12 - CHARLESTON
When the time arrived for us to go, we were loaded into a trainload of box cars. Beautiful fall weather was now making the country lovely. How sad it was to behold the awful pain and misery caused by man in the midst of the beauty and the peace of the rest of nature. When we were leaving Captain Wirz, he shouted, "now you boys can ride peacefully, or you can walk and be picked up, and taken somewhere else, if you do".
But we welcomed the shelter of a boxcar, there was only one guard to each car, and they were poor looking specimens of men for such responsibility. The engines all burned wood so we had the relief of a stop while the crews replenished the fuel supply. Our journey consumed twice the time necessary. When we passed through Charlotte, Sherman's army was within twenty miles of the city, and had we, who were able bodied enough to travel afoot, escaped from the train, we could have saved ourselves another trying experience. But we had all been harassed enough to discourage us in the possibility of bringing further trouble upon ourselves.
The weather was glorious all the while we were on this journey, which was a real blessing to us. The trip occupied two days and nights. Upon arriving at Charleston we were all carefully counted, and without breaking ranks, marched three or four blocks to our new prison. After arriving at Charleston the weather became very hot, and as we marched on the street, many of the sick an feeble fell in the way. It was here that the Sisters did acts of charity that we could never forget; they took our half-dead men and administered to them, so I do believe, several lives were saved right there.
Our prison here was no more, or no less, than three old tobacco warehouses; and five hundred of us were put into each warehouse. General Foster with his army of about ten thousand men were on Morris Island, about three miles from the city. He had done havoc to the city along the coast. The Arch buildings were thoroughly shattered by his cannonading. His force were increased by several gunboats to blockade the harbor. We were very much surprised to see the warehouses remaining in tact.
We had supper, which was really a pretty good one, and were skirmishing and ducking when I was called above to help in the settlement of a dispute. While there we suddenly saw a flash over the bay. At first we thought it was lightening, but as we looked in the same direction, a steady light came into view accompanied by a terrifying screech of a shell. It struck a brick building a few hundred feet beyond our position. The suddenness of such strenuous doings quite startled us - when a few moments later another flash, and a streak of flame with a terrific screeching noise, and another shell passed over us in what seemed to be the same pathway we were terrified. We now realized that Foster was resuming his bombardment of the city, and though he was unaware of our presence in this exposed position.
As darkness came upon us shells went over us every few minutes crashing into the brick blocks above and beyond us. Foster had a light that was thrown upon the object shot at. Some of the shells bursting inside of the building tore them to pieces. Other balls, in passing through the outer walls, made a hole large enough to drive a team of horses through. Our terror was indescribable as the firing continued. Each moment we expected one of those terrible shells to strike us.
Our brave boys were tested in a manner in the hours of that awful night, that I pray to God that none will ever be compelled to do again. Some went to their knees in prayers, others piteously implored help from somewhere, anywhere, to save us from the fate we momentarily expected. Others cursed with the whole strength of their being, shouting "give em hell!". This continued until nearly daylight when the firing ceased, but the prayers and curses continued the whole night. Everyone was completely exhausted by the terrible ordeal. Incredible as it may seem, I saw a man whose hair turned white in a few days there.
There were men who cried like babies in that place, who would have braved a whole Regiment in battle. Had we known that someone had secretly signaled Foster of our presence in the tobacco warehouses, we would have been spared most of the awful terror. But it seemed mighty risky to have so many shells fired over our heads, to drop only a few hundred feet beyond us. When one block was demolished, the fire was centered on another. It was gradually coming nearer to us. Our fears were greatly diminished after the first night, although we were not aware that Foster knew of our presence, even at that time.
Otherwise we were living well now, we were enjoying feasts of Cove oysters, which our sailor boys were getting out of the bay which partly surrounded the prison. We had gas to cook with, so we had both stewed and raw oysters. Of course we didn't have milk for the stewed ones. White bread was plentifully supplied to us - it was a real treat. Our good living was fast strengthening our men, we lost but forty men during our two week stay there.
Yellow fever was raging in the city. Every day we could see many families going to the woods, with tents, in an effort to escape the dread disease. Our guards tried to torment us by predicting our inhalation by it. As providence would have it, we lost only one man of it, and he was a traitor. We were not sorry to see him taken because of his treacherous scheming for favors from the Confederates. I told the guards that we had no fear of the disease owing to our thinness in flesh; and perhaps that fact had much to do in our immunity from the disease.
One night we beheld a terrible, but beautiful, sight when the great gas works of the city was put afire by shells from Foster's guns. The flames leaping above the great dense cloud of smoke was a terrible, but grand, spectacle. The firing ceased for about a half-hour. This great crowd of men and women and children gathered upon the scene. Suddenly firing was resumed from Foster's guns; one shot after another in quick succession and making awful havoc in the great crowd of people. It was the most pitiful sight to witness the awful destruction of life there in a few moments. It was told to us by the guards that the shells tore holes in the ground large enough to contain a team and a wagon.
The following day presented a sickening sight as the bodies, and parts of bodies, were gathered together for burial. Some parts of bodies were not found until several days later, being buried in the great holes made the shells.
Soon after this we heard that five hundred of the weakest and most decrepit were to be exchanged, but first we were to be removed from the tobacco warehouses. We heard that Foster had sent word to Charleston under a flag of truce; that he gave them just twelve hours to remove us or he would come into the harbor with the Confederate prisoners lashed to the masts and decks of the ship, and attack the city at close range.
We were removed to the "Race Track" grounds, the grandest in the whole country at that time, I should judge. Here we were confined only by guards surrounding us, and while we were here many of the guards died of the yellow fever. Some going on duty at the close of the day were dead and buried at daylight. As strange as it may seem, not one of our boys was even taken sick with it. While here we had fairly good food, but painfully limited.