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Chapter 4: stripped and turned in.

  • Arrival at Andersonville.
  • -- a warning. -- hiding Valuables. -- “old Wirtz” . -- stripped, searched, robbed and turned in. -- the dead line. -- how we obtained thread

In my last I gave you a general description of the Andersonville pen. The guard who took us from East Point to the prison were Tennessee soldiers-Ninth Tennessee Infantry, I think. They were old soldiers, and they treated us well.

I noticed while in the army, and have marked it since, that soldiers who were, in the front, on either side, respect each other; while the post guards and others who are always in the rear of the real battle line, have a great contempt for the prowess of the enemy. [41]

When our train came to a stop at the Andersonville depot, we saw about twenty men, dressed in what had once passed for Confederate uniform, but so ragged and dirty as to be past recognition. They were loading wagons, and occasionally one of them passed close to the train. They never looked at us, but as they passed close by they were repeating over and over, as though they would forget it, this song: “If you have any money, hide it. If you have any valuables, hide them.”

We took it as a sign and acted on it. Some ripped a small hole and slipped money in the hem and collars of blouses, some in boots-every safe place you could think of. I had one ten-dollar bill. I folded it small, peeled off the outside leaf of a plug of “Ole Verginny,” wrapped it carefully around my bill, and laid it in my cheek. I didn't chew that quid very vigorously.

As the rebs had to detail a guard of militia after we got there, we had ample time for all this hiding, and our Tennessee guards paid no attention to our efforts. [42]

About two o'clock the guard came and took us off the cars. They marched us through the rebel camp, and about half way between it and the pen, on a sloping plain of bright yellow sand, they halted us and opened us into single ranks. After waiting awhile here, the sun roasting our heads and the sand stewing our feet, old Wirtz came out with a squad of men to search us. This was my first view of that notorious Switzer. He was dressed in a suit of white duck, with a Panama hat, and riding a white horse.

He rode down our lines and cursed us for being raiders; then gave his commands so that all could hear:

If any man stoops down, or sits down, or tries to hide anything, shoot him!

“Strip ‘im! Take everything he got! I make ’ im tink it is hell!”

I would not write this last sentence if I thought there was anything profane about it; but after a few month's suffering in that horrid pen, I concluded the old Dutchman had not even used the hyperbole, but had simply stated a fact in strong language. [43]

Two large boxes were brought to put the plunder in, and the search was begun. They made us take off all our clothes and lay them out in front of us, and stand there naked while they searched them. They turned all the pocket's, then felt all the seams and hems, and if they felt a lump, they would throw that garment on their pile. They took and kept all watches, rings, knives, money, pipes, and even pictures of wives and sweethearts. One boy tried to make out that he could not get his ring off.

“If the ring no come off, take te finger,” said Wirtz.

After they were satisfied with their examination, they would throw back such garments as they allowed us to have. If we had any extras about our clothes they kept them. I went through and retained shirt, blouse and pants. My blouse and pants were pretty good, my shirt was well worn. They kept my boots, but allowed me the hat I received from the Texan.

I learned afterwards that they did not always strip prisoners quite so closely as they [44] did us. A whole brigade, captured at Plymouth, N. C., and called by the other prisoners. “Plymouth pilgrims,” came into the pen with their blankets and overcoats. Their good luck was exceptional. The Western troops were stripped worse than the Eastern, and cavalry worse than infantry. Their excuse for this was that the Western cavalry was always raiding and destroying their property.

After being searched, we were taken to the north gate; a door was opened in the gate-pen (a kind of ante-room, thirty feet square), and ninety men were crowded into it. The door was then closed, and another door was opened into the prison, and we were counted again as we passed through. Then a new ninety were let in and counted through, and so on to the end. I never knew why they kept us in nineties, but they did. Each ninety was counted every day, and we drew rations from that count.

Thus we entered Andersonville prison. Remember it was about thirty-six by fifty rods, containing about eleven acres, with a [45] wall twelve feet high around it, and a little brook running through it.

About twenty feet from the wall, ran a row of stakes with a slender rail tacked on them; this was the “dead line.” In some places the rail had been knocked off, and only the stakes marked the boundary between life and death; for if any one crossed the line, he was shot without warning.

This leads me to make a remark on the “dead-lines,” which were common to all Southern prisons. Sometimes this line was as at Andersonville, within a stockade, and the guard were stationed upon the wall upon the alert to pick off any unfortunate who was so incautious as to step over. In some cases the prisons were temporary, and had not even a stockade. A rope was drawn; and if any prisoner, for the sake of wood, water, or any other cause, stepped beyond it, an instantaneous shot warned all others to beware of his untimely fate.

When our command got in, there were thirty-three thousand men in that pen! Can you realize that fact? Take the entire population of two average counties in Iowa [46] [47] or Illinois, and crowd them onto eleven acres, and you have not enough then. Reduce it, and you find that you have about eighteen men to the square rod, Some of these men had a little shelter of their own providing. Some took two sticks about four feet long, stuck them in the ground about six feet apart, fixed a little pole from one to the other, fastened one edge of a blanket to the pole, and, drawing the other edge back till it was straight, piled sand enough on it to hold it, or took wooden pins and pinned it to the ground.

Such a tent, or shade, answered for four men. I have known six to occupy one. Of course they could not all lie down under it, but they could all squat under it to keep off the sunshine. If a party had no blanket, they could sometimes make a substitute by ripping up pants, shirts, jackets, etc., and sewing them together. These garments were obtained by stripping the dead.

If a man had money, he could buy sacks (made of strong, coarse cotton cloth) of the quartermaster who issued our rations. At the time of our capture, sacks two feet [48] wide and three feet long cost two dollars each in greenbacks, or eight in confed. Thread to sew with was obtained by raveling out a piece of sack. Sometimes we drew rations in these sacks, and could keep them until ration time the next day. When this was the case, we were bound to return the sack or lose our next ration; but we could cut off the bottom of it two or three inches and not be detected, if we sewed it up as it had been. These strips furnished thread for the ninety.

About two hundred prisoners were tailed outside, on parole, to help handle rations, to cook, and to dig trenches to bury in, etc. It was they who warned us to hide our money at the depot. They slept in the gate, or ante-room, of nights-at least part of them did. Through them we obtained the stakes and poles to put up our meager tents. When the inside door would be opened of a morning, they would pitch them in beyond the dead-line to their friends. If you had no friend out on parole, the set, two stakes four feet long, and a pole six feet long, would cost you fifty cents. [49]

The “Plymouth pilgrims” nearly all had blanket tents, such as I have described, and a good many others had something that would at least partly keep the sun off; but the majority of that vast crowd had no shelter of any kind. They entered there stripped and robbed. The dew beaded their hair and beard at night, and they sweltered under that burning sun, and groveled in that roasting sand by day. What had they done? Answered their country's call, and followed its flag.

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