HUNGRY DAYS AND NIGHTS
FOOD A SUBJECT OF CONVERSATION AND OF DREAMS.
HOW LIBBY PRISONERS FARED AND THE COST OF VICTUALS - MERCHANTS EVEN THERE - THE
DISAPPEARANCE OF A HAM. Copyright, 1891, by the New York Times.
In writing my reminiscences of
Southern war prisons, I have given the incidents in something like chronological
order. But, before going on to describe the building of and the escape through
the famous Libby tunnel, it may be well to state certain facts about which I
have often been questioned by friends who learned of my imprisonment. Officers
who gambled in the army did not lose their love for games of chance in Libby
Prison. These men were in the minority, but the few packs of greasy cards in
their possession - how they got them I cannot pretend to say - were in pretty
constant use - and poker was as fascinating to its votaries within those gloomy
walls, more so perhaps, than if played in the most luxurious “card parlor” of
New York City.
Money? No, there was no
visible money, but wooden chips were used in lieu of ivory ones, and the losers
gave notes or orders, on their pay to the winners. Some men, and these the men
who could least afford it, had not only lost their back pay, but pledged their
“honor” for large sums, and with such men “a debt of honor” contracted at a
gambling table is even more obligatory than a debt of duty. It was reported that
one expert at poker had won from his fellow-prisoners over twenty thousand
dollars, the greater part of which, I am told, he collected at the close of the
In striking contrast with the
narrow selfishness of the poker players was the great good done by “The Libby
Minstrels.” This troupe had been organized by Capt., now Col., Maas, of the
Eighty-eighth Pennsylvania, then a resident of Reading, and now, I believe, a
clerk in the Philadelphia Custom House. Capt. Maas was a quiet, unobtrusive man,
but he had the talents - every prisoner in Libby certainly believed so - of a
first-class comedian. He was a wonderful mimic, a master of the negro and
Pennsylvania Dutch dialects, and he could tell a funny story and sing a comic
song in a way that made the listeners forget for the time their hunger and their
Capt. Chandler of New York - I
cannot recall his regiment at this moment, but I hope the brave fellow is living
and well - had a violin which he had bought from the Confederates when money was
more plentiful and the rules less strict. In his line Capt. Chandler was an
artist, and the belief was very general among the prisoners that he was better
than Paganini at his best, and that he could have given any living fiddler
points and then beaten him with the greatest ease.
Among 1,300 men, some of whom
had been actors, and all of whom were eager to further and maintain the
enterprise, there was no trouble in organizing a minstrel troupe of a superior
class. Beef ribs supplied the bones, and these were the most conspicuous
instruments in the orchestra, Chandler’s fiddle and Maas’s extemporized banjo
comprising the rest.
The entertainments were given
at night in the cook room. The tables were arranged at the Casey Street end, so
as to make a stage; blankets were tacked up for scenery, and charred wood from
the stoves supplied the place of burnt cork, and gave the actors an appearance
of the genuine thing. A majority of the audience stood in a solid mass, the
shorter men up front and the taller ones to the rear. As a printed programme was
out of the question, “the interlocutor,” who acquitted himself with professional
dignity, always announced the changes, and there was a very general belief that
to save the tax on his memory he made them up as the performance went on. Songs,
sentimental and comic; dances, principally comic; stump speeches, broadly comic;
railroad collisions with nothing tragic in them, and jokes - old, but all the
better for that - constituted the principal features.
Many of the Confederate
officers came in to these entertainments, and their presence was always made the
occasion for war jokes and satire against the prison management, which they had
the sense to take good-naturedly. As there were no ladies in the audience, many
of the stories had what Thackeray calls “a strong garrison flavor,” but it
should be said in justice to the performers, to whom we were indebted for so
much pleasure, that they were broad without being vulgar and humorous with being
obscene. The audience lent a hand by asking the interlocutor questions and
joining in the choruses. I recall the following conversation between a tall man
at the back of the room and the manager on the stage:
Tall Man - Brother Johnsing,
may I ask a question?
Brother Johnsing - Before I
replies to dat ar’ proposition I wants some information, Sah.
Tall Man - What is it?
Brother Johnsing - Did you buy
a reserved seat, er is you a deadhead?
Tall Man - A deadhead, I’m
happy to say.
