11 - RETURN TO ANDERSONVILLE
Governor Orr's plantation was about thirty miles from my captors plantation, and about one hundred miles from Charleston. It contained one thousand acres of the best land in the country. The Governor had nine hundred and eighty slaves upon it including the very young Negroes. I was ushered into the Governor's presence by this introduction - "well Governor, I brought you a yank, he run away from Andersonville and Mr. Blank caught him when he was nearly back to Sherman's army".
The Governor looked at me kindly, and humorously, and said " well I suppose you have had a pretty hard run. But I suppose you got pretty tired of Andersonville, and I don't know as I can blame you- it's a tough place on you boys I guess. But the fact is, you know, that we can't feed our own boys in the army as they should be. Captain Wirz is probably too cruel, and bad, in his treatment of the boys there". This he said very seriously and with much feeling. It was plain to be seen that the Governor was possessed of much refinement and sympathy. "Well, I believe that Wirz and Winder will roast in hell if there are any who will" I said with passion. The Governor smiled and said " Well, I do believe there is a hereafter for us all." "Yes, and so do I" I said, "and hell isn't any too good for those miserable devils who have caused such awful suffering and death in that hell on earth".
We sat in the shade of the trees, upon the spacious lawn, beside the splendid mansion, which was nearly surrounded by a grand piazza. He said, " I will not restrict your going anywhere on the premises, but do not attempt to escape because, I warn you, the dogs will do you harm if you do, as they are all well trained. You will have the boy to escort you anywhere on the place you wish to go, he is a relation to myself. After you rest up for a while we shall go out to see the people at work if you care to.
When he was ready to go, the footman, a mulatto boy of about eighteen years of age, drove us out to the cotton field. Here a sight met our gaze which I shall never forget. A vast cotton field stretched from us, which hundreds of slaves, some as black as coal, some almost white, from childhood to old age, were pulling the white cotton and putting it into baskets. The children running and tossing it into the baskets with glee in their work, and as naked as the day they came into the world. The others were covered only with kind of a girdle of cloth, resembling a gunny sack, which hung less than to the knees. The overseer stood over them with a great black snake whip in his hands. He was a large burlish Irishman and proud of his job. A shout from this ruffian, and the lagging ones were strained quivering to keep in line.
But Governor Orr was good to his slaves, not one being brutally treated with his knowledge or consent. He deplored the nakedness of the slaves, but as he said, "we can't get clothing for them at any price, there is none to be had".
There were three big cookhouses where all the pickaninies ate their meals. The little fellows ate out of troughs located on the sunny side of the cabins. The cornmeal mush and milk was poured into troughs as if we would feed our pigs in the North. They fed from both sides of the trough, eating with mussel shells. They were all absolutely naked, none of the children were put to work until they were about fifteen years of age, unless it was very light tasks. There were several white ladies in the mansion. Two of them I believe, were wives of Confederate soldiers. They were eager to learn of the condition of affairs in the Andersonville prison from a Yanks point of view. I had only to cite my own clothes as an example of the conditions in that respect. There was little left of my covering to show it had been a blue uniform.
While the Governor was not busy with his correspondence he was driving with his family on the plantation. He thought that the war was a mistake on account of there un-preparedness, but they had expected more help from Great Britain than had come to them, he said. They had a most distressing time to get bailing wire for the cotton; getting only one cargo from Britain. General Kilpatrick had destroyed a whole trainload of goods, most of which were materials for guns and cotton bailing. He lamented this very sorely and couldn't see that the Union was justified in such destruction. He couldn't believe that Johnson would fail to defeat Sherman. They all seemed astonished to see that I was as well informed in government affairs, and the history of the nation, as I was.
I had the pleasure of staying three days on this beautiful plantation, and I was to be taken to the provost office in Macon. Before this time we heard that our men were leaving Atlanta in squads and this news cheered me, but filled the women especially with apprehension. Will Sherman and his men abuse the defenseless people? they asked, "oh my no!, don't you know that we have been feeding and giving fuel to thousands of your people in the city of Memphis?".
We drove to the provost office, in the city of Macon, by the Governor's carriage drawn by a span of mules. The Governor, his footman, and myself comprised the party. I was really sorry to leave the great plantation where I had been treated so well. One thing I was restricted in very closely- that was not to talk to the slaves other than in asking them for something I required for my physical comfort. When the Governor was preparing to leave me, he gave me five dollars in Confederate moneys saying "now you will likely need this for necessities before you are returned to headquarters."
The provost was as dignified as a king on the throne, he asked me "where did you come from, and why did you leave?" In answer to this very simple question I said, "well, I just thought that I was in hell long enough". He looked very sober. Turning to the guards he said "take this man to the guard house". "The guardhouse is full" they promptly answered. "Well put him in the bullpen then" he quickly commanded. There were fifteen prisoners in the bullpen. Some had just come from Grant's army, two from Sheridan's at Shenandoah, and the others from Foster's division in Wilmington. Sheridan's men said they had been two weeks on the way. They tried to cheer me by saying "we'll soon be out of here". They were all very hungry. Soon after I had joined them, women came to sell us johnnycake and pies; and how happy we were that the Governor had given me the five dollars for just such a purpose as this. The pies were made without salt or shortening; no wonder, salt was worth one dollar a pound, and lard couldn't be had at any price.
