From the New
York Times, 26 April, 1891
IN HOSPITAL NUMBER TEN
SCENES AMONG DEAD AND DYING PRISONERS.
WHO HAD PASSED BEYOND DESPAIR AND WERE INSENSIBLE TO PAIN – BRAVE HEARTS THAT
LIVED THROUGH IT – OFF FOR THE SOUTH.
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
“’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
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
“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
“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
“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
pas. 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
“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.
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