Brother Johnsing - Fire away,
Sah, deadheads am privileged folks in dis building; dey are de on’y ones kin
leave it widout bein’ exchanged.
Tall Man- Ain’t you hungry?
Brother Johnsing - Monstis
hungry; has yeh found anything to eat?
Tall Man - If Jeff Davis
released you on condition that you did not take up arms again during the war,
would you accept?
Brother Johnsing (in
thundering tones) - No, Sah! I’ll allow Ize on’y a d-d nigger, but I ain’t got’s
low as dat yit.
This declaration from the
stage was greeted by three cheers, and “three cheers more,” followed by a tiger
that might have been heard at the Executive Mansion on the hill.
I recall a snatch of one song
entitled “Ham Fat,” that always made me feel hungrier, and which, as Capt. Maas
sang it, was always accompanied by long-drawn “Ahs!” and the smacking of a
thousand pairs of lips in concert:
“They took me in at
Gettysburg upon a July day;
They confiscated all my kit, and trotted me away.
But when I get out of Libby I’ll go to Uncle Sam,
For he’s got the bread a-bakin’ and he frying ob the ham.”
Chorus - by full company
“Ham fat, ham fat - tinkleam a tan;
Ham fat, ham fat - how are you Sally Ann?
Oh, creep down to the kitchen softly ez you can,
For de meat is brown and sizzlin’ in the ham fat pan.”
These minstrel entertainments
were always through before the guards announced 9 o’clock and shouted “Lights
out.” At the close the performers came to the front and one or sometimes a
quartet, would sing “Rally Round the Flag, Boys,” “We Are Coming, Father
Abraham,” “Glory, Hallelujah,” and “The Star-Spangled Banner,” every man
throwing his voice into the chorus in a way that stirred the heart, and reminded
the Methodist prisoners “powerfully of camp-meeting times,” so one of them
Sometimes two or three
courts-martial were under way at the same time in Libby, and they were
conducted, if not with the solemn decorum of the genuine thing, with marked
ability, for the legal profession was well represented in prison, and it was
surprising how many of the lawyers were clever speakers. One peculiarity of
these courts was that no matter how strong the evidence or able the defense for
the accused, he was invariably found “guilty as charged,” and one sentence was
pronounced on every class of imaginary offender - “imprisonment for life -
unless sooner exchanged.”
And here one of the saddest
incidents of my Libby experience comes to my mind. One afternoon I was a member
of a mock court that had before it for trial my friend, and the friend of all
who knew him, Capt. Forsyth of Sandusky, who, with many of his regiment, the One
Hundredth Ohio, was swept away in one of Longstreet’s fierce charges at
Chickamauga. The Captain was, of course, found guilty, and I recall that the
sentence was slightly varied in his case; it was, “And you shall be confined in
prison till you die or are exchanged.” As these courts were organized to divert
our thoughts and make us laugh, we laughed at Forsyth, little dreaming how soon
the gallant fellow was to be “called” from Libby without exchange.
Col. Carlton and all the
captured officers of the One Hundredth Ohio had their quarters in the north end
of the Upper Chickamauga Room, as close to the barred windows as it was safe to
get. Nearly every hour in the day the guards in the street below would raise
their rifles to fire at the prisoners, who, in the surging throngs, ever moving
to keep warm, were frequently thrown beyond the danger line. The guards were
acting under orders, but they always shouted a warning, which was quickly
heeded. It was the morning after the mock court-martial, and Forsyth and Lieut.
Kelley of the same regiment chanced beyond the danger line. There was a guard
below who had never fired at a Yankee in battle, or he would have given some
warning of his purpose.
The crack of a rifle rang out
on Carey Street. A death cry thrilled through the Upper Chickamauga Room, and a
crowd of ragged men, trembling with horror and burning with indignation,
gathered around two comrade prostrate on the floor. One raised the young
Captain’s head to his knee, he was a comrade who had stood shoulder to shoulder
with him in many a battle. He called his name, but the sound fell on the ears of
one who had answered another call.
The bullet that pierced
Forsyth’s brain and passed through it struck Kelley in the throat, and so great
was the flow of blood that it seemed for a time that he, too, must die. Young
Kelley belonged to the family after whom Kelley’s Island, in Lake Erie and not
far from Sandusky, is called. Major Turner came up with a doctor and a guard,
and Kelley was taken down to the hospital, where he recovered in a few weeks.
