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Chapter 4:

  • The wounded from Shiloh
  • -- inquisitive negroes -- an abomination -- a striking contrast -- Tom -- attempted escape -- an Ingenious darkey -- rebel fare -- the Irish sergeant -- narrow escape -- Mending clothes and getting news -- horrible scenes in prison -- a discussion.

During my imprisonment, many wounded soldiers from Corinth, were brought to Columbus. The leading men were painfully struck at the loss of General Albert Sidney Johnson. My prison-life was romantic and instructive, and I endeavored to make a partial atonement for its deprivations. The negroes, whose business it was to bring our victuals, and keep the prison in some sort of order, were generally inquisitive in their looks, and often in their words. They wondered why so many white men were confined and guarded. I was much interested with two negro waiters, who came daily to our room, one about twelve, and the other about fifteen years of age. Said George, the younger:

Massa, when's you gwine to take Memphis?

“Why? George!” said one of our party. [56]

“Kase my mother's dar, and she'll be free when de Linkum sogers gits Memphis.”

“George,” said I, “what do you know about freedom?”

“Why, Lor‘ massa, I know'd if you'd whip 'em up dar, us colored folks 'ud all be free, an' dat's what makes dem rebels fight like de debel, God bless you massa, I knows why. When de war broke out, I was livina up in old Kentuck, and dey say now we'se got to take dis here nigger off, or else de Yankees will hab him. I hoped and prayed dat de Yankees would git me. God bless you, massa, I knows.”

From this time I began to be more than ever interested in the negroes. I discovered a latent talent in the despised race. I resolved to investigate this new field of inquiry. The older one of these waiters and myself, had afterward many a friendly interview. He told me that he had been reared in New Orleans. His father was a white man, who often comforted his innocent victim, by saying that her offspring should be sent North to freedom. But when hostilities began, he entered the army, forgetful alike of his promises and his crimes. This outraged woman was afterward hired to a planter, to work in a cotton-field, while her son was sent [57] to Columbus, as a hotel waiter. Such, thought I, are some of the barbarities of this horrid system of enslavement.

About this time a Colonel was appointed as commandant of this post, vice ex-Governor Whitefield. Our boarding and location were now changed, and we were placed in a back room and fed on scanty rations of corn-bread minus salt, and an indifferent supply of tainted meat, which emitted a very disagreeable effluvia.

While in this condition, and lying on the bare floor, a citizen entered and informed us that his brother-in-law was then a prisoner in Columbus, Ohio. He said he had been taken at Fort Donelson, and that his wife had that day received a letter from him, and that he was walking the streets of Columbus, carrying his side-arms, and boarding at the American House!

This statement aroused my indignation. I never before felt so keenly my condition, and when he attributed the lenity of our government to cowardice and a disposition to admit the superiority of southern claims and dignity, and stigmatized us as “invaders” of their soil and suffering justly as such, I could not restrain the fiery wrath that burned within me. I have a faint recollection of seeing the man hurrying in [58] greedy haste from the prison, doubtless impelled by the fear of something to come.

Again we were indebted to the kind services of our ever-faithful and unwavering friends of the race despised. One, who flourished under the sobriquet of “Tom,” rendered us efficient aid. Our object was to escape from the prison, and for this purpose Tom brought us a rope and chisel. With the chisel, I cut a hole through the prison floor, but after laboring faithfully for some time, I discovered that the room below was filled to the ceiling with boxes and bales containing commissary stores. I had arranged with Tom, who had brought me a desiderated map of Mississippi and Tennessee, to leave that night, he occupying a station on the outside, ready to aid me if necessary, and supplied with sufficient provisions for my contemplated flight.

When I found myself foiled in my effort to pass through the floor, I turned my attention to the hearth of the room, which I took up, intending to let myself down at that point, and make my escape through a window below, which was covered by a projecting roof. But just as I was about to take away the keystone of the hearth, I heard the guard cry out, Corporal o‘ de guard, post number fo‘, which arrested my attention, [59] and moving toward the window, discovered in the darkness of the night, that the rain was falling in torrents. Again my ear caught the voice of the guard, who, in his peculiar Southern intonations, was addressing the corporal.

“I's gittin‘ all wet; put me undah dat ar windah, dar.”

So the guard was stationed under the window where I had contemplated making my exit, and all my plans, for the nonce, were frustrated.

Early the next morning Tom came to the door and said:

Why you don‘ didn't come, massa?

“Why, Tom, that room below is full of commissary stores.”

“Why, massa, I don‘ ought to have told you dat, but I don‘ didn't know it.”

Tom came in, and I exhibited the hole in the floor, and assured him that if the fact of its existence were not concealed, I should be either sent to jail or hung. He looked at it, and fruitful as he was of expedients, soon devised a remedy. He first tacked a piece of carpet over the hole, and afterward, finding that it would yield if trodden upon, constructed a rude seat immediately above it.

