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Chapter 12: wanted-a shirt.

  • Our Captors.
  • -- a hospitality not before encountered in the South. -- wanted, a shirt. -- the Situation discussed. -- kindness

The captain of the squad that caught us was a good-natured, jolly old fellow, who looked as though he lived on the best, beef and brandy in Georgia. He treated us well.

They stopped with us after dark, at the house of a wealthy planter, in the northern part of Talbott county--a large, white house, in a grove of oaks. It looked pretty and homelike in the moonlight, as we entered the yard. We saw none of the family that night except the host, a pleasant old gentleman, with white hair and beard. He [111] listened with interest to the captain's account of our capture, and asked us a number of questions. He made the servants prepare supper for the guard and us; and told us that we were welcome to all we could eat, but advised us to be careful not to eat too much. He then ordered beds prepared for the whole party. Tom and I told him we were not fit to sleep in a bed, but he insisted; so we washed and went to bed. A fire was built in our room, and the four rebel soldiers divided the time so that two of them were on guard by the fire all night.

I have often thought of their careful watch. We were weary, foot-sore and thoroughly discouraged. With a fair start we could not make over five or six miles that night, and with their hounds they could catch us by ten o'clock next day. If they had put their guns where we could not get hold of them, I don't think we would have tried to get away. Yet such was their caution that they sat up by twos to guard us.

We did not sleep much. We were too blue. Our future looked dark. I was nervous [112] and wakeful, and as Tom tossed about in the bed, deep sighs, that were almost sobs, told me that he could not sleep.

In the morning after we were up and washed, our host came in, and, with Southern hospitality, set before us a big black bottle, a sugar-bowl, and tumblers. The bottle contained a fiery liquor, called by the Johnnies in those days, “sanguin.”

Tell the Temperance Reformer to go on with his crusade. May God speed him in his efforts. He is right — it was vile stuff. Our host knew it, but he apologized by saying that the accursed Yankee blockade had cut off his supply of old Kentucky Bourbon, and he offered us the best he had.

He then led us and our guard out to breakfast. It had been a long, long time since Tom or I had sat at table with ladies. Even in our lines, in campaign from Chattanooga to Atlanta, we had no such privileges. As we entered the dining room the host gave us some sort of a general introduction to three ladies-his wife and daughters. It is fashionable for men to accuse the other sex of vanity; but we have our full share. [113] When I looked across the table at those well-dressed ladies, and down at my tattered pants, and swollen, discolored feet, I felt bashful and awkward; and as I drew my blouse more closely about my neck and breast, the desire for giddy display so overcame me that for one brief moment I wished I had a shirt. I sat down embarrassed by the feeling that I was not fit to be there. But the table talk turned at once upon the war and its current campaigns, and the boastful manner in which they spoke of the prowess of their armies, and the skill of their generals, soon aroused my combativeness and put me at my ease.

Their greatest boast was the skill of General Hood. He had flanked the flanker; he had gone around Sherman; had got between him and his best general (Thomas), and could now strike either way. Sherman's only chance of escape would be to break up his army into small divisions and go out through East Tennessee. To one who remembers the campaign of 1864, in which Thomas fell back before Hood till he got everything ready, and then utterly [114] [115] crushed the life out of his army, this boasting has its moral.

Of course Tom and I entered into the discussion-much of it was addressed to us. They charged many hard things against the U. S. Government. Some of them we denied, some we could defend, and some we couldn't.

They said we could never whip them in the world. We said the United States would govern the country or make a wilderness of it, and we didn't care which.

We spoke bitterly of Andersonville, and told them-and we thought so then-that we could not live through the coming winter if they sent us back there, and we hoped our Government would retaliate. That if we could be sure that for every man who languished in Andersonville one would freeze in Camp Douglass, we would go and bravely die and rot there. We were not a bit excited. Only earnest and warm. Maybe it was the “sanguin” juice.

One standard subject for hard feeling in those days was the enlistment of the negro into the army. It was seldom that we [116] ever got into a discussion with the rebels that they did not refer to that. One of the soldiers present said: “Yo Gove'ment thinks you-alls no bettah than niggahs, foh it puts niggahs in yo ahmy,” --and he looked at the ladies for approval. One of us retorted: “Then your Government thinks you are no better than hounds, for it uses hounds for the same purpose!”

So we had it up and down during the entire breakfast. The old captain allowed us full freedom of speech, if not of person, and we indulged ourselves. I have given these hard speeches and ruffled feelings thus fully because of what followed.

After breakfast was over, while the provost were getting ready to start with us, the mistress of the house gave Tom and me an old quilt to be owned in common, a small sack filled with provisions for us to eat on the way, and to each of us a pair of home-spun and home-knitted cotton socks.

I felt as though I could not take the gifts, after all that had passed, and I told the woman, “Madam, we are here as your enemies. We have lodged under your roof because [117] we could not help ourselves. Let us part as enemies. Our strongest desire is that we may live to be reunited with our regiment, that we may raid through this country and make war terrible to it. Don't make us feel that we are under obligations to a human being in this whole land.”

She answered: “I have two boys, soldiers with Lee in the army of Virginia. If they should ever be captured and brought to your mother, so destitute as you are, I would want her to do something for them, and I want to do something for you. Our own army has made so many requisitions on us that there is but little left that I could spare. I would like to give you some warm clothing, but I have none. This quilt may afford some shelter from the wintry winds, and these socks will be some protection to your feet. You won't refuse them?”

I bit my under lip. I bit my upper lipit was no use — the tears would come. I couldn't help it. I could answer taunt with taunt; but kindness found every picket asleep. I was surprised. There was something [118] in my throat I could not swallow. That woman's Christianity cropped out above her patriotism. Be patient, reader, and let me linger a little. It is the only bright spot in all those dreary months.

My memory of prison life is a dark, sluggish lagoon, with muddy banks and oozy bed, from which all beauty has departed. But look! Rising from the black water and floating on the scummy surface, we found a lovely water-lily, mingling its sweet perfume with the pestilential vapors. As I look back over my life, I see no one deed that moved its currents more deeply than this one.

I hope that that woman received her boys safe and sound at the end of the war. [119]

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