The Captain’s body was carried down to the dead cart - and that was all. The
guard, who was neither arrested nor relieved, said that when he raised his piece
to warn the prisoners back “it went off by accident.” He had murdered a Yankee,
but before the indignation of the veteran Confederates he did not care to boast
of the deed.
Those of us who were fortunate
enough to bring greenbacks into Libby had no trouble in disposing of them
through Little Ross or Adjutant Latouche, at the rate of from fifteen to twenty
for one. For my $100 I received $1,600. On the face of it this looks like a
respectable sum of money, but even if its purchasing power had been greater, it
would not have gone far where so many were in need. A people less proud and more
prudent than the Confederates would have yielded to the inevitable before this.
Their army was thinned out, their currency was nearly valueless, and food, even
of the most essential kind, was fabulously high. While our money lasted we paid
$10 a peck for white potatoes, $2 a pound for lard, slightly rancid; $5 a peck
for cornmeal, $1 apiece for eggs - half of them bad; 75 cents a pound for flour,
and $1 each for runty red onions; the latter were a great luxury. Coffee was
away out of sight, better a luxury for free men and Presidents, and sugar, of a
sticky, semi-molasses character was almost beyond reach.
The money was going down every
day and the prices were going up, yet these heroic people clung to their cause,
though even through the prison bars we could see that desperation had taken the
place of hope.
I have often been asked to
describe the feeling of prolonged hunger, but no man can describe a feeling,
whether it be pleasureable or painful. It is possible to tell of the
accompanying thoughts, but even here the most graphic pen would find itself
almost at a halt. For weeks, aye for months, I have had, night and day, the
sensation of an awful burning inside that water could not quench nor hard corn
bread appease. Imagining that if the food could be made to rest for a while over
that burning spot it might relieve me, I have gnawed at my corn bread, lying
down, hoping that it would allay the intense craving; but the experiment failed,
and, after it, I felt a keener agony for having my mind concentrated on the seat
of the pain.
In my dreams - and this was
the experience of others - tables piled high, not with desserts, but with juicy
meat and mountains of white bread and flagons of milk and mounds of golden
butter and pots of odorous coffee, would be spread out before me. Maddened by
the hunger, still burning me in my sleep, I would reach out to eat, only to have
the food elude my grasp. Then I would wake with a start to hear the ceaseless
coughing of the long ranks on the floor, and to curse in my heart the guards,
who shouted from their posts that “All was well!” Often in thinking of the happy
days gone past, when full and plenty were before me at my own father’s board, I
have called myself a fool for not having eaten more when I had a good chance.
I had one friend, named Von
Klodt, whose imagination was so powerfully excited by his continuing hunger that
he could talk about nothing but food. The Lieutenant was an Austrian officer who
had come over here to learn war from experience. He secured a staff place for
which he was well qualified, being a man of courage and culture, and withal a
generous, kindly gentleman; but the poor fellow was captured. I could see him
getting leaner and more ragged day by day, but he bravely tried to cheer me and
himself up by describing the dishess to be had in the famous restaurants in
Vienna. As he spoke about them, his blue eyes would enlarge and he would smack
his lips as if he were enjoying the rare viands his imagination had conjured up.
He would talk to me by the hour on that one subject. He had come to believe that
eating was the one great purpose of life. Heaven - his heaven certainly at that
time - was a place where the saints devoted themselves to Vienna cooking, and
the angels did nothing but wait on new arrivals from Southern prisons. From the
way he talked I was led to believe that if he ever got out and reached Austria
he would resign from the Emperor’s service and devote the rest of his life -
when he was not sleeping - to eating. As I recall these tantalizing talks with
Von Klokt I actually feel hungry again.