This, and other manifestations of intellectual and mechanical aptness, led me into a train of [60] reflection concerning a race so decried and degraded. I asked with Campbell-

Was man ordained the slave of man to toil,
Yoked with the brutes, and fettered to the soil;
Weighed in a tyrant's balance with his gold?

No! Nature stamped us in a heavenly mould!

She bade no wretch his thankless labor urge,
Nor, trembling, take the pittance and the scourge.

From this time I became deeply interested in my African protege. He seemed keenly alive to his condition. He told me in a conversation that “the colored people were all heathens — they knew nothing. I was talking,” he added, “with massa and missus dis mornin‘, and missus asked me, ‘Tom what you tink of dem Yankees?’ ”

“ ‘Ah,’ says I, ‘missus, I don‘ don't like em at all. Dey won't have nothin‘ to say to a nigger.’ Den missus said, ses she.”

“ ‘Tom, don't you know dese Yankees are comin‘ down har to confisticate all you cullod people?’ Now, she tink I don‘ don't know what ‘confisticate’ means; spec ‘ she tinks I tought it was to kill. God bless you, massa, I knows it is to free de darkies, and den dis pore nigger have hoss and carriage, if I don’ can work and pay for 'em. While I was talkin‘ wid massa and missus, I stood and shake all over. I tells [61] ‘em dat I is so ‘feared dat dey would come dat I don't know what for to do. God bless you, don't you tink dey was fool enough to tink I was afeerd. Ha! ha! ha!”

The hours wore heavily on in that dreary prison-house. Tom brought our food in an old trough, which had doubtless been employed in feeding swine, and we were compelled to take in food in genuine primitive style. In a short time, we received intelligence that we were to be removed to another apartment in the same building, and I began to feel a degree of uneasiness lest my effort to escape should be discovered by the hole in the floor. Tom again befriended me. He ascertained that a printingpress was to be put up in the room the prisoners had occupied, and while assisting in the work succeeded in placing a portion of the stationary materials in such a manner as to effectually secrete the aperture.

As I have already intimated, our supply of food grew “smaller by degrees and horribly less.” Our gastronomic propensities were however, occasionally regaled by some delicacies (?) smuggled to us by Tom and his brother Pete. We did not care then to inquire whether they obtained them honestly or not, but the probability [62] is that they were appropriated from their master's larder.

One of our chief annoyances in this prison was in the person of a diminutive, pompous, and arrogant Irishman named Mackey, who seemed to rejoice in the title of “sergeant,” which he took great care to frequently ventilate in the presence of the prisoners. He was an orderly of the provost-marshal, and the fellow, clothed with a little brief authority, seemed to be impressed with the sole idea that tyranny was the only attribute of one so exalted. Once, when he came into my quarters, I asked him what object he could have in the rebel army, and what profit he expected to derive from the establishment of a confederacy?

“Enough, be jabers,” he replied. “You Yankees want to free our nagers, be sure, and we're all ferninst that here, and we won't submit at all, at all.”

“How many negroes have you, Mr. MacKEYey,” I asked.

“Why, sure, and be jabers, and I haven't a nager in the world.”

“Well, sir, what interest then can you have in this war?”

“Och, and be sure, a poor tool of an Irishman can hardly git a wee jab of work now, [63] and if these divels were free, wed have to go beggin‘ foriver.”

So, selfishness, in the guise of slavery and pride, forms the substratum of the so-called Southern Confederacy.

On further conversation with the sergeant, I learned that he had really no interest in the cause of the South, that he was not in the army from choice, but as a means of obtaining a livelihood, and that he bitterly cursed rebellion in his heart as the prolific parent of untold evils.

Our new room fronted the hotel, and from some of the officers we obtained permission to stand upon the balcony of the prison during a part of each evening. On one occasion we were ordered back by the guards. I hesitated a moment; but in that moment a guard leveled his piece and drew the trigger. Fortunately for me the gun missed fire, but at the same moment another guard fired, and killed a deaf man who had thrust his head from an upper window. Realizing the danger to which I was exposed, I instantly withdrew.

On the same evening, I noticed an unusual excitement among the rebel officials. To ascertain its cause I again had recourse to Tom. He requested me to tear a hole in my coat, and [64] then order him, in the presence of the guards, to take it to some tailor for repairs. He insisted that I should speak angrily to him, for such a course would more effectually deceive the guards. I did as he had directed, and he demurred, declaring that he wished dem “Yankees would mend dar own close.” The guards in a peremptory tone commanded him to get the coat, and have it repaired forthwith. This was what Tom desired; and with many protestations of hatred toward the whole Yankee race, he, with great apparent reluctance, carried the garment from the prison.

