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Chapter 6: Providence.

  • Cruelty of our Government.
  • -- study of human nature. -- nothing to do. -- church privileges. -- a Catholic priest. -- August Storms. -- a water spout. -- Providence. -- a break in the stockade. -- a dash for liberty

“How did you spend your time?”

For a while we could hold interesting chats. But we soon wore out all the interesting incidents of our lives, exhausted our supply of anecdotes and stories; and were left with nothing to talk of, except to describe different dishes of food that we wanted, or to curse the rebels for their treatment, and to grumble at our Government for not exchanging us. These were standard themes; they could be repeated, in the same words, every day in the month, and [60] every hour in the day, and always be interesting.

Among all those crowds a good laugh was seldom heard. Our gayest, jolliest soldiers soon became gloomy and silent; and wit and humor took on the morbid form of saying grotesque and horrid things about our misfortunes.

The study of human nature there would fill with sadness any who love the race. The best elements seemed to die, and the worst held high carnival in our souls. Men were brutal, selfish, cross and mean to each other. The strongest struggled for life, and the weak died without pity. A dying man might ask a dozen for a drink before he would find one to bring it to him, unless he had comrades who had known him before he got into the pen. Of course there were a few exceptions. Too few. Yet these men were not Modocs, nor Australian bushmen. Some of them belonged to the rough classes, but many were refined, cultivated gentlemen, the light of the social circle, the pride of an enlightened home. But they were treated by their foes worse than brutes. [61] Their own Government refused to exchange, and abandoned them, and they became desperate.

Time dragged heavily. Nothing to do; nothing to read. Some whiled away the hours playing chess. “Where did you get chessboards and men?” We marked out a place on the ground for a board, and made our set of men by notching sticks so that we would know them. When we moved a piece, we stuck it in the ground so it would stand. I learned this fascinating game with such a set. Though there were a few who had boards of their own making.

There were church privileges for those who wanted them. That is, there were four or five places where these ragged, scurvied, filthy, vermin-eaten wretches met twice a week and tried to worship God. They were generally informal social meetings. They sang old-fashioned hymns, like “O thou fount,” or “Rock of ages,” --hymns that are as much a part of our civilization as the steam engine is. They squatted on the ground, and slapped mosquitoes, and scratched, while one of their number read [62] a portion of the Scripture, led in prayer, or gave an exhortation.

About ten or fifteen took active part, but they usually had a large audience of respectful listeners. At one place, on the south side, near my quarters, I think the average audience would number one thousand. I used to frequently attend as a listener. There was no attempt to preach any doctrine except faith in God. The Scripture lessons were usually from Psalms, and some of David's prayers for his enemies sounded so much like cursing the rebels that even the carnal-minded could say “Amen.”

While writing of the religious exercises, I will not omit the ministry of a Catholic priest. He visited the prison regularly, giving the consolations of his church to the sick, shriving the dying, and sprinkling holy water on the dead. He was willing to talk to any one who cared for religious conversation. He seemed very industrious and earnest in his work.

Suppose that of the thirteen thousand buried in that old field, there will be one who will at last arise justified through [63] Christ. And suppose that the judgment shall be as Jesus described it. If so, of all the ministers in Georgia, accessible to Andersonville, only one could hear this sentence, “I was sick and in prison and ye visited me,” and that one is a Catholic.

Protestant churches may warn us of the danger of the Papal power, but till some of us learn this lesson of visiting the prisons, the hospitals, the plague-stricken and the outcast, we will never lead the masses away from Catholicism.

During August we had several thunder showers. But there is one that in Andersonville history will always stand alone as eminently “the storm.”

About the last of the month (I had no way to keep dates and can't remember them exactly), it came up suddenly, about midday, accompanied by vivid lightning and loud thunder, and a rain-fall such as is called the bursting of a water-spout. With the first dash, we were drenched. In a few minutes the ground was covered with water, and great streams were rushing down the hillsides, washing deep gullies [64] [65] through our beds, and in other places almost burying the helpless in sand and water. And still it rained. The lightning seemed to dance over the ground, and the thunder roared like a park of artillery. The brook began to raise, and was soon too large to get through the vents made for it in the stockade. It dammed up at both walls till it almost reached the top. The upper wall gave way, and a flood eight or ten feet deep and fifty wide was rushing through the pen. When it struck the lower wall, it, too, fell with a crash. A hundred brave men rushed into the boiling flood to ride out on it. A shell from the battery fizzed over our heads. The long roll sounded, and the whole guard rushed to the openings, and stood in the rain along that rushing stream with fixed bayonets, to keep us in. The storm finally spent itself. Clouds rolled away. The sun came out. The angry waters subsided. The rebs went to work to repair the walls.

“What of it?” That reeking, pestilential lake of filth, that I described in the last chapter, was gone. A sand-bar three or 5 [66] four feet deep was formed where part of it had been. The stream had formed a new channel for itself, and the rest of it was washed out to the very bottom. The whole camp was washed; the sand next day looked bright and clean every-where. But that was not all.

Between the dead-line and the stockade, and about half-way between the north gate and the brook, there was a spring. It was noticed soon after the storm by some of the boys who lay near by; but they, knowing the ground had always been dry there, thought it was a kind of wet-weather spout, started into life by the big rain. But after a few days, seeing it did not abate, they tied their cups to a tent-pole, and reaching over the dead-line, clipped and drank, and called it the best water in the pen. Others fixed dippers, and soon there was a goodly number there all the time, for a drink of the bright, pure water.

At last some one showed it to the Quartermaster who issued our rations, and interested him in the matter. He gave us boards and nails to make a “V” trough, [67] which we fixed in the spring, and brought the water inside the dead-line.

It yielded about eight or ten gallons per minute of pure, sweet water-much better than could be found in the pen, even by digging for it, before; and till the prison was destroyed, in April, 1865, the flow never diminished. From earliest dawn till far into the night, a crowd was at the spout waiting turn to drink.

The pious thanked God and took courage. The marvelous marveled. The rationalistic advanced two theories: first, the stream had always been there, just under the surface, and being overcharged during the storm, it burst through; second, a discharge of lightning struck there and opened the way to a subterranean reservoir. Why? How?

I care not if lightning or storm is his angel. God gave us drink!

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