Of all places one would think
that Libby Prison would have been the last in which the commercial spirit that
has added so much to the wealth of the Republic would manifest itself, but
fidelity to the picture compels me to say that there were a few men in prison
who made money out of the necessities of their fellows. Two of these men, who
had come in with their greenbacks, exchanged them for graybacks and went into
business. They messed alone, slept alone, and, with an eye to the main chance,
they conducted business alone. They were established on each side of the door
that led from the Lower Chickamauga into the Lower Potomac room. They had
invested their money in white potatoes, red onions, tobacco, and wheat flour,
and these articles they sold in driblets at much higher rates than the
These fellows lived well, and
they might have continued to prosper had not hunger been more powerful with some
of the prisoners that their reverence for the Decalogue. One night a raid was
made on these prison sutlers, and the next morning their stock in trade and
their money were gone. After this they became as hungry and ragged as the rest
of us. I feel pretty sure that the survivors from the Upper Potomac room could
to-day name the principals in this brilliantly executed raid. I mention this
selfishness because its rarity made it conspicuous among the many prisoners,
who, in the main, were as self-denying and sympathetic as they were patriotic
Since my prison experience I
have been strongly of the opinion that there is a limit to the temptation which
even the strongest man can stand. This has certainly been my own experience, as
the following incident will prove: Near the particular post that marked the
place where two friends and myself tried to sleep under one blanket at night -
it was in the Upper Chickamauga room - a solemn, saturnine man could be found at
all hours, seldom moving, and always brooding over the situation. He was a
regimental Quartermaster, and it was impossible to get him to talk, even about
food or exchange, two subjects on which every other man in prison was ready to
grow eloquent, prophetic, and imaginative at a moment’s notice. Like Dundreary’s
bird, this gentleman, because there were no other birds of the same feather at
hand, ‘flocked by himself.” When boxes of food and clothing were being received
and delivered from friends in the North, ‘the hermit of the Upper Chickamauga,”
as some of us called him, received a god supply, and as he never asked anybody
to partake of his bounty, his luxuries held out long after the rest of us were
As a Quartermaster, this man
had learned the art of caring for himself, and if he is living today - as is my
sincere wish - he must be one of the richest men in Wisconsin, for he had a
positive genius for economy. The last of his supplies remained in the shape of a
ham, and this ham he kept suspended from a nail in the post directly over where
I lay. Every morning he would cut off a slice and hurry down to the stove and
cook it in a pan made of corn can, and he would save every drop of the gravy by
sopping his corn bread in it.
The poorest man in the country
to-day does not envy the richest the possession of his millions as I envied that
Quartermaster the possession of that ham. When he went down to cook the precious
slice I would follow him, just to inhale the odor. The perfumeries of all time
never distilled anything more delicious than the smell of that frying ham. I saw
it growing smaller day by day, and I used to speculate as to how long he could
make it last. The peninsula of bone that connected the two rich continents of
meat grew longer every morning. That ham, like the forbidden fruit to the first
mother, gradually and irresistibly possessed me with a yearning to try it. I
suggested to Capt. Edmund Dawn, who slept with me and was one of the leaders of
the prison prayer meetings, that we raid the Quartermaster’s ham, but he shook
his head and said “I t wouldn’t be right.”
“If I - appropriate it, will
you help eat it?” I asked.
“Well,” said my pious and
gallant friend, “if Heaven was to send a little meat in my way about this time,
I should eat it with thanks, nor ask where it came from.”
This declaration from so good
an authority on ethics decided me, and I laid my plans accordingly. The next
morning at daylight, when the guards came in to drive us into the Upper Potomac
for roll-call, I remained under my blanket on the floor - no unusual proceeding
on the part of prisoners.
A guard lifted the blanket
with his bayonet and asked:
“Are you sick?”
“Yes, report me as one, but I
don’t care to be sent to the hospital,” I replied.
The guard left, and as soon as
his back was turned I sprang to my feet and plucked down the ham. Even in that
moment of sin and greed I had some humanity left. I broke the bone on the floor
and hung up the part with the end attached (it was the smaller) and the big,
luscious lump I concealed inside my blouse, and then, afraid to look at the man
I ha despoiled, I hid my face in the blanket. In a few minutes the Quartermaster
appeared, and such a roar and such a storm of profanity I never heard before,
not even from a mule driver with a stalled team. He questioned me and I referred
him to the guard. But he must have doubted me, for he asked: “Why in h-- didn’t
he take it all?”
“I cannot pretend to explain
the gentleman’s consideration,” I said, with a boldness that surprised myself.
Until the remnant of his ham
was gone, the Quartermaster carried it about with him and slept with it.
As soon as I could do so with
safety, I invited my own mess down to the stoves. I cooked every scrap of the
ham and sopped the corn bread in the delicious gravy. It was not till the
sumptuous repast was over that Capt. Dawn made any comment; then he drew his
ragged sleeve across his yellow mustache and whispered:
“May God forgive you, Captain;
but wasn’t it good!”