The following morning at nine o'clock, when the train came, we were loaded to be taken to the Andersonville prison. I must confess that my homesickness was rather acute just then. I often wished since that my army comrades could have seen me; the great patches on my pants, the broad rimmed hat which the Governor had given me, my hair hanging down over my shoulders - I surely presented a rather amusing site.
At about two o'clock we arrived at Andersonville where the usual red tape was gone through before we were presented at the gate of the prison. "Tell Captain Wirz that we have some men for him" said the Sergeant to one of Wirz's minor officers. In a few moments the tall, thin, cruel looking man, was before us. I happened to be in front, and so of course was the first to be questioned. He immediately began "where did do you come from?, Where do you belong?" "Well, If I really were where I belonged, it would be in the 96th Illinois" I answered. "Oh! you're the son-of-a-_ _ _ _ _ that helped dig the tunnel and got away. By God, you know what I think I do with you? I better kill you by God." "Why, you have already killed about fifteen thousand of our men in this hell hole, and it wouldn't be any worse to kill me than it was to kill any others that you have." "I'll believe I'll shoot you! - Goddamn you!" he said almost shaking with rage. "Shoot away, I don't care, I can only die once. I suppose I might as well die now as to go through any more misery" I said feeling resigned to anything that might come to me. Turning abruptly to one of his Sergeant's he said "go up to the cookhouse and get a chunk of johnnycake for this son-of-bitch". Then he preceded to examine the other members of our party. We were all admitted to the prison without difficulty after my narrow escape.
There were many sad changes had taken place in my absence of four weeks. Two boys of our company had died of scurvy. They were great big and strong fellows when we went into Andersonville. The ranks had been thinned by death. Many thousands had been taken to other prisons to empty the prison as fast as possible, because of the liability of Sherman taking it. Some had been taken to the wilderness in North Carolina, others to Mississippi, and so on to avoid our being returned by our army, where there was danger of our forces coming near.
A Michigan man by the name of Wilson, a very religious and good man, had taken my place as Sergeant of our division. But upon my return he was anxious to have me resume my place in the division, as dispenser of rations. He hadn't satisfied the boys in one respect, and that was to do trading for them. We had some clever men who could make excellent pipes, and rings, and other trinkets out of the laurel root. These they had turned over to me to trade to the guards for provisions, and we secured a considerable amount in that way.
Our position was favorable for a gathering of a considerable number of men, and Mr. Wilson had used to a good advantage in having religious meetings. Though we hadn't had a Bible or hymnbook, there were many of the men who were well versed in scriptures and could also memorize hymns, so we had some very impressive meetings under the most trying circumstances - though there were a great many with good voices who could not sing on the account of the ravages of scurvy in their mouth's. One little fellow, Nat McClean, a New Englander, had a New Testament which his mother had given him that served us well. He read, and re-read it, while in prison. Mr. Wilson did, where he was acquainted, and where it was so wished, offer words of prayer for the dying.
I remember one very sad occasion - a boy of a neighboring Company of ours lay dying as a French Catholic Priest came by. I asked Alphonso if he would care to have the Priest visit him for a little while - "well I'm not a Catholic, nor I don't believe their way, but I guess it will not do any harm if he cares to come", he faintly said. "I don't believe I can get well" he added, exhausted but brave. The good Priest, kind and courteous to all, readily responded to our request to visit our dying boy. It was most touching to hear him pray for that poor boy. I tried to cheer him in telling him that he was going to get well after a while, though it seemed impossible that it could be so. About four o'clock in the morning I awoke and immediately went to see if he was well covered to protect him from the chill of dawn. I touched his face, he was chilled, but not by the chill of dawn of morning - his spirit had left the wasted body which was now cold and dead. Oh, it was heart rendering to see that boy of seventeen years starved to death.
The most heart-breaking thing of our prison experiences, was see the boys of tender years dying so far from their mother's care and love. A great many of the boys were immature and so required more food than we men. The deficiency in this alone no doubt caused many deaths. Many a ration I felt thankful to be able to share with these poor boys, and as we stayed longer our food became even more limited. Occasionally, by the occupancy of our troops of the most productive parts of the South, the guards often complained of being on half rations themselves. I brought some Laurel roots with me to Andersonville which the old man who captured me generously provided me with. So we converted them into pipes to trade to the guards for peanuts. This helped to compensate for the sad deficiency in rations.
One of the guards whom we got some peanuts from said "so do you know that you are going to Charleston?" Of course we were surprised, but he assured us that he had heard the officers say that about fifteen hundred of us were to be transferred there. A few days later some officers came to take a roll call of those who were to be transferred to Charleston, and they told us that we would soon be exchanged. We were elated over this news, as far as our doubts would allow us to be.