In a short time he returned, seemingly in the same mood, and with well-feigned indignation, handed over the coat. On examination I found a newspaper in one of the pockets which contained an account of the evacuation of Corinth, the surrender of Island No.10, and the bombardment of Fort Pillow, New Orleans, and other important information of which we had previously known nothing! This little artifice and its successful management, while it furnished me with very cheering intelligence, also gave me an elevated opinion of Tom's native talents.

Other prisoners continued to arrive, many of whom had been wounded in the battle of [65] Shiloh, and new quarters were prepared for them. They were incarcerated in an old stone building not far from our prison, and although wounded and almost famished, were compelled to lie upon the hard floor, their wounds undressed, and their physical wants unattended to. I obtained permission to visit them, and as I entered the house my eyes were pained by a sight that beggars description. Eighteen prisoners, “crushed by pain and smart,” occupied the room. There were men in that room who had been wounded for two weeks, and who, during that whole time, had not received the slightest attention. The result had been that their wounds were tainted with putrid flesh, and alive with crawling maggots! I obtained a list of their names at the time, but, as the reader will hereafter learn, was subsequently compelled to burn it. The only apology the rebel authorities could offer for this brutal neglect was that they were too busily employed in attending to the wants of their own to look to the welfare of others.

Many of the men died, some from their wounds, and others from disease. The sad and sickening scenes of prison life daily harrowed up the soul's keener susceptibilities, and one [66] by one they yielded up their lives a sacrifice for liberty.

On one occasion, I heard the guards engaged in an animated discussion concering their participation in the war. One of them remarked:

Bill, you and I are both poor men, and what in the name of God are we fighting for?

“Why, Tom, you haven't turned traitor to the Confederacy, have you?”

“No,” said he, “I can't say that I have, but I'd like mighty well to know what profit this whole thing will he to us poor people. I have a family, you know; and I have been forced to leave them, and here I am. You know how everything hes riz. There's flour now, and you can't git a barrel for less nor forty dollars, and pork is fifty dollars a hundred, and there aint a bit of salt to be got for love nor money. Now, I'd jist like to know what a man's family is going to do under such circumstances?”

Bill answered by saying:

This war aint a-going to last long. How'll them fellers do without cotton. They'll have to give in afore two months, for all their manufactures have stopped now.

“Don't you believe a word of that ‘ere stuff. It's all gammon, I tell you. They can do without us a great deal better nor we can do [67] without them. They've got the whole world to resort to, and can git their supplies anywhere they please.”

“Yes, I know that; but then they haint got anything other nations want. It was our cotton what brought all the gold and silver into the country.”

“There's that old song again. Why, they've got the best perducing land in the world. And their corn and cattle ain't to be sneezed at the world over.”

“Well, that may all be true,” rejoined the other, “but they can't whip us.”

“Well, suppose we whip them, what will be gained?”

“Why, we'll stop the ‘tarnal thieves from stealing our niggers.”

“Now that's a grand mistake. Don't you see every nigger in the South will break right for the North, for there won't be no Fugitive Slave Law then. And then you know what a dreadful time we had not long ago up Lowndes county with the niggers, for this here country's got twice as many niggers as whites?”

At this an angry dispute arose between them one declaring the other an abominable Yankee, and the other as stoutly denying it: Oaths were freely bandied, and the loyal Southerner [68] threatened to call the corporal of the guard, and have the other arrested. The latter in the mean time continued to protest that he had said nothing detrimental to Southern interests.

“Well, how did you know,” said the rabid secessionist, “about the cattle and corn in New York, if you had never lived there?”

“But I have been there, though I never lived in that region.”

“Well, if that's the case,” responded his antagonist, “you had better keep mighty quiet about it, or we'll treat you like we did John Peterson, that miserable Yankee that we hung last week to a pine tree.”

Just then the relief-guard came, and the conversation ceased. I noted down at the time the dialogue as it occurred, gave the manuscript subsequently to my friend Captain Steadman, who, in connection with other papers, as the reader will presently learn, carried it to Washington city, where I received it from him.

From all this, which was spoken in a most angry and boisterous manner, and while I held my ear to the key-hole of the prison-door, I learned what excessive antipathy the Southern people, as a mass, entertain towards persons of Northern birth. As the reader follows me through this book, other evidences of Southern [69] ignorance, malice, and inhumanity will arise, all of which I witnessed or experienced, and all of which are related with no spirit of hatred, but as an “ower true tale.” I do not relate these facts in the spirit of a politician, nor for political purposes; for the nativity, education, and political antecedents of myself and of the entire family from which I sprung, have developed a warm support of Democratic principles. To these I yet ardently adhere, though positively and absolutely repudiating that form thereof which in the slightest degree affiliates with treason or oppression.

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