Prison Life, Ch. 4

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(From the Diary, of Sergeant A. P. SCHURTZ, Col. Baker’s Cal. Reg.)

November 10, 1861. - Having no bed but the hard floor, and no covering but our wearing-apparel, the cold air this morning was all-sufficient to arouse us early and cause an extra promenade of the floor to warm up the blood. Taking an early start, I deemed it possible to get down to the yard and wash before roll-call, and had so far succeeded as to be within two of getting out. At this critical moment (to me) the Rebel officers came in, and, in no very respectful manner, ordered all hands up-stairs. Nothing but an unreasoning obedience is permitted with these gentlemen, and, with any thing but pleasant feelings, I returned.

This diurnal duty of roll-call being accomplished, another rush was made for the steps, and, although going at “double-quick,” I came in line some twenty-five to the rear. Only two being allowed out at a time, and they staying as long as possible, nearly an hour had elapsed ere I had completed my morning ablutions. The authorities here not being remarkable for their sagacity, or else being careless of any convenience afforded, seem to think one pump sufficient for the uses of five hundred men. We endure it, but not good-humoredly.

After our wash, instead of having nice linen towels, we appropriate our coat-tails and shirt-sleeves, - which I judge improved but little our appearance in the way of cleanliness.

By this time it was eight A. M., and our room was all astir. It were folly for us to think of a meal we once knew by the name of breakfast, for it seemed as though the fast would never break; and the next important question that presented itself was, how to pass the time.

In one corner of the room, a member of Colonel Baker’s California Regiment had a morning paper, and crowded around him were perhaps fifty, endeavoring to hear the news. I certainly was among the number, and discovered that the destination of the “Yankee fleet” and abuse of the “Hessians” generally constituted the burden of the song chimed by the “Richmond Dispatch.” The news being devoured, and the prospects of being set to work on Rebel entrenchments, or of being hung, having received a full discussion by groups assembled here and there, an hour was spent in dreamy idleness, when suddenly a cry of “Bread on the first floor!” rang through the room. Delightful intelligence to men who had eaten nothing for sixteen and a half hours, and then only half as much as they wanted! In a few minutes the bread arrived upon the floor, and, being divided into our respective squads, the half-loaf - weighing perhaps five ounces - was distributed to each.

The avidity with which each man gnawed his crust was ample evidence of his hunger. But a few moments elapsed before we received our allowance of boiled beef without salt; yet the bread by this time, in many cases, was all devoured. Breakfast being over, a sporting crowd, composed of members of the 1st California, 15th and 20th Massachusetts, seated themselves on our only chair (the floor) and engaged in an exciting game of “penny poker;” others pitched pennies, played euchre, draughts, &c. But the main portion would for a while gaze out on the capital of Rebeldom, and then, taking the floor for a stool, sit like “Patience on a monument, smiling at grief.” In retired spots could be seen the more thoughtful, perusing with manifest delight a Bible or Testament, rendered doubly sacred by being the last token of the affection of a doting parent or loving sister.

Looking upon these scenes, in such a situation, the feelings that fill a man’s bosom are indescribable. It is here that we feel the loss of home comforts, our jovial associates, and all we once held dear; but “Hope is our sheet-anchor,” and buoys up the unconquerable American’s spirit.

From twelve M. to four P. M. another important duty must be performed, and, as all hands are deeply interested, we participate with a lively interest. Our combined effort is, therefore, a war of extermination on “the defenceless” vermin, which have become so numerous and extremely annoying that an existence mingled with any happiness must result not only in “subjugating” these pestiferous devils, but completely “crushing them out.”

Our sentinels keep a vigorous look-out that we do not get our beads out of the windows and thereby get a snuff of fresh air; or, if we should happen to transgress thus much upon God’s atmosphere from a third-story window, be waits not to warn us, but, without any scruples, does his utmost to be the “death of a d--d Yankee.” We had a practical illustration of their feelings to-day, by being fired at while gazing out of a closed window. The bullet missed the head of a comrade by only a few inches, and passed through the roof. It is needless to add that the sentinel was considered a “brave” by his ignorant and brutal comrades.

The time intervening between a meal nominally known as breakfast and that of supper, is about seven and a half hours, which brings supper (we have no dinner) at seven P.M. Besides our delicate five ounces of bread, we are then favored with a half-pint of soup, made from the fat extracted from the boiled beef eaten in the morning, with a slight mixture of Indian meal.  At the hour mentioned, six dirty buckets full of this delicacy are brought us by the darkey prisoners under guard. The appointed sergeant deals out each little mite, and a very short time suffices to finish our not very sumptuous repast.

Cards being scarce, only a few can indulge in that delightful amusement; and various are the means devised for the evening’s entertainment. This evening we were treated with songs both comic and pathetic, tragic scenes by those who had at some time figured in some capacity on the stage in Boston, Philadelphia, or New York, and ending with extemporaneous speeches on subjects better calculated to amuse than to instruct.  The “universal Yankee” is undoubtedly here, and he is determined to make prison-life as endurable and pleasant as circumstances and the Rebels will permit.

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