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[143]

Chapter 17: life on the railroad.

  • Life on the rail road.
  • -- the blues. -- great excitement. -- Sherman loose in Georgia. -- swamps. -- a country Residence. -- “poor white Trash.” -- a citizen


The next day we rolled along over what seemed to be a great, monotonous plain, as wide and as flat as the broad prairies of Northeastern Illinois or Northern Indiana. The poor, sandy plains were timbered with pitch pine, and where the land became swampy, cypress took the place of the pine. Once in a while we would see a clearing, sometimes quite a large plantation, but more than nine-tenths of the land was covered by the primitive forest, almost as wild as when the Creeks and Cherokees hunted deer through its thickets. [144]

After a while the scenery began to change. Plantations were closer together. Instead of rude cabins, we had occasional glimpses of palatial residences, surrounded by beautiful groves and parks. And the monotony of the forest was broken by the frequent sight of live oak, palmetto and other Southern trees, till, late in the afternoon, we ran into Savannah.

Savannah has been called a beautiful city. I don't know much about it, but what I saw did not impress me favorably. One thing I do know — I could find better hotel accommodations even in Chicago, than were furnished me by the C. S. Government. We were corralled on some vacant lots, in the southern part of the city-almost out of town.

Some of the boys escaped the guard and went into town, but they were caught and brought back the next day. They then loaded us on the cars — that had been kept ready for us all this time-and crossed the Ogeechee, a river that empties into the Atlantic a short distance south of Savannah.

This river meanders with sluggish current [145] through vast marshes almost anywhere six or eight miles wide, and its broad, flat bottoms make the best rice-producing lands in Georgia. Immense plantations stretch away as far as the eye can reach. Nothing but rice-fields in sight. The planters who own these lands do not live on them. Even the slaves were not kept here except for short intervals while caring for the crop. All have higher and dryer places in which to live.

After crossing the river and it's wide marshes, our train stopped in the side track at the first station.

We had the blues. It would not be hard to guard us there. Suppose we slip out and escape our guard, that long trestle-work over which we came will be closely guarded, and we cannot cross that swampy river. Such thoughts filled us with gloom.

We remained at that station all the next day. A great number of trains passed that day, all going south or southwest. (We were on the Savannah & Gulf R. R.) Every train was loaded with household goods, livestock and negroes. The passenger trains [146] were crowded, till every platform was full of men. All seemed excited and uneasy. We begged a daily paper, and found that Sherman was loose in Georgia. Then we got excited.

That explained our removal from Camp Lawton. We asked every one that passed, “Where's Sherman?” He was then in the heart of the State, not far from the prison we had left. Every time a train stopped at our station, we would salute its passengers with “John Brown.”

The rising generation will never appreciate that song. As sung by the soldiers, it had a power and unction never to be forgotten. It was played and sung in every conquered city of the South. Every prison heard its melody.

We were full of hope. We thought that when Sherman got through to the coast he would send his cavalry and release us. The night before, we were sad and cast down because of the vast swamps that lay between us and home. That night we were full of hope and joy because we thought our forces were coming to our relief. [147]

The next day we were taken farther down the road, and stopped at another station, the name of which I have forgotten; and the day following, we crossed the Altamaha river and stopped at Blackshear station. This station is just north of the Okopinokee swamp, that covers three or four thousand square miles of the southeastern corner of Georgia. The whole country, after crossing the Altamaha is the poorest and dreariest I ever saw.

A series of swamps, ponds and sandy glades in endless monotony. Once in a while we would pass in sight of a habitation, three or four acres partly cleared by deadening the large trees and cutting down the small growth. In the midst of these dead trees, a cabin of one room, with a mud chimney at one end, and a door on one side, no windows-didn't need any, as the cracks were unchinked — is a fair picture of an average home in that part of the State. A corn patch, cultivated among the dead trees, and yielding not more than ten bushels per acre, supplies the family with bread. [148] A cotton patch clothes it, and the rifle and fishing-rod supply the rest.

If the country looked flat, the citizens looked flatter. They are the class known in the South as the “Poor white trash,” against whom even the negro will curl his lip in contempt.

A sample citizen, is tall, lean, flatchest-ed, dull-eyed, pale-faced, and stoopshoul-dered. He has a way of stretching his long, slim neck at almost a right angle with the general perpendicular of his body, which keeps his head a long way in advance. If he should carry an umbrella to protect his head from a rain, the water would run off of it down the back of his neck.

I don't remember seeing a four-wheeled vehicle in that country, except the few army wagons that our guard had with them. We frequently saw two-wheeled carts, sometimes drawn by a yoke of oxen, sometimes by one horse, and in a few instances by one ox. We saw horses harnessed to carts, with a collar of corn-husks and harness composed partly of hickory [149] bark and withes. The driver rides the horse, putting his bare feet on the shafts, which serve as stirrups. This position brings his knees almost on a level with his horse's ears, and gives him quite a picturesque appearance. If he is taking his lady-love out for a ride, she sits flat on the bottom of the cart, while he rides and guides the horse. Romantic-isn't it?

Blackshear is a scrawny town. I believe it is a county-seat, but as I have described the county that sits there, I can let you imagine the seat.

Almost starved and worn out, we landed here, were taken off the cars, and marched into the woods to a new prison. [150]

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