, I think you’ll find them a big improvement on the things you’ve got on.”
The boots and coat did fit. I ripped off the chevrons, and tried not to think of the poor fellow who had, no doubt, won them by fidelity to duty. Another nurse was equally kind to Gordon, who came into possession of a pair of shoes that had recently been the property of one of Gen. Wessels’s men, captured at Plymouth a few weeks before.
The rations at Hospital Number Ten were the best I had eaten since my capture. White bread and soup, with delicious pieces of beef and bacon in it. One reason why we had such an abundance was that not one in ten of the poor fellows lying on the floor could eat at all. We fed the weaker ones the soup in drops, which they swallowed mechanically, but they were beyond the power of any remedial agency.
In the four days spent in Hospital Number Ten, 70 of the 350 prisoners died – not a surprising fatality in the circumstances; the wonder was that any of them held out so long. I was impressed with the fact that nine-tenths of the ill in this place were beardless boys whose immature frames had yielded to suffering which brought even the strongest down. They were no doubt bright, intelligent young fellows, full of pluck and patriotism, but when they found themselves prisoners and thrown back for support on their own reserve forces they gave up. A few energetic officers among them at the right time, or a few strong spirits, of which there were many in the ranks, to whom they could have looked as to leaders, would have drawn them away from their sufferings and helped them immensely by keeping up their courage and hope. It was will power, quite as much as physical strength, that carried the survivors through that Summer of death, when, terrible as were the contests going on along 1,500 miles of battle lines, more men died in Southern military prisons than were slain on our side of the field, and at no time did the number of these prisoners equal 50,000. When the deaths among these rose at one time to 23 per cent. a month, the appalling state of affairs at Andersonville and other points may be imagined.
The old adage should be changed so as to read “Familiarity breeds indifference.” The feeling with which Gordon and myself came to regard the dead and the dying had in it nothing of “contempt.” We felt a profound pity for the suffering, or rather for the living who had passed the stage of suffering; but we watched the gathering up of the dead three times a day with increasing indifference.
One morning early Latouche called Gordon and myself down to the door of the hospital and said:
“Gentlemen, I want you to pack up; you are going South.” We told him we had nothing to pack, and asked him if he was going to send us after our old Libby friends.
“No,” he replied, “they’re over at Danville, but they’ll be sent on to Macon to Camp Oglethorpe in a few days. You might as well go on directly with a lot of men who are going to Andersonville, which is right south of Macon. Major Turner has gone on to Oglethorpe to train the prison officials at that point.”
My friend and myself were emphatic in our opinions of Turner, nor was it with a view to appeasing the wrath of the prison Adjutant that we wished him well, for he had been kind to the prisoners so far as his very limited power extended.
Two guards led us down to the front of the Pemberton Building, and within a few minutes about 150 men, recently captured in the Valley and in the battles with Grant, were brought down. It was no doubt the idea that some respect should be shown Gordon and myself as officers that induced Latouche to place us at the head of the line formed by fours behind us. We marched past Libby, but it was empty; even the prison office was locked up.
“What do you think of Libby now?” I asked Gordon.
“Think?” he repeated as he looked up spitefully at the glassless, barred windows, “I think it looks like h-l, with the fires gone out,” and the illustration struck me as being graphic, if inelegant.
But Castle Thunder was not empty. Men in citizen’s dress, men in shabby gray, and men in faded blue, and still some men who seemed to have nothing on but their ragged shirts, crowded at the windows to see us pass. Deserters, “spies,” suspects, good men and no doubt bad men cheered us in a shrill way, and called down to the men behind to know how the battle for the Union was going. The brave, ringing replies of the last arrivals from the front did my heart good. The language was not choice and there was no need for so much profanity, but, there was no mistaking the spirit in which they shouted up:
“We are cleaning them out!” We pushed them out of the Wilderness d--‘em!” “Patience and the Yanks’ll be here in a day or two!” “We’ve got fifty prisoners to their one!” “Hancock gobbled a whole corps yesterday at Spottsylvania!” “Hurrah for the Union!”
The latter shout was so suggestive of a then popular song that the boys took up the ringing chorus:
“The Union forever! Hurrah, boys, hurrah!
Down with the traitors, and up with the stars.
For we’ll rally round the flag, boys; rally once again,
Shouting the battle cry of freedom!”
A young Lieutenant in charge of the guards became very indignant at this song and, waving his sword above his head, he threatened to cut every man down and turn the guards loose with their bayonets if it was not stopped, but the men finished it, and then began to jeer the Lieutenant unmercifully. He was asked if his “mamma knew he was absent from home,” and “how many men he’d ever killed between meals,” and “where did he ever get that sharp sword,” and “why Jeff Davis didn’t send him off to relieve Lee,” &c. He was no doubt heartily glad when he got us piled into six open box cars and the train was moving across the James to Manchester.